In Korea, the specter called “guilt by association” is rampant. Recently, a member of the presidential transition committee resigned from his post. As usual, newspapers immediately jumped to all sorts of conclusions, assuming that he must have had some fatal flaws in his career which did not pass the government’s background check. The reporters conjectured that a possible reason for his abrupt resignation was because his wife’s family is ridiculously wealthy. Some other ungrounded guesses included the possibility that his son has a dual citizenship and thus perhaps evaded his military duty.
No one knows the true reason for his abrupt resignation. However, what is more worrisome is the nature of the various speculations in the media. The newspapers seem to imply that if your in-laws are wealthy, you are also wealthy and therefore guilty, for being rich is apparently a sin. The newspapers also seem to presume that if a son is guilty of some crime his father is guilty as well. Foreigners may be baffled by this weird Korean convention called “guilt by association.” In many other countries, you have nothing to do with your relatives’ wealth. Furthermore, as long as you have accumulated your wealth rightfully, you should not be shunned for being rich. Foreigners may also find it perplexing that a father should be blamed or held responsible for the alleged mistakes of his adult son.
Unfortunately, we have a long history of practicing the unwritten rule of “guilt by association.” During the right-wing military dictatorship, for example, a considerable number of people whose family members or relatives left to North Korea, or cooperated with North Korean troops during the Korean War were persecuted due to the notorious practice of “guilt by association.” When the leftists seized political power in later years, they did exactly the same thing to those of the rightwing. This time, they began persecuting the descendants of the allegedly pro-Japanese people who had long ago passed away. Alas! “Guilt by association” is a fateful legacy that has plagued Korean society for a long time.
Deplorably, this undesirable legacy continues. Our newspaper columnists are constantly reminding us that President-elect Park Geun-hye is the daughter of former President Park Chung-hee. They write that she has to carry the burden of her father’s karma as long as she is in office. At the last election, the opposition party argued that President-elect Park was responsible for her father’s dictatorship, so she was not an appropriate person for national leadership. Some people did not vote for her simply because she is the daughter of President Park Chung-hee whom they did not like. Those people would be mortally offended if their own children were blamed for their past mistakes. Yet they do not seem to hesitate to apply the practice of “guilt by association” on others.
In Korea, one’s associations and connections seem to be more important than one’s own ability and individuality. Indeed, we frequently say, “Ah, he is a son of so-and-so” and treat him favorably, regardless of his own capability and integrity. When we select a winner in a competition, we sometimes throw out an application without fair consideration, simply because the applicant is the son or daughter of our political foe. Or we select an applicant simply because he or she is one of ours ― from the same school, same hometown, or same clan. It would not be an exaggeration to say survival in Korea depends on one’s connections and relationships. It is no wonder there are numerous associations, societies, and clubs in Korean society.
It is interesting to compare the connotation of the term “relationship” in Korean with that of other countries. In the United States, for example, the term “relationship” primarily refers to the relationship between a man and a woman. In Korea, however, “relationship” is often used in a broader sense, encompassing all relationships between people, as well as the terms “social skills” or “sociability.”
Unlike Americans, Koreans seldom use the term “relationship” when they describe a couple. The Korean expression, “married-couple relationship” usually refers to sexual activities. In English, simply using the word “relationship” often implies romance. A Korean once wrote to an American female colleague: “This may be the beginning of a meaningful relationship.” He had simply meant that they could establish a good working partnership, helping each other with their projects in the future. But the American woman misunderstood him and shunned him immediately. Since the other party was a young woman, he should have used the words, “good partnership” or even “friendship,” instead of “meaningful relationship.”
In Korean society, you are frequently judged by your associations, and not by your own individuality. Sometimes, you are blessed by association. But other times, you can be guilty by association. We now must put an end to the chronic phenomenon of “guilt by association.” We must accept and perceive people as individuals, not simply as part of their parents’ legacy or clan. We must stop practicing such an undesirable social convention and value people’s individuality.
By Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor of English at Seoul National University and president of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. ― Ed.