The Republic of Korea at 60

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The Republic of Korea at 60

The Republic of Korea at 60 in the Western eye has an image problem due to the Bengali Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, an influential poet and world traveler. After visiting Seoul in the early 20th century, Tagore wrote a poem, “The Land of the Morning Calm”; the poem became famous the world over and the West still perceives the country this way. These days, the name feels inaccurate, to say the least. This motivated former President Kim Dae-jung to rekindle the country’s reputation, not as calm but as dynamic, so far with limited success - dynamism lacks any specific Korean flavor.

Calm or dynamic?

Within South Korea, the debate still lingers?on how best to represent the country on the international stage.

In spite of the outstanding global success of Korean brands, many buyers of these brands hardly know they are made in Korea. Is this weak brand recognition due to insufficient efforts to promote South Korea as such?

To a certain extent, yes, the South Korean government never packaged the Korean identity as a clear message nor promoted it in a systematic way, as Japan did in the ’60s and still does. True enough, the message escapes easy definition. How does one promote Korea when the country itself is divided? How should we promote modern South Korea alone as it is so different from ancient Korea? How does one send a unifying message when the South Korean people are so greatly diverse by region and religion??

The solution to these dilemmas could very well emerge from the artistic world. South Korea now is popular abroad thanks not only to its industrial exports; artists play a decisive role. Beware of the ambiguities, however. The so-called Korean wave is carrying American rock music to an enthusiastic Chinese audience: The music is played by Koreans but it is hardly related to pansori.

Korean television sitcoms may be closer to the true Korean soul; we know how they have been useful in bringing together the Japanese and the South Koreans more thoroughly than many years of diligent diplomacy. Ultimately, to really understand the South Korean identity, I consider South Korean movies and contemporary art to be more revealing than pop entertainment.

Im Kwon-taek’s “Painted Fire,” Kim Jee-won’s “A Tale of Two Sisters,” Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy,” have brought to an international audience a unique civilization - Asian but definitely not Chinese and definitely not Japanese. These movies have produced in the West a culture shock comparable to the European discovery of Japanese prints in the late 19th century.

In fine arts, similarly, the video art pioneer Nam-june Paik and his follower Jheon Soo-cheon have opened the eyes of art lovers everywhere. Thanks to these artists, South Korea has been discovered as though it was a new continent. Korea was there but we, in the West, could hardly see it.

Can these artists, to whom I shall add the writer Lee Mun-yeol, help us understand who is South Korea at 60?

It is morning calm and dynamism simultaneously. When Jheon Soo-cheon displays in his installations of ancient funeral statuettes in a contemporary light in Seoul, Venice, Paris or New York, he connects the oldest tradition with cutting-edge modernity; like Lee Mun-yeol’s novel , “Hail to the Emperor,” he makes evident the continuity from Shamanism to Confucianism, Buddhism, Christianity and the postmodern nihilism of Oldboy.

Because of this outstanding continuity, we celebrate the Republic of Korea’s 60th birthday this year as well as its 3,000-year-old civilization. This is a reason why, when visiting the National Museum of Korea in Seoul, I regret that it does not incorporate the most recent creations by contemporary artists; the continuity would be for all to see. It would make clear that Korea does not lack identity but does suffer from a still weak identity promotion policy.

What use would be such a policy? It would confer some economic benefits. Strong national brands sell: world consumers buy French perfumes because they are French, German cars because they are German, Japanese technology because it is Japanese.

Korean products sell for many reasons but rarely because they are Korean. Among advanced industrial nations, South Korea, so far, has not yet built a decisive cultural advantage.

Rising expectations

In 60 years, South Korea went from one of the poorest countries on earth to one of the most successful. Its civilization alone would not have permitted such progress if the right strategy had not been followed - a free market economy and a progressive shift from enlightened despotism to full-blown democracy.

History has proven that South Korean leaders made the right choices at an early stage when liberal democracy did not necessarily look like a winning choice. Whatever the rationale - Resist North Korea? Emulate Japan? Follow the United States? - South Korea had it right. This needs to be reaffirmed as Korean society at 60 doesn’t escape the turmoil that comes with maturity.

