This article by Dr. Luke Kim is part of a series designed to teach families about Korean culture. For a listing of all the articles in the series, click here.
While jeong makes it possible to enrich our life and environment with nurturing and meaningful personal relations, it does have a dark side with serious side effects. In its pure form, jeong, like love, may expect and demand the reciprocity of loyalty and trust. Therefore, if that royalty is betrayed, it can be as hurtful and destructive as when love is betrayed.
Boundary issues can be problematic. Westerners and westernized Koreans may fear that their personal and private lives could be easily encroached upon, intruded or interfered with by jeong-related people. This can be a source of conflict and tension. We need a balance between privacy and connectedness.
Another dark side of jeong is the risk of developing in-group vs. out-group phenomena. It has the potential of leading people to protect each other within the circle of the in-group and discriminating against outsiders. That was the way they used to survive and protect themselves against invaders in feudal/tribal villages and provinces in the past. Koreans are known for being very kind, helpful, hospitable and compassionate to their affiliates but may be lacking in these attributes toward strangers and outsiders.
Some criticize that Koreans are too survival-oriented and that they are primarily concerned with their family members, kin and friends. Critics say that Koreans are weak in social and community conscience, social justice and public etiquette. Also, regional distrust and biases still exist in Korea. In this regard, Koreans and people from other Asian countries can learn lessons from the experiences of American society in its effort to promote social justice.
A related concern is that jeong relations can cloud one's rational objectivity in the process of decision-making, such as in business transactions and personnel selection, resulting in a potential risk for nepotism and corruption. Mixing jeong relations with official matters in public life has seen problems in Asian countries. As citizens become more sophiscated and enlightened politically with strong public education and respect for law, every effort should be made to stop mixing public matters with private personal relations, especially in the public and political arena.
The in-group versus out-group phenomena have split community organizations and damaged Korean Americans' efforts to organize themselves effectively for political and social causes. That is because organizations are often influenced by personal relations centering around a strong group leader.
Finally, I feel that the unique Korean/Asian concept of jeong can help us understand a new dimension of human emotions and interpersonal relationships, especially among Korean/Asians, that has thus far not been known to Western psychology. Despite some side effects, jeong relations are generally conducive to life affirmation and emotional nurturing. Jeong is a fascinating concept in the Asian traditions that deserves further attention and study.