Chapter 4: Korean perception(s) of pyungdeung (equality)
A frequent refrain heard in the Korean self-description is that it is a society with a 5,000 year history.2 Yet the country has been a constitutional democracy for just over 20 years, when the momentous reforms in 1987 overturned decades of tumultuous authoritarian rule. It is against this backdrop that one commentator (and former member of the Korean National Assembly) noted at the turn of the twenty-first century that terms like ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’ are ‘unfamiliar’ to average Koreans.3 Such an observation presumes that these terms have commonly under- stood meanings in other societies, and also might encourage a comparative study. This chapter attempts to shed light on the Korean setting, with an examination of how Koreans perceive equality and equality rights. Two competing forces shape Korean perceptions of individual legal rights, and indeed virtually every aspect of the contemporary Korean scene. First, Korea is a national society with a long history and deeply-rooted norms that continue to shape contemporary practices. The legally segregated classes of the dynasty centuries might explain the acute status consciousness prevalent in current society. The second force is almost diametrically opposite: in recent years, Korea has undergone a radical social transformation, leading to changes in attitudes which might fuel an angry demand for social equality, and a willingness to assert legal rights in court, over the traditional preference for harmonious conciliation. All of these realities impact on the contemporary views towards equality within Korea. The discussion in this chapter begins with a brief history of Korea’s constitutional development
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