One of the stereotypes about Asia that persists is that Asian cultures aren’t confrontational; Asians, the old view holds, are indirect, say ‘yes’ when they mean ‘no’ to save face and so on.All we can say is that these people don’t know Korea very well. Take Kim-Myung-ho, a South Korean math professor, who isn’t happy about the way he was treated by the South Korean judicial system. The New York Times provides a good synopsis:
The fight is rooted in Mr. Kim’s firing by Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul in 1996. He sued for wrongful termination, and Judge Park ultimately rejected that claim. After months of picketing courthouses and sending hundreds of letters of complaint to the Supreme Court, Mr. Kim said he lost all hope of justice and decided to deliver the judge “a shock.”So on the evening of Jan. 15, 2007, Mr. Kim confronted Judge Park as he was about to take an elevator to his apartment in Seoul. “You call that a verdict?” Mr. Kim said, aiming his loaded crossbow at the judge.
Yes, you read that right—a crossbow. And the incident touched a nerve in Korea, making Mr. Kim something of a folk hero.Via Meadia takes no view on the justice of the verdicts in the various cases in which Mr. Kim has become embroiled, but the South Korean judicial system is widely seen as arrogant and closed off. Judges are part of a tight fraternity; they have a lot of respect for themselves and feel that they are part of a natural meritocratic elite. In their own no doubt objective and well researched view, judges are smarter, more righteous and more sophisticated than those members of the great unwashed public who appear before them; the public increasingly takes note.Crossbow Kim’s popularity in Korea points to an important global trend: People all over the world are no longer willing to accept the power of unelected hierarchies of experts. Democracy isn’t just a matter of elections; it is about reducing the power of elites over the masses. The college educated, the credentialed, the blue blooded, the well connected: in many countries these groups have enjoyed huge status that ultimately derives from the enduring power of pre-modern and even feudal ideas and values.As modernity advances, old hierarchies are flattened and deference to authority wanes. Korean tradition was Confucian, dynastic and hierarchical; many of the attitudes rooted in national culture persist in sometimes contrasting ways in both the North and the South. In the South, improvements in education and economic development and the arrival of foreign ideas (like Christianity, a religious faith which almost half the people in South Korea now profess) make South Koreans more self confident, more determined to be heard.Suggestion to South Korean judges: lose the arrogance. Fast.This drama also shows that Korean culture, North and South alike, can be very confrontational, particularly when it comes to emotionally intense conflicts. Those who natter on about Asian indirection and passivity don’t know Korea very well.