When asked which European country Korea might resemble the most, many think of Italy for its being a peninsula, having a similar climate, love for their national cuisine, fashion addiction and passion for music. Others point to Ireland because of their insularity (South Korea being virtually an island after the Korean War), heavy drinking capacity and singing skills. Historically both Italy and Ireland have suffered domination from stronger neighboring countries and fought vigorously to gain independence, just as Korea did in the past.
Although these similarities are gross stereotypes at best, they are vague enough to be sensible at least. Trying to answer the question at the beginning of the article, Finland may be another European country that has many similarities with Korea. A Korean friend told me that he realized how Finnish and Korean were similar when he was kindly silenced during a meal in Helsinki with this sentence: “Are we here to eat or to talk?”
Geographically, the Finnish territory is a tongue-shaped land at the eastern part of the Scandinavian peninsula that neighbors Norway, Sweden and Russia. Similarly, South Korea is in the sphere of influence of three powerful nations, being close to Japan, China and Russia but with the DMZ as an insurmountable protection, which now isolates the country from any possible land connection. For their strategic position throughout history both countries have been buffers between stronger neighboring countries. In fact it is not possible to understand the influence of Russia in Sweden and Norway without studying Finland, as well as it can be very difficult to understand the interactions of China and Japan without analyzing Korea.
Finland and Korea have been also the battle grounds and bunkers of many wars among greater powers. Finnish and Korean borders were defined during the negotiations after World War II and dramatically shaped by the Cold War. The independence gained after the conflict was not free. Finland lost Carelia to Russia and some part of its land in Lapland, losing the conflict as an ally of Germany, Italy and Japan. The following civil war of the white and red in Finland did not end with the division of the country as with Korea, which gained independence from Japan after World War II only to be tragically divided in two after the 1950-53 conflict.
Linguistically, Finnish and Korean seem to both belong to the Ural Altaic family. Some researchers are surprised that people with Scandinavian DNA speak a language of eastern origin. Finnish is in fact different from Norwegian, Swedish and Danish, the other official languages in the Scandinavian region, and is closer to the grammar of Estonia and Hungary. Finnish is also spoken in Russia in the Carelian regions, where people of Finnish descent were separated after WWII. Similarly, Korean is used in some former Soviet Union countries and in the Chinese region of Yanbian, home for many people of Korean origin.
Economically, Finland and Korea are quite agile and in relative good shape considering the current global crisis. Their public sectors are healthy and armed with fiscal leverages to weather downturns. Mario Monti, former EU antitrust commissioner, now president of Bocconi University in Milan, once commented about Finland: “... a country with high growth, public account surplus, low and decreasing public debt, inflation under control in spite of the high growth rate.” Finland and Korea were in a sense lucky to neighbor Russia and China, two of the so-called BRIC countries. The exports to and the imports from these big emerging economies have sustained the growth of the Finnish and Korean economies in recent years. Moreover, the emphasis of Finnish and Korean governments toward knowledge and green economy projects will help to develop sustainable competitive industries and core competencies. A study from Newsweek magazine of the world’s best countries listed Finland and Korea in the first and second positions for education focus. The ranking was made using the results from universal and comparable tests undertaken by students of many countries.
Other similarities can be found in the love for nature. The Finnish and Koreans enjoy hiking, camping and staying in close contact with nature. Although both countries do not have high mountains, in Finland you can experience the many islands and lakes, while in Korea you can spend time by the many hills and rivers.
When the EU-Korea FTA is ratified, contacts and interactions between Korea and European countries will intensify and it may be important to understand deeper cultural similarities and differences.
By Pio Song
Pio Song works for an equipment manufacturer in the solar industry and is an alumnus of the Helsinki School of Economics. ― Ed.