[VIEWPOINT]In search of 1800s enlightenment

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[VIEWPOINT]In search of 1800s enlightenment

In his famous poem "Fences," Robert Frost is told by a neighbor that "good fences make good neighbors"; to which the great American poet responds with great humanity and deep humility, "Something there is that doesn't love a wall."

Yet something in the Korean consciousness certainly does! Like Frost's neighbor, Koreans feel the primal need for protection that a wall offers and are intent on building a wall -- walling out foreigners by walling them into special zones and calling that globalization.

How can a foreigner not react to the fact that he confronts walls at every turn: in the workplace, in his living space, often under the guise of hospitality, yet walls nonetheless.

Concluding a conference sponsored by the Economist magazine in Seoul several years ago on globalization, a distinguished economist commented, "For Koreans, globalization was out there, not in here." Those words -- still valid today -- stuck in my mind, because he had penetrated to the essence of the issue.

To Koreans, national treatment means treating foreigners differently; to the rest of the world it means according them the same status as a local person. To complete the injustice, ethnic Koreans are to be automatically granted working permits, singling them out on the basis of ethnicity rather than nationality in violation of several international agreements on national treatment.

Ironically, it was Westerners who first began building walls in the East in the 19th century, under the principle of extra-territoriality, in order to protect their commercial interests and legations. In the foreign compounds, foreign and not local law prevailed. Now, in the 21st century, Koreans want to return the favor by playing by 19th century rules in an ill-considered back-to-the future initiative.

Thus, the Korean government has hatched a scheme to make Korea a regional hub by designating the Incheon airport area as a special economic zone, complete with foreign-friendly stores, schools, hospitals, pharmacies and even bakeries. It would be a logistics, financial and information technology hub.

Why would foreigners even want to come to Seoul, since they would have all the comforts of home right at the airport? They could leave Korea without ever really entering it!

For those who wanted to stay permanently, perhaps the Seoul Foreigners' cemetery could also be moved to those environs. And yes, for the living, English would be the official language so foreigners would not even have to bother learning Korean. Somehow those kind of living arrangements are supposed to rub off on Koreans and make them better versed in English, but I'm not sure how that is supposed to work.

Such a strategy won't wash in the 21st century or make Korea a regional hub when Seoul's competitors, like Hong Kong, Singapore and Shanghai, don't have walls around them. Sakong Il wrote presciently in a recent op-ed article in the JoongAng Ilbo that "our ultimate goal should be to make the entire country a special economic zone." Bravo! But now, not later!

Further, as Rubens Ricupero, the secretary-general of the UN Conference on Trade and Development has noted, "Not all walls are alike. But they are almost always an admission of failure to find lasting solutions to the problems at hand. Among the most insidious of barriers are those we build inside our own minds against unpleasant realities."

As long as Koreans see globalization as an unpleasant reality against which they have to protect themselves, it will remain a one-way concept. A final cautionary note comes from J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings": "The wide world is all about you. You can fence yourself in, but you cannot forever fence it out."

Koreans should stop tinkering with fences and stand to face the world head on. They might even get a kick out of it rather than trying to kick it away!


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The writer is a professor at the Graduate School of International Studies, Hanyang University.

by John Barry Kotch

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