Korea, a country of mental refugees?

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Korea, a country of mental refugees?


My cousin emigrated to New Zealand more than 20 years ago. Around that time, a group of my college friends left the country together. Their primary motivation was education. My nephew and niece, who were in elementary school when they left Korea, also graduated from college in New Zealand and now work in Australia and Korea.

While living abroad, my cousin missed Korea, describing New Zealand as a “boring heaven” and Korea as a “fun hell.” Living in Korea is busy, crowded and competitive, but its society has a unique energetic and dynamic vibe. Her friends felt the same. They joked, “If you have money, Korea is the most fun country to live in.” Some of them returned to Korea after their children grew up.

That, however, is a story of the past. A recent opinion poll showed 57 percent of people said that they would not want to be born in Korea if they could be born again. Just 43 percent would choose to live another life in Korea. Interestingly, 60 percent of people in their 20s said they wouldn’t want to live in Korea again. They identified “excessive competition” and “college admission challenges” as the biggest reasons.

The bleakest reality in Korea is “politics.” Seventy percent of respondents to the poll by Dooit Survey said that Korean society is not fair and polarization has reached a serious level.

Young Koreans feel empathy for Victor Ahn, who obtained Russian citizenship and earned four medals, including three golds, at the recent Sochi Olympics. Instead of branding him as a “traitor,” most people said that he had the right of choosing his nationality.

People supported his choice because Ahn - who is a symbol of injustice in Korean sports - became a hero in Russia and got his revenge on the home country that shunned him. It appears that the deep-rooted sports nationalism is disappearing in Korea. Of course, support for Ahn doesn’t prove the antinationalist trend of the young generation. But their fatigue may be reflected here, as so many of them don’t want to be born again in Korea.

Rhee June-woong, a communications professor at Seoul National University, describes the trend as “a state of mental refuge.” People physically live in Korea but mentally don’t belong here. When an opportunity arises, they can leave any time.

“Now, nationality is something you can [obtain] and give up - just liking signing up for a mobile phone service. Promising, ambitious and young Koreans now dream of a future in a country other than Korea. We shouldn’t blame those who change their nationality, but the country is certainly problematic for driving away the heroes of the future,” he said.

Living as a global citizen free of the yoke of nationalism is completely different from not wanting to live as a Korean citizen again. March 1 was the historical Independence Movement Day. Is Korea still a country of mental refugees?

JoongAng Ilbo, Mar. 1, Page 31

*The author is a culture and sports editor at the JoongAng Ilbo.

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