The paradox of new traditional confucian economics in the two koreas



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1 “A Korean is more Confucianist than Confucius himself,” Whigham (1904, p. 185). “Korea is the paradigmatic Confucian society in East Asia,” (Park and Shin, 2006, p. 342).

2 This is the case even though the command central planning system in North Korea has undergone considerable relaxation with the introduction of markets for agricultural goods and other items (Haggard and Noland, 2010), even as most of its economy remains centrally planned (Noland, 2012). However, other nations have even moved farther towards eliminating central planning, leaving North Korea as still the most intensively centrally command planned socialist economy, and with its ruthless socialist dictatorship, still the most Stalinist in the world.

3 One way of considering the economics of civilizations is to consider clusters of characteristics associated together that constitute civilizations, with Pryor (2008) advocating the use of cluster analysis precisely for categorizing nations in civilizational groups, although some nations tend to stand alone with their unique civilizations. Many would argue this for Korea, where a distinct identity has held for thousands of years with much path dependence.

4 There are many who simply reject the idea that North Korea can be considered Confucian at all due to the many violations of Confucian ethics the ruthless regime has carried out. As an anonymous referee put it, “No Confucian worthy of his name, Chu His [or Zhu Xi, 12th century founder of Chinese neo-Confucianism adopted by the Choson dynasty after 1400 in Korea as its official ideology] or otherwise, would see any family resemblance of the teachings of Confucius and what is going on in North Korea.” As we shall see, many scholars disagree with this view, but it is held by many and must be taken seriously.

5 Needless to say elements of this persist even in standard modern market capitalist economies where many firms are family-owned and run, and words associated with families are often used to describe larger firms, such as the frequent use in Britain particularly of “House” in the names for non-family-owned companies.

6 Roman Catholic economic doctrines that stress social solidarity and some skepticism regarding fully free markets can be seen as descending from an old traditional view of the economy inherited from feudal Europe, which Polanyi (1944) also saw as a traditional economic system that would be broken down by the advent of full market capitalism with the industrial revolution beginning in Britain in the 1700s.

7 Sinkyo was long officially suppressed in Korea, both by Korean governments and especially by the Japanese during their period of rule as it was associated with Korean nationalism, although it is now tolerated in South Korea, if discouraged, after more suppression during the 1960s through 1980s. Apparently there are also some followers in North Korea as well, barely tolerated. A curious aspect of it is that its leading practitioners are often women shamans, and it often operates in natural areas concealed by Buddhist temples in front, something observed in person by one of this paper’s authors while visiting South Korea. Reportedly Sinkyo rituals have been adopted by some Korean Protestant churches, as well as some other newer Korean religions such as Ch’ŏnogyo.

8 This version emphasizes five specific relations in society with associated ethical obligations: father to son and affection, ruler to minister and righteousness, husband to wife with attention to separate functions, old to young with proper order, and friend to friend with faithfulness and loyalty.

9 “Neither Confucius nor Mencius allowed much place for the middle or mercantile class. They regard merchants as small men because their understanding is focused on what is profitable. Confucius judged them more negatively in this respect. There is not anticipation that the stratum of society made up of small men would produce scholars and gentlemen. Their response to faulty government is never mentioned. Their good conduct does not merit esteem, and their disregard for the Way does not affect the stability, peace, or order of society-at least this is a permissible inference,” (Shils, 1995, p. 59).

10 Dawson (1915, p. 10) argues that Confucius strongly emphasized the self-development of the superior man and how this extended to the self-sufficiency of farms and local self-government and finally to universal self-government. In the neo-Confucianism of Chu Hsi (Zhu Xi) this would also include an ethnocentric bias, although there was no outright forbidding of foreign trade by Confucius or his followers, more a preference for local self-sufficiency, not unlike some of the attitudes expressed by Gandhi in India.

11 This susceptibility to Christian influence then can be seen to pre-figure the later relative success of Christian missionaries to convert the substantial portion of the population to the faith, although this would be undone and blocked in North Korea.

12 The matter of alphabets reflects this (Choi, 2008). The current Han’gŭl alphabet was invented shortly after the Choson took power 600 years ago by King Sejong in the dynasty’s first phase of technological innovativeness, designed for its communicative efficiency to replace the established use of the Chinese alphabet. However, the strongly Confucian yangban elite preferred the Chinese alphabet, and despite support from early Choson kings, the Han’gŭl was not officially adopted and retreated to be preserved for centuries by court ladies writing privately. Only in 1945 with the expulsion of the Japanese was support for the use of the Confucian-affiliated Chinese alphabet finally officially overthrown and the Chinese alphabet was replaced by the half-a-millennium old Han’gŭl.

13 While this is the most widely held view, many critics exist who see corruption and inequality in the South Korean economy (Clifford, 1994).

14 A contrast in this regard is Taiwan, where Chiang Kai-Shek adopted an officially pro-Confucian attitude even before his regime lost the Civil War to the Communists in 1949, when he and the Kuomintang moved to Taiwan. Of course this was consistent with traditional Chinese culture, while both Taiwan and Korea were ruled by Japan during the early 20th century and the ROK and Taiwan have shared similarities of development since the 1950s, firms in Taiwan have tended to be much smaller, although usually family ruled, than in the ROK, and in general less state direction of the economy and a more equal distribution of income, although both societies have moved towards democracy from dictatorship in recent decades (Pae, 1992). The evidence of direct influence of Confucian influence on the Taiwanese economy seems arguably less noticeable than in either of the Koreas.

15 One sign of this surface support for womens’ rights in the DPRK is that International Womens’ Day (March 8) is an official holiday in the North but not in the South. Nevertheless, after formally abolishing discrimination against women under its first leader, Kim Il Sung, there is evidence of backsliding towards a more negative attitude towards women being treated equally under his son and successor, Kim Chong Il (Levi, 2012).

16 Some have taken to calling the official DPRK doctrine as “KimIlSungism-KimChongIlism,” although there is little in the policies or declarations of the late Kim Chong Il to distinguish his views much from those of his even later father. On the other hand, Kim Chong-Un may be removing the official Marxist-Leninist parts of the doctrine, even as the DPRK continues to look very Marxist-Leninist, despite some introduction of private markets (Haggard and Noland, 2010), although it must be recognized that the initial downplaying of Marxism-Leninism came under Kim Il Sung in 1992 after the fall of the Soviet Union, when juche was officially declared in the Constitution to be the nation’s ideology rather than Marxism-Leninism (Song, 2010).

17 We recognize that the strict isolationism of the DPRK and the old Choson Hermit Kingdom probably goes further than what is called for in traditional Confucianism or even its more ethnocentric neo-Confucian version, although China became more inward-looking and unwilling to open to foreigners when this latter doctrine became dominant, and Japan also followed a strongly isolationist policy during the strongly Confucian Edo period. We noted above the tradition of self-reliance and governance enunciated by Confucius, but there was never any clear statements regarding international trade or relations with foreign powers specifically. To a substantial degree this aspect of DPRK policy reflects more the specifically Korean neo-Confucianism of the later Choson dynasty rather than a general doctrine Confucianism in its broadest form.

18 One aspect of Sirhak thought rejected by DPRK authorities is that it supported the development of commerce against the anti-mercantile views of the established neo-Confucianism, with the ROK following the Sirhak view on this in contrast with the DPRK.



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