Reflecting on Risk

Development and risk are key words that distinguish light from shadow in Korean society today. The signs and experiences of risk, as well as reflections on the inner world and feelings of individuals thrown into a dangerous world, are being revealed through various languages and perspectives. The reason why we cannot dismiss the theoretical, literary, and cultural enthusiasm of risk as a temporary trend is because of the plain reality in which risks of all degrees occur quite frequently in our daily lives at unexpected moments. Another reason is that the discussions on risk, as well as the consequent cultural products, warn of a dangerous reality, at times through plain language, and at times through unintended stimuli.

It was in the 1990s that the theories of Western sociologists such as Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck were introduced to Korea for the first time and began to be discussed in general. As we all know, risk in Western society is like a dark twin that was born alongside modernization. The modern risks spoken of here are the kind that cannot be eradicated by mankind, like poverty and war, but the kind for which rational action is planned and implemented for the approach, management, and subsequent control. Even if we cannot root out risks, we are aware of their potential, and are in the process of making improvement by investing political, economic, technical, and social resources and efforts to prevent risky situations, and thus be able to act with self-assurance.

The postmodern risks of today, however, are different from the previous modern risks in their condition and degree. Nuclear power, and the risks resulting from man’s misuse of the natural world, such as the destruction of the ozone layer, diseases of unknown causes, and mutation changes in the ecosystem, manifest themselves as problems that concern the entire world, and are beyond the prediction, management, and improvement by individual nations. As shown by the U.S. economic crisis in 2008, the speed and scope at which a risk that arises from one society spreads throughout the world is becoming faster and wider. What’s even more terrifying is that through the process of capitalizing on risk, the history of capitalism not only continues but is expanding infinitely. Tremendous wealth and power—material, financial, and symbolic—are created through strategies in which the act of predicting, managing, and controlling risk is industrialized, with an investment of capital.

Korea, which also exists in a system of risk that concerns the world, cannot be free of an environment of risk. With universal problems as well as problems inherent in Korean society, such as the deficiency of management skills, lack of social management capacity, lack of interest and care on the part of the individual members of the society, and the irresponsibility and incapacity of the government, the risks in Korean society—perhaps like the risks of any society—take on a more complex nature than universal risks.

In Korean society today, the word “risk” implies various meanings and is used extensively. In light of theoretical interpretations developed in advanced Western nations, the difficulties and precariousness found in Korean society have been deemed distinct from those of Western nations, and the distinction places Korea into the category of an “underdeveloped risk society.” The act of using the word “risk” in speech is not carried out just to talk about risk, but to discover, discuss, and determine the depth of the phenomenon of risk, and make meaningful changes in the phenomenon. Thus, reflection on risk leads to an active intervention, as opposed to complacency and negligence. In this way, discussions of risk in the areas of theory, literature, art, and culture, calling for awareness and action, have set forth an attitude of defiance and reflection through which we can move forward and go deeper.

The increase in discussions on risk in Korean society, in particular, can be seen as ...