There is a saying that you can easily find quite a few rich countries, but you have to go quite far before you find an internationally esteemed country. In other words, becoming a respectable country is more difficult than being a rich country. Respect is not something that you can have automatically; you should earn it. How, then, can you earn respect from the international community?
Among other things, you should avoid losing dignity and integrity under any circumstances and act with this in mind. You should also be grateful to those who helped you when you were desperate. In addition, being courteous and friendly to foreigners, too, will bring you international respect.
We should know that we lose dignity if we constantly read others’ faces and act spinelessly. Indeed, if we take an obsequious attitude toward a bully, we will never earn respect from him. Instead, he will continue to bully us and even more. However, if we boldly stand up against an overbearing person, he will respect us and will not treat us lightly.
The same thing goes for our relationship with other countries. If we maintain a low profile and a subservient attitude toward an imposing country, it will never respect us. In order to earn respect, therefore, we should stand up and speak out if it makes unfair demands. As Michael J. Fox said, “One’s dignity may be assaulted, vandalized, and cruelly mocked, but it can never be taken away unless it is surrendered.”
Born in an affluent society, young Koreans are men of self-esteem and self-confident. When they are overseas, they are likely to be greeted warmly and respectfully by K-pop or K-film fans. Naturally, they are proud of their country and do not feel small even when they meet people from big countries. Besides, they do not feel that they owe anything to other countries.
On the contrary, the older generation in Korea does not seem to be quite so self-confident. Born in a destitute country, they have lived through a series of traumatic and turbulent sociopolitical episodes on the Korean Peninsula. During the process, they vividly saw that Korea’s national security and even economy helplessly depended on stronger countries and foreign powers.
Perhaps that is why older Korean politicians are not commanding or stately enough when they deal with stronger countries. In Korea, there is a maxim: “Law is far, fist is near.” Still, however, we should not submit before the threat of the fist. If we are afraid, and act pusillanimously, no country will respect us.
Indeed, we should be stately and firm, and say “No!” to any country that tries to interfere with our internal affairs or national security issues. In addition, we should act according to our principles and common sense as a country of liberal democracy and freedom. Only then, can we become an esteemed global leader.
At the same time, we can also earn respect by being grateful for what we have received from other countries. The international community does not respect insolent or ungrateful countries. Therefore, we should be grateful to the 21 countries that sent ground troops or medical corps to South Korea during the Korean War. Had it not been for their indispensable help, today’s South Korea could not have been possible.
In addition, we should be grateful to the US and the UN for their invaluable financial assistance to the destitute postwar Korean society. In the present time, we should also be grateful to American soldiers who are stationed in South Korea to protect us from foreign aggression. We should be grateful to the US Congress that recently passed a bill that specified the required minimum number of US soldiers dispatched in South Korea, so the US administration could not withdraw all troops from the Peninsula.
We should be grateful to Korean soldiers and government officials, too. Without our soldiers’ sacrifice and protection, we would lose everything. Government officials, too, are working for their country all through their lives. However, we do not seem to appreciate their services for our nation at all and instead treat them as if they were ordinary people, especially when we discuss the reform of the pension system. If we do not take their invaluable contributions to our country into account, no soldiers will risk their lives to protect us when war breaks out in our country. No government officials will serve the country wholeheartedly, either.
In addition to being grateful, we should also be nice and friendly, especially to foreigners. One of the characteristics of internationally esteemed countries is the people’s courtesy and friendliness: America, Spain, and Japan come to mind, among others. We, too, should be courteous and friendly to foreigners.
In order to be a pivotal global leader, we should earn respect from the international community first. For that purpose, we should have a dignified attitude, a sense of appreciation, and a foreigner-friendly mindset.
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.