What it Means to Be Weak


None gave them liberty, and yet they lived.

Korea is obsessed with development. It attaches the term “development” to almost all of its official endeavors. Corrupt political systems are not unfair, they are undeveloped. Gender equality is desirable mostly in the context that it represents the development of Korean society. Social equality is not so wonderful on its own, but as a sign of Korea’s becoming a developed nation – that’s another matter.

I recently came across Wireless Peninsula, a group run by Fulbright Scholars in Korea. As you would expect, they have some interesting takes on Korean culture. One of their recent articles discussed the Korean development fixation.

The author, Chelsea Carlson, wonders why, when Korean scholars are investigating questions of equality and fairness, they do so in the context of Korea’s national development. She concludes that the Korean intelligentsia would be better off looking at Korea’s social policy through the lens of Korean people rather than Korean development and that it would be wiser to set internal goals instead of simply emulating the US or other Western countries.

I’m not going to dispute these conclusions for the very simple reason I think they’re mostly good points. However, I do think that Ms. Carlson and, indeed most educated Westerners, likely does not have the experiences to understand the genesis of Korea’s obsession with development.

I think it comes from the fact that, within living memory, South Korea was one of the world’s weakest nations. On an abstract level, I’m certain Ms. Carlson understands what this means. However, in a deeper sense, I’m not sure she understands what the dehumanization that comes with weakness feels like, what it tastes like, how it itches at night and changes the ways we see the world.*

I’ve often wondered why, as a species, we’ve gotten so good at dehumanization. Don’t worry, I’m not about to launch into some condemnation of heartless villains, but we are awfully damn efficient when we want to turn another group of people into the enemy. At first, I thought this was an evolutionary leftover from some pre-social stage in our history. I mean, does the species really gain anything when dehumanizers rampage around destroying everyone, including themselves?

But then I thought about how I use dehumanization, how I see other people using dehumanization and I came to a different conclusion – it’s a way to prioritize our self-preservation over empathy for others. On a group vs. group level, our ancestors clearly would not be able to survive if, when their own food ran out, they had not been able to dehumanize the next tribe over, taken their food and caused them to starve. This is fairly obvious. What I don’t think is so obvious is the advantages of dehumanization for a person or society that dehumanizes itself.

A full human being is entitled to all the things Ms. Carlson mentions, fair treatment, equality, rights and respect. These things are wonderful, they are central to our development and advancement as a species. Rights and freedoms and fairness and the rest of these gifts powerful people give to themselves are indeed a necessary lubricant in the post-industrial machine, but they are not natural and they are not inevitable.

A full human being, accustomed as he is to luxury and power, requires these rights and freedoms and, when deprived, struggles to live on. Give me liberty or give me death, Patrick Henry once said.  He was lucky his society was strong enough to give him the former rather than surrender his life to the latter.

Contrast Patrick Henry with the person who does not see him or herself as fully human. Deprived of liberty by, just for example, the arch-conservative late Joseon Dynasty, the dehumanized person can persist without freedom. Deprived of fairness by, just as a random example, the intensely racist Imperial Japanese, the dehumanized person can recognize the fact he or she is not entitled to fairness and go on living. Robbed of rights by, to pick something random, the  string of military dictators stretching from Lee Seung-man to Park Jung-hee to Cheon Du-hwan, the dehumanized person can survive by accepting the truth that rights, while desirable, are anything but natural. That’s a hundred years of recent Korean history that Patrick Henry wouldn’t have survived.

What then lies at the root of full humanity with its rights and fairnesses and equalities? I would submit that the answer is nothing more romantic than blunt, naked power. A public weakened cannot hold off the tyrant. A population snarled in ignorance cannot resist the demagogue. A people undeveloped can hardly counter the invader. The man or woman dehumanized cannot help but feel this weakness and to hunger for power in a way unseemly to those simply born to full, unchallenged humanity. Such a person, someone who really knows what it’s like to be less than human, might feel it prudent to nurture the power and development preceding full humanity before they harvest the fruits.

So while I agree that Korea has reached a position of strength, and while I accept that Koreans can and should begin harvesting the fruits of their development, I can hardly condemn them for putting the development first and the luxuries second.




