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Does Confucianism still influence the Korean economy? Social values within Korea's economy

Akademische Arbeit 2017 14 Seiten

Asienkunde, Asienwissenschaften


Table of contents


Korea as Confucian Society
Institutional changes in Korea
Vanishing of Homogeneity
Intercultural problems within the Korean working environment




During the time of 1960s-1980s South Korea quickly developed from the scratch of the bottom into one of the biggest industrialized countries in the world with a rapid annual growth rate of its gross domestic product (GDP) of 9 per cent from US$1.4 in 1953 to US$437.4 in 1994 (Bae and Rowley 2010). Scholars have argued that this phenomenal growth was the selective emphasize of some of the Confucian virtues, causing workers to be subordinate to their bosses and diligent within their work (Kim and Park 2003). When in 1997 the Asian financial crisis hit the country, South Korea had to face the globalization with all its effects, so that century-long traditions were questioned (Jun and Rowley 2014). To compete in the global market Korea´s economy, especially the chaebols, were under much pressure to restructure themselves. Moreover, massive groups of workers were early retired or laid off. To become a global player, firms had to adapt to the market flexibility and neoliberalism in order to survive (Bae and Rowley 2010; Tung et al. 2013).

The main concern of this paper is to answer the question if Confucianism still influences the Korean economy, even after the dramatic economic reform. Therefore, some scholars like Sleziak (2013), Cho et. al (2014), Janelli (1999), Mo and Moon (1999), and Mitu (2015) ascertained that century long cultural values as kind of a conservative ideology are still governing Koreans daily-life and cannot vanish quickly, as they are deeply embedded in society. However, some other researchers claim that the big impact of the globalisation let Koreas economy change into becoming more capitalistic, where individualism results into opportunism. So, companies are seeking their own profits and adapt to flexible employment structures without caring for the general employee anymore (Tung et al. 2013; Cho et al. 2014; Bae and Rowley 2010).

While acknowledging the significant role of active westernization within the international conglomerates, scholars have neglected to address the rising change of racial and ethnical composition of the Korean society as the major reason for the shift in the corporate culture of the Korean firms, especially since this passive way for the culture shift is gaining significant importance during the last years. This new perspective will contribute important insight for the future South Korean HRM, as this department has to respond to the emerging diverse cultures as connector of the working group. To prove that statement, this paper will focus on two roots of the culture change: the shift of culture from outside by the growing number of migration, interracial marriages and the deducible biracial ethnicities in South Korea, as well as on the value shift from the inside of the Koreans towards an assimilation to foreign values like be seen on unconventional family structures like Gireogi families.

Korea as Confucian Society

Hofstede, founder of the comparative cultural research, identified Korea as collective society. This is explained with having strong relationships with great amount of responsibility towards each other even in economical settings like employer relationships. Therefore, offenses lead to loosing or taking faces (Hofstede et al., 2010). Mo and Moon furthermore state Korea as being Confucian which “[…] is the effort to regard family not as the repository of the private but rather as the training ground as the public spiritedness” (Mo and Moon 1999, 42). According to them, Confucianism gives groups a sense of order, expressed through codes of behavior learned within the family and spread into the whole society. Filial piety and loyalty towards an authority are not clear distinguished and also the differentiation between public and private is widely suppressed (Mo and Moon 1999). Seeing flowers on the desks of Section chiefs during Parents Day in 1987 is just one example for that behavior. (Janelli and Yim 1999).

