When many people are asked to think of Korea, the first thing that comes to mind is usually some idea of communism, war, or former North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il. Since the end of the Korean War, Americans have always associated both nations in the Korean peninsula with impending violence. While it is natural to remember negative events over positive ones, it is also unfortunate considering the fact that in the twenty-five years since the 1988 Summer Olympics Games, South Korea has become one of the world’s most advanced and economically prevalent countries.
Starting at the end of the Korean War in 1953, South Korea gained independence from the communist North, and with that independence came the freedom to construct a distinct society and culture. During the 1950’s and 60’s, South Korea was still a primarily agricultural country, with the only centers of industry being located in the big cities such as Seoul or Busan. Traditionally, middle-class families during this time produced their own food and may have had one person in the home with a job in the city. As a matter of fact, life in South Korea during the 60’s was very comparable to life in the United States during the 1910’s. However, the newly independent nation took its culture in a very different direction than its war-focused neighbor, and instead chose to work on developing the nation industrially, economically, and technologically.
As the nation quickly adapted to the modern, industrial world, the lifestyles of everyday citizens changed to accommodate it. Many customs that were once held dear to Korean families began to fade away with the quickly modernizing nation. For instance, a long-held idea in Korea was that tattoos were
taboo and only meant for prisoners and gang members. Inevitably, culture changes with time, and as South Korea began to modernize with the rest of the world, tattoos were one of several things that began more acceptable, even common. Another big change seen around the world is music. Back in the seventies, South Korean music consisted of guitars, violins, and only occasional singing. Now, pop music has taken the world by storm, and South Korean artists are becoming more recognized around the world, notably PSY and his hit song “Gangnam Style”, which refers to the wealthy neighborhoods of Seoul. The rapid modernization in Korea can be attributed to a sort of assimilation to Western culture, which was exposed to South Korea in large part due to the 1988 Summer Olympic Games.
Life was changed in South Korea on a variety of levels after Seoul hosted the 1988 Summer Olympics. Despite the fact that South Korea placed fourth with thirty-three medals, it can be argued that they were the biggest winners after the Olympics. Still technically at war with North Korea in 1988, many feared what was actually happening in South Korea despite it being an ally of the United States. The global publicity and immense burst in tourism in Seoul brought forth a new wave of popularity and economic gain to the entire country. In the twenty four years since the 1988 Olympics, South Korea has gone from being a questionable entity to one of the cleanest, most advanced countries on the planet. This change is clear in seeing the transformation of Seoul from a bustling city to a metropolis, or “special city”, in the mere two decades since the Olympics.
Along with the Olympics, technology also contributed to the transformation of South Korea’s image. Not counting Apple, South Korea founded two of the world’s largest manufacturers of cell phones: Samsung and LG. While both companies were founded during World War II, the cell phone revolution during the eighties and nineties allows the two corporations’ to skyrocket, becoming household names in Korea and around the world. Since Korea is a much smaller country than the United States, this dramatic rise in profit had a huge impact on the Korean economy, and today the nation is
among the world leaders in technological manufacturing and distribution. The success of these corporations is so widespread that the stereotypical view of a Korean man is one of a bland, corporate businessman speaking passionately on a smartphone. The shift from agriculture to industry was primarily forced by the growing demands of the world outside of Korea. For a long time, Korea was primitive compared to the world in terms of technology. This was not good for a country that was supposed to play host for the majority of the world’s nations for three weeks. In response to the demands of technology in countries like the United States, Britain, and Japan, Korean businesses focused more on developing technology rather than advancing their already outdated agricultural procedures. The result was an economic boom that launched the South Korean economy, changed daily life for its citizens, and permanently separated South and North Korea without any distinction.
The growing economy predictably allowed for a much higher standard of life for everyday citizens. Twenty years prior to the 1988 Olympics, it wasn’t uncommon for Korean citizens to own livestock or live on a farm. The country’s growth at the late eighties allowed for many of the things we see in Korea today to take shape: such as monorails, electronics, cars, and urbanization in general. Because the United States provided a substantial amount of military protection, South Korea was able to avoid spending much money on it, and was then able to support its bustling industries. Daily life changed for citizens, with more and more children attending public schools and universities, more adults getting corporate jobs in the cities, and the idea of the metropolis spreading to places outside of Seoul. The increased standard of life has also brought something to the country that was unheard of during the sixties and seventies: tourism. For the first time, people willingly went to South Korea for enjoyment, which in turn assimilated more of the Western culture into the South Korean lifestyle, bringing in concepts such as fast food, new sports, and fashion trends.
Much like any other culture, the younger, current generation in South Korea seems rebellious and baffling to the older generations in society. What sets South Korea apart from most cultures is that this is the most drastic culture shock in the country’s history. In a mere fifty years, South Korea went from farmers and homeschooling to corporations and perhaps the most effective education system on Earth, from a land of mountains to the makers of Android phones, and from classic Asian heritage to assimilated nightlife and “Gangnam Style”. The Olympics brought not only a month full of international festivities, but a new era of culture change and modernization in South Korea, and it was certainly a change for the better.
When taken into perspective, the past fifty years has been a time of overwhelming change and progress in nearly all facets of society and culture in South Korea. Despite the fact that the Korean War never officially ended, South Korea has prospered since the cease fire was enacted in large part due to the capital city of Seoul hosting the 1988 Summer Olympics. The Games brought economic, industrial, and ethnic growth to a nation just learning what it means to develop its own culture. So long as war is diverted in the future, South Korea should have no problem maintaining, if not improving, its position on the world power scale, and should continue to develop for the better as the world’s cultures constantly change every day.
“The Emergence of a Modern Society”, U.S. Library of Congress, http://countrystudies.us/south-korea/36.htm
“South Korea’s 1988 Olympic Venues Still Produce Economic Benefit”, Global Times, 8 January 2012, http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/724590.shtml