The Korea Herald


[Kim Seong-kon] Is Korea reliable and trustworthy if loyalty is swayed?

By Kim Seong-kon

Published : Jan. 9, 2018 - 17:40

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When I studied at the State University of New York at Buffalo 40 years ago, I learned English poetry from the famous poet Robert Creeley. At the time, a host of celebrated American and Canadian poets visited the university for poetry readings. Whenever Bob Creeley introduced me to them, he almost always added after the formal introduction, “Mr. Kim is a reliable person.” It made me happy because I knew it was one of the best compliments an American can give. Indeed, if you are labeled as an unreliable person, you can neither survive nor thrive in American society.

When you are overseas, like it or not, you will find yourself to be a representative of your country to foreigners. To the American and Canadian poets, I represented Korea, so they naturally seemed to think that all Koreans were reliable. I was happy to give a good impression of Korea and the Korean people. In the 1970s, few Americans knew where Korea was located. In fact, I was frequently asked, “Are you Chinese or Japanese?” An American Vietnam War veteran once asked me, “Are you from Vietnam?” No one asked, “Are you Korean?”

These days, Korea has become quite well-known thanks to its remarkable economic success, the rise of companies like Samsung, and K-pop. The recent phenomenal popularity of K-pop groups EXO and BTS in the US and the excellent reputation of Samsung Galaxy smartphones are good examples. In addition, many foreign government officials visit Korea to learn the secret behind its astonishing economic prosperity.

Yet I often wonder, “Is Korea reliable and trustworthy?” For example, while our neighboring country’s satellite weather forecast announces that the level of micro dust in Korea has reached dangerous levels, our own forecast says it is within the acceptable range. In Korea, it is hard to find an electric bulletin board that says the current air pollution is bad. It always states that everything is safe and sound. It is only natural that when our government announces something, people tend to doubt its credibility.

The same thing may happen in diplomacy. If Korea leans heavily toward China even though America, not China, is Korea’s ally, American politicians in Washington will think Korea is unreliable. Likewise, if Korea’s loyalty is swayed between China and the US, Americans will not trust Korea, either. If Americans think that Korean politicians do not keep their word or promises, Korea will lose credibility and reliability, which is disastrous in American culture.

By the same token, if our politicians exhibit an anti-American or anti-Japanese attitude to flatter China, we will lose respect not only from America and Japan, but from China as well. A professional diplomat would never do such an unwise thing. Instead, he would let China know that Japan and the US are always behind us, pressing us on some agendas on which we need to oblige them.

He would constantly remind China that Korea and America are allies and that Korea needs to get along with Japan as well. Otherwise, China would not treat us with proper respect because it knows that Korea does not have the support from either America or Japan.

Meanwhile, Japanese politicians may think that Korea is not reliable because in their eyes Korea constantly tries to nullify the agreement signed by the two governments and demand more. When dealing with Japan, we should take into account that Japan is a thoroughly westernized country, perhaps even more Western than the West itself in some areas. In a country based on business, you cannot nullify contracts. That is why you should be very careful when signing a document in the West. In Korea, however, we tend to think that even a signed-agreement can be thrown out if it is unfair.

It is imperative that we remain reliable all the time. Korea should become a country of its word. If Korea is known as an unreliable country, there will be no place for us in the international community. Traditionally a country of scholars and writers, we do not seem to realize the importance of reliability. In a business-based country, however, unreliability is a fatal flaw. In order to be global, we should be reliable and dependable, honest and trustworthy.

In my experience, Samsung maintains an excellent reputation in the global arena. People from overseas agree that Samsung is highly reliable because of the superb quality of its products and excellent warranty. Other Korean enterprises should benchmark Samsung in order to gain credibility in trade. I believe Samsung has significantly contributed to upgrading Korea’s credibility in the world.

If we have lost credibility by any chance in the international community and diplomacy, we should do our best to regain it as fast as we can. Otherwise, we will be left out in the cold. Korea should be a nation that other countries can trust and rely on. Only then, can Korea be a truly globalized country.

By Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and distinguished visiting professor at George Washington University. He can be reached at –Ed.