Re-examining the ‘han’ in Hanguk

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Re-examining the ‘han’ in Hanguk

A month ago, I was telling our visiting Tokyo managing partner that it looked certain that this December Korea would be electing its first woman president. Now I’m not so sure.

Many foreign observers have focused on the recent bribery scandals which reminded the electorate that Ms. Park comes with the full package of old and corrupt politicians. The opposition camp has its share of corrupt politicians, but the conservatives have a much longer and more sordid history of rule.

But the sleeper among negative factors against the Park campaign has proven to be her connection to her controversial father, who is strongly regarded as a hero and as a despot. We have been reminded of this issue when Ms. Park recently made a belated apology to her father’s many victims. But it took my reading of The Kyunghyang Shinmun’s account of lawmaker Yoo In-tae’s reflection of his suffering for me to better appreciate how raw the feelings of han remain towards the dictator persists a full generation later.

Furthermore, the nationwide depth of han suggests how incredibly difficult it may be to resolve the North Korea/national reunification conundrum.

But first, what is han?

Han defies translation into English, but essentially it’s much deeper than a grudge, held by an individual or family towards an unresolved injustice. In Korea, there are so much han that I sometimes joke that is why South Korea is named in the Korean language as Hanguk or “the nation of Han.” To be clear, the national title refers to the Han race and not to the psychological condition of han, but sometimes I do wonder.

The depth of Yoo’s han is considerable but not exceptional given what others suffered under Park Chung-hee. Furthermore, han is commonly held family-wide. Families of innocent victims of political repression also suffered the social as well as political stigma of being relatives of so-called criminals and traitors. In other words, the injustices were not simply one-off events. The families suffered social and political censure for years and sometimes decades, while being thoroughly frustrated they were not to blame for their misfortunes.

Given all of this, at this time there is more than a cynical, political ploy in motion to have another revisit to the memory of innocents of the Revolutionary Party (PRP) incident who were executed within hours of their show trial in 1975. There were also thousands of other han-generating incidents from that period, though relatively few repressions led to executions. Most persecutions ended with prison terms. But those unnecessary and unjustified incarcerations scarred their victims and their families for generations.

In other words, there is a great deal of yet-to-be fully expressed han among the South Korean electorate. For many families, the first truly tangible way to express their feelings may well be by voting against Park Chung-hee’s daughter. Given that, her best chance of winning the election is for the liberals to maintain a split opposition by Ahn Cheol-soo and Moon Jae-in.

But should the two opposition candidates get past their egos and unite, we may have a long wait to witness Korea’s first female chief executive.

Looking at the bigger picture, let’s consider this essentially Korean trait of han along with another Korean cultural pattern of forgiving family assaults with the same level of magnanimity as the Sicilians.

As wide spread as han may be in South Korea, one can only guess about the same in North Korea where intolerant and often illogical persecution is applied to a full three generations of a family. The three-generation principle no doubt is meant to stamp out han among “criminal” families, but I cannot help wonder if this kind of draconian suppression only pushes underground wider-spread han, festering for eventual revenge and justice. Some scholars speculate that this is why the DPRK leadership actually operates in mortal fear of its populace.

All of which may suggest just why it is so exceedingly difficult for North Korea to open up and reform itself. No one knows for sure just where the North Korean han may take things some day.

And if that’s not enough to ponder, consider all the real and perceived injustices visited upon Koreans on both sides of the DMZ by their counterparts during and following the Korean War. I suspect when viewed from the North Korean perspective, the South Koreans’ relatively widespread practice of international marriage and integration into the global community have only furthered the North’s own isolation and suffering.

In other words, the causes for han is in the eye of the beholder and it can be found at various levels as well as in many places. If I may come across as taking a point too far, please talk to any family who has had a family member incarcerated more than six months during the South Korean military dictatorship period. Ask them how they feel about the military dictators’ families, including Park Geun-hye. My guess is you will not get an ambivalent response.

As such, it may be a much greater feat for Ms. Park to re-enter the Blue House than many Western observers may have been imagining. Regardless of one’s opinion about Park Geun-hye, there is no doubt she faces the most han from the electorate. Tracking her campaign’s progress may give foreigners more insight into Korean thinking than during previous elections.

* 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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