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[Kim Seong-kon] The shape of Korea resembles a trophy

Korean people commonly say that the image of the Korean Peninsula on a map seems to resemble a rabbit. The comparison is telling: Since a rabbit is a docile animal constantly threatened by ferocious predators, it matches the geopolitical situation of Korea, surrounded by belligerent neighboring countries. On the other hand, some optimists have come up with an opposite theory, that the Korean Peninsula resembles not a rabbit, but a crouching tiger that is ready to jump and fight back. Meanwhile, pessimists have compared the shape of the Korean Peninsula to a shrimp that can be helplessly crushed by a battle between gigantic whales. Indeed, the Korean Peninsula looks like the above three animals, depending on the angle one considers.

However, the late culture critic, Lee O-young, made a completely different suggestion. Intriguingly, he proposed that the Korean Peninsula resembles a trophy. He said, “Even though it is small, Korea has been a pivotal country that has changed world history. Since it is located between a great continental power and a great oceanic power, Korea has been a fateful place where the two powers inevitably clash and collide. Consequently, the Korean Peninsula has always been a trophy to the winning power, whether it is China or Japan.” Then Lee concluded rather humorously, “However, just like the Academy Awards, no one can monopolize a trophy forever.”

Indeed, the shape of the Korean Peninsula looks like a trophy, too. In fact, it is undeniable that historically, Korea has been a trophy coveted by competitors who have fought to win it. In the late 19th century, for example, China, Japan and Russia competed fiercely to lay claim to the peninsula.

Even in the 20th century, the trophy status of Korea continued. Whoever won the trophy called “Korea,” the winner had geopolitical advantages over other countries. In the eyes of Japan, for example, the Korean Peninsula was like a bridge to Manchuria and mainland China. Thus, Japan, which had ambitions of ruling Asia, took the “trophy” for 35 years from 1910 until she lost the Pacific War in 1945.

At the start of the Korean War in 1950, when North Korea invaded the South, Japan came up with another interpretation of the shape of her former colony: They felt that if the Korean Peninsula were unified by communism, it would be a threatening sling or arrow aimed at her heart, both geographically and symbolically. On the other hand, China and North Korea felt the arrow pointing a different way, as South Korea remained a capitalist country supporting a liberal democracy, allied with Japan and the US.

Even today, South Korea remains an attractive trophy. For one thing, in 2021 the UN Conference on Trade and Development officially classified South Korea as a country with a “developed economy.” Indeed, South Korea has accomplished impressive economic success, technological advancement and cultural influence. It is well regarded as the home of Samsung, LG and Hyundai, plus internationally acclaimed for culture, such as the K-pop group BTS and Korean films. South Korea is now widely known overseas and much envied by other countries.

In the semiconductor market, too, South Korea’s Samsung is occupying an important place, together with Taiwan’s TSMC. Upon arriving at South Korea, the first thing US President Biden did was visit a Samsung semiconductor factory near Seoul. It indicated that the US urgently needed South Korea’s cooperation in the international semiconductor trade war.

China, too, may have great need of South Korea’s cooperation. As for North Korea, it may have a daydream that someday it can own Samsung, LG, and Hyundai through unification by the North. Indeed, whoever wins South Korea’s heart will derive great benefits. In that sense, South Korea is still undeniably a charming trophy.

In the 21st century, however, we should adamantly insist that South Korea is not a trophy to be taken by other countries. Instead, if we want to see it as a trophy, then South Korea is now a trophy of her own or a trophy admired by the world. For that purpose, South Korea should be a strong country with an invincible military power, so it can defend itself from any foreign aggressions successfully. Naively chanting pacifism without preparation for war will make South Korea a trophy for a stronger country once again.

The late literary critic Lee’s “trophy” theory is quite intriguing and persuasive. Indeed, the Korean Peninsula was a trophy for her neighboring countries in the past. From now on, however, South Korea will be a trophy for the Korean people themselves, who have miraculously accomplished many spectacular things in such a short span of time since the end of the Korean War. Although our deplorable politicians are significantly ruining the image of Korea by playing low in their everyday factional brawls, the world will keep admiring South Korea and be envious of the trophy the Korean people have won.

Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.

Korea Herald (

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