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Korean Families in Crisis

New America Media, News Analysis, Peter Schurmann Posted: Jul 16, 2008

Editor's Note: In Korea, the Confucian concept of the family being both the model and the foundation of the nation is getting weaker, and lip service is being paid to family values, writes NAM writer Peter Schurmann, currently living in South Korea with his family. He blogs at Korea Dispatch.

SEOUL A close friend (who shall remain anonymous) called recently, needing someone to talk to. I could hear her sobbing over the phone as she spoke to my wife, explaining that shed run up her credit card bills and was now forced into declaring bankruptcy, a move that would spell disaster for her entire family.

While her circumstances are unique, the theme seems all too common here in Korea: another broken family.

She said bankruptcy would mean the loss of her mothers house, which is under her name. Whats worse, her sister lives there with her two sons, in virtual hiding from an abusive (and deranged) husband. In addition, to protect her own familys apartment from being foreclosed, she has decided to divorce her own husband, who owns the apartment.

At 44, Mi Young (not her real name) has been in a wheelchair all of her life. She was struck with polio as an infant and has not walked since. Nevertheless, while in her 20s she met a slightly older man who was afflicted with the same condition. They fell in love, got married and have managed to raise two beautiful kids in a society not necessarily kind to the handicapped.

She once told me that when she was younger, there were things she wanted to do, like learn to drive, have kids and raise a family. She smiled as she said this, sitting behind the wheel, maneuvering the brakes and gas with specially designed levers, on her way to pick her kids up from school.

Whenever I get down on Korea, I think of them. They are the warmest and most graceful people I have ever met, and they dont deserve this. But there it is, another torn family.

The longer Im in Korea, the more shocked I am at the state of Korean families. Im no moralist. Im not opposed to divorce, and Ive also met plenty of normal families in Korea. But still, its shocking to see what is happening here.

I live on the outskirts of Seoul, on a small tree-lined street of residential houses, under the shadow of a lush, rolling mountain. Most of the residents are elderly, and have been here for decades. Many live with their grandchildren, left behind by divorced parents hoping to start anew.

Hyerin is a cheerful eight-year-old who lives up the street. She often comes knocking to play with our young son. Shes like a big sister to him. She recently told my wife that shed found her dad, who lives in South Africa and is coming to get her, after years of separation. She said she didnt know where her mother was, and hadnt seen her in years.

Below us is a young 10-year-old girl who lives with her grandparents. Her father comes by once every so often, though Ive never seen the mother. Her cousins, whose parents are also divorced, come by on the weekends.

A friend came to visit not long ago. I told him about the kids on the street, not realizing until later that he too was recently divorced and struggling over visiting rights. Trying to put a bright spin on it, I said it must be nice to have a little independence. He frowned and changed the subject.

For families that arent divorced, relations are usually so distant that they are nearly non-existent. Fathers work endlessly and then drink until the wee-hours; children are pushed relentlessly to study. They leave in the morning and dont come home until well into the night, only to turn on the computer or text message their friends.

At the extreme end are whats known as goose fathers: men who have sent their wives and children to live in another country, often to learn English, while they remain alone in Korea.

On a hike up a local mountain recently, I met a young man on his bike. He said hed lived in the United States, in Seattle, and that his wife and son were still there. Theyve been there five years now. Another father told me that his wife and daughter live in the Philippines, and that he sees them at most twice a year. He said of late hes been regretting his decision.

I have heard several theories on why this is happening. An article that appeared in the New York Times Sunday Magazine highlighted Koreas low birth rate one of the lowest in the world and another offshoot of the crisis Korean families are undergoing. It pointed to the fact that birth rates are in decline in countries like Korea, where men are often non-existent in the home and women are still seen as inferior.

A former college advisor who majored in Korean studies shared a conversation shed had with a Korean colleague. The man, a professor of Korean history, said that traditionally Korean men have been seen as the providers of the family, but that there is often little emotional attachment. While this may sound good as an academic theory, one look at the divorced fathers faces Ive met shows just how much emotion is involved.

Koreas recent history no doubt has helped to further erode the family structure. Colonialism and war, followed by military rule and a desperate struggle to lift the country out of poverty, a fledgling democracy in the 80s and then an influx of new wealth, a burgeoning middle class and a flood of media and technology, are all tearing at the seams of Koreas traditional roots.

According to Confucius, the family is both the model and the foundation of the nation, its structure thought to mirror the relationship between heaven, the ruler and its people. Confucianism's twin pillars are family and education. In Korea, while the latter is in full throttle, the former is in serious decline.

The family has been the core of tradition here for millennia. And yet today, while lip service is still paid to family values, the reality appears quite different.

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