Home > Korean Society > Korea: A Low Trust Society?

Korea: A Low Trust Society?


An interesting article in the Korea Herald recently caught my eye (HT to ROKDrop and William on KBC for posting about it previously). The article featured a lot of mixed themes between trust, lying, legal and cultural points but wading through it does make for an interesting societal discussion. The listed facts and figures can’t really tell the whole story in this situation and while raw numbers have increased, I would present it as evidence of Korea becoming a more litigious society with expanding impersonal ties leading to more accusations.

Where I felt the real meat of this article began with the discussion of trust with outsiders. I especially enjoyed the historical roots explained.

Historical roots

Experts note the lack of a sense of justice among Koreans may be due to their tendency to put personal relations ahead of laws, which is rooted in traditional culture and has been augmented by the turbulent modern history of the nation. They say such attachment to personal ties has hampered the strict application of law and public norms in Korean society. In the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), which was based on Confucian principles, those who accused their parents, superiors and spouses were punished for tainting “fine customs.”

“Koreans tend to lie to maintain personal relationships, which shows the characteristics of Korean society oriented to connections and harmony,” said Mun Yong-rin, professor of education at Seoul National University, in a paper.

A report by the Korea Development Institute indicated Koreans’ tendency of trusting acquaintances and distrusting strangers has become stronger through Japan’s colonial rule, the Korean War and the rapid economic growth that has driven them to unlimited competition.

Mun said Koreans have developed their own survival wisdom based on their historical experience that personal ties and private organizations have been more helpful and protective for them than public authorities.

The low-level trust in Korean society has also been reflected in Koreans’ inclination to easily accept groundless rumors as true and doubt statements or explanations by government officials and experts. For an example, the Seoul government had difficulty getting the public to believe the outcome of the inquiry into the cause of a naval ship sinking in the West Sea in March last year. Even after inviting international experts to join the investigative team, some Koreans persistently raised suspicions over the conclusion that a North Korean torpedo attack sank the vessel.

It would seem that the quick and dirty answer to most any Korean cultural question comes down to Confucianism and in keeping with this there does seem to be two opposite forces at play. While I hate making broad generalizations, from my perspective Korea as a whole does seem to have an unnaturally low level of trust for those outside their circle. On the other hand, the trust for those within is incredibly high. Within families, this trust can even seem forced at times. As the article notes, this can often cause problems with money within the circles as loans tend to be expected and not strongly questioned.

The following chart from the article expresses the two sides of Korean trust well, surveyed against OECD nations:

Where this presents a problem for business and society in general is that operating on the extremes tends to be both difficult and dangerous. Being too risk adverse of making connections to the unknown stifles growth and change. Giving automatic trust leaves openings to get taken advantage of. The key is to find that happy medium, but there are a lot of issues (beyond what has been stated) keeping Korea away from it.

  1. paul gaasenbeek
    August 12, 2011 at 1:18 am

    Years ago there was an article that ranked SK as the worst place for a foreign company to do business in. They are hog tied here by taxes and regulations where as Korean companies apparently can do just about anything. Just look at coffee shops for one simple example. Starbucks has to be closed by 11, are not allowed smoking rooms or patios. Last year they qere forced to take all tables and chairs off the sidewalks. Korean places can clopse late, have smoking rooms and patios. Look at Jangsan. Tom n Toms is open late, has a smoking room and a patio whereas the starbucks on the opposing corner is closed at 11. Which biz is going to win out? The same goes for Outback, TGIF and so on. Heck, even Walmart got out of here. That says it all. People can talk all they want about China but their market is much more open than here. Korea needs Koreans to buy Korean so the money gets recycled. They even devised their own English Test so the money stays in house. TOEIC, IELTS and TOEFL tests the oppostie happens of course. Korea needs investment but with their track record that will be hard to come by-especially if there is another recession.

    • August 16, 2011 at 7:35 am

      Thanks for the comment. There is a delicate balance ans no doubt Korea tends towards more the protectionist side, but there is evidence of open change such as the recent signing of free trade agreements with multiple foreign countries. We’ll have to see whether this changes perceptions along with the actual rules.

  2. August 31, 2011 at 4:18 pm

    I agree 100%

  1. October 16, 2011 at 1:33 am

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