Yongo (South Korea)

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Yongo
Location: South Korea
SouthKorea map.png
Author: Sven Horak
Affiliation: The Peter J. Tobin College of Business, St John's University, New York

Original Text: Sven Horak, The Peter J. Tobin College of Business, St. John’s University, New York

Yongo (연고) describes personal or network ties in South Korea resulting from affiliation to an informally organised group. It derives its main cohesive power from strong particularistic ties, based on kin, educational institution (school/university), and region (Horak 2014: 87)[1]. In common with yonjul (see entry on inmaek in this volume), the syllable yon means ‘tie’. The syllable go infers that the bond exists for a certain reason, which is usually a mutual personal background that is regarded as the basis for yongo ties.

There are three traditional ties which are the foundations upon which yongo is established: firstly, kinship and blood ties (hyulyon, 혈연), including ties to extended family members; secondly, ties to people from the same region or hometown (jiyon, 지연); and thirdly attendance of the same educational institution – high school, college or university ¬– which represents hakyon (학연). With regard to the latter, co-attendance is not a mandatory precondition for the development of a yongo tie: even if individuals attended the educational institution decades apart they share hakyon. These three forms of tie, either separately or in combination, represent bonds that last for life. Yongo is to a great extent preset and thus it is scarcely possible for outsiders to establish yongo ties. Two of the three ties – family (hyulyon) and region (jiyon) – are predetermined by birth, i.e. ascribed (Lew 2013; Yee 2000, 2015)[2][3][4], and therefore cannot be influenced by the individual. The educational institution is the only affiliation that can be chosen, which explains its particular importance for social mobility and status. However, the importance of alma mater (hakyon) is a feature of modernity and has only recently gained importance relative to high school ties, which are associated with family and region. In earlier times, people used to attend high school in the region in which they were born; hence hakyon based on high school ties was strongly predefined. Today, high school graduates are more inclined to choose a university away from their hometown. Such geographical and social mobility is a fairly recent phenomenon. Moreover it has to be mentioned that hyulyon can be acquired through marriage and jiyon through moving from one place to another. However, how strong or influential these ties are when quasi-voluntarily acquired remains an empirical questions for future research endeavours.

Lines of social demarcation were observed as early as the Choeson period (c. 1392–1910), in which the aristocratic rulers (the Yangban class), ‘grouped itself into mutually exclusive factions and clans that engaged in fierce rivalry. The fragmentation of the Yangban society along the line of scholarly association, kinship and region gave rise to purges and factional strife’ (Sik 2005: 84)[5]. These three camps separating communities from each other are the bases that define yongo and are still found today.

As yongo is predominantly ascribed, it is cause-based, immutable and irreversible (Horak, 2016)[6]. Yongo networks are rather closed and exclusive. Although they can be (and frequently are) instrumentalised, in principle having yongo does not imply pursuing any purpose. Yongo is often a determinant in distinguishing between in- and out-groups. When people share yongo, proactive cooperation, flexibility, mutual understanding, tolerance, loyalty and trust prevail. In contrast, relationships with people who belong to a different yongo camp are rather oppositional, not considered worthy of care or dismissive. Y.-H. Kim notes that ‘outside the boundary… people are treated as “non-persons” and there can be discrimination and even hostility’ (Kim 2000: 179)[7].

The influence of yongo can be observed in contemporary politics and the business world in Korea. For instance, family ties (hyulyon), which represent one of the traditional pillars of yongo, include extended family members, meaning that the networks can be extensive. Although the large Korean business conglomerates (Chaebols) are fiercely competitive, they are, surprisingly, inter-connected by family matrimonial ties. According to Kim (2007)[8], inter-family marriage is an important mechanism for establishing social ties and interdependencies among leading families. Indeed, 23 of the 30 largest Korean corporations are connected to each other through inter-marriage ties. Marriage ties are said to reinforce financial standing and strengthen the political status quo. Co-option can be assumed to be the main mechanism for aligning interests in an efficient and effective way.

Ties based on jiyon (regional origin) are widespread in politics (Horak 2015a; Y. T. Kim 2007)[9][10]. Voting is strongly influenced by the regional origin of the candidate. Shim et al. (2008: 85)[11] point out that, ‘many Koreans will vote for a political candidate, even if the person is less qualified, just because he or she attended the same school or came from the same region of the country.’ Between 1948 and 2013, Korea had ten presidents, five of which were born in the same region, the Kyungsang province in south-eastern Korea. Furthermore, approximately one-third of industry leaders, executives and government ministers were born in the same region (Y.T. Kim 2007)[12] (Table1).

Regional backgrounds of big business founders, business executives and government ministers (1991/95 percent)
Seoul Kyonggi Kyungsang Cholla Chungchong Kangwon Others Total number
Big business founders 7 9 32 11 10 3 28 92 (100)
Business executives 34 7 32 6 10 4 6 96 (100)
Government ministers 16 4 32 16 23 2 7 60 (100)

Source: Kim (2007: 31)[13], *rounded

Increasingly, alumni ties (hakyon) are regarded as the most influential form of yongo ties. Possessing a degree from a prestigious, elite university with a large alumni base can potentially provide access to influential decision makers and hence can provide high-quality yongo ties that are useful in business or career development (Horak 2015b)[14]. The possibility of being recruited by a top firm is greater than for graduates of other universities (Lee and Brinton 1996)[15]. Although Korea has 370 institutions of higher education (QS 2015)[16], the elite universities are concentrated geographically in Seoul, Korea’s capital. Of these, three universities are considered the most prestigious: Seoul National University (SNU), Korea University and Yonsei University (commonly referred to as the SKY universities), with SNU being the most favoured. A disproportionately high number of Korean leaders of business and politics graduated from SNU as did approximately 50 per cent of government ministers and senior officials. Moreover, approximately 30 per cent of business leaders, as well as members of the national assembly, belong to the large base of SNU alumni (Table 2).

