Korea’s “God Gene”

Walking to work this morning I passed an elderly Catholic nun who I often see strolling along the street outside my home. Bracing against the cold and thinking about how hard it’s going to be to kick my coffee habit at the onset of winter my mind turned to the ubiquity of religion in South Korea.

So when I opened my computer I was surpirsed to see this in today’s IHT, a biological explanation for the Evolution of religion throughout human history. I found this passage particulary pertinent to the Korean context.

In natural selection, it is genes that enable their owners to leave more surviving progeny that become more common. The idea that natural selection can favor groups, instead of acting directly on individuals, is highly controversial. Though Darwin proposed the idea, the traditional view among biologists is that selection on individuals would stamp out altruistic behavior (the altruists who spent time helping others would leave fewer children of their own) far faster than group-level selection could favor it.

But group selection has recently gained two powerful champions, the biologists David Sloan Wilson and Edward O. Wilson, who argued that two special circumstances in recent human evolution would have given group selection much more of an edge than usual. One is the highly egalitarian nature of hunter-gatherer societies, which makes everyone behave alike and gives individual altruists a better chance of passing on their genes. The other is intense warfare between groups, which enhances group-level selection in favor of community-benefiting behaviors such as altruism and religion.

South Korea is no doubt a very group-oriented society, a fact that is often used to distinguish itself from its Western counterpart. Korea is also a very religious society, as seen in the proliferation of crosses that dot urban skylines in the South or the cult of personality in the North.

But does Korea’s history of war and invasion mean that Koreans are more “hard-wired” to believe? And more to the point, does it mean there is nothing more to these beliefs than simple programming?

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VOA finds voice with 2MB

An Associated Press story notes that Voice of America has been granted permission by the Lee Myung-bak administration to broadcast into North Korea from transmitters in the South for the first time in three decades.

That makes the signal much clearer than VOA’s long-running shortwave broadcasts from far-flung stations in the Philippines, Thailand and the South Pacific island of Saipan. Moreover, it’s an AM signal, so listening in doesn’t require a shortwave radio.

“Radio can play a big role in changing people,” said Kim Dae-sung, who fled the North in 2000 and is now a reporter at Free North Korea Radio, a shortwave radio broadcaster in Seoul. “Even if it’s simply news, it’s something that North Koreans have never heard of.”

Analysts say the North will see this as further proof the Lee is in bed with foreign powers and bent on its destruction. I’ve also heard a lot of criticism of VOA – very right of center – and I’m not keen on the whole religious aspect what with them sharing an agreement with a Christian organization to transmit the signal. I’ve always been skeptical of pushing religion on North Koreans as it seems the last thing they need is more dogma. I know church groups have done a lot of good, and I’m not ragging on that. But if you want to help these folks – ie defectors and those still in the North – then help then find their own way without cramming another belief system down their throat. Lord knows they’ve had enough of that.

Other choice tidbits from the article:

The broadcast is mainly news, with a focus on North Korea, such as its ongoing nuclear standoff with the United States and other nations.

South Korea prohibited VOA from broadcasting from its soil for carrying a 1973 report on the kidnapping of Kim Dae-jung, then a leading South Korean dissident. The authoritarian Seoul government at the time is widely believed to have been behind the abduction.

Read the rest here.

Korea road trip

The key is avoiding the traffic out of Seoul. Do that and its smooth sailing all the way to Busan, with a stop along the way to peer at the stars in Mt. Jiri National Park and a quick tour of Taejeon on the way home.

About 10 kilometers past the town of Hwagae – known for its tea plantations and cherry blossoms – is the village of Uishin, which lies in a valley below rolling mountains that are home to dozens of small hermitages. One of these, Wontong Temple, is supposedly the site where Hyu-jong, who led an army of monks against Japanese invaders 500 years ago, first shaved his head and took the monastic oath.

