Korean Temperament a Double-Edged Blade

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Korean Temperament a Double-Edged Blade

In the early 1980s, when the nation was under the iron rule of the Chun Doo-hwan administration, General John A. Wickham, then commander-in-chief of the United States Forces in Korea, sparked a great controversy by comparing the national characteristics of the Korean people to rats. Wickham uttered the comment at a private gathering. He committed a major blunder by likening Koreans, who blindly follow transitory trends and fashions, to a pack of rats. His gaffe outraged the nation, and the controversy grew into a diplomatic issue. While not denying their easily changeable temperament, much like a pot that comes to a boil quickly but also cools rapidly, South Koreans objected to his insulting choice of a rat for comparison.

Twenty years later, a new book written by an American is attracting interest by declaring that such characteristics are the key to the nation's success. In his book titled "I Am Fearful of Korea," American Chamber of Commerce President Jeffrey Jones says, "Impatience, commonly referred to as a 'Korean malady,' actually provided the foundation for speeding up the propagation of information technology in the Korean society." Maybe it is really true that everything depends on perspective and time; witness how the attributes of Koreans, once so scorned, can suddenly become a source of admiration.

In his book, Jones displays a powerful imagination. He maintains that the United States has faced an external challenge every 40 years since World War I. Based on this crisis cycle, there is a high possibility of Korea becoming the next challenger, according to Jones. He predicts that the nation that succeeds in instilling warmth, or humaneness, into the otherwise bleak cyberspace world will ultimately rule it. Korea is just the country to do so, he believes. Jones foresees a scenario in which Korea will reign over cyberspace by 2025, and emerge as the country most likely to place the United States in a predicament. Although we could shrug off such a prediction as a blind shot in the dark, it is nevertheless uncomfortable to feel that we are being forced to vacillate between heaven and hell by other people, irrespective of our wishes.

The Korea Stock Exchange recently studied the movements of the price indices of the world‘s 50 major stock exchanges. The results showed the over-the-counter KOSDAQ index has dropped a whopping 62 percent this year, the biggest fall in the world. Last year it skyrocketed by an astonishing 241 percent, the biggest rise in the world. Perhaps this greatest rise and fall signifies that Koreans indeed resemble a pot that burns quickly, then swiftly goes chilly.

According to a recent analysis, venture firms are the most suitable form of business for the Korean national character. Koreans’ propensity to "hurry" everything and their mercurial nature correlate with the elements necessary for a venture company to succeed, such as speediness, flexibility, being value-oriented, and overcoming uncertainty. The roots of a plant can become a beneficial medicine if used wisely, but the same roots are poisonous if used indiscriminately. We can only hope to acquire the wisdom necessary to moderate the negative aspects of our national characteristics while making the most of the positive ones.

by Bae Myong-bok

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