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A Dance between Structure and Agency: Cultural change on the Korean Peninsula


For comparative case studies, North and South Korea provide political and social theorists with the perfect laboratory to control for factors like language, culture and history due to their near identical conditions in terms of these factors at independence. This research examines and discusses the impact of the social structures and constraints on individual agency that resulted in the aftermath of the nearly 80-year-old division of the Korean peninsula on the cultures of the Koreas. First, section two examines theoretical perspectives on the relationship between structure, culture, and agency to frame our discussion and then focuses on theory of cultural change that most pertains to the North and South Korea we see today following nearly 80 years of nation building. Then, section three examines some indicators of state structures such as coercive capacity, national economy, and political freedom to show the structural disparity between North and South Korea. Institutions are the real world embodiments of structure and these statistics are reflections of the capacity of their relevant institutions to constrain and influence agency. Section four highlights some ways that the numbers from section three have influenced agency in both Koreas over time. Then, section five examines how structure and agency influenced changes in culture in South Korea and North Korea. Section six concludes by offering some thoughts on the implications of the findings.

This article contributes to the literature in two respects. First, it engages in a nuanced discussion of agency and structure not by simple dichotomy but by showing the mutual interplay between the two on the Korean peninsula. Second, in terms of structure and agency, it compares North and South Korea according to several indices while providing a comprehensive and deep interpretation of the two Koreas’ social and cultural evolution to non-Korean readers.


North Korea, South Korea, social theory, culture, structure, agency, consumerism, materialism, commodification, poverty



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