The Korea Herald


[Kim Seong-kon] From the Ocean to the Continent

By Kim Seong-kon

Published : July 31, 2018 - 17:25

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I recently met an internationally well-regarded cultural critic and scholar of world civilizations who informed me of an interesting theory. As a small peninsula attached to the eastern end of the Asian continent, Korea, along with China and Russia, once belonged to the Continental Civilization. However, since the liberation and the Korean War, the continued influence of the United States means that Korea has separated itself from the continent and now belongs to the Oceanic Civilization, along with Japan and America.

Surely, it was the Oceanic Civilization that enabled South Korea to boost its economy by sending ocean liners to trade Korean products all over the world. Today, South Korea has the eighth-highest trade ranking in the world and the 12th-biggest economy, thanks to its inclusion in the Oceanic Civilization. Never before in its entire history has Korea been so affluent.

However, the eminent scholar predicted a major change in East Asia soon. According to him, South Korea may now return to the Continental Civilization, as China’s influence in Asia is on the rise and America’s interest in South Korea is rapidly diminishing. In addition, today’s Korea leans considerably to China while its relationship with Japan keeps deteriorating at a time when Japan, as a rival of China and an Oceanic country, could be of great help in reducing the speed of South Korea’s re-entry to the Continental Civilization.

The civilization scholar posed a provocative question: “If South Korea were regrouped as a member of the Continental Civilization, would her economy still be as rosy as it is now?” He seriously doubted it. Like many other experts, he predicted that foreign investors would pull their money out and leave Korea behind because they would rather not take such a big risk in an unstable environment. South Korea’s trade prospects, too, would drop significantly as Korea would no longer remain a country of the Oceanic Civilization.

If the scholar’s prediction is correct, we should be prepared for the upcoming change. We also should be discrete when we set course to the final destination. We are not entering an uncharted sea with high hopes and expectations; we are re-entering the same continent we have been before. Hence, we should be able to accurately predict what would happen in the future when and if we set foot on the Continental Civilization again.

One of the foreseeable problems of joining the Continental Civilization is that although Korea is surrounded by the sea except for the north, it will no longer be a marine country; instead, Korea will be merely a small part of the huge continent, dangling precariously at one end of it. Another problem is that Korea will fall under the direct influence of socialist countries in the continent.

In the eyes of the renowned scholar, Korea is helplessly caught between Japan and China. According to him, Japan seems to believe that it liberated Korea from the influence of China through the Sino-Japanese War, whereas China seems to think that Korea had been part of China until Japan took it away in 1910. In that sense, Korea is now facing the same dilemma that it had to go through in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The currents and winds will eventually lead Korea from the Ocean to the Continent and from capitalist marine countries to socialist continental countries.

Indeed, it is obvious that South Korea is currently caught in the crossfire between the Oceanic Civilization and the Continental Civilization. And the whole world watches as we move from the Ocean to the Continent. Under the circumstances, we should know where we are headed and choose our destination wisely. It may look like we do not have a choice. But we do.

In Ridley Scott’s recent film “Alien: Covenant,” a spaceship named “Covenant,” which carries 2,000 passengers and 1,140 human embryos, is bound for a remote planet to settle down. Due to a stellar burst that causes a malfunction in the spaceship, Capt. Jake Branson dies. The surviving crew members then pick up a radio transmission of a human-voiced song from a nearby Earth-like planet that looks more habitable than their final destination. Despite the warnings of his crew, newly promoted Capt. Oram decides to explore the seemingly attractive planet.

Unfortunately, the planet is infested with deadly alien creatures that kill most of the crew members. The spaceship barely manages to escape and gets back on course to its final destination. However, android David, the enemy within, plots to kill everyone in the spaceship, using the hostile alien creatures. He slips in two alien embryos alongside the human embryos, so when the spaceship reaches the destination, it will be taken by the aggressive alien creatures. In this movie, a wrong decision and an enemy within cause the total annihilation of the spaceship.

Our future, too, depends on our decision at this crucial juncture. If we set the course prudently, we will have a safe trip. If not, we will face a perilous journey instead. The choice is ours. 

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.