November 29, 2011

South Korean uniqueness and its rising murder rate

From a bird's-eye-view the Northeast Asian peoples are all remarkably similar, lack of variation being a hallmark of intensive agriculture because taking risks does not pay off, only the same monotonous grind day-in and day-out. So a variety of types playing different strategies will not be maintained as they are in pastoralist or horticulturalist groups, where you can certainly do well by playing it safe, but where taking big risks is also a viable strategy.

Pastoralists can attempt raids for livestock to boost their material wealth, while horticulturalists can try raiding nearby groups for wives, not only boosting their wealth (since women do most food production in gardening societies) but their reproductive output too. Agriculturalists rely on land to settle and plant crops on, and that cannot be gotten so easily through a get rich quick scheme, unlike herd animals or women -- movable things that you can run off with. They also won't bother raiding for women because without more land in the first place, they'll have a hard time producing more food to feed another wife and set of children.

Still, there is variation among the Asians that's worth trying to explain. For example, why are South Koreans more out-and-about, pleasant, and likely to laugh around each other, compared to the Japanese or Chinese? I didn't get a very strong sense of that among the Korean-Americans I've known, but wherever there's a large concentration of foreign students from these three groups, the pattern is hard to miss. This particular set of differences would then seem to be related to something going on in South Korea, not to evolved differences shared between them and the diaspora.

A good idea continues to pay off no matter where or when you apply it. Given how much social change we can explain by whether the violence rate is steadily rising or falling, that's where we should turn first. I could only find data back to 1995, but what do you think the trend in South Korea's homicide rate looks like?

That's an increase of over 120% since 1995, and who knows how long it had been rising before then. China, Taiwan, Japan, and Singapore have all had falling murder rates over this time, and Japan's has been falling since at least the late 1920s. (Data not shown, but from here and here.) South Korea is truly unique among its neighbors in having a steadily rising violence rate.

So its people and culture should be taking a detour toward the kind of society that the West turns into when its murder rate begins rising. Koreans are more out-and-about and fun-loving, like Westerners during the Jazz Age and the New Wave Age. They've begun exporting movies based on revenge and the Culture of Honor (such as Oldboy), just like the vogue for such plays during the Elizabethan-Jacobean violence wave, or the vogue for dueling during the Romantic-Gothic violence wave, or all those vigilante movies from America in the '70s and '80s.

The flipside of a thirst for revenge is the Culture of Hospitality (re-paying kindness with kindness, and starting off kind). I'll write the whole thing up later, but I checked every country's entry in a Wiki for hitch-hiking around the world, and the South Koreans came off as the most hospitable to travelers among the East Asians (for example the people who pick you up might also invite you to rest for the night in their home).

And their religion in recent decades has steered more toward the supernatural, apocalyptic, and proselytizing strains of Christianity (after America, they have the most missionaries), plus the large New Age / cult movement of the Unification Church, still going strong. It's just like the fundamentalist and cult movements that sprung up in the West during the 1900s - 1920s, and then again during the '60s through the '80s.

I don't dig Asian girls, but the prediction from all the rest is that they should have more cool chicks than neighboring countries, like American girls were in the '60s, '70s, and '80s, in contrast to the colder, bossier, and more cocooning girls of the mid-century or the past 20 years. Anyone with yellow fever, chime in.

How do we know it's their rising violence rates and not something else special about them? Like maybe it's due to their cultural clash between them and North Korea -- but then Taiwan should look like them, and they don't. That follows from the murder rate idea, since Taiwan's has been falling like the rest of East Asia. The South Korean pattern fits in with the Western countries that saw rising homicide rates during the '60s through the '80s that were not, however, engaged in a clash of civilizations -- England, Italy, Australia, etc.

So what ties it all together is whether the violence rate is rising or falling. Not too surprising given everything I've written about over the past... two years or however long, but it's nice to have another case study, especially from outside of Western Europe and its off-shoots.


  1. exporting movies based on revenge and the Culture of Honor

    Do you reckon the Japanese revenge and honour stuff like Confessions or all that Beat Takeshi stuff (like Outrage) or Takeshi Miike films is just an aberration or something? That stuff does seem more critically acclaimed outside Japanese, but is produced there. It seems like it goes way back though - the thing with the Ronin, Lady Snowblood, &c, so I don't think it's an imitation stimulated by the West at all.

    Hong Kong tried thrillers with strong revenge and honour subplots are also pretty well known, and there are high quality examples in every era (A Better Tomorrow for example) and to a lesser extent so are kung fu films with the same themes (You killed my master? You must die!).

    South Koreans do make a lot of them, to the point where you do tend to think "Oh, another Korean revenge film huh?". Most of their big films seem to have this element, even something like "The Man From Nowhere" or "The Host" that isn't in really the revenge-thriller genre has characters taking revenge or being motivated by revenge as a major plot point. So I definitely find that part of your idea plausible - that violence in society has enriched their concern with these things.

