[Viewpoint] Asia’s near impossible reversalsAs an American who has spent half my life in Northeast Asia, it has taken me some time to get my head around why we see so many more graying radicals on the left and the right in this part of the world than we see in the West.
Last week, I was reminded about this widespread political phenomenon while reading an article about Kim Young-hwan in this paper’s companion, the International Herald Tribune. Kim Young-hwan was an iconic student leader of the 1980s who essentially embraced the juche, or self-reliance, ideology. He jumped at the opportunity to secretly visit North Korea, where he met Kim Il Sung. What should have been the highlight of the trip unexpectedly turned out to be the nadir. What the student leader encountered was an old dictator remarkably unfamiliar with a political philosophy purported to summarize his wisdom.
Disillusioned, young Kim returned to South Korea. Unlike a number of leftists who have visited North Korea and simply come back home greatly disappointed, Kim Young-hwan has publicly repudiated his earlier politics and actively criticized the North. If he had been a prominent American making a similar reversal, this would not have been quite so remarkable. But as a Korean, he has done what many would consider to be unthinkable.
Given that this is a South Korean presidential election year, that article had some additional important, if latent, meanings for observers of Korean politics.
Westerners may scratch their heads as South Korean leftists continue to act as unabashed apologists for the Pyongyang rulers given the plethora of evidence that has steadily arrived in Seoul from many sources over the past years. The previously referenced newspaper article gave some insight in that most of South Korean leftists have never been to North Korea.
But there is another, perhaps even greater, factor at play that is not unique to Korea, but one many say is endemic to various societies in this part of the world. That is the vast and interlocking webs of seonbei-hubei (or in Japanese, sempai-kohai) relationships. These master-follower relationships make it remarkably difficult for a master, such as Kim Young-hwan, to do a 180 given his obligations - political, psychological, social and otherwise - to his followers. The fact that he reversed himself - and kept active in politics - is simply incredible.
It takes real guts and tremendous gumption to make a flip-flop like this in East Asian culture. Normally, the aftermath of this kind of reversal is a loss of face for the entire group and often has much worse consequences for the master.
So one can imagine the thousands of hangers-on associated with far left legislators and political activists in South Korea. When they eventually realize they have made a gigantic wrong turn, many have - or will - opt to quietly drop out of sight. Others, such as professional politicians, usually do not have that option. They must go blindly forward, hoping against all the evidence that they may somehow eventually be proven right. In their wake trail their “true believer” followers. And over time, many of these followers develop their own cadres of followers.
This is the very dangerous flipside to the many positive attributes of the Asian master-follower relationship. When the relationship is based on virtue and reality or whatever constructive paradigm, these relationships can be extremely valuable to both society and the directly concerned individuals.
However, even when such relationships are discovered to be essentially anchored to lies and ignorance, it is nearly impossible to change if the relationships have become established over the past decade or more. The concerned parties are pitifully roped into fallacies that most East Asians cannot expect to escape. All they can do, such as with South Korean leftists, is to gather for drinks and ineffectually sing revolutionary songs, pretending they are protectors of an imaginary flame.
It’s all very sad - and it is also much more common than many folks care to recognize, on both the left and the right.
But more importantly, this kind of social inflexibility can have a significant impact on the political process. All of this makes it particularly difficult for East Asian societies to have responsibly functioning democracies. The fact that South Korea probably has the best operating democracy in this part of the world is a real achievement given the cultural foundation.
* The author is president of Soft Landing Korea, a business development firm, and an alliance partner of Odgers Berndtson Japan, a global “Big Six” executive recruitment consulting company.
by Tom Coyner
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