Wontong Temple

Wontong Temple

We were told to park the car in front of a small guest house, behind which a trail began that meandered its way up to the small temple. A little boy stared from across the road as we packed what we’d need for the night, waddling over to get a closer look. The air was crisp, clean and invigorating after months of breathing in exhaust fumes while standing at jammed intersections.

We walked for about 40 minutes, soaking in the first signs of spring that were everwhere along the trail and wondering whether we’d taken a wrong turn until we heard the distinctive knock-knock of the wooden moktak used in prayer ceremonies. “You’ve gotten fat!”

I looked up to see a spritely older monk with bronzed skin that belied his 60 plus years. An old friend of my wife’s, it had been almost 10 years since we last met and I’d put on a few pounds. He stood below a cluster of bamboo that hid the temple, grinning as we huffed and puffed our way up to greet him.

Mt. Jiri National Park

Mt. Jiri National Park

The view was stunning, blue mountains with a coating of fog that stretched to the horizon. Not an apartment block or skyscraper in sight, just clouds and sky and a sense of lightness that permeated the whole place.

We sat over endless cups of tea, taking in the view as we reminisced on the past decade. Dinner was a simple meal of pickled vegetables and rice followed by shots of home made herbal liquor, then cognac, and finally wine as the stars slowly filled the sky. Our host broke out his flute.

“How will you manage here when you get older,” my wife asked. “How will you get down on your own?”

“Who needs to come down.”

Homeless drunk or spiritual guide?

Homeless in Seoul

Homeless in Seoul

There’s a homeless guy I pass in the train station every night on my way home from work. He reeks, in a tattered winter coat and pants that end in shreds around his cracked black feet. He stands motionless, bedroll in hand, staring into space as throngs of well-dressed Seoulites hustle about giving him a wide birth. I wonder whether they’re any better than he is. Or whether I am?

I don’t know what the general attitude about homelessness is in Korea. I mean, with all the crosses dotting the skyline you’d think it would be a paradise for the underprivileged, but somehow I get the feeling that isn’t the case. The country has been through a lot in recent decades and that’s engendered a sort of “life’s tough” attitude. Maybe the Confucian influence plays a part too, that it’s some sort of moral flaw that has led to a person’s degraded circumstances. Buddhism would say it’s karma.

A scene from the biography of St. Francis springs to mind, when the young son of an Italian merchant encounters a homeless man in his path. Horrified at first, he comes to believe that in fact it is Jesus before him, overcoming his revulsion and embarking on a life of extreme poverty and faith.

Truth be told he’s most likely mentally disturbed, his demons fed by a steady diet of soju and scorn. But that fear he strikes in people is real and its that fear that St. Francis had to confront before undergoing his spiritual transformation. It’s that same fear I admit to myself every night that I will most likely never get over.

Still, while not a Christian, I’ve always remembered that story and every night it makes me wince as I shut off a part of my humanity so that I can join the others in pretending not to see him. But I do see him, and the old lady sitting night after night with her tray of coins, and the two feet sticking out from under the box in a pile of food scraps and filth. I see it on my way to my warm home, closing the door on the biting cold of winter and those outside. And I wonder whether I’m not closing the door on myself as well.

Today’s headlines:

Seoul on high alert after N.K. threats

President reshuffles deck

Buddhist relics found

No Chocopie for Muslims

Missiles, money and ribeye steak

Seoul Outback

Seoul Outback

New Year’s eve. As Israeli missiles begin to fall on Gaza, my family and I are at the Outback Steakhouse in southern Seoul waiting for a table.

It’s my first time here and the first steak I’ve eaten in about twenty years. Despite the recession, the place is packed and we stand alongside a number of others waiting for a table. I notice in the corner a young muslim family, the wife covered with only her eyes showing, the father smiling down at his young daughter playing under his feet.

