SEOUL — Chung Hae Son, a 59-year-old manager at a distribution company, sees evidence of South Korea's lost Confucian values every time he walks out his door. Junior associates address him with familiar rather than honorific language. Teenagers laze in the subway without offering their seats to senior citizens. Youngsters approach him for a light while he's smoking with his fiftysomething friends, a breach of hierarchy.
"They do things that would be unthinkable in my day," he says. "I'm afraid our society is really deteriorating."
A recent poll by UNICEF suggests that Chung isn't the only one seeing a generation gap. Among 17 Asian nations and territories surveyed, young Koreans were found to hold the least respect for their elders, in a country where honoring one's seniors is supposed to be a cultural cornerstone.
The results have sent politicians and the media into hand-wringing mode. "Holy Confucius! Korean Youths Ranked Last" blares one headline. "Filial Piety Not an Outdated Virtue," trumpets another, on an editorial bemoaning the loss of respect.
In response, some critics immediately discounted the findings on the grounds that UNICEF's primary expertise is with younger children. Others disputed the phrasing of the question--it read, "Do you respect your elders?"--arguing that respect in Korea has layers of meaning not captured in the poll.
Complaints about young people not listening, wearing funny clothes and acting like they're from another planet have echoed on every continent for eons. What's more, many American parents would probably love to have the disrespect problems South Korean parents complain about. The country is relatively free of crime, delinquency, youth violence and the widespread drug abuse seen in many Western societies.
Everything is relative, however, and for older Koreans accustomed to a strict hierarchy and great social cohesion, the slide is sharp, fast and very worrisome.
As policymakers debate the causes, everyone is pointing fingers. Teachers blame parents, parents blame the media, sociologists blame the Internet, the government blames Westernization. They all blame bad role models.
"Korea's value system is going through a very chaotic transition," says Maeng Hyong Kyu, national assemblyman with the opposition Grand National Party.
In a remote village in the Chiri Mountains that span the southern part of the Korean peninsula, Principal Kim Pong Gon dresses each day in traditional Korean hanbok robe and gat hat in a quixotic bid to fight the destructive influences of 21st century life.
His school, the Mong Yang Dang Cultivating House, teaches traditional Confucian values to its 15 live-in students, who rise at 6 a.m. to study manners, Chinese script, Confucian precepts, respect for nature and traditional music.
Kim is often chided as an anachronism, the tutorial equivalent of a wagon-wheel maker. But he says Korea's ancient values are as pertinent today as they've ever been, a bulwark against a world obsessed with material gain.
Mainstream education has become an Indy 500 race for wealth and status, Kim says. "Today's young people are subject to waves of information without a proper moral foundation. They're building houses on sand."
Some young people, however, believe that the whole issue has been blown out of proportion. "Actually, I think younger people have a lot of respect for their parents," says Lee Seung Hyong, a 23-year-old college student.
Others say that what older Koreans view as disrespectful is really just a different way of doing things.
"I don't respect or disrespect elderly people," says Chung Hae Shik, 26, who works at an industrial company as part of his military service. "It's like we're speaking different languages. They're simply out of touch with today's world."
Scholars and social observers try to strike a more philosophical chord. Korea is in the middle of a wrenching transition, they say, rocked in a few years by rapid economic success, economic failure, dictatorship, incipient democracy, detente with North Korea and the quick spread of the Internet. The speed and depth of change are bound to widen the distance between generations.
"Korea has endured as much in the past 30 years as it did in the previous 1,000," says Lee Bu Young, vice president of the Grand National Party. "People have lost a lot, and many long for an idealized past."
Many predict that values long associated with traditional Korean Confucianism will disappear, including extended families, long-standing graveside rituals, village elder culture, inheritance through firstborn males and highly formal, honorific language. But others will probably remain, including compassion, basic rules of behavior and a sense of humanity essential to live in any society, they say.