Reflecting on Risk

  • onNovember 1, 2014
  • Vol.13 Autumn 2011
  • byKim Yeran

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 a result of the emergence of a new administration in 2008 and changes in civil society, along with universal risks. From this perspective, the areas of risk that stand out are those of the generation gap and the environment. When the current administration showed a great desire for development and an opening up of society, the risks latent in the desire were criticized, with an effort to seek alternative values. For example, Hong Sungook reports the risks lying in the system of science and technology that rush forward unbridled, and sociologists such as Jung Chin-sung are rigorously examining the structures of risk and the reality of risky politics in Korea. In addition, conflict between generations, as well as between classes, have created a great sensation as they were incorporated into critical discussions of the “younger generation.” The craze over how-to books on achieving success and self-management, the crisis of universities and youth unemployment, high private education costs and college tuition, lack of enthusiasm for academic and labor activities, competition and individualism—these are some of the major discussions on risk and anxiety in the younger generation. They are important in that they have not only been dealt with as major topics of discussion in the fields of humanities and social sciences in the recent years, but also in that they place importance on youths as agents to overcome social risks and limitations. At the same time, such efforts are developing into a historical approach in tracking the process in which the literary youth, as well as modern young men and women were created in the era of colonization and modernization in Korea.

Concerns and fear regarding the globally changing order of the environment, life, food, and health are becoming more concrete through the reflective work in life science and engineering currently being carried out on a multinational level. In addition, discussions on the democratization of the social distribution order for the prevention of risk, protection from it, as well as the cost and responsibility regarding it, are underway, from the standpoint of civil rights and welfare. The developments of integral approaches in the areas of science and humanities, which allow for an integrated management of a broad spectrum of issues, should also be noted.

The artistic imagination on the risks that exist in society today unfolds at times through the lively language of popular culture. The issues of colonization, war, division, and poverty are still significant as structures of risk deeply rooted in Korean history, and act as key motifs in contemporary literature and art. In addition, familiar but changing themes such as industrialization, urbanization, individualism, multicultural and multiracial groups, human identity and social relationships that are realigned through digital and mobile networks, as well as aging and one-person families, continue to be dealt with in the fields of poetry, novels, movies, plays, and popular culture. Among many remarkable works, “The Host,” can be seen as the most symbolic. The host, a character in the movie by the same title by Bong Joon-ho, a prominent Korean director who co-wrote the screenplay with Baek Chul-hyun, represents the absolute evil in the form of social contradiction and tragedy that accumulated in the process of a compressive modernization of Korea since the war and division. The spirit of cheerfulness, the counterpart to the hideous host, is a welcome entity that can often be encountered in the cultural landscape of risk. Cheerfulness embodies the life and spirit of man who must live in a world of risk.

The word “risk,” while encompassing the fearful contradiction inherent to contemporary society, also implies the critical reflection of it by man. Imagination of risk in today’s society arises not from irresponsibility or deceptive complacency, but from the spirit and courage to face a distorted society, in which the abnormal is normalized.