[Viewpoint] Do Koreans realize their position?

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[Viewpoint] Do Koreans realize their position?

During his recent visit to Korea, internationally acclaimed scholar Paul Kennedy praised Korea’s varying recent successes during otherwise difficult times. He said Koreans deserve to feel proud of their country. Famed for his book, “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers,” the Yale professor said that while Korea might not become a superpower, like the United States or China, it will catch up with Germany and France to become a middle power.

As if echoing Kennedy, the U.S. investment bank Goldman Sachs has projected that the GDP of a unified Korea would be greater than those of Germany, France and even Japan by 2050. In fact, the country’s per capita GDP would be second only to the United States.

The bank argued that if the South can accomplish peaceful and gradual economic integration with the North, the combination of South Korean technology and capital and North Korean natural resources and labor would nurture tremendous synergy.

We will have to wait to see if these rosy forecasts turn out to be true, but this much is already clear: Korea has come a long way in becoming one of the top 15 economies in the world and host of next year’s G-20 summit.

However, it’s questionable if most Koreans fully appreciate their country’s growing stature.

Unfortunately, Korea sometimes resembles an adolescent who has physically grown strong but remains mentally childish.

In particular, Koreans are uncertain about their own identity and are overly sensitive about how they are viewed by others. We always ask visiting foreigners about their impression of Korea and give too much weight to their opinions.

This is true at the national level, as well.

For example, when a foreign media service or research institute makes a comment about the Korean economy, the story is widely covered by local news outlets.

There are far more economists studying the Korean economy in Korea, and these domestic scholars are just as respectable as their foreign counterparts.

Yet we put a greater emphasis on a foreigner’s perspective.

Of course, you might not see the broad outlines of a forest while stuck in the trees, and, therefore, foreigners could have a more objective view. However, Korean scholars are more knowledgeable about how the local economy works.

We also get worked up over Korea’s national competitiveness assessment or the rankings of its universities.

When Switzerland’s International Institute for Management Development or the World Economic Forum announces yearly national competitiveness reports, our entire society takes note. Even the government responds.

Since these evaluations are based on certain criteria chosen by the organizations, their reports can certainly be used as a reference.

Yet Koreans become so concerned that it seems they think the ranking determines the fate of the nation. Furthermore, we make a huge deal about the university rankings by a foreign newspaper or institution.

There is a fundamental limitation to measuring the quality of different colleges and universities with a single yardstick, yet the media and university presidents rejoice or despair when presented with the far too often flawed results.

A true grown-up would use these measures as a reference, but a young student might take them to be serious report cards.

Another immature behavior commonly displayed by Koreans is the lack of consideration for others. Koreans are far behind international standards in this regard.

First of all, Korea’s international assistance and contributions to international organizations do not match the nation’s economic size.

The secretary general of the United Nations is Korean, but Korea’s assessed contribution to the United Nations is rather small considering the size of the economy.

And Korea is habitually late in making its paltry payment.

Moreover, Korea is responding passively to climate change compared to major developed economies. It is not because Koreans lack a love for humanity. We still unconsciously feel that Korea is not developed enough to help others.

However, objectively speaking, Korea is a sufficiently developed member of the international community. We are in a position to be considerate and offer help to others.

In order to become a developed country in the international community, we need to behave maturely to reflect our size. We should overcome the groundless uncertainty about our identity and seek ways to proudly contribute to the international community.

Just as Paul Kennedy said, we Koreans deserve to feel proud about ourselves.


*The writer is a professor of physics at Seoul National University.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.


by Oh Se-jeong

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