[Kim Seong-kon] Is Korea still a ‘No Action, Talk Only’ nation?

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Feb 25, 2014 - 19:54
  • Updated : Feb 25, 2014 - 19:54
Americans are well-known to be law-abiding people. However, when they find a rule inconvenient and unreasonable, they do not seem to hesitate to bend or change it. Americans are also famous for acting quickly. One good example of this is the self-defense law implemented right after the Homestead Act. Upon learning that Native Americans and outlaws were frequently invading the territory of the homesteaders and killing them, the U.S. Congress immediately took action, passing the famous self-defense bill to protect the settlers. Another fine example is the capital punishment law for child kidnapping, which took effect immediately after the abduction and brutal murder of Charles Lindberg’s son. 

On the contrary, Koreans tend to cling to petty rules and regulations and can be incredibly slow to take action. For example, in Korea you frequently hear people say, “We can’t do it because of the rules.” No matter how absurd the rule, Koreans stick to it stubbornly and seldom dare to bend it. Korean government institutions were once notorious for being bureaucratic and sticklers for the rules. These days, however, they have become surprisingly friendly and flexible. Nevertheless, bending the rules is still not a common practice in Korean society.

A few weeks ago, I attended a meeting in which scholars of the Korean language discussed how to spell a word of foreign origin, “radar,” in the Korean alphabet. According to the current rule, the pronunciation would sound like “raider.” Since this is not the correct pronunciation, scientists have recently petitioned for the spelling to be changed to make it sound similar to the original English word. A professor of natural science, who was present on behalf of Korean scientists, pointed out that the current rule was not consistent because “sonar” was pronounced like its English equivalent while “radar” was not.

Initially, I thought the meeting would end within 10 minutes. How could the committee refute an argument laid out on such reasonable, compelling grounds? All they had to do was agree to correct the inaccurate spelling of “radar.” However, to my surprise, the meeting dragged on for an entire hour, and yet they still had not reached a conclusion. Finally, they decided to continue the discussion at their next meeting, which is to be held perhaps in a few months time. I left the meeting room with a sigh and heavy heart.

At the beginning of the conference, a Korean scholar asked the scientist rather bluntly, “What’s wrong with the current system? What makes you feel inconvenienced when you use the current spelling?” “Since scientists use a different spelling,” answered the scientist, “it’s very inconvenient.” To my mind, the scientist was right in every sense, so I decided to back him up. I said, “I think the scientists have a point. Besides, if we pronounce ‘radar’ incorrectly, it could create serious communication problems, as English-speaking people might mistake it for ‘raider,’ which means ‘plunderer.’” Yet no one seemed to agree with me.

I attempted to further my argument and informed them that I was in the English Department and, as far as I knew, the proposed spelling for “radar” would be more accurate in terms of pronunciation. At that very moment, I realized I had made a fatal mistake; suddenly I felt a strong sense of hostility, “like domes of silence,” muting the conference room, as Graham Greene nicely puts it in “The Case for the Defense.” I should never have revealed my identity. The Korean language scholars began staring at me, their gazes full of contempt, as if they were thinking “So what?” or “So you think you’re somebody just because you speak English?”

Then someone abruptly roared, “You’re misunderstanding the whole thing. A foreign-origin word is not a foreign word. It’s a Korean word so we can pronounce it in whatever way we want. Who cares about English pronunciation?” The man continued to grumble in a loud voice: “Do you suggest we should spell ‘battery’ differently and ‘Deung So-pyong’ as ‘Deng Xiaoping’ for the convenience of Americans and Chinese? That’s outrageous!” Obviously, he was ignorant of the fact that that is how they are spelled according to the current rules.

If we come to realize we have made a mistake, we should humbly acknowledge it and rectify it right away. If some rules are inconvenient, we should change them immediately. Furthermore, if someone petitions for a reasonable cause, we should consider it positively, instead of dragging our heels and protesting, “Are you implying we made a mistake?”

Moreover, we should act fast in this age of ultra-high speed. If we are not fast enough, we will fall behind. We have a tragic history of being colonized because we reacted too slowly to the swift current of changes in the early 20th century. We can no longer stand to be forever called a “NATO (No Action, Talk Only)” nation by foreigners.

By Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor of English at Seoul National University and president of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. ― Ed.