K-Pop, Exam Hell and the Korean Disease

There’s so much that seems right about Korean society that it seems unfair to criticize what’s wrong about it. But what’s wrong is so deeply, fundamentally wrong that, unless corrected, it will inevitably destroy all else.

I’m talking about the tragic Korean fixation on appearances. Status. Respectability. Image. I think of it as The Korean Disease because it afflicts Koreans more acutely than any other nationality on earth.

I know that it’s born of the deep national humiliation of having been colonized by Japan for 35 years, followed by a partitioning of the nation at the DMZ imposed by the U.S. and the Soviet Union. It comes of a history of being a small backward nation squeezed between the ambitious powers of China and Japan. It comes of having endured the desperation of surviving in what was the poorest society on earth barely a half century ago.

These historical realities have left Koreans as a nationality desperate to show that they’re as good or better than anyone else.

I write this fully recognizing that many Koreans and Korean Americans have managed to avoid catching the Korean Disease or have recovered from it. And I know that no one abhors the Korean Disease more than Koreans who have suffered collateral damage from it.

The Korean Disease is manifest in highly visible ways. Some are simply annoying and embarrassing. Those include the proliferation of countless pointless groups of young, relatively untalented people yoked together as so-called K-pop boy bands and girl groups. They offer painstakingly drilled choreography without displaying any real musical value. They’re embarrassing to watch because they put one in mind of the thought that even a half dozen or more of them can’t equal one talented singer/songwriter. The absurd amounts of money wasted on their slick but silly wardrobes also puts me in mind of the vast sums spent by their peers on brand-name fashions and accessories to bolster shaky self images.

It’s the ultimate absurdity — the seeking of affirmation by yoking together many who share the same lack of self belief.

Other symptoms of the Korean disease are more deeply disturbing. I pity the millions of kids born to parents with the Korean Disease forced to waste the most vibrant years of their youth locked up in cram schools instead of running around having fun in the sun. The hundreds who commit suicide each year are mere tips of the iceberg. For each one who attempts the ultimate escape, tens of thousands suffer and endure in silence. And when they become parents themselves they resort to the same sad strategy to shore up self esteems hobbled by parents who exploited them as proxies for attaining validity and social status.

How confidence-shattering must it be to grow up with the awareness that one’s parents have so little sense of self-worth that they’re dependent for validation on their kids’ school records!

One of the more lingering psychological injuries of growing up in a family with the Korean Disease is a deep emotional passivity engendered by the sense that one’s fate is being driven by parents, not by one’s own desires. This passivity is an extremely unattractive quality, especially in males, and it can’t be offset by any number of degrees or titles or fashion labels or prestige cars.

On a societal level, the Korean Disease will ultimately lead to deep national apathy and cynicism as it becomes clear to all that a fixation on appearances only creates the hollow shell of a happy prosperous society. Everyone will have smartphones and tablets galore on which to check for messages that reassure them that they aren’t really alone — despite the deepening sense of emptiness in their collective rituals.

My hope is that enough Koreans will find a cure for the disease in time to turn away from the superficial life in pursuit of individual fulfillment. They can serve as models for a truly happier, better adjusted society. Maybe then we’ll finally see more real music coming out of that nation’s pop industry.