Foreigners are often impressed by the commendable characteristics of the Korean people such as their admirable community spirit, astonishing diligence and warmth. They praise the Korean spirit of dogged persistence, which eventually enables Koreans to accomplish remarkable achievements, both economic and political. Foreigners also admire Koreans’ superb craftsmanship, which has made South Korea one of the best in IT technology.
At the same time, however, foreigners are perplexed by some of the peculiar tendencies of the Korean people. For example, in foreigners’ eyes, Koreans seem to believe that everybody should be equal in every which way. Indeed, we cannot tolerate anyone who is better than us or ahead of us. Instead of admiring him or trying to compete with him fairly, therefore, we tend to blame society for social injustice or comfort ourselves by slandering and condemning this superior person. And we almost always try to conjure up convenient excuses in order to lick our psychic wounds; for example, “Ah, he has a powerful father,” “He is from a rich family” or “He has privileges that I don’t have.” And we hate him.
A few days ago, I had a chat with a professor from an American university. “In our department,” he said, “we have an exceptionally brilliant Korean graduate student-teaching assistant who speaks fluent English because she attended elementary school in the States. Her academic performance is superb and so are her teaching evaluations. So we reappointed her as a teaching assistant for the next semester.”
Then the American professor went on to say, “Suddenly, other Korean students, jealous of her, began complaining behind her back that the selection process was neither fair nor transparent. They thought all the other Korean students, too, should be given teaching assistantships.
“But we made the decision after carefully examining her English proficiency, academic records and teaching evaluations,” the frustrated professor protested. “You know how fair we are when it comes to such a matter, don’t you?”
Then he concluded, “We were quite puzzled because those Korean students acted as if they were from a socialist country. Appointing a teaching assistant is not a social welfare issue. It’s a competition and we need to choose the best of the best. Yet, Koreans demand equal distribution of everything.”
Listening to him, I came to realize that the Korean mentality is indeed a curious blend of capitalism, socialism and communism. In fact, it would not be too farfetched to say that even though our economic system is capitalist, our social structure resembles a socialist one and our minds are inclined toward communism, in the sense that we want material abundance, heavenly social welfare and equal distribution of wealth at the same time. But how could this be possible?
Perhaps that is why many Koreans abominate the rich, the privileged and the powerful, condemning them as if they were criminals. We tend to think it is unfair if someone is richer, better or more competent than us. But is it not true that we live in a capitalist society in which we must compete with others to prove our competence? Should we not acknowledge the differences between us?
Airports are good illustrations of the case. At major U.S. airport security checkpoints, for example, you can find a designated express lane for prestige class ticket holders. When a security officer is in charge of both the economy and prestige lanes, he lets prestige class passengers go ahead of economy class passengers, even if they arrived at the same time. But no one complains about it. Obviously, Americans think that prestige class passengers pay more, so they are entitled to extra convenience. In Southeast Asian countries, you can even find a red-carpeted express lanes exclusively for business and first class passengers.
In Korean airports, however, no such privileges exist. Even if you are a prestige class passenger, you have to stand in line with hundreds of economy class passengers in order to pass the security checkpoint and immigration counter. Only at airline check-in counters do you find separate lanes for prestige or first class passengers. But even there, you may feel uncomfortable because you can sense the hostile stares from economy class passengers queuing to check in. Perhaps that is why Koreans enjoy the movie “Snowpiercer” so much, in which the poor and underprivileged in the rear compartments of the train fight their way to the front compartments reserved for the rich and privileged.
Capitalism may have some fatal flaws. So we must impose checks on the system so it does not go awry. Nevertheless, capitalism has been proven to be much better than communism. Until we find a better alternative, therefore, we should put up with capitalism and try to make the most of it. The American movie “Behind Enemy Lines 2” narrates, “North Korea is a surreal blend of Stalinism, communism and cult-of-personality dictatorship.” We may also say that South Korea is a surreal blend of capitalism, socialism and communism. As long as North Korea exists, however, we need to stick to capitalism, which is currently our best option.
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.