The Korea Herald


[Kim Seong-kon] Sword of Damocles dangling above South Korea

By Kim Seong-kon

Published : March 6, 2018 - 18:02

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These days, my American friends often compare the situation in South Korea to the “Sword of Damocles.” A friend recently wrote me, saying, “In my eyes, South Korea is, like Damocles, sitting under swords that can fall on her head at any time without warning.”

Damocles was a courtier in the court of Dionysius II of Syracuse, Sicily, in the fourth century. He was envious of King Dionysius’ power and glory. Dionysius offered to switch places with him for a day so that Damocles could have a taste of his power. Needless to say, Damocles readily agreed. When he sat on the throne, however, he found a sword dangling above him by a single hair of a horse’s tail. The famous anecdote is an allusion to the impending and omnipresent peril a man of power and glory has to constantly face.

Like Damocles, today’s South Korea, too, finds several sharp-edged swords dangling above it.

One of them is the unpredictable and trigger-happy North that threatens world peace with its incessant ballistic missile tests.

Other menacing swords include China, Japan and the United States. The strong, aggressive leaders of those countries are determined to restore their glorious past. One problem with their determination is that their policies will jeopardize South Korea’s national security in one way or another and eventually reduce it again to a helplessly insecure country caught in the crossfire.

Presently, South Korea’s situation is extremely precarious and its luck seems to be running out. If things go awry, those swords will fall upon us, and destroy all of our splendid accomplishments, including our much-admired economic miracle. Under the circumstances, South Korea seems to have two options. One is to give up the recently acquired throne and disappear into oblivion. The other option is to keep sitting there until the swords fall and impale it. Either way, South Korea seems to be in big trouble, if not doomed.

Other threats also hang above our heads like ticking time bombs. For example, the frequent tremors in the southeastern province are unnerving because they may be signs of an imminent major earthquake. Another threat are the micro-dust particulates that accumulate in our lungs leading to lung cancer and other illnesses. Some people worry about the possibility of the eruption of Baekdusan. Although the mountain is located in North Korea, an eruption, if it happens on a large scale, might affect even South Korea somehow.

Another sharp-edged sword that may skewer us is the chronic hatred and hostility between ideological factions that seriously plague our society. If we keep seeking division, there will be no vision for our country. Worse, if we are divided, we will be conquered again. If the factions do not reconcile with one another soon, their resentment and grudges will surely rip our society apart.

If we do not alter our consciousness and learn to coexist and co-habit, we will end up being lethally wounded by the sword of resentment and abhorrence.

If we look above our heads, we will also find the menacing sword of our problematic English education. We should radically alter teaching and learning methods, so that our students can express and articulate themselves in English freely. For that purpose, our English exam should be drastically changed so it can test students’ speaking ability, rather than reading and grammar abilities.

Recently, Thomas Farrell, who teaches at a Korean university, wrote me to say, “I honestly think that if the Suneung evaluated speaking ability rather than just reading, writing and listening (all very important in their own right) that the study habits and the teaching methods of English would change dramatically.” I could not agree with him more. If that happened by any chance, all the Korean young people would undoubtedly speak fluent English in no time. Then Korea would be a truly competent global leader.

Big business corporations such as Samsung, LG and Hyundai should also test applicants’ speaking ability when they recruit new employees. Imagine our young people freely conversing with foreigners in English in this rapidly globalizing world. We would be very proud of them because it would make Korea prosperous and outstanding in the international community.

How many times were we embarrassed to see our political leaders being unable to express themselves in English and therefore not mingling with political leaders from other nations at international meetings and social gatherings. As representatives of Korea, they irreparably ruined the image of our country in the eyes of the world. If we do not take actions to solve the chronic problem, it will turn into a menacing sword that will stab us mortally in the near future.

If we want to remain on the throne, we must deal with the swords dangling above us actively and swiftly. Otherwise, we will be seriously wounded or even killed by the Sword(s) of Damocles.

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.