    But it seems pan-Asian to make more of these than Europe or America relative to the size of their film industry. Asians do seem more nihilistic and brutal about revenge and honour though - Beat Takeshi's stuff is hardly affirmative and positive about the cycle of violence. Koreans seem to be more nihilistic about vengeance and honour as well. Chinese triad films seem relatively more positive about vengeance and honour though, on the other hand.

    On the contrary though, the Balkans-Middle East area doesn't seem to have any noted films about revenge or honor. Or directors from there working in the West. South Asian cinema doesn't seem to "do" the genre either and they have a massive film industry, so if there were a popular desire for it, I'd expect us to see it. Iran has a decent film industry by all counts (another part of them being the most advanced part of the region) but if there were Iranian revenge thrillers, I would've thought I'd have heard about it.

  2. Looks like an increase of over 200% to me.

  3. Koreans, both guys and girls, are much more fun to be around than than golddigging soulless Hongkongers, repressed Japanese, or mainland Chinese grinds (more on my blog).

    Koreans themselves sometimes claim they get these traits from the Mongolians. Koreans are proud to emphasise they're related to Mongolians, but they don't like to say how: Genghis invaded the peninsula and raped all the women (whereas he barely touched southern China, and couldn't get to Japan at all).

    From a bird's-eye-view the Northeast Asian peoples are all remarkably similar, lack of variation being a hallmark of intensive agriculture because taking risks does not pay off

    Koreans at least seem comfortable with a high level of financial risk: they have one of the most actively-traded derivatives markets in the world. Much bigger than Osaka or HK. (Though part of that is because stock borrow is such a pain, so it's hard to short sell.) Index options turnover in particular is enormous.

  4. Koreans have a strong male drinking culture which is famous for causing fights to break out. The men are considered macho and koreans in general are considered to be very emotional. Their treacly and melodramatic soap operas are extremely popular all over Asia.
    I'm suprised you haven't heard of the hall-yu ("korean wave") of pop culture sweeping asia. Especially in music, where the groups emulate (mainstream) western styles with suprising sophistication. Koreans are really into hip-hop, and "girly" dance-music. Some of the R&B-styled singers are suprisingly "authentic" sounding. Ditto some of the "indie" sounding rock groups.
    I was in Seoul about a month ago and its really amazing how lively the street life at night there is. Everywhere is bustling with bars, shops, restaurants. A stark contrast to DC where outside of a few areas, it's a ghost town. I remember thinking, 'this is what a city without NAMs can be like', but according to your theory, it may be a matter of time til the criminals find lots of victims, chasing everyone back into their cocoons.

  5. " South Asian cinema doesn't seem to "do" the genre either"

    lol. Have you ever seen a Bollywood movie ?

    Read the plot for a typical Bollywood movie...

    Note the sheer number of moral quandaries the protagonist encounters.

    Americans mistakenly think of these movies as 'musicals'. Traditionally all Bollywood is a mishmash of love, honor, revenge, crime, comedy, sacrifice etc.

    This is changing a bit with movies coming out that adhere to a particular genre.

  6. Here are some Bollywood trailers.

    Typical Bollywood movie in the throwback style:

    This is a trailer for a comedy:

    Another comedy about a gangster who goes to medschool...

    This is a serious revenge movie...

    But revenge, morality, life, and death are pretty much standard fare in every single Bollywood movie.

    The only exception I can think of is one where the protagonist is a child with a mental disability.

    I am not kidding here, is the trailer for that one.

  7. You often mention that hotness is proportional to a population's exposure to pathogens, and that cultures with a heavy pastoralist element tend to produce better looking people because domesticated herd animals are dirtier.

    One thing about Korean girls is that they're decidedly better-looking than either Japanese or Chinese. Japanese have this island-inbreeding thing going on, while Chinese tend either to have this cute girl-next door look or, if they are beautiful, its the frigid "I am so hot you don't even deserve to look at me unless you're a millionaire" kind of beautiful. Korean girls are better looking and tend to have better attitudes in general.

    And if we look at many prominent Asian actors in the US - especially actors who have broken out of the ethnic niche - a good many of them are Korean. Daniel Dae Kim and Sandra Oh come to mind.

    I'm wondering if this is because Korea, though an agricultural society, often relied on human feces for fertilizer. I don't know how much more toxic this would be than animal feces, but it is a thought.

  8. Have you ever seen a Bollywood movie?

    Nah, never seen one. Getting all my knowledge from the fact that critics seem impressed with the treatment and focus on revenge and honour in East Asian cinema while not seeming-to-give-a-fuck about its treatment in South Asia. Maybe that's more a legacy of South Asian films being considered cheesy parades of song and dance numbers that ripoff other cinema.

    Here are some Bollywood trailers.

    That first one seriously looks like an action-comedy, like a parody of an action film of something. Just the acting and all their reactions. The Memento ripoff looks like a serious film, although really ludicrously overwrought.

