[INSIGHT]Korea's national psychodrama

Home > Opinion > Editorials

print dictionary print

[INSIGHT]Korea's national psychodrama

To Americans, it is obvious that the accident that claimed the lives of two 13-year-old Koreans last June was just that -- an accident. Tragic, regrettable, inexcusable -- but an accident, not a murder. Why can Koreans not see this?

I think Koreans do see it, but for them, the important question is: Why do such accidents happen? And the surprising answer is: It's our own fault.

Americans work out the chain of physical causations. Did the driver or spotter make errors? Was the communications equipment functioning? Were warnings given? If everything checks out, then responsibility is corporate. As a U.S. Forces Korea spokesman said, "We have acknowledged that it was our fault. It was our vehicle. It happened during our exercise. We have apologized, and we have paid compensation to the families."

Perhaps corporate responsibility is too abstract for Koreans, who want to see somebody's head roll. But the two enlisted men charged with criminal negligence in the case were acquitted in military trials.

It is now reported that four U.S. soldiers were disciplined last summer. The U.S. Army, following its own procedures, will not release their names or punishments, which, naturally, feeds Korean suspicion of a whitewash. But even if the army had publicized these punishments last summer it is not likely that Korean grief and anger would be satisfied. Perhaps that is because Koreans' emotions, which to Americans look disproportionate and unfair, may be in part directed upon themselves.

In "Honor, Dignity and Collective Memory," two sociologists, Barry Schwartz and MiKyoung Kim, found striking differences in the way young Americans and young Koreans judge their societies' pasts.

Asked to name events that brought "dishonor, disgrace or shame" to the United States, a group of American college students listed events in which Americans victimized others: slavery, the Vietnam War, the treatment of Indians, racial segregation, the wartime internment of Japanese.

To the same question, Korean students produced a list in which the Korean people felt themselves victimized: Japan-ese colonial rule, the IMF emergency loan in 1997, the Korean War, the wrongdoings of Presidents Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae-woo, the collapse of the Seongsu Bridge and of the Sampoong Department Store.

Others who have suffered oppression -- European Jews and the Holocaust, U.S. blacks and slavery -- do not see these events as sources of group shame. But here are some of the things the Korean students said about Japanese colonialism: "Division among us invited Japan's invasion;" "Our weakness caused the loss of our nation;" "Our ancestors deserve more blame than even the Japanese;" "We failed to protect ourselves" and were therefore "dishonored internationally." Korean failure, not Japanese aggression, stood out in the Korean students' minds.

The researchers asked both groups of students to respond to the statement: "On balance, the bad [immoral] parts of Korean [American] history outweigh the good." By 52 percent to 29 percent, Americans disagreed (the rest were neutral); but Koreans by 44 percent to 31 percent agreed that their history was more bad than good.

Finally, both groups were asked about past events that made them proud of their country. The Americans mentioned the founding events, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; World War II; the 1991 Gulf War; space achievements and civil rights.

Koreans were proud of the 1988 Olympic Games; the 2002 soccer World Cup (which was three years in the future when the students were polled); Hangeul; the independence movement during the Japanese colonial period; the gold collection drive of 1997, and economic growth in the 1960s and 1970s.

Here are some of the reasons the students gave: Hangeul "proves our excellence to the world." Economic growth "demonstrated our excellence." In the Olympics, "the world came to see us," "the world now knows we exist" and "we are not weak anymore." The answers show a striking lack of national self-confidence and a touching sensitivity to others' opinions of Korea.

This is the background to the recent wave of Korean hysteria. "Hysteria" is not too strong a word; some schoolgirls wrote a protest letter in their own blood; some restaurants refuse service to all Americans. "We will recover our national pride," crowds of demonstrators chanted. Like last winter's outrage over the "stolen" Olympic medal, these protests are a Korean psychodrama that will not be affected by anything President Bush or any other American does or doesn't do, because they are about how Koreans view themselves. Koreans I have talked to call the national convulsion a "coming-of-age phenomenon." "We are outgrowing our adolescence," said a leading academic figure.

South Korea has been divided for half a century, and has 37,000 U.S. troops stationed on its soil. Other countries -- Britain, Germany -- host U.S. troops without national soul-searching; Korea is different.

Even though most Koreans continue to believe that U.S. forces should remain here, their presence is a constant humiliation for Koreans, a reminder that they have not been able to order their affairs on their own.

The present irritations in Korean-American relations should not be papered over with polite words. The time is opportune for both sides to talk, bluntly if necessary, to each other and to their own citizens, about what interests are at stake and how to face the future.

* The writer is editor of the JoongAng Daily.

by Hal Piper

Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)