*I could, of course, be completely wrong about her experiences. Ms. Carlson and I have never met face to face.



  1. Thank you for stating explicitly that freedom and rights are luxuries. It’s something that is so buried, especially in American political discourse, that amongst so many in this country, the discussion is rarely focused on the problem of getting people to the point of expecting and assuming these things, even though it is a systemic issue. As you say, poverty and the weakness implied by it leaves one expecting nothing more than the basic necessities for survival, and everything else that a person deserves in virtue of being a person simply isn’t a priority. No one should have to live like that.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment on my little essay. I honestly think that one of the reasons we bury the truth about rights and liberties is the fact that, in the modern US and UK there’s just so little social mobility. The number of Americans or Britains with first hand knowledge of how it feels to go from weakness to strength or vice versa is very small.

  2. Michael James · · Reply

    I don’t think that in the referenced article, “The author, Chelsea Carlson, wonders why, when Korean scholars are investigating questions of equality and fairness, they do so in the context of Korea’s national development”. She only states that she has “noticed Korean academics’ fixation on the question of Korea’s level of development” and does not attempt to explain the “the genesis of Korea’s obsession with development.” Your brief analysis of the “genesis” is very interesting (as is your use of imagery in this type of writing), but, the tone of your article as a little, um, dehumanizing… lol.

    1. Thanks for commenting. 🙂

      I am on a bit of a tangent from Ms. Carlson’s article. The point was not so much to refute her points, which I mostly agree with, but to reframe the debate into the context I think it more appropriately belongs in.

    2. Interesting reply! I agree with Michael James’ comment in that I was writing to address an academic tendency rather than a social experience. I didn’t want to comment on exactly where development anxiety comes from, though it is clear that remnants of historical shame affect how Koreans approach certain matters of public and foreign policy.

      Re: the shame issue, I see my role as a scholar to point out its existence and to cultivate the necessary sensitivities to it in myself and in those around me. However, I really do not feel comfortable claiming that I can ever understand what that shame feels like as lived experience, or claim to know how it influences Koreans’ worldview. As a white, foreign scholar living in a time and culture very distant from the historical sources of that shame, and especially as a foreigner who has not been an heir to the emotional impact of that history, I can’t claim to deeply know the burden of history that many Koreans have expressed to me and that remains evident in certain approaches to history and policy in Korean academia. I sympathize with their story and do my best to understand, and to make the world understand, too. In the end, though, I stuck with a purely academic approach to the issue of attaining equality, and Koreans’ anxiety about reaping the fruits of development, because I feel the issue of shame is something best articulated by those who have lived it.

      I think I’ll write a longer post in response to this because a lot of it is bound up with my perspective as a feminist. I’m no expert, but I’ll do my best. Thank you so much for engaging with me on this topic, and for taking the time to comment so extensively on what I have written. I’m enjoying our conversation!

      1. Thanks for the kind words, Chelsea. I’m very much enjoying this correspondence and hope to continue it. I look forward to your next article.

        I would like to emphasize that I’m not contesting your conclusions. I agree that Korea can and should be more self-determining – in particular with the stuff about copying the West. I even agree that the academic tendency to put everything in terms of development could muddy the waters when it comes to other areas of inquiry.

        However, I’m not so convinced it’s possible to examine the academic mindset without understanding the social mindset from which it arises. I talked about your article with my (except for me) all Korean discussion group before I replied and we came up with a metaphor I think apt.

        Korea, with its development fetish, is looking at the plum tree of society and fretting about the roots, checking the leaves for rot and going over the bark with a microscope looking for fungal infections. It is so obsessed with these problems, it sometimes forgets to check on the plums.

        Educated Americans in particular and Westerners in general have, as a consequence of their power and poor social mobility, spent all of their living memories taking their strong, well established and older plum trees for granted and focusing on the sweet smelling, delicious fruit.

        While neither approach is wrong, I do think both imply blind spots. I’m also not sure either is something you can really separate from social context.

  3. Your conclusion makes sense, B.

    1. Thanks for reading. 🙂

      I wonder if, from your family position, you’ve seen anything along the lines of what I describe.

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