I had several hours before the departure of my flight from Incheon International Airport. So I went out searching for a notebook and a pen so I could write down a few ideas for use in my book manuscript. But nowhere could I find anything of use for sale.
All I was confronted with was stores full of expensive designer clothes, or slick handbags, with few or no customers, and manned by women in uncomfortable dresses who looked remarkably bored.
I found liquor stores, and other shops that displayed expensive watches, perfumes and lotions, or electronic devices in their windows. Finally I found something hidden in the corner of a bookstore I could use.
This was not the airport I remember from my visits to the United States before I lived here. The airport back then was not a temple to the consumption of luxury goods. Something has gone terribly wrong.
Yet, if we think about the airport in purely economic terms, in terms of profits, the system makes perfect sense. The profits to be generated from an occasional bored wealthy customer purchasing a luxury watch, or designer dress, far exceed the profits to be made from selling notebooks, or fruit, or sunscreen to ordinary people.
The result is that the culture of the airport has been distorted beyond belief. It has become a shrine to indulgence and idleness that is forced upon us, and which distorts our values.
I stopped at a cafe at a museum in Seoul to read a book soon after that incident and I picked up the magazine that was lying on the parquet table. It was a Chinese glossy fashion magazine featuring sophisticated photographs and layout that was clearly aimed at wealthy Chinese tourists. The magazine focused exclusively on expensive Korean hanbok clothing for women, traditional with some modern variations by contemporary designers.
But the poses adopted by the models shocked me. The women draped themselves on luxurious furniture, taking up suggestive poses while wearing the exquisite hanbok dresses. Their languid expressions exuded an extreme of indulgence and boredom. They lounged around, without any particular point, in neo-classical palaces that could only be read as a tribute to the Versailles of Louis XVI.
But hanbok clothing originally upheld as its ideal modesty and subtlety. It has nothing to do with a celebration of decadence and ennui. The entire Korean tradition has been turned on its head to match the tastes of a limited group of wealthy Chinese tourists. And yet, if we can just forget about the health of Korean culture, that magazine made great sense.
If you could persuade just one wealthy Chinese visitor to purchase just one of these designer hanbok dresses, that would provide more profit than hundreds of books on the history of Seoul or performances of traditional pansori.
Every time we turn on the television we are forced to watch television dramas set in luxurious houses such as most Koreans have never stepped foot in. The discussions about tragic love are carried on in exclusive coffee shops alien to the daily life of Koreans.
But those of us over 50 can remember a day when television dramas and commercials were set in the homes of ordinary middle-class families and it was considered offensive to show off wealth impulsively. It was true in the United States and it was even truer in Korea.
What a tragedy that working young girls, spending an exhausting day standing in a convenience store, are persuaded by such images that they must be rich and bored in order to be fashionable.
One thing is certain: if we do not start to address the concentration of wealth and its dangerous distortion of our culture, we will sow the fields for future political radicalism of a scale we have not seen in our lifetimes.
It is unnecessary to explain how this problem was addressed in the French Revolution, the Paris Commune and other extreme efforts to create a more equitable society by artificial means. I would only suggest that the extremity of the approach employed in those cases resulted in such a tremendous backlash in the next generation that the efforts were more destructive than they were helpful.
Confucianism treats the issue of social and economic equality in a sophisticated manner, with an eye toward the long term. Although the oppressive “feudalistic” class system of the Joseon Dynasty was a reality, we forget the manner in which the king and the yangban families were required to be frugal in their behavior and to refrain from indulgence and waste of the sort witnessed in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries.
It goes back to Confucius’ suggestion that we “be most concerned about inequity” (患不均). Later followers of his ideals, such as King Sejong, made the question of inequity central. They sought out long-term solutions to the inequity in the economy, not quick fixes.
The question of equality of opportunity in the Confucian sense is explicitly addressed in the preamble to the Korean Constitution 大韓民國 憲法 前文. In a sense, the distortions in society born of such concentrations of wealth can be interpreted as inherently unconstitutional.
The Korean Constitution states: “For each citizen, in the political, economic, and social realms, opportunities should be equal and he or she should be able to realize his or her abilities to the maximum extent. Each citizen should fulfill his or her social responsibilities that follow from his freedom and his rights so as to assure domestically an equal rise in the living standards for citizens…”
Trying to undo the radical inequality in our society by pretending it does not exist will lead only to greater extremes, and eventually to violent confrontations.
Giving out handouts of money from time to time to certain groups, without addressing the distortions within our society that create such gaps in the first place, will encourage a dependence on the state that is psychologically unhealthy and that will do little to create a stable society. Rather, a healthy culture of true equality of opportunity must be established. We have not even begun the debate on how we will create such a culture.