The Korea Herald


[Kim Seong-kon] Is Korea a strange, enigmatic country?

By Korea Herald

Published : Feb. 4, 2014 - 19:37

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Few civilized countries would call themselves “a mysterious country.” Yet South Korea can surely be called a mysterious, inscrutable country for many reasons. For example, South Korea has miraculously achieved both splendid economic success and solid democratization in just 60 years. Indeed, foreigners often wonder how a once hopelessly poverty-stricken country like Korea could become such an affluent nation today with stellar achievements: It is the 12th largest economy in terms of output; eighth in trade ranking; first or second in the shipbuilding industry, to name but a few. In addition, Korea astonishingly recovered from the Asian financial crisis in less than two years. 

There are a plethora of other puzzling things found in contemporary Korean society. For instance, there are so many cars on the streets of Korea during business hours, causing heavy traffic congestion all day long. In major cities of other countries, traffic jams occur only during rush hours because people work in their offices or factories during the daytime. Are these Korean daytime drivers, then? Are they job-free, rich people who are on their way to a golf course? Or are they private businesspeople running errands? 

Recently, someone sent me a list of strange phenomena found in Korea. Among them was, “In Korea, the more expensive something is, the better it sells.” It is common sense that people are inclined to buy less expensive things. Strangely, however, Koreans prefer expensive items, perhaps out of vanity or ostentation. Taking advantage of this psychology, prices are often ridiculously high in Korea.

Another enigma in Korea is the vast chasm between Koreans’ eagerness to learn English and their English proficiency. Koreans spend astronomical amounts of money ― not to mention time and energy ― on learning English, and yet strangely few Koreans speak fluent English. It is a wonder, indeed, that after learning English for so many years, many Koreans still have difficulty communicating with foreigners in English.

Korea is also baffling in the sense that Koreans are not interested in provincial soccer games held inside Korea, and yet crazy about international soccer games. During the 2002 World Cup, for example, approximately 7 million people reportedly poured out into the streets of Korea to cheer on the Korean soccer team and celebrate the Korean athletes’ victories.

Living in a small country, many Koreans seem to be obsessed with the notion that they should be outstanding in the international community. Perhaps that is why Koreans are so preoccupied with winning a gold medal or the grand prize in an international competition.

Foreigners also find it weird that Koreans exchange groceries as gifts during the holiday season. In a Western society, you would become a laughing stock if you gave fruit, beef or fish to others as a gift. In Korea, however, groceries can be a fine gift. Of course, there is a reason. A long time ago when Koreans were destitute and thus one of the people’s greetings was, “Did you have your meal yet?” food was a favorite gift. Another reason for exchanging groceries on the Lunar New Years Day or Chuseok customarily is that people need fruit, beef and fish for Jesa, the ancestral worship ceremony, usually held during the holiday season. Perhaps that is why the custom still thrives in Korea.

There are other outstanding, strange phenomena found in Korean society. For example, Korea is perhaps the only country that gravely underestimates Japan. In the international community, Japan is treated with respect for what it has achieved as an advanced country. On the contrary, most Koreans tend to disparage Japan as just another small neighboring country. Some Koreans do not seem to treat Chinese tourists with due respect either. Foreigners may wonder: “Is it because Koreans are a proud people? Or is it because Koreans do not know about her neighboring countries well enough?”

In the eyes of foreigners, Korea has other strange sides. For example, Korean students stay at school all day, studying from 8 o’clock in the morning until 10 o’clock at night. Another bizarre thing is that Koreans very much like gangster movies depicting bosses of organized crime. It is also puzzling that in Korea he or she who has the loudest voice wins a quarrel. Other perplexing things include the fact that Korea is known as a male-Chauvinist country, and yet it is actually Korean women who have power over men, controlling and even manipulating their husbands.

There are other bewildering things that make Korea look strange. For example, Korea is a Confucian society, and yet the suicide rate is very high and so is the divorce rate. Korea is also near top of the list in alcohol consumption, whisky and wine imports and juvenile smoking.

Worse, today’s South Korean society is sharply divided into left and right, and ideologically antagonizing people fight every day. And yet, Korea still seems to be thriving and prosperous. Korea is indeed a land of wonder, full of mysteries and contradictions that cannot be explained logically.

By Kim Seong-kon 

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