Is South Korea in a crisis? Of course it is; only stagnant nations mired in poverty, under despotic regimes, ignore crisis.

Because it is an actual democracy, and a modern economy, South Korea has entered into the cycle of rising expectations - only when life is improving do you start wondering why it is not improving more rapidly.

When free speech is allowed, why not become vociferous? As seen from abroad, especially from Western Europe, the street demonstrations and strikes that take place in South Korea do not surprise us: We have lived through those kinds of events before and we still live with them. In democratic countries, elections never fully solve social conflicts; the purpose of elections is to quiet those conflicts so that they would not degenerate into civil war. What we now see in South Korea is business as usual in Western democracies.

Are South Koreans disappointed with democracy? This is common as well: Democracy is always disappointing while people expect too much of it. It is an imperfect regime but it is nonviolent and it doesn’t pretend to dictate individual life. Maybe South Koreans are not yet accustomed to the inherent modesty of democratic institutions.

They also are not fully reconciled- no nation is - with the imperfections of the free market economy. Free market economy brought South Koreans out of poverty; this was hardly debated when the growth rate hovered around 10 percent. When the growth rate plummets to 4 percent, enthusiasm for the market tends to decline. The very high growth rate could absorb many imperfections of the system such as required long work hours, unequal wealth redistribution, the brutal exodus from traditional activities to mass industry.

But a slower growth rate underlines these imperfections: hard work is less well-tolerated, the gap between rich and poor, between regular and irregular workers fall under harsher scrutiny. A slower growth rate generates social frustration from the less educated toward the better educated, from the lower paid toward the wealthy entrepreneurs. The search for scapegoats (the Americans, the jaebeol), and a fiery nationalism, close to jingoism, take root easily when expectations are not met.

Shall we conclude that South Korea is in a crisis, or in a transition? It seems to me a transition into the next stage when South Korea will become a major global player.

Global player

The Republic of Korea at 60 has unique resources that remain untapped: Its civilization as mentioned above is the most evident. By promoting its cultural resources, from its museums to its cuisine, by pursuing the globalization of its economy, South Korea could be better recognized as a global player.

A stronger economy and more cultural value would bring a stronger diplomatic position; South Korea does not need to remain dwarfed between China and Japan. More global clout would make reunification easier against those who do not want it. The goal of a unified Korea, which is now closer than ever, could be the ambition of a new generation, the success of the present administration and a tremendous boost for the Korean economy.

A stronger and larger Korea could balance its influence between Japan and China with the ultimate goal of a Northeast Asian economic zone, along the lines of the European Union. Such a grand design could become the new national ambition of the South Koreans and overcome short-term domestic conflicts or short-sighted nationalism.

This grand design should not exclude some significant changes within Korean society. Among those, education comes first. [...] Adaptation through education should be the Korean answer to the challenges of globalization.

Korea in 60 years

I have no doubt about Korea’s economic or diplomatic status 60 years from now. But I wonder what “Korean” will mean then. All nations today are torn apart between their ancestors’ roots and fusion into a global melting pot. The tension between local and global will only increase as more Koreans live abroad or are exposed to diverse cultural experiences. Will this confrontation between Koreans and foreigners, abroad and at home, be smooth and easy? Will xenophobia prevail, or intermarriages? Probably, both will happen, like in the rest of the world.

Koreans, who have always defined themselves through their bloodline and family history, will then be compelled to change their self definition: A Korean in the future could well be Korean by culture without being Korean by genetic origin. Moreover, a Korean could be Korean and something else simultaneously. This is not to be feared; we are all shifting from a world dominated by the cult of our ancestors, to a world based on shared identity. Many Koreans will remain Korean and become global citizens as well; and many global citizens could become Korean by choice.

Excerpted by JoongAng Daily editors from the author’s original contribution.

*Guy Sorman is a French journalist, economist, philosopher and author of 20 books on contemporary affairs. He has been an adviser to the prime minister of France (1995-1997) and deputy mayor of Boulogne. He was appointed by President Lee Myung-bak as a member of the Global Advisors and Friends of Korea in June 2008.

by Guy Sorman

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