Alternative Futures of Korea: Beyond the Litany (1996)

By Sohail Inayatullah[1]

Final days but hedge your bets

In Papua New Guinea, farmers are refusing to plant numerous crops, convinced that the world will end in two years. In the year 2000, when the world will not end, not only will they face humiliation, they will face starvation.

Lee Jan-Rim, 44, leader of Mission for Coming Days was sentenced to two years for swindling $4.4 million form his followers.  It was one of several sects to predict that the world would end in October, 1992.  Lee, however, had bought large amounts of bonds and maturities that extended beyond the October 28 date which was to mark the end of civilisation.

Either Lee was practicing alternative futures or hedging his bets. 20,000 Koreans were caught up in this doomsday craze. Several killed themselves and others deserted their homes, schools and jobs.

The future matters

The future does matter, we constantly act on our views of the future.

Another obvious example is the world economy, our explicit and implicit belief in progress, in the upward rise of economies leads us to invest in certain ways.  When things do not quite turn out the way we envision, fear results.

While few believe they can predict the future, there is general agreement that

(1)        One can often discern emerging issues or trends;

(2)        One can predict the future by creating it, by colonising it;

(3)        Unless one interrogates the future, unless one decolonises the future, others will control and create it;

(4)        A range of alternative futures, scenarios can be posited, which can (a) bound and reduce uncertainty, (b) provide a distance from the present and thus allow for the creation of a new present.

Future generations

In recent times, the study of the future has undergone a tremendous transformation through the paradigm of future generations studies. Instead of predictive-technical concerns, the approach is one that is focused on the

(1)        Family, particularly the extended family,

(2)        Time is seen as repeatable, as cyclical – taking care of ancestors is thus considered critical seen they have ensured that present generations are alive – the future in this sense is very much past based, and not linear as in conventional Western futures

(3)        As important as ancestors are futurecestors or future generations

(4)        The moral/ethical basis of what the future can or might be like are crucial.

(5)        Moral leadership is seen as central in creating a different future

This type of futures studies I believe will be far closer to the East Asian sensibility. Part of the lack of the growth of thinking about the future has been that it has been located in narrow economistic readings and power based international relations perspectives – ie only state configured futures and scenarios are real, issues of culture, gender, myth are avoided.

But future generations thinking allows us to consider the future of the family, the role of cyclicity in human and social systems, the role of the wise leader, and the role of ethics/morality in creating desired futures.

Research on the future of Korea

The literature on the futures of Korea is surprisingly not immense. Whereas a web search  (through yahoo, hotbot and excite) normally lead to dozens to thousands of findings, entering the phrase “the futures of korea” leads to nothing.

A search in the literature in futures studies leads to similar results.

The type of articles that do appear only use the 21st century as an inspiring signifier or forecast narrow and short term economic trends.

There is a UNESCO report titled Korea 2000 but that too is mostly concerned with immediate trends.

Papers on south korea in general focus on economic trends, pointing to growth in its economy, its rise from underdeveloped nation to industrialised nation, all in one generation, with Japan’s present as South Korea’s likely future.

There exists an implicit view of the future of Korea. It is based on the belief that the following: Unification will occur; Korea will continue to development economically, becoming a fully developed nation in not to distant future.  The key to creating a bright future is hard word, strong family ties, sacrifice for the nation or collectivity and han – both as beauty and as resentment against the other. Finally, there is a belief that the future can be modern without being western – there can be an asian way to progress.

Scenarios of Korea’s Futures

Of peculiar interest is a paper by international relations writer Susmit Kumar[2] – quoting the director of the CIA, Kumar argues for three scenarios for the future of North Korea. (1) Peaceful existence, (2) Explosion and (3) Implosion.

The first scenario is the most hopeful and the dream of South Koreans and possibly many North Koreans. The issues in this scenario that are to be resolved are largely economic. They include the following questions: Will the south be willing to allow economic investment in the north if it became too obviously exploitative of wage differentials?  Can the south live with the enslavement of relatives for 10‑20 years `while living standards approach those in the south’?

In the second scenario, North Korea explodes onto South Korea, leading to a full scale war, the devastation of Seoul, and concluding with the total annihilation of North Korea – its removal from the world geographical map.