We are foreigners, them and I. Even my wife, who is Korean, stands somewhat apart as she pushes my son to play with the young girl, named for a rare deer native to Saudi Arabia. Always the outgoing one, my wife begins to chat it up with the young girl. She’s five, speaks a smattering of Korean, Arabic and English she’s picked up from TV. We begin to talk, an unlikely conversation that leaves much unsaid.

“Where are you from,” I venture.

“Saudi Arabia, and you?”

“San Francisco… the U.S.”

OK. I can hear the synapses firing as all the stored up information gets pulled up. Politics, religion, identity.

“I’m sorry for all the shit my country has done to the Islamic world,” I want to say. “Terrible what’s happening in Gaza. My tax dollars at work.” I wonder what they’re thinking.

“How do you like Korea,” my wife asks, no hint of  internal dialogue behind her smile. She’s a traveler and loves meeting people.

“Korea is a good place. It is safe, people are friendly. Life here is good,” the father says. The wife is silent but her eyes speak volumes.

I’m always curious when I see another foreigner in Korea. Granted there are plenty of us, more and more all the time. But Korea is by no means LA when it comes to ethnic diversity and so I can’t help but wonder what brings people here.

I once asked the onwer of a local Indian restaurant that question. “The money,” he said matter of factly. So much for romanticism.

Our names are called and I shake hands with the young father before heading to our table. There’s more I want to ask and I contemplate fleetingly inviting them to share a table with us. The steak is mediocre, the pasta supersized and heavy.

On the way out the mother enters the elevator alone, thinking her husband and daughter had already gone ahead. My wife says they just passed her by in the hallway and she thanks her in flawless American English before hopping back out. My four-year-old son looks up at me with this quizzical expression and says, “Daddy, why was she wearing a mask?”

Korea’s shamanic past disappearing

An article in the Hankyoreh reports that an island off the southwest coast of Korea is seeking to gain official recognition from UNESCO for an ancient shamanic ritual practiced there as part of the world’s cultural heritage.

Jindo, in South Jeolla Province, is home to the ssitgimgut ritual, and advocates there are pushing the United Nations Organization to designate the practice a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. They say that as the number of Korea’s traditional shamans declines, the practice is in danger of disappearing alltogether.

The ritual involves the calling forth of the dead to resolve their worldly concerns and pray for their safe passage to the next world. It was designated a national cultural asset in 1980, but the rapid transformation of Korean society has lead to a decline in the number of shamans able to carry out the rite. Experts say the UNESCO designation will help preserve the tradition.

To support their bid, authorities in South Jeolla will host an international conference on the importance of shamanic traditions around the world. The conference will feature experts from South Korea, China, India, Hungary, Italy, Mongolia and Japan. Shamanism is Korea’s oldest religion.

Korea’s court rulings reflect changing society

S. Korean court rulings

S. Korean court rulings

An interesting piece in the Korea Times reports that to mark the 60th anniversary of South Korea’s Supreme Court, the judicial body is selecting 12 “rulings of the era,” decisions that have radically altered the social and legal mores of Korean society.

Included in the list of rulings are several decisions affecting gender equality, including one that involves the recognition of the fact that gender transcends physical traits and involves an individual’s “mentality and social attitude,” opening the door for more legal protection of LGBT’s.

Another selction dealt with Korea’s patriarchal family system that once denied certain rights to female family members, including the inheritance of property and other forms of wealth.

A friend here whose mother had divorced once told me her name had been stricken from the family’s census record, as was the case for all of Korea’s divorced women. I am not sure whether this law still exists, but it was a shock to learn, because a woman’s name is also taken off their own family’s register once they are married. So essentially, after divorce, they cease to exist. Or so it seems.

Anyway, reading this reminds me of Martina Deuchler’s work on the Confucian transformation of Korean society beginning in the 16th century. In it, Deuchler plumes the numerous legal precedents that were established over the course of the Chosun Dynasty that ultimately shaped the countours of Korean culture and society.

In a similar vein today’s rulings are helping to redraw the map of Korean life, establishing precedents that will, over time, trickle through to all layers of Korean society.