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[Kim Seong-kon] What to do with bullies around us?

Koreans are very proud of the recent successful rescue of the sailors of the Samho Jewelry by the UDT (Korea’s equivalent of the U.S. SEAL team). Instead of yielding to the Somali pirates’ demand for ransom, the Korean government decided to take military action this time to rescue the Korean captives, perhaps for the first time in Korea’s history, in international waters. During the operation, the Korean Special Forces succeeded in saving the Korean hostages, killed eight pirates and captured five. With the audacious rescue mission, Korea silently proclaimed that she would neither tolerate nor negotiate with terrorists or pirates. 

This incident once again brings forth a critical question: “What should we do with the bullies and terrorists around us?” The United States, for example, is firmly determined not to negotiate with terrorists who hold U.S. citizens to ransom. At school, Americans also teach their students to stand up against bullies, instead of succumbing to them. To the American people, therefore, it is cowardly to bribe bullies. Besides, bullies will keep demanding money once they taste the sweetness of bribery.

Korean leftists, on the other hand, have asserted that South Korea should constantly cajole North Korea with generous financial assistance, so that the latter does not provoke the South. To those who oppose such a passive, meek tactic, the pro-North Korean people always roar: “Do you want another war on this peninsula?” as if bribing North Korea is the only way to avoid conflict. On the other hand, conservatives contend that such an attitude, which is too cowardly, will never solve the problem. Which claim, then, is more plausible?

A famous Korean folktale, “The Sun and the Moon,” well illustrates the situation and provides the right answer to the compelling question. On her way back home after a day’s work, a mother encounters a ferocious tiger on a hill. The tiger threatens her, saying, “I won’t eat you if you give me the rice cake you’re carrying.” Instead of fighting back, the mother gives the rice cake to the tiger, hoping that the tiger will let her go.

After gulping down the delicious cake, however, the tiger threatens the scared mother again, muttering: “That was not enough. Give me one of your arms, and I will let you live.” Once again, the mother yields to the nasty tiger, giving up one of her arms. After devouring her arm, the tiger wants more, “I’m still hungry. Give me one of your legs and I’ll let you go.” The mean tiger demands more and more until there is nothing left of her body.

The tiger then dons the mother’s dress and goes to her house where her two children are waiting for their mother’s return. Posing as the mother, the tiger succeeds in making the children open the door. As the tiger chases them, the two children run for their lives and with the help of God, ascend to the sky and become the sun and the moon.

The story tells us that the mother’s submissive attitude toward the fierce tiger cost not only her life, but endangered the lives of her children as well. At first, the mother thinks that she can appease the threatening tiger by offering the beast what he wants, and yet his demands never seem to end. Living on a peninsula among powerful, and sometimes nasty, neighboring countries, our ancestors seem to have passed down their perennial wisdom for survival through the popular folktale.

The famous Aesop’s fable of the camel and his master provides us with the same lesson. On a cold day, a kind master allows his shivering camel to step into his tent, first allowing him to shelter his head, his shoulders and then his forelegs. In the end, the impudent camel pushes his whole body into the small tent, pushing his kind master out. This fable, too, well illustrates how one is doomed to be pushed about when he extends unnecessary kindness to an undeserving beast.

Granted, our decision to rescue the hostages was successful, but we cannot afford to be intoxicated by the success forever. Instead, we should be prepared for the possible side effects of our resolution. For example, the pirates may retaliate against other Korean vessels, a danger we must be prepared for.

Yet our major television companies celebrated the occasion day after day. Just like an overexcited child, they canceled regular programs and aired hastily produced specials on the rescue mission over and over until viewers became sick and tired of it. The TV producers conveniently made excuses, stating, “The viewers wanted it.” But not all viewers are childish and infantile.

We should not beg for peace by offering money to bullies. That would be undoubtedly cowardly and consequently spoil them. They would ask for more money and we would never be free from the threats. Instead, we should stand up and prepare for consequences. We should be more mature and act like an adult.

By  Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon, a professor of English at Seoul National University, is president of the Association of Korean University Presses. ― Ed.