- Jewish Seoul: An Analysis of Philo- and Antisemitism in South Korea1
This article is about the beliefs of many South Koreans regarding a group of people they have almost never encountered.
There has never been any significant Jewish presence in Korean history until very recently when the first Jewish community in Korea was established during the Korean War (1950–1953). At that time, a couple of hundred Jews from the United States joined the armed forces against North Korea. Nowadays, most of the Jews in South Korea reside in its capital, Seoul, and work for the U.S. military, or are journalists, English teachers, or business people from around the world. The 2012 American Jewish Yearbook estimated that there were only about 100 Jews living in South Korea2 among a South Korean population of about 50 million people. That translates into only about 0.0001 percent of the South Korean population.
With the lack of any academic studies on the topic, South Korea has commonly been described in the media as a philosemitic country, with book-vending machines selling Korean versions of the Talmud, regular newspapers columns on “Jewish education”, television documentaries on Judaism, and “Talmudic debates” in schools. On the other hand, an Anti-Defamation League survey found South Korea to be among the most antisemitic countries in the world. This article seeks to explain this paradox by taking into account South Korea’s rapid transformation over the last decades from one of the poorest to one of the richest countries, the role of education in this process, and the problem of racism in South Korea.
korean society and globalization
At first glance, South Korea shares much with the State of Israel. Both were founded from scratch in 1948 and have now become high-tech [End Page 183] countries and “startup nations” without having any natural resources except for the human capital of highly educated people. Both countries have strong relations with the United States, and are democracies surrounded by a hostile undemocratic environment. But one should not assume that just because South Korea and the Jewish State have a lot in common, Koreans and Jews also have a lot on common. Aside from the importance of education in both cultures they could hardly be more different. The Jewish “two people, three opinions” is certainly not something that is aspired to, or appreciated, in Korean society.
Even though South Korea has accomplished rapid economic growth over the past decades, with a GDP about to surpass Japan in the near future, social pressure to succeed has led many South Koreans to mental depression. South Korea is, according to recent statistics, the second unhappiest developed nation in the world, and the unhappiest within Asia.3 In fact, South Korea has the highest suicide rate of any OECD country with forty-two South Koreans taking their lives every single day. A 2014 poll, for instance, found that over half of South Korean teenagers have suicidal thoughts.4 Sadly, suicide is currently the leading cause of death among South Korean youth.5 Many people in South Korea seem so lost in a rapidly changing world that they become depressed and are in deep need of help to stop their suffering. To give an extreme example, as a way of facing the pressure of modern Korean society, a “near-death experience” has even started to gain attention in South Korea. Participants in what is called a “fake funeral” practice this form of what one might call meditation. They put on burial cloth and then enter a casket for a while in which they seek to experience death in a way, and to reflect on their lives. Thus, in many ways South Korea appears as the complete opposite to what Jewish culture could ever, or would ever, produce.
The pressure that so many Koreans feel certainly comes from the expectation to succeed in a rapid knowledge economy. South Korea’s lack of natural resources is often cited as a reason for its emphasis on education. The pressure on South Korean students is among the greatest in the world. Se-Woong Koo, for instance, wrote in the article, “An...