Victimhood Mentality, Conspiracy Theory in Korea
By Jon Huer
Korea Times Columnist
The widespread self-image of ``Korea-as-victim,'' along with its byproduct of conspiracy theories, is an important ingredient in Korea's national glue.
Only a few decades ago, Korea was one of the poorest, if not the very poorest, nation of the world. Today, its accomplishments rank it among the elites of the world. A member of the prestigious OECD, it boasts a nearly 20,000-dollar annual income per capita and aspires to double the figure within a decade.
Its electronic technology is among the very best. Its automobiles are manufactured and sold all over the world. Its science and technology rank it among the top dozen nations. Many American military personnel assigned to Korea for the first time are in awe of what they see here, quite contrary to their traditional image of Korea as war-torn and in disarray.
To list Korea's accomplishments recorded in the last few decades is to witness a national feat almost inconceivable in the Western experience.
But, alas, Koreans still think they are poor victims of insult and humiliation among the nations. They are quick to rise to anger and rage at any perception of disrespect or critique. There were stories of Korean tourists staging a sit-in protest at a foreign airport against what they perceived as an intentional slight. Such violent reactions seem to be uniquely Korean on the international scene as we almost never hear of such stories about other groups.
There is still a huge gap between what Korea has accomplished as an objective measure and what Koreans themselves think of their own accomplishments.
Caught in this web of victimhood, Koreans find it difficult to look at themselves objectively. They cannot stop thinking of themselves as a weak and small nation and an insignificant people subject to humiliation and ridicule the world over. Hence they are frequently prone to easy melancholia of wounded pride.
The domestic twin of this victim mentality is Korea's equally strong tendency to suspect conspiracy in everything within its borders: The victim of international powers is also the victim of its domestic conspiratorial power play.
Koreans see a conspiracy under every bed. They suspect that there is some sort of conspiracy in virtually every large event in their society. Korea is rife with this conspiracy theory, that conspiracy rumor, and the other conspiracy assumption in virtually everything that is not within their direct control.
Whenever a prominent item hits the news, or some public event occurs, the conspiracy machine immediately kicks in. In every corner of Korea, the conversation centers around who is really behind all this (usually the government or one of the powerful CEOs), what the real motive is (usually some personal gains or the elimination of enemies), and how much of it is hidden from the public (usually much more than meets the eye).
What is publicly explained or announced is rarely taken seriously or believed at face value by the masses. Why do Koreans suspect a conspiracy in everything?
To most Koreans, the idea of some powerful men and organizations conspiring to run Korea (just like an international power cartel putting Korea down) is appealing. In some ways it works for present-day Koreans as superstition did for the pre-scientific older generations who lacked logical explanations for natural phenomena.
The fact that most Koreans throughout most of their history, up to the present, have not really participated in their own affairs in democratic power-sharing, or that the powers-that-be in the past tended to resort to palace intrigues away from the masses, has much to do with this habit of the mind. It's also typical of those with a history of colonization or subjugation by the bigger powers. Korea is just extreme among such groups and nations.
It is natural for Koreans who are long accustomed to powerlessness in society to rely on extra-rational explanations for things they cannot understand or control. They have long been deprived of thinking in terms of rationality, predictability, or give-and-take compromise among equals in the ordinary run of things. As evidenced among pre-Israel Jews, present-day Palestinians, members of the former Irish Republican Army, the untouchables in India, and blacks in America, among others, people of long suffering and powerlessness are prone to seeking irrational and illogical possibilities to explain much of their existence. Victim-and-conspiracy theories are good in serving that end.
As foreigners begin to understand the origins of Korea's victim mentality and start to sympathize with its sorrowful lamentations, Korea makes a startling turnabout: the belief that Korea is destined to rule the world. Just as stubbornly held, the idea of Korea as a God-ordained nation of great fame and destiny is quite common among most Koreans.
Foreigners soon learn that it is not uncommon for Koreans of all ages to express some primeval belief in their nation is destined to rule the world. This is enough to keep the visitors dizzy and confused as they experience Korea in these two contradictory readings of reality: Korea as a victim and Korea as a world-conqueror. Indeed, neither is founded in reality but they are real enough to exert a powerful influence on Korea's psyche.
With a new era of democracy firmly in place in Korea now, however, it would seem imperative that Koreans quit being so victim-minded or conspiracy-possessed and start seeking rational explanations in things public and institutional, including the notion of Korea's world-conquering destiny as a simple tribal myth.
``The opinions expressed and the observations described in these articles are strictly the writer's own and do not represent any official position of the University of Maryland University College or the USFK.''
The writer received his Ph.D. in Sociology from UCLA in 1975 and is the author of a dozen books of social criticism. Dr. Huer taught at several universities before joining the University of Maryland University College in 1994 and is currently Professor of Sociology at UMUC-Asia. He specializes in American society but considers himself an avid observer of all things Korean. His web site is jonhuer.com and he can be contacted at email@example.com