Korea’s innate vitality

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Korea’s innate vitality


Song Ho-keun

Taxi drivers sometimes tell me, “You speak Korean very well!” They must assume that I am a businessman from the Philippines or Cambodia fluent in Korean. They may not be far from the truth. My family tree only goes back to the 16th century and no one knows what happened in the millennia before that on the Korean Peninsula. Various ethnic groups may have come from all over Asia and gotten mixed up across the peninsula. Anthropologists may object, but anyone who doubts my theory should visit the National Museum of Mongolia, where wax figures representing more than 50 ethnic groups are displayed. Their faces are all so familiar. They remind me of the faces we see in Seoul.

It is what Darwin calls “hybrid vigor.” Cross-breeding enhances adaptability, creativity, persistence and passion. There is no other way to explain the constant appearance of talented people in this small country.

If I claim the Korean Peninsula is a multiethnic nation, Shin Chae-ho (1880-1936), a renowned historian and advocate of the single-race nation, might protest from the grave. But “minjok” was a belief we shared to overcome crises.

The Winter Olympics is a festival of the developed world. The 82 nations participating in the Sochi Olympics account for more than 70 percent of the global gross domestic product. And yet little Korea finished in 13th place, an outstanding performance. How else can we explain such a feat?

Kim Yu-na’s graceful performance was different from the acrobatic jumps of the Russian skater who won a gold medal almost by accident. Her dignified moves were genuinely Korean. Speed skater Lee Sang-hwa dashed like Genghis Khan’s forward horsemen. Her piercing glance and solid physique reflected Mongolian DNA. Shim Suk-hee is slender and firm with features of the northern race, while amiable Park Seung-hi is more of the southern race. Speed skating team members Lee Seung-hoon, Joo Hyung-joon and Kim Chul-min displayed traits of different ethnic groups, just like the Dutch skaters in the other lane.

The final was a contest between multiethnic nations. The Netherlands is located in the plain in Europe, inhibited by different ethnic groups and under colonial rules of the United Kingdom and Spain. What made the Netherlands powerful was open-mindedness, adaptability and integration. Baruch Spinoza, Rembrandt and Vincent van Gogh were all born in the Netherlands, and the country became the center of finance and trade. Korean skaters competed against people from a country where everyone skates like athletes when the 200-kilometer (124-mile) canals freeze in the winter.

Outstanding talents and abilities are brewing deep inside our souls. If the potential in our DNA that we didn’t notice when the country was still poor can be expressed, it is only a matter of time Korea becomes one of the world’s top five economies. JoongAng Ilbo Chairman Hong Seok-hyun emphasized this potential when he received an honorary doctorate at Sejong University on February 21. “The Netherlands became a small yet powerful nation in Europe with tolerance and an open perspective. Korea has enough potential to become such a nation.” At Sochi, we witnessed that possibility. The Netherlands found its way from heterogeneity and a history of suffering, and established a system to bring out its vitality and potential. That’s the only difference from Korea.

It’s been a year since the Park Geun-hye administration began. A 60 percent approval rating is a good mark, but is she really doing well? Her high rating may reflect a disapproval of the Democratic Party’s reckless behavior. People may also feel generous and wish to keep their hopes up. But Park cannot avoid poor marks politically. The ruling party is lethargic, and her administrative authority has been undermined by opposition protests. Her policies haven’t achieve much, civil society is torn apart, and the Blue House is powerless.

She may complain of being evaluated too harshly. But politics is a process of awakening the potential, amplifying the national caliber and preparing a systematic environment to make diversity a source of vitality. Would it be too much to expect future-oriented politics? Her honeymoon is over and politics in earnest need to begin.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 25, Page 31

*The author is a sociology professor at Seoul National University.

By Song Ho-keun

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