June 09, 2023

The misfortunes of North Korean virtue

How Northern popular culture inculcates selflessness, humility and other traits that serve defectors poorly

South Koreans are known for being a very ambitious people, ready to make many sacrifices to get their children – or themselves – into the best-quality universities, thus climbing the social ladder.

In this regard they are not dissimilar from their neighbors in the region. Immigrants from East Asia in the U.S., for instance, demonstrate the highest rates of social mobility achieved through education; it is not unusual in the families of Vietnamese immigrants for the first generation to work as janitors and for the second to graduate from top universities like Harvard. Since East Asian immigrants in the United States do not enjoy any special privileges or support programs, it is safe to presume that these results are the consequences of sheer determination. That their strategy of social promotion is constructed around education and knowledge is typical of cultures with Confucian roots.