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No broken windows in Korea

Apr 06,2019
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Tom Coyner
The author is CEO of Soft Landing Consulting.

How safe is Korean society these days? Everyone who has traveled through East Asia ranks Singapore and Japan as particularly safe countries. But does modern-day Korea get its fair due?

After all, in Japan, even small children often as young as five years old and even younger run errands or commute unaccompanied by an older child or an adult. Having lived over a decade in Japan, including raising two young sons, my wife and I came to rely on Japan’s public safety. But now, after living almost two decades in Seoul, I can say Korea is almost as safe as Japan. Perhaps it is as safe, but Korean parents are not as trusting as their Japanese counterparts.

Perhaps too many parents can recall times when Korea was not so safe. I experienced a wilder Korea in the 1970s. My Korean wife emphatically agrees that Korea is much safer today than the country of her younger years.

I noticed the change when I returned to Korea after some 20 years working in the United States and Japan. I was confused about the changes in currency and handed to a taxi driver what I thought were six 1,000 won ($0.88) bills. In fact, the notes were 10,000 won bills. In many cases, in the past, taxi drivers would likely have taken off with such an unexpected windfall. But this time, the driver waited where I had left him and patiently signaled me to come back, as he waved my money. He gave me the correct change while handing back most of my money. Times had certainly changed.

I recount this story to make a point. Korean economic development has really impacted social behavior from the times prior to the 1970s to modern-day Korea. Korea is no longer poor. Most observers consider this country to be an affluent nation with a prosperity enjoyed by the overwhelming majority of the people.

Today, the common honesty of the average Korean is similar to that of the legendary public behavior of most Japanese — at least on the pedestrian level. Like in Japan, one can often find merchandise unattended displayed in front of many Korean stores. That was certainly not the case of the Korea of the 1970s. Today’s Korean merchants can trust passersby not to steal. I may assume this behavioral change as a result of a shared prosperity.

But if prosperity is what it’s all about, then why is public safety lower and theft higher than in wealthy Western countries?
The obvious difference is the stronger sense of individualism in the West. There is also a stronger insecurity about street-level wealth inequality in most European and North American nations, regardless of the actual circumstances.

The Japanese, and to a lesser extent today’s Koreans, assume that everyone, except for the very wealthy, are middle class — even if that is not true. As such, only the poor are generally expected to shoplift. To be caught stealing from a merchant would be to admit one and one’s family are of the lower class. In other words, a strong social cohesion is at work here, based on pride and shame.

Similar to how neighborhoods with many broken windows tend to be more dangerous than communities without broken windows, communities where merchants display their wares unattended are likely to be much safer than those where merchant need fear theft of unattended merchandise.

Ironically, these Asian, socially-cohesive societies enable their members to safely behave more independently on the street level than more individual-centered nations where open theft and public safety are of greater concern. The West can still boast of greater social, political and intellectual freedom. But, when it comes to safety, based on respect for one’s family and the other person, some Asian countries make the West look rather shabby in comparison.

Another explanation for all of this is that very coherent societies are better in believing in shared myths than in what we witness in more pluralistic societies. In Korea and Japan, one very noticeable myth is that most of society belongs to an undefined middle class. Should the individual come across evidence that he or she may not actually be of or slipping from the middle class, that person is likely to hide the fact and put on pretenses.

The West, too, has its myths about the commonality of freedom, democracy, fairness under the law, etc. But unlike in Asia, these shared principles or myths are daily and openly questioned by the citizens. While this civic skepticism may be healthy for the long term, the cynicism generated by this questioning often causes a lack of community trust. The West’s lack of assumed trust compared to that found in Japan and Korea creates Western societies, particularly in urban areas, to be inherently less safe and less trustworthy.

The bottom line may be that while no place is perfect, often some societies, such as Korea, continue to improve — albeit inadequately acknowledged for their small but many constant, ongoing achievements. In other words, there is a great deal to be said for non-Koreans making Korea one’s home.