[OBSERVER]Korea’s place in the world is in its heartKorea’s traditional communal society has many positive aspects. Confucianism directs a person to be a chungsin, someone who unconditionally respects and supports the nation’s leader. Hoguk Buddhism encourages citizens to protect the nation and to defend the fatherland. Koreans also experience moments of deep pride or intense frustration during the ups and downs on the roller coaster ride of national maturation. The aftermath of the 1997 financial crisis showed that Koreans feel personally responsible for the fate of their country. Thousands contributed savings and treasured heirlooms to bail out their indebted nation. Though it may have been futile in terms of actual economic recovery, the gesture was powerfully symbolic of Korean national consciousness: Uri nara, “our country,” needs us.
Korea is not immune to the “me-first” virus. Still, there exists a natural inclination to civic virtue that continues to benefit the nation, and nurturing “national pride” is a recurring theme.
There is a reflexive, defensive undercurrent to this patriotism. Most of the Korean experience with foreign powers has been explicitly negative. The Japanese imperial occupation is, even today, a cause of national trauma. Also, the nation is, formally, still at war because the two Koreas have never signed a peace treaty. Some see South Korea as still under foreign occupation, which is a source of indignation. To protect itself from foreign manipulation, Korea throughout its history has been a virtual recluse. While shutting itself off from the rest of the world, this “hermit kingdom” preserved a distinct ethnicity and developed a unique culture. Although on the one hand Confucian notions about filial piety and paternal lineage have helped to maintain national integrity, they have also fostered an atmosphere of xenophobia.
This dichotomy obviously affects the Korean relationship with the “outside world.” In spite of their resilience, enormous spiritual reserves, general psychological health, personal confidence and vigor, Koreans constantly wonder about their place in the world and question the significance of their international contribution. It is as if they think they are not being taken seriously by “first world” countries. They are deeply suspicious of foreign motives and seem forever to feel that they are being dealt a bad card. Often, when one expresses genuine admiration for the many great qualities of the Korean people ― their warmth, their energy, their work ethic ― one is greeted with incredulous looks, indirect expressions of gratitude, or both. Koreans seem to feel a constant need to prove themselves, both to others and themselves.
With its unique blend of spiritual culture and technological advancement, Korea has much to offer to the world. Nevertheless, if Koreans are to make such a meaningful contribution, they will have to transcend the old “us and them” mentality, as well as their propensity to copy the latest foreign business models and educational trends for narrow, short-term, national interest.
On the one hand, they will need to build confidence in the value of their own social and cultural contributions to the world. On the other hand, they will have to learn to see other nations not only as lucrative markets for Korean exports but as places inhabited by human beings who deserve and require constructive international and intercultural engagement. If the people’s desire is to serve the greater good of Asia and of the world, Korea may truly have a corner on the global market.
*The writer is a teacher at Cheongshim International Academy.
by Maarten Meijer