Hard to do the right thing in Korea

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Hard to do the right thing in Korea

Okay, I’m prejudiced. I truly believe that as a group, Koreans make up one of the more intelligent populations on this planet. I should know. I’ve been married to a Korean for over 35 years and it has been almost impossible to outwit her.

So, I have often been amazed when I come across news articles of Korean business and government leaders being exposed and dishonored for their transgressions. These are very smart people. Rarely would one think them to be of the foolish sort. Yet there they are - on the front page - with their names being disgraced in the headlines.

As a business consultant, I’m regularly asked to explain Korea to foreigners. When it comes to this phenomenon, I hesitate to point to Korean culture as a catch-all explanation.

But since 1975, I have made several observations. Whether I have drawn the right conclusions may be debated. What’s apparent to me is that, when it comes to personal relations, with their webs of social obligations and expectations, it is almost impossible for Korean adults to freely make judgments on important matters.

An outsider could conclude that Koreans are foolish to think they can get away with later-exposed forms of egregious misbehaviors. In fact, however, these newspaper-reported actors are no bumpkins. They are very intelligent and highly educated professionals who can appreciate that some kind of scandal will eventually be revealed as they make their fatal decisions.

So what gives?

My take is that personal relations cloud and even dictate judgments. That is true anywhere in the world, of course. But in Korea and other tight-knit societies, it is more difficult than in Western societies for the individual to make a decision that is contrary the interests of those with whom he or she has strong relations. Even with the view of an eventual doom in clear sight, the individual can be socially or politically coerced into making some very bad decisions.

While Koreans certainly see themselves as individuals, they also strongly assess themselves as being members of various groups. Each group works as an ongoing force, moving its members up to the higher rungs of society, or sometimes huddling to protect one member so as to protect the overall group’s reputation.

To make things all the more complicated, many of these group affiliations are not obvious - sometimes almost impossible to detect by most foreigners. Beyond family and company memberships, most Koreans feel at least influenced by their regional, and especially by their hometown, connections. Stronger yet are their school affiliations. Less obvious but often significant, Korean men retain strong loyalties among friends who served with them in their old military units.

In other words, the individual Korean involuntarily stands in the nexus of a Venn diagram representing various, competing extended social groups. As the individual rises in society, two things happen. First, more Venn diagram circles are added to that person’s social obligations. And second, each circle attempts to more forcibly leverage its influence on that successful individual.

A common, micro example of this behavioral pattern is the problem of keeping secrets - personal or business - of any kind in this society. The only way to protect a secret in Korea is not to let third parties know there is a secret being held. Once a third party learns that information is being withheld, the person held in ignorance will try his or her best to find out the confidential information.

Knowledge - including irrelevant information - is power, or at least damaging, if one is not “in the know” in this highly competitive society. Ergo, the secret-holding individual will almost always face considerable pressure from other Koreans who will use all kinds of logical and often emotional arguments suggesting the secret-holder possibly lacking loyalty or fealty with the inquiring person and the rest of the group.

Moving back to the larger issues regularly reported in this newspaper, special favors and gifts are frequently offered to reveal secrets or to be accorded special considerations. Certainly greed is a factor, but too often there is more in play than simply avarice. For the successful individual to not play along can mean eventual consequences in breakdowns in personal relationships that may take months to play out and years to rebuild. In other words, to borrow from the “Godfather” movie, Koreans are frequently made offers they can’t refuse.

So the problems are often even bigger and more complex than as they appear in newsprint. The possible workaround for this kind of problem may be redundant organizational checks and balances that in effect dilute the influence of personal relationships among actors. But alas! There are no simple panaceas. And I doubt there is any lasting solution. So, unfortunately, we can only anticipate yet more scandals in the news.

Meanwhile, we should refrain from clucking our tongues when reading or hearing of yet another person falling from grace. It can be foolish to judge others when we have not been placed in their predicaments. In Korea, even among foreigners, our turn to be severely compromised could well be just around the corner.


*The author is president of Soft Landing Consulting, a sales-focused business development firm, and senior advisor to the IPG Legal group.

by Tom Coyner
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