Korean society loves to maintain a well groomed facade. Spend enough time in Korea, though, and you begin to have a better understanding of how the society works – the outward appearance that Koreans try so hard to maintain begins to slip away.
Part of what’s revealed is Korean society’s obsession with power and status. In Korea people who hold high-status positions are nearly worshipped. This is partly a product of Korean society’s hierarchical culture. In Korean organizations, for example, orders flow down the chain of command and, with army like loyalty, are followed unquestioningly no matter how silly the orders are. This same blind respect for senior positions permiates life outside of work, as well, and can best be seen by the automatic assumtion younger Koreans make about older Koreans: that they are sources of knowledge and wisdom that should be listened to. The preoccupation with power and status is so strong that it’s even infused in everyday language and rituals. The depth of a bow, for instance, becomes deeper as the recipient’s status rises. Unfortunately, some byproducts of this obsession are not as innocent.
With power comes responsibility, but at times this power is abused. As in the West, workplace ethics are dictated by management. In Korea, however, ethics set by management even penetrate into an employee’s social life. In a Korean company, for example, it is typical for a Korean manager to keep all of his employees after hours if he himself has to work late. This is true even if his employees have completed all their tasks for the day and have nothing left to do. In the west, if this happened, wage employees would claim overtime, but in Korea claiming overtime in these situations is taboo. Often employees are even forced to attend work afterparties, and expected to stay out late at night, away from their families, to getting drunk. Work functions might even take place more than once a week depending on the manager’s taste for alcohol. In Korea, employees have no option but to attend or face stiff penalties from management for not being a “team player.”
I learned about this from a Korean friend who worked at Korean Exchange Bank. One night we had plans for dinner but when I talked to her in the late afternoon she told me that we would have to reschedule because she was still at work. Apparently she had to stay a full 2 hours after her shift ended just because her manager wasn’t finished. As I got to know her more I found out that this happened frequently and was a basic part of Korean work culture. Missing dinner was only a small annoyance, but in other cases parents are even forced to neglect family or children if a boss demands that employees stay late.
But forcing employees to stay late or to attend drunken work functions aren’t the only abuses of power found in the workplace. In some organizations workers actually have to pay their boss money to keep their jobs. According to some of my Korean friends, this is actually fairly common. In the last elementary school I worked for, teachers were required to give up a portion of their salaries to the principal who would then divide the funds among the principal and the best teachers. It just so happened that the best teachers were always the teachers with the most seniority. On one occasion, the principal asked my boss to give him money so she could keep managing the English Center. She only got out of paying it by playing dumb. While employees have helped pay for social events, such as company picnics, for years in the West, asking employees for money in order to keep their jobs is a serious abuse of power.
So is recruiting high school or university students for sex. I was recently out with a 22 year old Korean woman who told me a chilling story about her job at a cafe. She had been working there only a little while when her female boss approached her with offers of financial help, help to fund her dream of attending an American university. She was introduced to an older Korean businessman and was told to spend time with him. The businessman kept telling her that his intentions were pure, and that he just wanted to help her because she was a smart young woman with a bright future. A little while later her boss began seeding thoughts and expectations. She mentioned another girl who had gone to the USA to study, and said that she thought that girl had slept with another older businessman. My friend was told that if he made a sexual advance, she shouldn’t refuse it.
Ethics and morality seem to be on the side of older or wealthier Koreans. In the West, sexual exploitation is sexual exploitation and those committing it are clearly in the wrong. In Korea, however, its ethicacy is determined a lot by who is doing the exploiting. While a sexual exploitation offense might be horrendous if committed by a younger Korean, it is likely to be overlooked by society if committed by those who are older or hold powerful positions. This is also true for other forms of sexual offenses. One of my friends was on the subway and preparing to get off at her stop when an older man sitting in a seat next to her began touching her. She obviously felt enraged, humiliated, and violated, but she couldn’t say or do anything because it would be socially unacceptable to do so. She couldn’t, for example, turn around and chastise him for touching her or she would look very bad in the eyes of other Koreans, since she is challenging a person much older than herself. Even if she had told a police officer the likely result would have been mild at best. Apparently this was not the first time it had happened to her or her friends, either. Unwanted sexual touching is part of Korean culture, much like it is an unwelcome part of Western culture, but in Korea the permissibility of touching depends on who the toucher is.
Each of these dark patches is unfortunate but could just be an embarrassing quirk in Korean culture. Taken together, however, they begin to paint a depressing picture. Unless younger Koreans begin to challenge the authority of those who are older or in positions of power little is likely to change.