In spite of the changes due to globalization, him (1999), as well as Cho (2014), Mitu (2015) and Sleziak (2015) believe that Confucianism like defined above is still in every Koreans life. Park and Park (2017) also argue that this phenomenon can even be seen in the upcoming Korean Generation Y, who still tends to value Confucian virtues significantly more than their Westernized counterparts. Hence, the striving for more profit growth is rather reasoned as a purpose of survival than an adaption of the Westernized individual lifestyle (Mo and Moon 1999). Despite the quickly changing world, especially due to new technology, culture within a society is transforming very slowly, as it is so deeply entangled into one´s values, attitudes, beliefs and behavior that even organizational cultural changes are only moving very slowly (Jun and Rowley 2014). Instead, people adapt their cultural values to changes while maintaining their Confucian focus on collectivism, discipline and education (Mitu 2015). That’s why their culture still has impact on any business setting, behavior or mentalities. And in fact, studies of Jun and Rowley show that even during these days there is still no significant change of the former authoritarian and centralized decision-making processes, which are still traditionally in the hands of the dominating senior-management (Jun and Rowley 2014). To emphasize even more on the culture’s effects there is the educational system to mention. Even though it stands for transformation, it’s deeply rooted with Confucianism, as most teachers are still authoritarian, forcing diligent studying and are treated with a lot of respect (Sleziak 2013).

Institutional changes in Korea

Since the turn of the century, people started blaming Confucianism for any negative happenings within their country, starting from historical events like the loss of independence to Japanese Colonialism up to various economical happenings like the financial crisis, due to unmoral happenings inside the chaebols. These accusations made Confucianism lose its standing within the society (Mo and Moon 1999; Janelli 1999). Several forces from political, economic, social and technological background pushed Korea after the IMF to lose their global economic backwardness and to boost global competitiveness (Bae and Rowley 2010). As a result, Korean companies “established capitalism and democracy as norms, achieving both modernization and westernization” (Mitu 2015). Regarding to HRM policies, international standardized HRM practices were introduced, which led to a change within the corporate culture to more flexibility in the employment structure. This was seen as a vanishing of Confucian traditions by many scholars (Tung et al. 2013; Cho et al. 2014; Bae and Rowley 2010). Bae and Rowley (2010) describe that encompassing change as being were transmitted within each single department as illustrated in the following figure (Bae and Rowley 2010).

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Figure 1: Traditional and emerging practices in Korean HRM (Bae und Rowley 2010, 85)

Especially leading chaebols registered a significant decline in collectivism, diligence and former harmony-seeking work climate up to of more efficiency, profit motives and intern competition. This was reasoned on a shift from the seniority-based regime to the new performance-based system, focusing on talents within the company (Cho et al. 2014; Mo and Moon 1999). This Western element was already adapted in one third of all Korean companies in 2010, and rose, according to Tung at el. to 60% in 2012 (Bae and Rowley 2010; Tung et al. 2013).

However, the change had also positive effects for employees. Globalization rose the opportunity, especially for highly qualified and top-talented employees, to choose their taskmaster also from external labor markets. That shift implied a declining loyalty of the workers towards their employer (Tung et al. 2013). To hold top performer within the firm, companies introduced intrinsic motivational elements, like “mentoring programs, assignment of competent employees to top talents, dual-ladder career paths, succession planning, and fellowship for R&D people” (Bae and Rowley 2010), as well as they flattened the hierarchy to give employees more opportunities to be creative and use their potential within companies’ decisions. This change had also its flipside, as irregular workers and low performer started to face higher risks for being fired (Tung et al. 2013).

Vanishing of Homogeneity

In the light of globalization, there is not only the active change for westernization of the Korean conglomerates to mention. In fact, this change is important, but not the main argument to bring up when examining if there is still Confucianism within the contemporary Korean economy. An often-missed element is the mixture of ethnicities. One might claim, that Korea is the most homogeneous country in the world, but since 1980s there has been a significant increase of heterogeneity within the country (Kim, 2009).

To be concrete, Koreas society is influenced from two different roots: the immigration from outside and the assimilation to foreign values from inside. These will affect two prongs: the Korean society as a whole and the Korean workplace.

Concerning the first root, migration from other countries increases the number of foreigners with different values. This can be seen in various situations: One the one hand, there is work-related migration mostly from other neighboring countries, and on the other hand international marriages, mostly due to a lack of wedding material in rural areas are increasing the numbers of foreigners in South Korea (Lee 2016). These will be explained briefly in the following paragraphs.



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Ewha Womans University
Korean economy confucianism korea social values hierarchy



Titel: Does Confucianism still influence the Korean economy? Social values within Korea's economy