Webs of Power in Korean dramas #Kdrama 101 (Class 5)

Hello. This is a Koran in America. Today, I would like to discuss a core element of all Korean dramas and Korean culture as a whole.

It is the matter of Power with a capital P!

Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
----Lord Acton

Whenever I hear someone referencing this famous quote, I always smile because it a very western philosophical quote. While the idea is true of base human nature, its conceptualization of power is very narrow. Well at least in how most people, who tend to be westerners, use it.

What are Korean dramas really about?

The story of conglomerates and their families
The story of love and marriage.
The story of wives and mother in laws
The story of the law and the people who mold and enforce it

If you list all the main story plots of Korean dramas, they share something in common. They are all about power dynamics and struggles between people albeit in varying degrees.

Power to love!
Power to live!
And Power to just do nothing!

Power plays a key role in the fabric of Korea society and thus it is also key to the stories told in Korean dramas. To a Korean, this is so natural that we can easily miss it. However, many western audiences seem to find it odd.

I have responded many questions regarding whether or not ‘mothers in law’ in Korean dramas act in a certain way…
And, if so, why?
You know what kind of behavior I’m talking about.

The answer is yes but a little exaggerated and the reason is “Power”. They have ‘power’ thus they wield it.

And… when you wield power it is more likely you’ll abuse it.

Westerners, especially Americans, seem to not understand this response very well. Because of the environment in which they were raised, they simply are not as well accustomed to the concept of mundane “Power” as Koreans. This means that they miss one of the key nuances of Korean dramas.

Korean dramas, whether it be about silly romances or political corruption, are fundamentally about navigating the intricate web of power relationships one finds oneself in as a consequence of being born in Korea. In a lot of cases, it is ultimately about one’s failure to get free of that web.

Freedom or power?
America is the most free country in the world!

And I am not talking in terms of “political freedom” which is what Americans usually think when talking about the concept of freedom.  If I was to paraphrase a speech from the TV show “News Room”, many other countries have freedom if you think in terms of “political freedom”. However, it does not mean that other countries have freedom in terms of the relationship between the individual and the society the individual is associated with.

All societies tie individuals in a web of obligations and constraints which are enforced by the aforementioned society through laws and culture/customs. Among the two main instruments of these webs, the web created via culture/custom is the most insidious.

Why is this web insidious?

Unlike laws, the effect of culture/customs is self-sustaining by its association with the game of power all humans, whether they know it or not, play. Culture/customs form a hierarchical web of power relationships which provide all individuals with a certain degree of power over others depending on the individual’s situation in life. For example…

The elderly are given power over the younger people.
Parents have power over their children.
Senior students have power over juniors.

Since these powers are not a result of direct merit but bestowed by the society’s culture/customs, people enforce the culture/customs in order to maintain the power they have whether this act is done consciously or subconsciously. 

America, the Land of the Free
In regard to the U.S., it has been able to detach culture/customs from the power dynamic support structure to a significant degree compared to most other countries on the planet. The nation, the society demands far less of its members then it has ever had before in the long history of mankind.

In other words, an individual has far less obligations and constraints to its society and wonderfully the society still functions because of the huge bureaucracy built in that maintain the society without the mandatory suffering of its members.

This does not mean that people are happy…
Happiness is a different thing.
It means that it is far less psychologically stressed.
Thus, America is the most free country in the world!

The Game of Power
The side effect of this freedom is that “Power” has become an esoteric concept for Americans. For Americans, “Power” is just something negative that pops up in politics or in large corporations. While you see the concept of power come into play in shows such as “House of cards” or “The game of thrones”, it is more of a novel alien thing that one could enjoy from a seat of an objective outsider.

This is not the same for Koreans and Korean dramas.

While the scale of the ‘power games’ maybe, well hopefully, smaller than what you see in “House of cards”, the scope of the power games is much wider in Korean society. The ‘game of power’ is not just played by the nobility and the rich.

