[Overseas view]Korea’s creativity can play a key roleNo country has undergone a more successful metamorphosis than South Korea in only one generation. When I discovered this country in 1986, it was not such a positive experience. You could feel oppression everywhere, by reading the censored media, by listening to the political rulers, by visiting the factories. People were organized like military units.
They were working hard under the authoritarian regime which encompassed the state, as well as the manufacturers. As a result, the growth rate was high. Still, it was based on imitation, not innovation. The rest of the world was buying Korean exports, not because they were good and not because they were Korean, but because they were cheap. Korea had no image, no trademark as a country; most of its labels were unknown abroad. The overall impression the visitor had was of a poor country where people worked exhausting jobs to escape poverty and to catch up with modernity. Dwellings and clothing were quite drab, just a little bit fancier than in neighboring China but not that much. However, if you looked closely, you could find a rising individualism among political dissidents, students, the clergy, and impressive contemporary artists. The country then seemed balancing between repression and revolution. For many young Koreans, violence seemed to be the only way to express themselves. At that time, the prestige of North Korea, based on ignorance or romanticism, was high; it still appeared as an economic and social model, and as a cultural icon. Where South Korea was heading was blurry. Then, 20 years of a sustained good economic policy, excellent entrepreneurship, a buoyant world market and a dynamic civil society put the country on track ― a too-easy description of success, but not so easy to replicate elsewhere.
Today, 20 years later, so much has changed that it is difficult to connect present impressions with older memories; for the young Korean generation, I understand it is nearly impossible. The visual landscape of the major cities has changed: Seoul or Busan have become modern and beautified, Korean women are chic and trendy, on par with Parisians and Tokyoites as far fashion is concerned. Contemporary art galleries are on a level with New York. South Korea has become, by far, the most democratic society in Asia, more open than Japan, not to mention China or more distant neighbors. This new freedom does not necessarily please the conservative and older generation. They fear for the Korean identity, but they shouldn’t, not while the new South Koreans are creating an identity which is simultaneously rooted in tradition and open to the rest of the world.
Koreans do not become less Korean by traveling, learning or living abroad, or welcoming foreigners on their own soil. This new Korean cosmopolitanism has positive consequences in artistic and economic creativity. Today, unlike in the past, the world buys Korean trademarks, from cell phones to cars and music, not because they are cheap but because they have an excellent design.
Korea’s economy has won an edge in the global market, which one could call the cultural comparative advantage. Because the Korean people have become more individualistic in a less stifling environment, more of them have become more creative. This is evident in all walks of life in Korea. The cultural Korean wave and the related success of Korean brands, with their economic and popular appeal, are rooted in the very transformation of Korean society.
Moreover, the Korean identity from a Western perspective is not blurred anymore. Korea is no longer just a place squeezed between China and Japan. It is seen as a singular civilization with a long history and a strong personality, not to be confused with its neighbors.
The opening, three years ago, of the remarkable National Museum of Korea, a landmark in Asia, made clear the originality and resilience of Korean civilization.
At this stage, the risk for South Korea is complacency ― to work less, enjoy life, stop studying so hard. This will not work because South Korea is surrounded by rather unpredictable neighbors and a competitive world. The challenge today for Korea is not only to keep but increase its innovative edge. This requires a better education system, less based on learning by rote. Students in South Korea seem to me still oppressed in the old style of Confucianist teaching. Discipline is good, but too much discipline stifles creativity. In order for Korea to produce more ideas and more innovation, the education system should become a more competitive place.
This need for creativity should apply to Korean relations with its difficult neighbors. China remains a prisoner of its authoritarian rules. North Korea is doomed not to change. Japan seems like it’s in golden stagnation.
By contrast, South Korea is the only country in the region in position to take bold initiatives.
What about an Asian common currency? What about a military alliance between democratic countries in Asia?
For many centuries, to be Korean meant hardship; today, to be born in South Korea is a privilege to be shared.
*The writer is a French journalist, economist, philosopher and civilization critic.
by Guy Sorman