Alma mater of the big business executives and government officials (1991/96 percent)
Executive Minister Senior official National Assembly member
Seoul National University 37 53 54 32
Korea University 9 7 13 10
Yonsei University 11 - 7 3
Military Academy 1 10 - 3
Total 100

Source: Kim (2007: 31)[17], *rounded

It is hard to say whether the influence of yongo may persist or decline in the future. Current theoretical debates assume that the more a country advances economically and the more formal institutions stabilise (i.e. reliable courts and enforceable legislation), the less people feel the need to rely on informal relationships (Peng et al. 2008)[18]. The case of South Korea can contribute to this debate. Today South Korea is an advanced industrialised country, an established democracy which possesses stable formal institutions. Not only have informal networks such as yongo not disappeared (Horak, 2014; Kim, 2000; Lew, 2013; Yee, 2015, 2000)[19][20][21][22][23], but their use may have intensified as the personal cost of a free market economy increases individual competition for jobs and careers. Yongo is said to provide a reliable base for actors to be ahead of the competition in the society. Renshaw shows that employees in Korea today believe that the ‘only way to succeed in this kind of society is through family, school or hometown cronies’ (Renshaw, 2011: 95)[24] – in other words through yongo ties. Horak and Klein (2015)[25] provide empirical evidence that yongo is still actively used in South Korea today. Yongo has thus persisted even in modern times and appears unlikely to decline, though its precise form may change as it continues to transform and adjust to modernity.

Notes

  1. Horak, S. 2014. 'Antecedents and characteristics of informal relation-based networks in Korea: Yongo , Yonjul and Inmaek', Asia Pacific Business Review, 20(1): 78–108.
  2. Lew, S.-C. 2013. The Korean Economic Development Path - Confucian Tradition, Affective Network. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  3. Yee, J. 2000. 'The Social Networks of Koreans', Korea Journal, 40(1): 325–52.
  4. Yee, J. 2015. 'Social Capital in Korea: Relational Capital, Trust, and Transparency', International Journal of Japanese Sociology, 24(1): 30–47.
  5. Sik, S. H. 2005. A Brief History of Korea. The Spirit of Korean Cultural Roots. Seoul: Ewha Womens University Press.
  6. Horak, S., 2016. Join in or opt out? A normative-ethical analysis of affective ties and networks in South Korea. Journal of Business Ethics, (forthcoming). doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10551-016-3125-7.
  7. Kim, Y.-H. 2000. 'Emergence of the Network Society: Trends, New Challenges, and an Implication for Network Capitalism', Korea Journal, 40(3): 161–84.
  8. Kim, Y. T. 2007. 'Korean Elites: Social Networks and Power', Journal of Contemporary Asia, 37(1): 19–37.
  9. Horak, S. 2015a. 'The Multi-Dimensional Influence of Informal Social Networks in Korea – Propositions for Future Management Research', Journal of General Management, 40(2): 47–65.
  10. Kim, Y. T. 2007. 'Korean Elites: Social Networks and Power', Journal of Contemporary Asia, 37(1): 19–37.
  11. Shim, T. Y., Kim, M.-S. and Martin, J. 2008. Changing Korea - Understanding Culture and Communication. New York: Peter Lang.
  12. Kim, Y. T. 2007. 'Korean Elites: Social Networks and Power', Journal of Contemporary Asia, 37(1): 19–37.
  13. Kim, Y. T. 2007. 'Korean Elites: Social Networks and Power', Journal of Contemporary Asia, 37(1): 19–37.
  14. Horak, S. 2015b. 'The Informal Dimension of Human Resource Management in Korea: Yongo , Recruiting Practices and Career Progression', The International Journal of Human Resource Management, (forthcoming). doi:10.1080/09585192.2015.1089062.
  15. Lee, S. and Brinton, M. C. 1996. 'Elite Education and Social Capital: The Case of South Korea', Sociology of Education, 69(3): 177–92.
  16. QS 2015. Country Guides - Study in South Korea. http://www.topuniversities.com/where-to-study/asia/south-korea/guide
  17. Kim, Y. T. 2007. 'Korean Elites: Social Networks and Power', Journal of Contemporary Asia, 37(1): 19–37.
  18. Peng, M.W.; Wang, D.Y.L. and Jiang, Y. 2008. ‘An institution-based view of international business strategy: a focus on emerging economies’, Journal of International Business Studies 39(5): 920–936.
  19. Horak, S. 2014. 'Antecedents and characteristics of informal relation-based networks in Korea: Yongo , Yonjul and Inmaek', Asia Pacific Business Review, 20(1): 78–108.
  20. Kim, Y.-H. 2000. 'Emergence of the Network Society: Trends, New Challenges, and an Implication for Network Capitalism', Korea Journal, 40(3): 161–84.
  21. Lew, S.-C. 2013. The Korean Economic Development Path - Confucian Tradition, Affective Network. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  22. Yee, J. 2015. 'Social Capital in Korea: Relational Capital, Trust, and Transparency', International Journal of Japanese Sociology, 24(1): 30–47.
  23. Yee, J. 2000. 'The Social Networks of Koreans', Korea Journal, 40(1): 325–52.
  24. Renshaw, J.R. 2011. ‘Korean Women Managers and Corporate Culture: Challenging Tradition, Choosing Empowerment, Creating Change’, Oxon: Routledge.
  25. Horak, S. & Klein, A. 2015. ‘Persistence of informal social networks in East Asia: Evidence from South Korea’, Asia Pacific Journal of Management, forthcoming, DOI: 10.1007/s10490-015-9416-1.