[Viewpoint] What makes an advanced country?My generation has always longed to see our country become advanced. Since we were quite young, we’ve been very proud when something happened here “for the first time in Asia” or when something that is the “largest in the world” is created here.
These days, expressions such as “ultramodern” or “cutting-edge technology” seem to be added to the list of must-have accomplishments. Massive building projects, whether in Seoul or other areas, are usually magnificent. Such undertakings commonly include large convention centers suitable for international events. A typical modern center will sport intricate sculptures or public art. They are wonders to behold.
Meanwhile, in many advanced countries, public buildings and convention centers are often not so grand. Many are small and humble. Famous restaurants are usually tiny, too.
The Seine River is a good example that wakes us up from fantasies about the splendid life in other countries. The European river has always been an object of poems and songs. Many have romantic images of the place. But when they actually go there they are usually disappointed. The Seine, they say, is simply too small.
Meanwhile, when one visits the courthouse in Seocho-dong, Seoul, its majestic appearance overwhelms. A famous architect designed the building, which has a long staircase leading to the main entrance. It seems the building was designed with people of high status in mind - those who approach the building in their cars instead of on foot. Ordinary citizens use doors at the sides or rear, even though they are very small and narrow.
The building was erected some 20 years ago. Inside, high-traffic areas are tended to meticulously, but less visited areas are left unattended and worn. The floor of the underground parking lot is old, and the lighting is so dim it’s spooky.
When I lived in the United States, I lived in an apartment. The building was 50 years old but it was repainted several times a year. The whole building was constantly well-maintained.
Recently, the National Library of Korea and the National Digital Library have been renovated. Since I live in the neighborhood, I decided to pay them a visit. The buildings were majestic, of course, and I had to walk a long way in the courtyard from the main gate to the entrance to the buildings in sizzling heat.
The huge grass lawn was wonderful but there was no shade, making it impossible to sit down and read a book. I guess this is because the aesthetics of the architecture were prioritized over convenience. Inside the library, there are instructions everywhere telling you where to leave bags and other belongings and that you can bring in only pens. My expectation that citizens could easily approach books and materials vaporized.
In fact, the old library was friendlier. One could go in there easily and it was simply more convenient to be able to read books in a shaded courtyard. A large building costs more in maintenance. Granted, it can be important to construct a building on an international scale. But it is also important to consider how useful it can be in ordinary times and how much it costs for electricity, water, heating and air-conditioning.
The government whines that the economy is bad, but it doesn’t seem to try to tighten its budget. It is not like international conventions take place across the country day after day. Nearly every government complex has a convention center and those are used mostly for weddings. It is customary in our society that high government officials go through grueling hearings. Having watched the process for more than 10 years, we remember only problems with their assets, false addresses and dual citizenships.
Nobody seems to know or care about what they do after they survive the harsh vetting process and land their prestigious jobs. The people and the media seem interested only in their human networks and assets. Nobody asks whether government officials maintained government buildings well, led their organizations to greatness or saved money in their budgets. In the process, countless ultramodern buildings that have been constructed have become worn out.
One wonders if we have the right standards to be an advanced country. A high national income, and the largest buildings and facilities for high technology are not sufficient.
An advanced country is about how well things are organized. In Northern and Western European countries, one can easily see children and people waiting patiently in lines. They keep order and have good etiquette. It is such people that make their countries truly advanced.
*The writer is a lawyer.
by Kim Young-hye