Aspects terrible and sublime

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Aspects terrible and sublime

How is Korea as a community perceived by people around the world? What is Korea’s image, and what is the image Koreans are projecting to foreigners as a whole?

In many cases, images are symbolic and figurative, but they often reveal substance and certain fundamentals, especially when they are intended to represent the whole. Since it is not easy to know the true nature, place and goal of oneself, one way to understand oneself is to collectively analyze how others perceive you and objectify you. The same can be true for people or nations.

What is the notion of Korea that brings together fragmentary notions? What is the true nature of our community and the true life of the people behind the many dramatically contradicting surfaces?

The first face of Korea is economic growth and the technological advancements that put Korea in the developed world in a remarkably short period of time.

Korea has accomplished astonishing growth in trade, GDP, GDP per capita and foreign-currency reserves. The international competitiveness and reputation of some Korean global businesses exceed those of Korea as a country.

Some high-tech industries and products such as smartphones, computers, appliances, semiconductors, automobiles, shipbuilding, steel and petrochemicals are among the leading international groups, or at least in the second tier. It has become very common to spot Korean televisions, automobiles and smartphones on the streets, airports and subways abroad. Korea’s development in this aspect deserves to be called a miracle.

The second face is found in the realms of culture, arts and sports. In film, art, pop music, dramas, video art and amateur and professional sports, many Koreans have gained international attention, won prestigious awards and competitions and have attained internationally recognized statuses. Both Asian and Western young people enjoy listening to Korean music (often on Korean smartphones) or watching Korean movies and drama series (on Korean televisions). It is the power of the Korean Wave of cultural products.

The third face involves military, security, peace and safety. When recently marking the 60th anniversary of the armistice following the 1950-53 Korean War, the foreign media addressed the prospects of peace and war on the Korean Peninsula as well as the nuclear threat from Pyongyang.

In contrast to the routine calm found inside South Korea, people around the world consider the peninsula an area with the highest threat of war and with the largest number of forces facing each other at the closest distance for the longest time. They cannot understand why Korea has remained divided for so long and how we live with the routine crises, nuclear threats and permanent possibility of renewed war.

The fourth face is that of basic human dignity and related aspects. The rate of Korean student, adult and senior suicides, parricides, industrial accidents, traffic fatalities, fatal military accidents and poverty among the elderly is the worst among all the members of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development. Fertility, public spending, official development assistance and income and gender equality indices are also among the lowest. While Korea sends the most number of missionaries abroad, the number of Korean men buying sex in other countries is also high. From birth to death, Korea’s collective human index is horrible at every stage of life.

The best economic indicators and the worst human dignity indices coexist in the Korean community. Korea may be the only community to show such contradictions in human history.

The fifth face is the one we see in the North: hunger, poverty, suppression, dictatorship and militarism. The reality of North Korea is clearly anti-universal, anti-civilization and backward. It is another tragic image that Korea shows to the world.

How should we understand, analyze and resolve the contradicting realities of the Korean miracle of the past six decades and the parallel Korean disaster? The Korean dream being fulfilled alongside a continuing Korean shame?

Light and darkness, positive and negative, sunshine and shadow are connected, and the latter is often a byproduct of the former. We cannot be proud of the Korean miracle because the Korean disaster is so horrible and just as enduring.

In a human community, nearly all problems are interconnected, especially the relationship between the whole and its parts and between the community and the individual.

Life reflects a society, and existence is an expression of a community. We need to reconsider human conditions that go against human dignity. Lives of individuals as comprehensive existences are inseparable and comprise the whole truth.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

*The author is a professor at Yonsei University and visiting professor of the Free University of Berlin.

BY Park Myung-rim
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