Everyone plays it in Korean dramas!
Every single person is mandated to play the game.

A core reason for the Americans’ detachment from the ‘game of power’ is the concept of an inherent equality between individuals. Theoretically, this means that a ‘game of power’ cannot be played on a base nature level because there is no way to win. Everyone has the same level of resources/power to put into the game. Thus, the only way to win is to cheat and unbalance the resource ratio of the game. This is not easy. So, the game is only played by those who can cheat by embedding themselves within larger organizations.

House of cards

And those that play the game are seen to be abnormal people who normal people should be wary of.

The embracement of the concept of an inherent equality between individuals thus makes the ‘game of power’ far more difficult to play on an individual level in the U.S. It is far more convenient to avoid it if one can and people ARE creature of convenience. 

Wielding power is better than submitting… Korea
In contrast, no one is inherent equal in Korea.  Well, legally, it is but not socially. Korea is built on a hierarchical web of power relationships. From birth, you are born into a power relationship and I’m not talking about upper class versus lower classes paradigm although this relationship does play a role. You are born into a divine power relationship with you as a child who submits and your parents as the divine ruler of you.

Like many relationships of this type, this relationship is basically one sided. While the parents’ obligations towards their child are vague, the power they wield is more blatantly supported and enforced by society. In addition, there is no real ideological justification for this power. It is not that there is a qualification for being a parent. It is just automatically given by society in order to self-sustain itself.

The concept of equality is none existent even on the ideological level.

Then, when you have a little sister or brother, you are given power of him or her because you are born a few years earlier. This power is also supported and enforced by society. As you grow, you accumulate more and more power relationships which are more or less permanent. These relationships do not really reverse its one sidedness or dissipate since they are supported by society. For example, the fact that you are the child of you parents does not change. The fact that you are older than your younger brother does not change.

As a side note, this is why, when a relationship changes, it is a very traumatic event. This is actually well documented in Korean dramas.

So, when you reach the age of adulthood, you are in a center of a giant web of one directional power relationships with some you submit to and some you wield power over.

And like all things, submitting is not preferable compared to its alternative.

Korean Society, a collection of Power relationships
This means that social life in Korea consists of a series of attempts to gather more power relationships in which you have the upper hand than not. This is what “Networking” really means in Korean society. And these attempts are supported by society while the one directionality of the relationships is respected. In other words, you have to submit to the relationships you do not have power over. The opposite is left up to the individual’s discretion. 

Now we are closer to the point.

On a structural level, a certain level of abuse of power is accepted and expected by Korean society. Society does not care if you have the maturity to wield the power. Rather, it assumes that you will eventually learn how to wield power as you go. However, humans are not really good at learning lessons and especially bad at learning on the go.

The reality is that you are more likely to learn how to abuse power as you get older and not the opposite.  That requires maturity that which does not have a direct correlation to age. From you earliest power relationship in which you had a power over, you abuse it.

I have memories of abusing my power over my little brother which I regretted as a got older.

And why not abuse your power since everyone does it a little at least and society supports it. There is no real reason for not abusing it. Thus, you get accustomed to abusing power. It does not mean that you get better at wielding power.

Korea vs. U.S. and the people who play the game
In the United States, though power corrupts, the expectation of power paralyzes.
----John Kenneth Galbraith

The question you can ask at this point is what’s the real difference between Korea and the U.S. The answer is that Americans, on average, are far less suited to encounter any significant power relationships like a flower grown in a glass house. Thus, only a limited subset of Americans, who have the natural aptitude for the game, play the game.  The rest are just doing other things on the bench.

There is a social experiment called Stanford prison experiment. According to wikipedia.org,
it is a “study of the psychological effects of becoming a prisoner or prison guard”.

One of the results of this experiment is the abuse of power by the “mock” guards who were men from primarily white middle class backgrounds. If you did this experiment in Korea, the results would be slightly different.

