The paradox of new traditional confucian economics in the two koreas

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This paper has examined the paradox of how both Koreas simultaneously reflect strong Confucian influence on their current economies in crucial ways while officially rejecting that influence. In this regard, it can be argued that they are not new traditional economies in the standard sense that this implies an active effort to embed a technologically modern economic system into a traditional socio-cultural one. Instead, both of them are still embedded in alternative forms of the remnant Confucian influence from Korean history prior to the Japanese conquest over a century ago.

Both share a respect for education and family hierarchical structures. However, their respective economic performances have been dramatically different. The South has been one of the most economically successful of nations, arriving at a high level of per capita income fairly recently, whereas the North is mired in stagnation and periodic famine. Whereas the emphasis on family has been used to reinforce strategies used by the dynamic and successful, family-owned chaebol firms in South Korea, in the North it has been used to reinforce the authority of a dynastic dictatorship that seems intent on enriching a small elite that surrounds and supports it at the expense of the majority of its citizens.

Finally we have the curious phenomenon that the North may be more committed to Confucianism than the South, even if unconsciously so, and in this regards emphasizes aspects of traditional Korean neo-Confucianism that are inimical to economic growth, with the South ignoring these. One of these is a general anti-mercantile attitude, and the other is its isolationist emphasis on self-reliance, its juche policy that leads it to imitate the “Hermit Kingdom” of Choson Korea prior to its conquest by Japan in 1910. While North Korea continues to officially suppress Confucianism, it has recently begun to revive discussion of it, using it to support its dictatorial regime, somewhat imitating what has been going on in China in this regard recently.

In contrast, in South Korea one finds an ongoing active effort to move away from Confucian influence in parts of Korean society, even as the influence remains large. Thus, improvements in womens’ rights are being made even if the society remains far behind most nations in the world on this, and in education moves towards emphasizing open discussion and innovation rather than rote learning are being made. Thus we have as our final paradox that the influence of Confucian influence is stronger in North Korea, where it is more forcibly suppressed, than in South Korea, where it is merely discouraged, while its influence continues in both societies.

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