In the third implosion scenario, the current crisis expands to the degree where the state breaks down and South Korea takes over. The costs to south korea will be high.  Kumar write that it will not follow the West Germany/East germany model since North Koreans have no knowledge of the outside world, or even other parts of their own country. But while many believe, the costs will be too difficult for the south korean, the Confucian “nature” and idea of extended family will make sacrificing for the long term more bearable.

Keun Lee, professor of Seoul National University writes that unification will have to be a slow process – partial unification (some type of federation), economic integration and then complete unification. He calls this the soft landing scenario. He believes this will take about 15 years or so.[3]

Other shorter editorial pieces point to the changing nature of the Korean political- economy – more transparency, more democracy, less corruption, to mention the more obvious trends, and the problems associated with moving to a more western culture. However, these perspectives, more than say anything about the future, say more about the present.

Indeed, the entire unification discourse is very much about the present.  There is already a growing army of political scientists and government officials trying to deal with the nuts and bolts of unification, however, what is not asked is: what will Koreans from the south do when their distant cousins from Pyongyang appear on their doorstep one morning, unannounced.

World futures

Part of the problem in thinking about “out of the box” scenarios is being overly focused on trends.  I argue that we need to take a grander historical perspectives. We need to take  a step back and (1) locate this speculation within a model of forecasting, and (2) locate korea’s futures within broader world futures.

At the World Futures level, the most important trend or scenario is that of an asian renaissance led partly through the economic miracle but also through the leadership of ecumenical thinkers as Anwar Ibrahim.[4] He and many others take a perspective of critical traditionalism. They imagine an Asian Century but are not committed to modernism, rather they see religious tradition as the centre point for a postmodern non-european world.  They also do not have an emotional gut reaction against the West or indeed, against any particular civilisation as they have not undergone any personal trauma.  They remain committed to creating a new future that is not a simplistic reaction to the West nor do they play identity politics with dogmatic traditionalists/nationalists.

The counter to this scenario is deep social maldevelopment – as in the case of Thailand, leading to an asian schizophrenia.[5] In this scenario, the costs of hyperdevelopment – loss of tradition, move from traditional society to postmodern society – are internalised.  Identity is no longer anchored, there is nothing to hold on to, only inferiority towards the West and towards others. The result is violence towards others and when that is difficult, violence towards the self and weaker societal members, nature, women and children.

Some questions that can be derived from this scenario include the following.  They are offered by Professor Jay Lewis.[6] What are the costs of the antidote offered by excessive narcissistic nationalism?  Does an over emphasis on `Korea first and best’ lead to distortions in relations with other nations?  Can we expect that the Korean identity is already so strong that we need not worry about schizophrenia, but rather, free people to engage with the emerging world cultures and give them creative license to develop new contributions that are not strictly Korean but hybrid, such as we’re seeing already in fashion?  Is that where the future Korean Nobel Prizes are to be found?

A third scenario is based on the rise of China, not just another market player, but the biggest player in human history. Jay Lewis,[7] asks the following. How will Korea’s world view, its security position, its manufacturing (including sources of leading, value-added technologies) and trading strategies change when China is the largest manufacturing and consuming market in the world?  Will Korea (say, reunified) be willing to `offer tribute’ to China?  Will sadae (`serving the greater’ or paying ostensible tribute to a hegemonic power to pacify it and keep it out of your domestic affairs) re-emerge as Korean policy towards China?  What will that mean for Korea’s relationship with the rest of the world?  Will China’s economic hegemony produce a cultural hegemony?  What would that look like and what would be Korea’s role in that hegemony?  Would it be similar to its traditional role of taking Chinese culture and fashioning something even better or at least purer? Where is the Korean identity then?

In contrast, Professor of Urban Planning, Karl Kim argues that the road to peace, to peaceful reform is through China – the north-south border is too militarized and in a cold war vise – through projects such as the Tumen River project. Unfortunately the US needs a militarized North Korea so that it can keep its own military there.

The fourth scenario is perhaps overly influenced by the current crisis – it is the collapse and the transformation of the world capitalist system and a return to more localised economies where growth is more nature based, more local based, more concerned with meeting basic rights – housing, food, identity and less with the dazzle of bigger is better.  This is a localised world at the economic level and a globalized world at the political level – at the level of governance.  Given this possibility, what will happen to Korea Inc. then?

