Developing Psychoanalysis in Korea


Tak Yoo Hong, M.D.

(President of the Korean Psychoanalytic Study Group)


On May 6, 1980, the birthday of Freud, six psychiatrists including Doo-Young Cho gathered to organize a psychoanalytic study group called the Seoul Psychoanalytic Study Group. It was the first psychoanalytic thinking group in Korea. They held bi-weekly meetings for psychoanalytic study on Wednesday evenings to commemorate the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society whose members had meetings in Freud’s apartment every Wednesday evening.

For three decades, the Korean group has held psychoanalytic study sessions on a regular basis, and invited about 60 foreign analysts. The experience of learning the theory and practice of psychoanalysis from the world-famous psychoanalysts has been stimulating to young psychiatrists. They learned that psychoanalysis is effective, and became familiar with the need for psychoanalytic training. At the time, Korea didn’t have a single certified analyst.

In 1988, Do-Un Jeong was accepted as the first Korean student of the San Diego Psychoanalytic Society and Institute (SDPSI). Since then, a number of Koreans were trained at the SDPSI. Korean students also had training in other institutes in Cleveland, New York, Toronto, and Seattle. Training experience in a variety of institutes helped Koreans absorb diversified viewpoints of contemporary psychoanalysis.

In 1985, Korea attended the Congress of the IPA for the first time. The IPA officially recognized the Korean group as the first Guest Study Group of the IPA in Buenos Aires in 1991. In 2004, Do-Un Jeong and Tak Yoo Hong became IPA direct members as the first two analysts working in Korea. In 2008, the IPA approved the Korean Psychoanalytic Study Group (KPSG) and the Allied Center. In July 2008, the IPA organized the Korea Sponsoring Committee and decided to visit Korea twice a year, to help the KPSG. Finally in September 2009, the KPSG established its psychoanalytic training program with 5 IPA-recognized analysts who were partly or fully trained in the United States.

At the moment, there are 15 IPA-recognized analysts in the KPSG. Six out of them graduated from the training program of the nation’s own. There are 21 candidates in three groups. In the near future, we are going to apply for the status of a provisional society of the IPA. In addition to the study group, we have almost 200 members in the Allied Center and another 230 who completed the psychotherapy course. The KPSG and Allied Center coexist in firm cooperative relationship within the integral body of the Korean Association of Psychoanalysis (KAPA).

Since the Advanced Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Course (2-year-course) was established in 2000, the number of young psychiatrists who are interested in psychotherapy is on the rise every year despite the huge proportion of biology-oriented psychiatrists in the nation as in other countries. In recent two years, the number of applicants stood at 25 and 34, which represents 15 % and 20% of psychiatry graduates a year. The Korean group is hosting the symposium on psychoanalysis, workshops and psychiatry residency training programs every year. Each program is participated by almost 200 psychiatric specialists and residents.

University hospitals played a pivotal and significant role in the development of Korean psychoanalysis. A large number of the Korean group members are professors at universities. They gave psychoanalytic training at those hospitals and encouraged residents there to conduct psychotherapy and to attend psychoanalytic seminars. Psychotherapeutic competence is tested in the psychiatric specialist examination. Under these circumstances, Korean residents’ interest in psychoanalysis grew naturally. Their interest is the key driver and source of the growth and development of the Korean group. The Korean group is making strenuous efforts to provide residents with proper and robust psychodynamic programs in the age of biological dominance.

The general public in Korea, however, still remains unfamiliar with psychoanalytic therapy. The nation’s health insurance system, which is characterized by a government-led cookie-cutter approach does not fully cover psychoanalysis or psychoanalytic therapy. Instead of psychoanalytic therapy, which does not give sufficient compensation, most psychiatrists are focusing on medication. With time, however, awareness of the limitation of medication and the rise in emotional problems is increasing and the number of patients who are willing to pay for their own treatment is rising, too.

In Korea, traditional values promote subordination of individuality to interests of the group as a whole, perseverance and self-learning. Patients often develop somatization symptoms, rather than expressing their feelings and tend to project their own issues into external reality. They feel inclined to sacrifice self for harmonious relationships with others and withdraw from inner conflict. Koreans who value self-learning feel awkward about revealing themselves to others.

Since 1960, Korea achieved remarkable economic growth in a short period of time. Living in a rapidly changing society, Koreans expect therapy to be fast-acting, too. Some patients became frustrated about psychoanalysis and dropped out of treatment prematurely as they expected dramatic improvement, which is totally different from the outcome of other therapy. Psychoanalysis, which takes long to gain insight, does not deliver immediate therapeutic outcome to patients. This explains why some psychiatrists in Korea argue that psychoanalytic therapy is more suitable for those who are westernized and psychologically minded than for adherents of traditional values.

In an era of fast economic growth and the nuclear family, many Koreans grew up amid physical and emotional absence of their parents during childhood. In the wake of dramatic and chaotic changes made to the Korean society, people’s awareness of emotional problems was raised. Especially, younger generations are demonstrating a variety of clinical problems such as emotional deficit, identity confusion, personality disorder and narcissism. They feel their inner emotional suffering and desire to tell someone about it and to find who they are. Increase in experience of psychoanalytic therapy to treat them is leading to a growing perception that this approach is suitable and helpful for Koreans.

In particular, the number of psychiatrists who had psychoanalytic training during their residency period and is now engaged in psychoanalytic therapy is rising. They no longer ask whether psychoanalytic therapy is suitable for Koreans or not. The assumption of psychoanalysis is that human beings have the unconscious mind, which drives their thinking and behavior. Freud maintained that psychoanalysis is a therapy that helps patients improve their productivity in work and capacity to love. Through our own psychoanalytic clinical experiences, we have come to believe this holds true for the Korean culture, too.

Korean psychoanalysis made a quantum leap since 1980. Korean members, who had been isolated by language and geographical barriers, did not mind waking up in the wee hours to receive supervision from foreign analysts over the phone or online after they came back from other countries where they were trained, paving the way for development of Korean psychoanalysis. Their relentless curiosity and enthusiasm contributed to the growth of the Korean psychoanalytic society.

Since introduction of psychoanalytic training programs in Korea, more and more specialists are practicing psychoanalysis under the initiative of the candidates lately. Based on these experiences, we are confirming that psychoanalysis is not an object of scholarly attention any more, but an effective therapeutic approach that can help many patients suffering from inner pain. Young Korean psychiatrists are paying greater attention to psychoanalytic therapy, especially after introduction of the psychoanalytic training programs. Training them well is a big challenge the Korean group is facing, let alone building up of psychoanalytic clinical experience.

Korea has worked together with the IPA in a proactive and responsive manner. I hope these efforts to continue in the future. In the last 37 years, Korean psychoanalysis has made slow but steady progress. We went through hopes, expectations, frustrations and internal challenges, and now feel a sense of achievement and pride. With the help of the IPA, particularly the Sponsoring Committee’s biannual visit to help us, Korea is now turning into a young power of the psychoanalytic movement in Asia at long last. We believe Korea’s experience will prove a boon to new countries that are seeking psychoanalytic development, and hope to share our own experience with them. In the meantime we will continue to strive for sustainable development in the future, including the IPA’s recognition as a provisional society. The Korean group very much appreciates the efforts and contributions that have been made by many friends of Korean psychoanalysis, especially the Korean Advisory Committee of the IPA’s effort at the beginning phase of the KPSG and its members, Robert Tyson, Sander Abend, Barbara Stimmel, and George Bruns.


Korean group with Dr. Stefano Bolognini  who visited Seoul for psychoanalytic seminars in June, 2013