No, it would not be that there was no abuse of power.
It would be that no one would be surprised by the abuse.
Both the mock prisoners and guards…

And, to a degree, they would less chaos since we do have more experience with abusing power.

While Koreans have more experience with power, we do lack the understanding of where and how power is created because power is given to us by society rather than coming from any of our own direct merit. At least in the U.S., getting bullied by an older classmate in high school is the result of the bully actually being either larger, meaner or both.

There is no direct correlation between age and power even though there are some indirect correlations. Thus, you can do something about it as a result. In Korea, there are far few alternatives to alter the power relationship as it is enforced by society. This is the reason for a lot of the subtle and not so subtle resentment towards society that are displayed in Korean dramas.

It is not easy living in a place where there is no other alternative than going against society.

Living in the web and not being able to move could be Hell!
Psychological stress is the key to understanding Korean behavior. This is the reason a lot of the plots in Korean dramas could be solved by decent professional Psychological help. It is also why the Korean audience loves to watch people in Korean dramas suffer, especially antagonists, who desperately need a lot of professional Psychological help. They are the stand-ins for the average Korean stuck in the Korean society.

Our whole society, Korea, is based on the game of balancing power relationships.

Just examine our language.

If you have seen some Korean dramas, you will know that there is a rather striking divide between “polite” language and more “vulgar” forms of language in Korea. Even within this dichotomy, there are varying degrees of “politeness” depending on the power relationship. You, as a member of society, have to constantly process these relationships at a subconscious level.

Just imagine it!
Whenever you meet anyone, you have to think whether this person has power over me or if you do.
Every single minute … on a subconscious level.

This actually reminds me of a nature documentary about moneys or baboons. The details are rather sketchy but the point was that a monkey showing its butt to someone else higher on the clan’s hierarchy was a social etiquette. So, the younger monkey who did not know better ended up showing every animal its butt until it learned better.

These monkeys are Koreans who are constantly examining our surroundings to evaluate the social power relationships around us to know how to act. This is very stressful especially for those who lack of social skills or are introverts. The fact that these relationships do not easily change increases the stress level.

An example of this stress can be seen in how the Korean language is used. Even for myself, it is weird how Koreans, in general and in Korean dramas, are eager to drop the use of “Polite” language.

If you are older, drop the  “Polite” language.
If you are senior at work, drop the  “Polite” language.
If you just want to be friends, drop the  “Polite” language.

It would be just easier to use “Polite” language every time.

This ‘weird’ phenomenon is basically caused by the stress of having to constantly evaluate the power relationships every minute you are with other people.  

Stress and abuse of power
It also does not  help that Koreans are insecure about the power they have. This originates from the fact that we do not earn the power we wield at a base level.

It is not because we are charismatic.
It is not because we are more intelligent.
It is not even because we are more moral.  

While we do pretend to ourselves and others that we have gain power through merit, we know that it is not true at a subconscious level.

It is not surprising that we are insecure.

So, a combination of ‘a life time worth of experience with the abuse of power’, insecurity about the power one has, and the resentment about being helplessness in certain power relationships lead to a mountain of psychological stress.

There is a reason why the Korean diaspora is well established around the world even when the economic situation in Korea has improve drastically over the past few decades.

How does this influence our Korea drama characters?

It is not a leap to say that a mountain of psychological stress does not mix well with the opportunity to abuse power. Can you honestly say that if you were born in Korean as a Korean you would not abuse the little amount of power you have?

Would you not try to control your children?
Would you not be a B***h to your daughter in law?

Not doing so is an intentional decision and a sign of inner maturity which is really a product of self-reflection. This is not easy to achieve.

This is the reason why Korean dramas feel like a gold mind for professional mental health experts. And, to a degree, why it is actually fun to watch Korean dramas.

Watching a train wreck is always interesting in various ways.
Be grateful you’re not on the train.

This was Korean drama 101 Class 5: Webs of Power in Korean dramas

Class 4 : What's up with Historical Kdramas?


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