Similarities Between South Korea, North Korea and the Joseon Dynasty (Rant)

Why is Korea called the Hermit Kingdom?

According to the infallible Wikipedia, Korea was first called the Hermit Kingdom by William Elliot Griffis’ 1882 book, Corea: The Hermit Nation.


We can’t even rely on our trusty Wikipedia for information here because Koreans are so bent on keeping their history shrouded in the rosy imagery of popular historical TV shows that Koreans troll Wikipedia vigilantly and mercilessly edit anything that might reflect poorly on their country. (Keep reading the above link to the Wikipedia article and you’ll see what I mean.) It’s like China’s secret service, only the Korean government gets the services of its vigilante “netizens” for free.

Let me state clearly that I want North and South Korea to be peaceful as much as anyone and more than most. I live here, after all, and I sincerely love many Korean people and aspects of Korea. But a fuller appreciation of the peninsula’s history and commonalities is not always easy to find online, which is why I’m writing this. Other than my initial irritation at the defensiveness of Korean netizens about their country, I hope that I do not offend anybody with this blog. In fact, it’s an interesting subject. My understanding of the truth is that olden Korea (the Joseon dynasty of 100 years ago, say) in fact seems to have had much in common with modern day North Korea that is not generally made public.

Similarities Between the Joseon Dynasty and South & North Korea

  1. A short average lifespan. In Korea 100 years ago, the average lifespan for men was about 24, while the average woman lived to the ripe old age of 26. Here, South Korea differs. Thanks to modern Western medicine and a healthy diet, South Korea enjoys the world’s second-longest lifespan. Only the Japanese live longer (and dear Korean netizens, that’s not pro-Japanese rhetoric; it should be a compliment to the healthy Korean lifestyle).
  2. Closed borders. People are shocked that North Koreans can’t leave North Korea. In fact, this is just a continuation of traditional Joseon policy. In the Joseon Dynasty, people were forbidden to leave the country, except if sent by the king. South Koreans have been going abroad for decades now, but in an ironic twist the exiled heir to the thrown of the Joseon dynasty was actually not allowed to return back into South Korea after the Japanese withdrawl.
  3. Historical embellishment. North, South and ancient Korea all paint national histories far richer than was the reality. In fact, since the Japanese government foolishly declared that they would only teach Japanese students good things about the history of Japan and Korea, Koreans feel even more license to embellish their own country’s history and paint over the ugly. This is in pretty stark contrast to my education in California, where we learned about all the horrible things the US did before we learned the geography of the places the US had mangled (what’s that? Oh, the US geography program funding no longer exists… ah well, yes… er…).
  4. Agrarian subsistence. This is kind of a no-brainer, but in both countries the majority are farmers. Not a bad thing at all–just a similarity. South Korea is still in a struggle about whether to abandon its farming roots for a high tech lifestyle.
  5. Poverty. The poverty was so bad in the late Joseon period it led to peasant uprisings. At least three such revolts (1812, the 1860’s and 1894) were large enough to threaten the government. It also led many revolutionaries in fact to look to more liberal and prosperous Japan as a model for what Korea could be.  This is something just about any Korean netizens will want to censor because (A) they were taught to hate Japan in school and (B) they were taught to defend Korea against pro-Japanese sentiments in all situations. But don’t worry. I’m not saying that all Koreans wanted Japan to conquer Korea. No, revolutionary Joseon Koreans just wanted to emulate Japan, not be colonized by it. However, because impoverished farmers were rioting in the streets, Korea had to in fact ask for Japan’s assistance in 1894 to keep its own domestic order from spiraling into Ukrainian Yak’s turd. Since Korea even invited Japanese troops to come, that gave Japan plenty of cause (even by modern US standards) to stay. (Poverty is, of course, not so common in South Korea today.)
  6. Fear of foreigners. Xenophobic, or having a fear of foreigners, is not perhaps the most accurate term to describe Koreans. Better terms would be curious and isolated. In fact, many Koreans are really, really friendly to foreigners. That is thanks in part to the past century, in which foreign technologies have transformed (at least half of) Korea from a very poor state into one of the wealthiest states on Earth, bringing Koreans wealth like they have never had at any time in their country’s (let’s just go with the Korean mythological date here) 5,000 year history. However, even in modern South Korea non-ethnic Koreans make up less than 2% of the population and most of those are Chinese. In North Korea, it’s illegal even to look at a foreigner, although that’s rarely a problem since most people in that country will never see one. In South Korea, if you don’t look Korean, prepare to be pointed and gawked at. Not in the almost adoring way the Japanese do it. (That would be awesome.) More in the: “Holy Ukrainian Yak’s balls! What’s that thing??! 야!! 외국인 있다!!” kind of way. If you speak Korean, you’ll often get the: “Zinky, Batman! It’s a talking dog!” response. Not surprisingly, the Joseon Dynasty, with its closed borders and poverty, also had virtually no non-Koreans.
  7. Control over the media. It wasn’t until Japanese newspapers opened in Korea that there was any media at all here and then there was heavy Japanese censorship. Today, South Korea censors over 3,000 sites that are somehow connected with North Korean servers. South Korea also censors any website that it deems unethical. This is what led to this long and winding rant in the first place: YouTube. YouTube has blocked uploads and comments in South Korea instead of roll over to the newest South Korean Internet censorship law. WTF??

One response to “Similarities Between South Korea, North Korea and the Joseon Dynasty (Rant)

  1. Excellent. DPRK appears to be a Choson Kingdom governmental model with a socialist veneer, applied post WW2 as a pragmatic result of prior Soviet help and sense of continued support, funding, military protections and access to greater shared Communist world economies.

    The Choson Kingdom governmental system being that of Centralized administrative planning with a King and his officials at top, Central administrations below down to councils that fan out into the provincial areas.

    The Koreans of the North only experienced 2 major prior political phases being that of Japanese Colonialist Rule and Choson. It would make sense that they would reach back into their cultural roots of which they knew.

    With Choson comes the Hermit Kingdom, something that has crystalized further with the fall of the Communist world.

    In some ways, DPRK is a living museum of Korean historical governance if viewed through a lens seeing below the applied “red paint”.

    After all, North Korea’s system applies a feudalistic format.

    Anyhow, good work.


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