A far-fetched vision of No.1 KoreaI recently read a book titled “A Different Republic of Korea - About Which Only Koreans are Ignorant” written by Emanuel Pastreich, an American scholar and currently a professor at Kyung Hee University. It’s subtitled “A Harvard Ph.D.’s Views on Korea’s Potential.” A quote in italics on the book cover proclaimed, “The next first-grade country from Asia is South Korea.”
Pastreich goes by Korean name Lee Man-yeol. He borrowed the surname from his Korean wife. I found that his Korean name suited him better than his birth name when I, by coincidence, struck up a conversation with him. In fluent Korean, he said he had trouble remembering some English vocabulary. He studied the classics and history of Korea, China and Japan and received a Ph.D. in East Asian studies at Harvard. He shrugged at my embarrassment for my comparative ignorance of our history and literature, saying he majored in it.
The American academic pointed out that South Korea is the first nation in the world with a population of over 20 million to become an advanced economy but has never invaded another country or owned a colony. What was the secret behind the ascent of a war-ridden country that had an economy as poor as Somalia in 1953 to the advanced ranks in just two generations?
Pastreich found the answer in Korea’s history. The intellectual and cultural tradition that lasted several thousand years was the impetus behind the miracle, he says.
He said he was sorry that Koreans still live in denial - and shame - about their past, and that Koreans could overcome their undervaluation and come to enjoy a “Korea premium” if they appreciate their cultural and traditional identity more.
I nodded my head, but could not completely agree with him in my heart. It may not be simply our inborn habit of negativism rather than positivism, and skepticism rather than optimism, ticking from the memory of a colonial historical background. If we are true to his logic, we Koreans may succumb to a feeling of cultural superiority and fall into either racism or nationalism. Culture is not a question of superiority or inferiority; it’s just a difference among societies. The indigenous culture in Somalia is as valuable as the culture in Korea. Every society should build upon its unique cultural identity to progress and advance.
Likewise, it is tricky to explain the gap between South and North Korea. The two Koreas are from the same cultural, traditional and ethical roots. But North Korea hardly can feed its people three meals a day, not to mention join the global ranks of rich nations. We can only blame the contrast on ideological differences. Ideology may sometimes matter more than cultural identity.
Ezra Vogel, a Harvard University professor, wrote a best-selling book, “Japan as Number One: Lessons for America” in 1979. His book changed ordinary Americans’ view on the Japanese. Japan, which towered over others with the catchphrase of “Japan is Number One,” was humbled after its bubble economy burst. It wasted two decades ruminating on its past glory and reputation.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his right-wing government has injected a cocktail of every possible fiscal and monetary stimuli formula to the comatose economy to rebuild it, but it remains unclear if the measures will work. As important as ideology and cultural tradition are the choices that contemporary people make. What leadership they choose is vital to the direction and fate of a state.
We hear complaints of frustration and wariness rising in this country. The polarization of our classes is ever worsening, and society is bisected and wrangles over almost everything. The people in the middle are squeezed into a corner. Leadership is dominated by the old guard. Some sigh that we are already back in the 1970s. Many are worried about President Park Geun-hye’s leadership and governance style. Her approval rating has been declining for weeks.
President Park promised to unite the nation, but conflict and division are widening. We wonder if she really believes that excluding - instead of engaging - her opponents is the way to unite the country. What we see is her giving orders and not hearing out others in debates. She is said to stay up late at night poring over reports. The air at the Blue House is stifling because of her dominating presence. There is no life, but only silence in the presidential office. We have to question how creative and constructive policies can come out of such a stale and top-down atmosphere.
I’m sorry to disappoint professor Pastreich, but his vision of “No. 1 Korea” may be far-fetched.
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Bae Myung-bok