[Viewpoint] Blood lines and honorifics

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[Viewpoint] Blood lines and honorifics

These days few young people address their parents with honorifics unless they are talking to their parents-in-law. Honorific titles and speech in addressing the elderly are, in fact, more observed outside homes. Shopkeepers and attendants at department stores and retail outlets greet elderly strangers with the highest honorifics.

Honorific titles - a feature once strictly observed in the Korean language - are now largely ignored to underscore familiarity in a society turning more egalitarian. The middle-aged are referred to as “uncles” or “aunts,” and senior citizens “grandmothers” or “grandfathers.”

The younger people call one another brothers or sisters, and husbands are even called “dads” or “brothers” (Korean females refer to older males as brothers).

The complexities of genealogical rank and the ethics of using honorifics as befitting one’s status have become all muddled and oddly simplified to place everyone on the same family tree.

You rarely find foreign people addressing elderly strangers as “grandpa” or “grandma” instead of sir or ma’am. Other Asian women do not refer to their husbands as “brother.”

It may be a unique feature of our language and culture to show familiarity by addressing everyone - including total strangers - as family members.

But habits of speech or custom do not apply exactly to real human relationships. A shop helper wrangles with “mother” (a middle-aged woman) over prices, and a teenage girl competes with “grandmother” (an elderly female) for space in a subway car.

The divorce rate between a wife and her “brother” (husband) is one of the highest among the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries. The friendly family banter may be a linguistic charade or hypocrisy to mask the deep fissures in relationships in our society.

Our society is famous for its attachment to blood and kinship. Obsession with educating children helped us realize our rags-to-riches story in the economy, yet at the same time, the parochial family-first selfishness weighs down many households in social stagnation.

Both riches and poverty are handed down, and unfortunate common folk can only watch with fury when the elite-class children of mighty cabinet ministers and lawmakers easily land jobs in government offices while their own children vainly hunt for gainful employment.

Even the pulpits of large churches in wealthy districts have been tainted by hereditary power succession. They have forgotten the teachings of the Bible when Jesus anointed a fisherman, Simon Peter - who asserted his faith in the Messiah, saying “Thou art the Christ, the Son of living God” - as his successor instead of a relative.

A fetish for family blood ties can be evil. North Korea inherited the model of monarchial hereditary rule from the Joseon Dynasty, and to keep true to that legacy, a twenty-something inexperienced son was suddenly appointed as a four-star general and is now simply waiting to ascend to the throne.

North Korea’s socialist constitution devotes its preface to a religious eulogy to country founder Kim Il Sung: “The Great Leader is the people’s sun, a genius in ideological theory and commandership ... a great human being.”

No leader enjoyed such deity-like worship. Adolf Hitler in his Nazi German kingdom received no greater title than “Fuhrer” (leader). Despite his monstrous acts, he never was the “sun” to his Nazi followers.

Heavenly blood is hard to believe in and can’t justify a generation-after-generation dynastic rule in a modern society. North Korea is a rarity that still anoints a son as heir to the throne and gets away with it. We can’t help but question whether common sense of the most basic human kind actually exists in the hermit kingdom.

Freedom, democracy and human rights are the common values of a civilized community. No ideology under the banner of liberalism can ignore any one of them.

The liberal groups that used to refer to North Korea as the fatherland of ideology have strangely gone mute and underground. Yet their silence conveys many meanings.

We only hope the North Korean people are unharmed by the obsessive fixation with blood family in its leadership. North Korea’s “one race” rhetoric and the South’s street honorifics somehow come across as shallow and pretentious.

*The writer is a partner at Hwang Mok Park, P.C., and former head of the Seoul Central District Court.

by Lee Woo-keun
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