    But revenge, morality, life, and death are pretty much standard fare in every single Bollywood movie.

    Interesting. My assumption was that they were more about crazy musical comedy or about romance - marriage and marriageability in particular. Not that they never make things outside those genres, just relatively interested and good at that, but no one really cares about how they treat the other moral issues you mention. Like you say above though, they're traditionally a multi-genre blend without a particular focus -

  9. "Maybe that's more a legacy of South Asian films being considered cheesy parades of song and dance numbers that ripoff other cinema.

    Well to be clear, Bollywood is full of over the top cheesy crap, often blatantly ripped off from other cinema.

    Like Gangsta rap, it caters to an unsophisticated palate.

    I don't fault anyone for avoiding these films, my own familiarity stems from quite literally being born in 'Bollywood'.

    There is an element of self-caricature, and nothing is taken too seriously. But it is accurate to say that the over the top honorific, romantic, and moralistic crap is what their audience seeks.

  10. Hey Agnostic,

    Can you write more stuff on East Asians?

    I've only heard that they are smart, hardworking, family oriented, non-violent, but maybe not super creative. That's it.

    It's interesting to get more perspective on their culture.

  11. I would say its pretty obvious that the Japanese have always been culturally more into revenge, and have the been the most aggressive, creative, and cool of the Asians, but something so obvious that agnostic decided to ignore simply suggests that he wishes to paint a picture, and he will be damned if he is going to let facts get in the way. So paint away.

  12. You got confused, so read the post again. It's explaining changes over time, i.e. why South Koreans have started to export revenge movies, become apocalyptic Christians, and hang out in fun-loving groups in recent decades.

    In that same period, the Japanese have gone the other way, exporting more childish culture, becoming less religious even for East Asians, and hanging out less in rambunctious groups.

  13. You might be favorably surprised to learn how much of this has been said before. I was reminded of this segment in The passing of Korea (1906), by the missionary Homer Hulbert:

    The Japanese are a people of sanguine temperament. They are quick, versatile, idealistic, and their temperamental sprightliness approaches the verge of volatility. This quality stood them in good stead when the opportunity came for them to make the great volte face in 1868. It was a happy leap in the dark. In the very same way the Japanese often embarks upon business enterprises, utterly sanguine of success, but without forecasting what he will do in case of disaster.

    [...] The Chinese, on the other hand, while very superstitious, is comparatively phlegmatic. He sees no rainbows and pursues no ignes fatui. He has none of the martial spirit which impels the Japanese to deeds of patriotic daring. But he is the best business man in the world. He is careful, patient, persevering, and content with small but steady gains.

    [...] The temperament of the Korean lies midway between the two, even as his country lies between Japan and China. This combination of qualities makes the Korean rationally idealistic. [...] And more than this, I would submit that it is the same combination that has made the Anglo-Saxon what he is. He is at once cool-headed and hot-headed. He can reason calmly and act at white heat. It is this welding of two different but not contrary characteristics that makes the power of the Anglo-Saxon peoples.

    [...] In the first place, it is the experience of those who have had to do with the various peoples of the Far East that it is easier to understand the Korean and get close to him than it is to understand either the Japanese or Chinese. He is much more like ourselves. You lose the sense of difference very readily, and forget that he is a Korean and not a member of your own race. This in itself is a strong argument; for it would not be so if there were not some close intellectual, or moral, or temperamental bond of sympathy.

    Much more, including thoughts on of hospitality and violent quarrels, at the link.

  14. The crime rate is interesting.

    Immigration, marriage market pressure and general ethno-cultural collapse might be part of the issue.

    Going off what's on Wikipedia

    The immigrant population has surged from 400K to over a million from 1997-2007. By 2005 over 10% (it looks like around 13%) of marriages were to a foreign spouse.

    The marriage figure is pretty darn striking and suggest that there a marriage "pressures" (dislocations, attitudinal changes, tough market) that have messed up the "traditional program". This sort of stuff usually goes with\comes with social disruption and upheaval.

    Just at a glance it looks like South Korea has somehow fallen into (at least some of) the social stupidity of the west (feminism? female "princessing"? delayed\unavailable marriage?) and is now headed into the multicultural maelstrom and full on national suicide typical of the West.

    It's early ... but it appears they've left Asia and are floating out to sea.

  15. Agnostic:

    According to wikipedia's homicide rate chart ( across the 2000s and the SLOPE function in Excel -

    Top 10 most increasing countries in the 2000s are (in descending order):

    Saint Kitts and Nevis
    Trinidad & Tobago
    Dominican Republic

    Homicide seems down everywhere but the South-Central Americas.

    Top 10 most decreasing countries are (in descending order)

    South Africa

    The European (descent) countries which are rising homicide (although very weakly) are (in descending order):

    New Zealand

    (they're basically flatlined though).

    Iran interestingly has about the same SLOPE as South Korea.


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