[OUTLOOK]Save the Korea Foundation and Its Work

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[OUTLOOK]Save the Korea Foundation and Its Work

My first stop when I flew to London 18 years ago was the British Museum. I can recall the impression the cultural heritage there produced on me. I was overwhelmed with the seeing with my own eyes the exhibits I had learned about at school and seen in books.

While I looked around, I saw a picture of Buddha hung on the outside corridor wall, not in the main exhibition hall. I was embarrassed as it dawned on me that it was the only Korean artifact among the mountains of cultural assets from all over the world.

Now there is 396-square-meter exhibition hall set aside for Korean exhibits at the museum, and Korea's cultural heritage is treated as an equal of that of other countries. The British Museum is not the only museum that has established Korean hall. Prestigious museums in seven nations, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Guimet Museum in Paris and the Culture Museum in Mexico have set up or are setting up a Korean hall.

This change ensued mainly from the activities of the Korea Foundation, a state-run organ in charge of cultural exchanges with foreign countries, with financial support from the Korean government.

Harvard University in the United States established its Korea Institute in 1993; Professor David R. McCann assumed charge of the newly-created chair of Korean literature at the institute. The Korea Foundation contributed $3.5 million for the institute and Harvard furnished $4.5 million. Korea departments, institutes or Korean language courses are being set up in the prestigious universities of some 60 universities, including Yale, Stanford, Columbia, Chicago University, the University of London and Kyushu University. Most of them were spurred by financial contributions from the Korea Foundation. The Korea Foundation has improved Korea's image as a culture-rich country through exchanges with other countries of academic, cultural and human resources and by building up personal connections which can support Korea's position in international relations.

But the foundation is on the verge of financial problems because the ruling party and the government drafted a plan to abolish the main fund-raising program of the foundation as a part of reforms to curtail quasi-taxes.

The foundation has collected money through a 15,000 won ($11.50) surcharge on new passports since the foundation was founded in 1992. The accumulated funds, including a small subsidy from the government, will reach about 170 billion won by the end of this year.

The government plans to give the fund up to 200 million won as an endowment, and then the fund will be basically on its own, although it has promises of further government money if needed.

It will be difficult to support a 22 billion won annual budget with the interest produced from the 200-billion-won endowment, however. Interest rates have fallen, and the government will have to contribute about 10 billion won per year. I doubt it will actually give the foundation, the promised funds; there have been broken promises in the past. Even if it does, it may run into diplomatic problems. Some nations, including the United States, prohibited their government and non-government organizations from receiving money from foreign governments. There will inevitably be an effect on the activities of the foundation in industrialized countries to build Korea's image. Because of the same problem, the Japan Foundation, whose budget mainly depends on a government subsidy, set up and runs a special center operating with non-governmental funds especially for Japan-U.S. exchanges.

I raise the question of whether the ruling camp has the right perception about international exchanges and cooperation activities. The British Cultural Center is spending 40 times the money spent by the Korea Foundation; the German cultural center 13 times and the Japan Foundation 11 times. These centers run programs to promote and spread their culture and language and improve their nations' images through human resources exchange. The amount of money spent for systematic international exchanges in those countries implies that they regard exchange activities as very important.

I urge the government to revoke its clumsy plan to scrap the fund-raising method used by the Korea Foundation which has been used for the past 10 years if the government acknowledges the necessity of systematic efforts to enhance Korea's image in the international arena.

The government should not be ruthless in repealing quasi-taxes. I do not think that 15,000 won is a great burden on those who pay the fee once in their lifetime, when they get their first passport.

The government did not abolish another quasi-tax for encouraging tourism in Korea, the program for which people have to pay 10,000 won every time they leave Korea for another country. The difference in these two programs ignores the principle of equity.


The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Seong Byong-wook

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