[VIEWPOINT] Korea’s dragons soar in fairer skies

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[VIEWPOINT] Korea’s dragons soar in fairer skies

My concert choice to celebrate last year’s holiday season was “Winterreise,” or “Winter Journey,” performed by bassist Youn Kwang-chul and pianist Chung Myung-hoon. I have been listening to Franz Schubert’s song cycle for over 30 years, and I have always wanted to sing the first song, “Gute Nacht,” in German. A few years ago, I got a copy of Wilhelm Muller’s poems, but I have not yet been able to learn the lyrics.

One evening at the end of last year, I went to a concert at the Seoul Arts Center. My seat was in the front row near the right edge of the stage. I had to twist my head to the left during the concert, but despite the tension in my neck and shoulder, my heart overflowed with the same emotion I felt when I was young. Youn and Chung performed for one hour and 20 minutes without an intermission. They were truly the best of partners.

While Youn is not fond of being labeled, he is what Koreans call a “dragon from the stream.” Of course, the “stream” here is a very secular and superficial reference to a humble background. After graduating from a technical high school in Chungju, Youn failed the architectural technician’s license exam. He changed his career goal to becoming a music teacher and majored in music education at Chongju University. He made up his mind to become a singer while in college, which is very rare in classical music.

Youn went on to study in Germany, where he was highly praised by the likes of tenor Placido Domingo and conductor Daniel Barenboim. He is now a world-class singer and performs all around the world. In March, he will begin teaching at the prestigious Seoul National University.

Painter Kim Dong-yu, who was born in 1965, the same year as Youn, has a similar story. He was in an art club in high school and was an art major at Mokwon University, which has hardly any influence in art circles. But Kim was ranked the 55th-most-traded artist in the world in 2007-2008 by Artprice of France.

But art and music are not the only fields where we find dragons from the stream. The Republic of Korea is a dynamic nation full of hopes. The Korea Development Institute published a report at the end of last year called, “The present state and vision of intergenerational economic mobility.”

If children maintain the same economic position as their parents, it suggests low intergenerational economic mobility. In contrast, if children rise above the economic status their parents achieved, it means society has high intergenerational economic mobility. The report concludes that Korean children do better economically than their parents. This means Korean society is dynamic and lively.

I was greatly relieved to find out Korea is as dynamic as Finland and Sweden and has higher intergenerational economic mobility than the United States and the United Kingdom. I agree with the report’s conclusion that rapid industrial and economic development after liberation from Japan created many high-class jobs. Koreans had access to better opportunities through education even if their original social and economic status was humble.

The Korean War was a tremendous tragedy in itself, but some studies found that the war contributed to positive social dynamics by accelerating the movement of classes, regions and wealth.

As the KDI report pointed out, the economic capacity of parents has a direct impact on their children’s education. Therefore, the government should provide equal educational opportunities beginning in early childhood.

Moreover, I would like to add a most fundamental and important point. Even in highly dynamic societies where the government values education, people still have to become the “dragon” rising from the stream. That does not happen because of the government or a scholarship foundation.

The dragon lives inside our hearts. When you respect and trust yourself and view society positively, the dragon can overcome difficulties and fly away. If you harbor a monster in your heart, there’s no way you can fly high. Korea’s young generation should treasure their inner dragons.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Noh Jae-hyun
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