The paradox of new traditional confucian economics in the two koreas

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The paradox of the new traditional Confucian economy in the two Koreas is that while both of them they are officially anti-Confucian, they are both deeply influenced by Confucian ideas, practices, and institutions. New traditional economies seek to be technologically advanced high income societies, but have important elements of their economies embedded in a broader socio-cultural context, usually that of a religion (Rosser and Rosser, 1996). However, in most this takes the form of a political movement actively seeking to bring about or increase this embedding, with such examples as Iran and Islamic economics being prominent. Even within East Asian nations, most of those that might be argued to be somewhat new traditional Confucian in their orientation, such as Japan or Taiwan, at least have leaderships that are sympathetic to their Confucian heritage, if not necessarily actively pushing it (Rosser and Rosser, 1998). This contrasts with both of the Koreas, where there is official opposition to Confucianism as a doctrine to influence society in both nations, even though it has long been argued that Korea is the most Confucian of all countries.1

Even as they share a common heritage of strong Confucian influence with current official opposition to Confucianism, the two Koreas have sharply contrasting economic and political systems, with sharply contrasting relative performances. South Korea (Republic of Korea , or ROK) is now largely democratic with a mostly market capitalist economy, if with remnants of an earlier strong indicative planning system that operated under a strong military dictatorship during the 1960-70s. It has moved into the ranks of high income nations and is home to one of the world’s most technologically advanced companies, Samsung. In contrast, North Korea (Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea, or DPRK) is a family-run military dictatorship whose economy continues to be the most intensively centrally planned socialist economy in the world, even as official ideology has drifted from Marxism-Leninism towards nationalism, a system that resembles that of the Soviet Union’s under Stalin more than any other in the world.2 While in the years immediately following the Korean War the North Korean economy grew more rapidly than that in the South, this changed in the 1960s, and today North Korea is more than an order of magnitude lower in per capita income than South Korea and has experienced repeated famines.

This paper extends the discussion in Rosser and Rosser (2011) where it was argued that South Korean Confucianism represented a successful fusion of new institutional and new traditional forms in a competitive economics as civilization (Kuran, 2009),3 even as North Korea failed to do so due to emphasizing anti-mercantile elements of Confucianism. Here we shall link the differences between the Confucian influences in the two Koreas with deeper conflicts within the historical Confucian tradition within Korea, while bringing out more clearly the extent of the anti-Confucian official positions in both nations, the central part of the paradox.

Ironically, it may be that it is North Korea that is more strongly Confucian than South Korea overall, even as it more completely suppresses Confucianism officially. Whereas our previous paper emphasized developments in South Korea, we shall consider more in depth what has transpired in North Korea in terms of practice and ideology, with this possible due to new materials on developments becoming available recently (Song, 2010; Kang, 2011; Kallander, 2013), although further observations about South Korea will also be made. Indeed, our major conclusion is the paradox, which we did not previously emphasize, the degree to which both of them practice Confucianism while also condemning it. We also find more strongly the conclusion merely hinted at in the earlier paper but stated above: that probably it is North Korea where Confucianism is more strongly influential than in South Korea, although clearly a very different brand of Korean Confucianism.4

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