Beyond the litany

While scenarios reveal horizontal space, they do not give us insight into levels of reality. To do so, we need to move outside of the litany of forecasts. My own method is less to forecast the future and more to create spaces within current discourse to open up the future to alternatives.[8]

(1)        Litany – economic trends and in Korea’s case the vision of surpassing Japan as well as unification.

(2)        Social levels – social and cultural development – issues of social cohesion, education, health (diet, alcohol, cigarettes)

(3)        Worldview – will the idea of Korea change – ie how will it redefine itself – also what is the role of confucianism, shamanism, buddhism and christianity.

(4)        Myth and Metaphor. What is the significance of Han and other central metaphors[9] Will `han’ be used as a reactionary concept that might lead to exclusivism and xenophobia just when Koreans need more contact, openness, and interaction?  What are some other metaphors that differently define Korea’s futures.

Another very important point here is to remind ourselves of how an absurd future can quickly become an obvious one (the fall of communism being the obvious overused one) and how a desired future can become a nightmare.  Dator writes in his work on the futures of Korea that since the unification of Germany, Korean unification is seen more fearfully now ie since North Korea is far poorer.

And even more significantly, what is not thought of, is after unification – what then, what will and should be the desired image propelling us forward. To move forward, we need to go deeper, into worldview and myth and metaphor.

Deep transformations

Tae-chang Kim,[10] a leading korean futurist, believe that the most important way to understand the futures of korea is to not focus on the surface level, but at the deep transition Korea and other asian nations are part of – this is the post-postmodern shift.

This includes a questioning of:

1. Westernism (and favoring the non-West)

2. Monism (and favoring an ecology of faiths)

3. Rationalism (and favoring humanism)

4. Centrism (and favoring the peripheries)

5. Logicism (and favoring values)

6. Anthropocentrism (and favoring the environment)

7. Patriarchy (and favoring gender balance and cooperation)

8. Technologism (and favoring human creativity and innovation).

While Kim sees Confucianism as the wave of the future – ie as the vision of the future he favors, he is quick to point out that the treatment of women is its achilles heal. Lewis argues that equally damaging is its conservatism and willingness to sacrifice present and future generations to preserve the past.  A living sage is not nearly as important as a dead one.

In my own work on dramatic trends changing the future, I focus on four epistemic changes.[11] These are (1) changes in reality (with the drivers being advances in virtual reality,  and postmodernism), (2) changes in nature (with the drivers being advances in genetics and poststructural thought critical of essentialism), (3) changes in truth (with the drivers being deep civilizational multiculturalism, feminism, and the discovery of the other) and (4) changes in sovereignty (with the drivers being global capitalism and cultural capitalism).

These interrelated epistemic changes, I believe, are more important than global demographic changes in favor of the Third World; globalism in favor of capital; and environmental destruction created by presentism; the delinking of the financial economy with the real economy; among other megetrends.  The obvious question is how will these trends impact the futures of Korea? What will Korea look like in a postmodern world? Or can Korea leapfrog this end stage of modernity and offer a non-exploitive Confucian/global ethics?  These and other similar questions remain pivotal if we are to gain any understanding the complexity of the future ahead of us.

Macrohistory and macrofutures

Lastly and most importantly, we need to look at the deep waves of the past, the patterns of history.[12]  They can help structure the trends we see creating the future ie the contour what is possible.

(1)        World systems perspectives would see East Asia as the new centre with the new technologies creating the next long wave of growth (through genetic, nano and other technologies)

(2)        Sarkar sees history as the rise and fall of particular ways of knowing – these include the worker, the warrior, the intellectual and the merchant. History moves through each era, and then the cycle ends when there is a worker revolution at the end of the merchant era.  But instead of leading to a classless society, the cycle keeps on moving.  In Korean history, this is evidenced by the ancient era of communal living, when wealth accumulation was difficult.  The ksattriyan era came about with the rise of the first states and their unification in the 7th century when dynamic and authoritarian leadership was the only way to achieve military success. The vipra domnation was from the 7th-19th centuries when unification was not in question. The warrior classes were diaparaged and buddhism and then neo-confucianism were central. In this century, this has led to the merchant worldview which while bringing untold riches have also barbarized the other classes.

