The Korea Herald


[Kim Seong-kon] Learning from foreigners' perception of Korea

By Kim Seong-kon

Published : July 3, 2018 - 17:37

    • Link copied

As few Koreans read foreign newspapers or frequently converse with foreigners about their country, most Koreans would not know very well how foreigners perceive them or their country. In fact, many Koreans do not seem to care about foreigners’ views at all. Sometimes, however, an outsider’s perspective can be very helpful and even enlightening.

Some foreigners admire Korea for its cutting-edge technology or Hallyu. Others are critical about Korea and might wonder why such things that might happen in a backwater country in the mid-20th century can still happen in one of the wealthiest, most advanced countries on earth in the 21st century.

If you visit the Newseum in Washington, for example, there is a color-coded world map compiled by Freedom House, a US-based NGO that engages in research and advocacy on human rights and democracy around the world. The map shows which countries have a free press: Green means “mostly free” and includes countries such as the US, Canada, Japan, and European countries. Red is for “not free.” North Korea is red and labeled as the country with the most controlled press on earth. China and Russia join the “red” ranks and so do much of Africa and the Middle East. Yellow is for “partly free.” South Korea was colored yellow, indicating that the news is still restricted or influenced by propaganda. Obviously, foreigners think that in Korea you still cannot write freely without outer threats or self-censorship.

Foreigners’ perception of the Korean War is different from ours as well. After visiting the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, an American wrote, “The statues of the soldiers there were truly haunting and have an eerie, ghost-like quality. 

It looks as though they were captured in stone in their final moments just before an unexpected ambush took their lives.” Indeed, judging from their grim facial expressions, the statues of the American soldiers seem to suggest that they think that it was a mistake for the US to intervene in the Korean War. Neither glory nor pride can be found on their bleak, regretful faces.

If you visit the Korean War Bench at Arlington National Cemetery, you can find an inscription which says, “The beginning of the end of war lies in remembrance.” Regrettably, however, most Koreans no longer seem to remember the tragic war. Nevertheless, the Korean people assume that America will come to the rescue again in times of crisis on the Korean Peninsula. However, quite a few American politicians agree that the US would not want to be involved in another war. 

If so, South Korea will be all alone and will have to deal with the crisis on its own when and if the second Korean War breaks out. Alas! Instead of preparing for such a possibility with contingency plans, our young people are merely excited at the prospect of the government’s shortening of the duration of their mandatory military service in accordance with the recent peace mood.

Foreigners also point out other problems of Korean society that they have witnessed and encountered. Mark Constantine writes about his experience of Korean workplaces: “They spend an enormous amount of time at work writing reports, having meetings, going on inspections and field trips, and staring into hangover space after the inevitable semi-forced drinking parties.” 

He seriously doubts the necessity of such things that in his eyes seem to be mostly superficial and meaningless. Constantine compares Korea with Australia: “When Australians are at work, they’re working. They’re not bogged down by lots of large meetings, useless reports to mid-level managers, and late night drinking parties that wreck the next day’s work.”

Caleb A. Adkins points out bad driving habits rampant in the streets of Korea. He writes, “Tonight, my wife and I were out for dinner with our young son and were nearly run over twice in the course of an hour. The first incident occurred in the well-to-do part of the city where luxury car drivers operate as if they own the roads. 

The second incident occurred close to our home when a fried chicken delivery man, driving like he was trying to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, came around a blind turn and nearly crashed into my wife and son.”

Richard Hirst proposes the following: “A double-whammy low birthrate and rapidly aging population is proving a thorny issue. Elementary schools in rural and semi-rural locations face falling enrollments and ensuing pressure to close, often by a merger process with a neighboring school. At the same time a lot of city-dwellers are approaching retirement without many options available except a miserable life stuck in a lonely Seoul apartment. Why not pair them up’”

Mike Harmon, a retired US Navy captain, gives us some invaluable advice using some famous quotations by celebrities, such as “If I take care of my character, my reputation will take care of me” by Dwight L. Moody and “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors” by Plato.

We should learn from foreigners’ perception of Korea and change.

By Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and visiting professor at Kyung Hee Cyber University. He can be reached at -- Ed.