Korean Endgame: A Strategy for Reunification and U.S. Disengagement

By Selig S. Harrison | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
The Confucian Legacy

IN PREDICTING a collapse, many observers who compare North Korea to East Germany ignore the cultural and historical differences that set the two cases apart. In East Germany, the Soviet occupation imposed an alien totalitarian model in a cultural environment more hospitable to democratic concepts. In Korea, the Confucian ethos and the traditions of absolute centralized rule that go with it have facilitated totalitarianism in the North and authoritarian rule in the South. Together with the power of nationalism, these basic differences explain why the fate suffered by the East European Communist states is not likely to be repeated in North Korea.

Kim Il Sung consciously attempted to wrap himself in the mantle of the Confucian virtues. The tightly controlled system that he founded has lasted longer than any other twentieth-century dictatorship because he carried over traditions of centralized authority inherited from the Confucian-influenced Korean dynasties of the past. The North's system is much more in tune with long-established Korean political norms than the hopeful democratic transition initiated during the past decade in the South after three decades of authoritarian rule under Syngman Rhee and a series of U.S.–supported generals.

The Confucian virtues are filial piety, benevolence, respect for parents and elders, and reciprocity between a commanding, kindly leader, sensitive to the needs of his people, and obedient followers. Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are constantly depicted, accordingly, in the role of benevolent father of the nation, with the nation compared to one large family. Their appeals for support use metaphors designed to draw on the feelings of duty toward one's parents, seeking to transfer these feelings to a national father figure.

A Korean student of Confucianism, Hosuck Kang, has observed that young Koreans developed a “dual personality” during the Japanese colonial period. Family-centered Confucian values were still dominant, but a new nationalism aroused by the severity of Japanese rule was boiling under the surface. One of the keys to Kim Il Sung's success as a leader, Kang concludes, was his ability to fuse these two currents. “The familial-

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