Next then for Sarkar is the shudra era, with a return to collective/cooperative     ownership.  Most likely this will come about through a global depression and      linked environmental disastors. In contrast to this historical dynamic, Eisler             focuses on gender and power.

(3)        Eisler sees history as a pendulum of dominatorship and partnership. For her, Asian cultures are now moving out of their dominator mode and entering a world where women and men work in partnership together. There is of course just a nascent movement, but within 50 years, it should be the main wave.

The importance of these perspectives is they give us a much broader brush to imagine and think about the future – they give us new variables and a new shape of the future instead of just the linear arrow of progress.  They give us the cycle and the pendulum.  They also do not reinforce the hierarchy of nations worldview.  For example, part of current Korean future thinking is the goal of surpassing Japan.  However, this reinforces the idea that the future of another country represents one’s own present, either it has to be followed as in development thinking or somehow surpassed, in either case, the future is fixed – nation-centred and without authentic creativity.

Thus in thinking about the future, we need to not only create alternative scenarios in horizontal space but as well vertical scenarios, that move from the litany to the myth level.


Essentially these tools are to help us not just forecast the future but to imagine a different future.

Certainly if Lee Jan-Rim took such an eclectic view of time and the future, he would not be in prison today. He might argue instead that the world will not come to end, even if we are in the final days of the modern world.

What is needed:

Primary research on: images Koreans have of the future; empirical forecasts/expert forecasts of the future; group visioning exercises – empirical and interpretive research on Korea’s futures.


[1].         Sohail Inayatullah is senior research fellow at the Communication Centre, Box 2434, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, 4001. Tel: 617-3864-2192. Fax: 617-3864-1813. Email:  This speech was prepared for the conference, Understanding Korea Society and Culture, Korea Studies Centre, University of Auckland, November 18-19, 1997.

[2].         Susmit Kumar, “North Korea’s Fragile State,” Global Times (July/August, 1987), 27-33.

[3].         Keun Lee, “South and North Economic Integration and New Economic System for the Unified Korea,” in National Development Strategies Toward the 21st Century and Choices for Korea (Seoul, NDI, 1997).

[4].         See Anwar Ibrahim, The Asian Renaissance. Singapore, Time Books, 1997.

[5].         For more on this, see Sohail Inayatullah, “Frames of Reference, The Breakdown of the Self, and the Search for Reintegration” in Eleonora Masini and Yogesh Atal, eds., The Futures of Asian Cultures. Bangkok, Unesco, 1993.

[6].         Email Transmission, October 29, 1997 from Jay Lewis, Oriental Institute, Oxford.

[7].         Email transmission, November, 1, 1997.

[8].         See, Sohail Inayatullah, “Methods and Epistemologies in Futures Studies,” The Knowledge Base of Futures Studies, Vol. 1. Melbourne, Futures Study Centre, 1996, 187-203.

[9].         Han is a difficult term to translate into English as its meaning has not undergone extensive analysis.  Its definition is continuously evolving and the meaning of han remains controversial.  Nevertheless, han has been translated in numerous ways: for example, it has been seen as resentment, lamentation, hatred, and regret.  According to the noted professor of Women’s Studies and Korean Literature, Kim Yong-suk, the fundamental factors that contribute to han can be grouped into five: (1) predominance of men over women and the way of samjong ; (2) inequality of education; (3) emphasis on virtue in women and prohibition of remarriage; (4) concubinage; and (5) the kisaeng system.

Han is more than merely the lack of fulfillment in an unhappy situation.  Han can also bring delight or joy in an unhappy situation.  Han is like an instrument which transcends grief, which comforts oneself.

[10].       Tae-Chang Kim, “Toward a New Theory of Value for the Global Age,” in Tae-Chang Kim and Jim Dator, eds., Creating a New History for Future Generations. Kyoto, Institute for the Integrated Study of Future Generations, 1995, 319-342.

[11].       See, for example, Sohail Inayatullah, “Islamic Responses to Emerging Scientific, Technological and Epistemological Transformations,” Social Epistemologies (Vol. 10, No. 3/4, 1996), 331-349

[12].       See Johan Galtung and Sohail Inayatullah, Macrohistory and Macrohistorians. Westport, Praeger, 1997.