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[Kim Seong-kon] Wake up and look around you, young Koreans!

Due to my profession as a professor, I am occasionally invited to universities, both domestic and foreign, to give talks on my field of expertise.

I have just returned from a trip to Paris where I delivered a lecture at the Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales. To my surprise, more than a hundred French college students gathered at the auditorium. I was greatly impressed by their enthusiasm and eagerness to learn. For 1 1/2 hours, they listened to my lecture attentively with their eyes wide open.

The same thing happened when I gave talks at other universities such as the University of Paris XIII, University of Tokyo, Peking University, Stanford, Cornell, Penn State and the State University of New York at Buffalo.

No one fell asleep or was texting even though my lecture lasted for more than an hour. I saw the same enthusiasm and eagerness in the audience when I gave talks in Germany and Russia as well. This week, I will deliver a lecture at the University of Warsaw, and I am sure Polish students will not let me down as well.

In Korean universities, however, I am almost always disappointed. Unless they are forced or mobilized, Korean college students in general are seldom motivated to attend a special lecture in the first place. If the speaker is a celebrity such as a famous movie star or a K-pop idol, then Korean students would never miss the opportunity. If the topic of the lecture is “How to get a decent job,” or “How to make a million out of a single dollar,” the lecture will be a standing-room only event. Otherwise, they are not interested.

Therefore, the professor who is in charge of the special program usually has to mobilize the audience, presumably offering incentives such as good grades. Dragged to the lecture hall against their will, students are naturally not interested in the lecture at all. Instead of listening to the lecturer, they are preoccupied with texting or checking Facebook. Others sleep through the entire lecture. They do not seem to treat invited speakers with common courtesy or respect. Obviously, no one has taught them how to behave and be courteous.

Whenever I encounter such pathetic Korean college students, I cannot but despair and give up hope for Korea’s future. I know young people find it obnoxious when an older man begins his talk with “When I was young.” But I am compelled to say that when I was young, I always went to all the available special lectures in order to learn from the speakers who were obviously better than me.

When I was young, I had the irresistible yearning to learn. And I have benefitted from all those lectures I attended. The speakers enlightened and illuminated me with their profound insights, innovative perceptions, and erudite knowledge. Even when I lived in the United States, the UK, and Canada, I drove long distances to attend special lectures in order to experience intellectual adventures.

On the contrary, today’s young Koreans do not seem to have any desire to learn, in general. Therefore, they become “Smombies” -- smartphone zombies in the lecture hall. If you force them to put aside their smartphones, all of them will fall asleep instantly. Perhaps they have been raised too comfortably -- well taken care of by their overprotective parents -- and have become spoiled.

Perhaps another reason for this negative phenomenon is that in Korea everyone wants to enter college, and as a result, Korean universities have so many students who are not suitable for college education. In other countries, if you do not have money or are not eager to learn more, you do not go to college. In those countries, therefore, those who enter college study very hard. In Korea, however, students think that once they enter college, they can relax and rest.

The problem is that if you fall asleep, you will lose out on so many precious things while you are sleeping. If you close your eyes, you will never know what is going on in the world. If you are not interested in topics such as “Korea in the Age of Globalization,” or “Building Cultural Bridges between the East and the West,” you will be ignorant of recent changes and remain isolated in the international community.

While you are sleeping, or busy texting in the lecture hall, you will not know how grave the crisis surrounding your country now is. When a second Korea War breaks out on the peninsula, it is you who will have to fight to defend your country, not your parents or other nations. No savior will come to rescue you this time.

Dear young people in Korea, you should be alert and wide awaken. Wake up and look around you! The world is worried about your country and watching you anxiously. If you fall asleep while young people in other nations are awake, your nation’s future will be bleak.

By Kim Seong-kon

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