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[Kim Seong-kon] Insights from outsiders can illuminate us

Recently, I came across an intriguing interview in a Korean daily of an American professor specializing in North Korea. As an outsider, the foreign professor was able to perceive many things that we Koreans are unable to see or recognize. Reading his insightful interview, I came to realize how an outsider can provide a fresh new insight into Korean culture and society, and how we are blind to certain aspects of our society that are inscrutable to foreign eyes.

First, the foreign professor thought it very strange that the Koreans remained silent and did not protest against North Korea when the naval ship Cheonan was attacked, resulting in heavy casualties among South Korean sailors, or when Yeonpyeong Island was bombarded by North 
Korean artillery. He could not understand the strange phenomena because Koreans protested vehemently against the United States when the latter tried to export beef to South Korea. At that time, South Koreans violently condemned the U.S. as if our ally had plotted to spread mad cow disease in the Korean Peninsula. He also found it difficult to understand the fact that the Koreans kept curiously silent about the North Korean military provocations while never tiring of condemning Japan for what it did to the Korean people a long time ago.

The foreign professor concluded that in Korea the notion of “the Korean people” overrides that of “the Republic of Korea.” Perhaps this explains why South Koreans are reluctant to retaliate even after their country is attacked by North Korea and why they naively assume that the North Korean nuclear weapons will be theirs when unification takes place. Indeed, in South Korea the priority is always given to “the Korean people” or “Uri Kkiri” (We are the same people) rather than to the Republic of Korea. Perhaps, that is why radicals in South Korea denounce the sovereignty of their own nation and seek the establishment of a new unified Korea, while sympathizing with the North Korean people.

The foreign professor also pointed out that even our national flag is devoid of the image or spirit of the Republic of Korea. Thus, it looks like a flag of the Korean people, not of the Republic of Korea. By the same token, he argued that our national anthem, too, is not so much a song of the Republic of Korea as a song of the Korean people, for it decisively lacks the vision of the nation. In that sense, the Korean national flag and anthem are radically different from those of France, U.K. or the U.S., all of which display the spirit of the national foundation.

Another striking point the foreign professor made in his interview was that he thought of North Korea as an extreme right-wing country rather than a leftist one. It would have never occurred to the South Koreans that North Korea is an extreme right-wing country. But the foreign professor’s observation was right on the money. A communist nation is no longer communist if it is has to allow free markets because it cannot operate the food rationing system. Similarly, a socialist nation is right-wing if it is conservative and not progressive. In addition, if a nation’s leader preaches ultranationalism, the nation becomes an extreme right-wing nation. And extreme right-wing nations are usually totalitarian societies ruled by military dictatorships. Interestingly enough, these descriptions fit North Korea perfectly. Perhaps, it is in this sense that North Korea can be labeled as an extreme right-wing nation.

The foreign professor also contended that South Korea is a rare country that does not celebrate its foundation day. That means we do not value the founding of the Republic of Korea, at least not as much as our liberation from Japan. Indeed, if we do not value our republic, who would? The professor went on to say that if South Korea did not react to North Korea’s provocations, then North Korean politicians might mistake it as a sign of South Koreans’ loyalty to North Korea. Likewise, we can also give North Korean politicians the wrong message if we are reluctant to take actions against the human rights violation of North Korea. The increasing number of pro-North Korea leftists in South Korea can also give the wrong impression.

Foreigners find many other things in Korea difficult to comprehend. For example, few foreigners would understand why South Koreans oppose the deployment of THAAD in their country, because it will surely protect South Korea against possible missile attacks from North Korea. Even I could not understand why our TV announcers harshly criticized the Korean government for even discussing the possibility with the U.S. government.

I always enjoy reading columns written by foreigners or their interviews. As outsiders, they often enlighten us by shedding light on issues we are not aware of and illuminate us with intriguing insights. We should listen to their suggestions and advice carefully. Their viewpoints and opinions can guide us in the right direction in the disconcerting whirlpool of international politics.

By Kim Seong-kon

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