Watching Korea helplessly caught in the vortex of international crises and domestic turbulence these days, one cannot but ponder how Korea can survive in these difficult times. Of course, it will not be easy to overcome the hardship, and yet we should try hard to survive and even thrive, turning the crisis into an opportunity. What, then, should we do?
First, we should promote and maintain good relationships with neighboring countries and allies, especially with Japan and the United States. This is imperative for the survival and prosperity of South Korea, especially in dealing with China and North Korea.
No one can deny that diplomatic balance between China, Japan and the US is critical for South Korea’s national security. That is why we need to restore good relations with Japan, and be careful that it is not unwittingly damaged. We should reconfirm our alliance with the US as well.
Second, we should cultivate the reputation of being a reliable, trustworthy country in the international community. If our loyalty is swayed and our identity is dubious, we will consequently lose credibility and respect. If we are not trusted, other countries will not look up to us and will treat us accordingly.
For example, faced with an unprecedented diplomatic clash with Japan these days, the Korean government has asked for help from the US. However, experts argue that South Korea should not expect help from the US, as it turned a deaf ear when the US had asked for help in dealing with North Korea. A foreign expert recently wrote, “Korea did not join forces with the USA when it needed (it) most in dealing with the North, and has lost its credibility with every country involved.” Indeed, losing credibility in the international community is fatal.
Third, we should wake up from our romantic dream and be realistic. A romantic cannot survive in the harsh realm of reality and will inevitably end up disillusioned. Experts point out that South Korea’s optimistic approach to North Korea could be a naive romantic dream that shatters easily.
The abovementioned foreign expert interestingly and insightfully compared Korea’s division and reunification to a marriage breakup due to incompatibility and an attempt to remarry after 71 years. Referring to the reunification of Korea, he wrote, “It sounds like someone is planning to remarry his or her ex-partner divorced almost half a century ago. A true romantic love story like that is something everyone would applaud and congratulate. But where’s the proof the ex-partner really wants to remarry you?”
Fourth, we should overcome our victim complex and obsession with the past. As British journalist Michael Breen aptly pointed out recently, Koreans still tend to think that they are victims at a time when the country’s economic size ranks among the top 12 in the world.
Breen suggests that the feeling of being victimized is not healthy and unbecoming of an affluent, successful country such as South Korea. Indeed, it does not do any good to dig up old skeletons and whine about the past. It would be better if we could forgive, forget and move on. Indeed, we should be future-oriented people, not past-oriented ones. Remembrance of things past is necessary, but obsession with the past is not.
Fifth, we should listen to the warnings from older people -- who are experienced and far wiser than the young -- that we should be prepared for the worst. J.R.R Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” provides an invaluable lesson. In the movie of the same title, Smaug, the evil dragon, occupies the dwarf kingdom of Erebor and guards the enormous treasure there for 150 years. In a nearby village called Lake-town, older people warn that the dragon will soon come and destroy the village, so they should be prepared.
However, younger people, who have never seen the dragon, sneer at the old and turn a deaf ear to the warning. They naively believe that the dragon will never attack the village. Soon, the angry dragon once again swoops down and commences with the annihilation of the village. Under the flames of the fiery dragon, the young people in the village belatedly regret their naivete. But it was already too late.
Likewise, today’s young Koreans, who have never gone through the atrocities of war or other unbearable hardships, do not listen to the warnings of older people. In the eyes of young people, the Cold War era has ended, and war cannot break out on this peninsula any more.
But what if a new cold war is underway at this very moment? What if the Korean Peninsula is inadvertently caught in the crossfire of the trade war between China and the US? And what if North Korean leaders misjudge the situation and launch nuclear missiles at the South? Although it is unlikely, should we not be prepared, just in case, instead of simply chanting the litany of peace?
To survive and thrive amid the whirlwind of domestic disruptions and overseas pressure, we should bear the five things above in mind.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting professor at the University of California, Irvine. -- Ed.