The Korea Herald


[Kim Seong-kon] Korea: Seven decades ago and now

By Kim Seong-kon

Published : Aug. 28, 2018 - 17:20

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Recently, I came across some embarrassing, but intriguing, articles about Korea in the mid-20th century. One was related to Western missionaries who lived in Korea right after the Korean War to help with the reconstruction of the war-torn country.

In reports and letters they sent back to their countries, the missionaries invariably wrote, “The Korean people were so impetuous and emotional that they quarreled or fought all day long. But fortunately, nobody died because no one had guns.” Then they added, “Meanwhile, government officials were like vampires who were sucking the blood of the ordinary people.”

I also came by a newspaper article about Chinese government documents written about Korea just before the liberation. One of them wrote, “The Koreans are not good at unity and tend to be factionalized. There are so many factions in the exile government located in China. They are antagonizing one another, exhibiting jealousy and resentment. Unfortunately, there is no great leader in Korea who can lead the nation in the right direction.”

It continued, “The Korean people have personality issues; they are self-centered and always blame others. Younger people despise older people for their uselessness and incompetence, while older people accuse younger people of being ignorant and impertinent.” Another Chinese government document wrote, “Koreans would neither listen to others nor accept different opinions. They do not want to concede and are busy protecting their vested interests only.”

Today, however, South Korea has radically changed. Visit any government office, and you will find Korean government officials there are surprisingly nice and friendly. Perhaps they are some of the finest civil servants in the world. Embarrassingly, however, other observations of foreign missionaries and politicians seven decades ago still seem to remain valid.

Undeniably, we still tend to be so impetuous that our emotions frequently cloud our judgment. Oftentimes, we are self-centered and turn a deaf ear to different opinions, only trying to protect our own vested interests. We are overtly jealous and resentful, myopic and closed-minded. And we are still divided by political ideologies and antagonize each other. Moreover, we are still witnessing chronic factional skirmishes between the young and the old, between the rich and the poor, and between the conservative and the progressive.

Furthermore, we still blame others. We blame other countries even for our own mistakes and incompetence. Our politicians, too, have always blamed the previous government for their failures in policies, and condemned anyone who worked in it. 

However, it would be wrong if the present government tried to incriminate everybody who served the previous government. No advanced country would do such a thing. 

If our politicians would only stop blaming the previous government and call for unity instead, their popularity would rise considerably. If not, people will eventually grow weary of it and turn their backs to it.

By the same token, it would be equally unwise if the opposition party members were too busy faultfinding in all of their quarrels with the governing party. Although they are political foes, there are times when they need to unite and collaborate for national security and other concerns. Regrettably, our politicians do not seem to care.

For the past seven decades since the Korean War, South Korea has shown admirable traits and accomplished spectacular things. Very few countries have succeeded in economic development, cultural prosperity, and advanced technology, not to mention democratization, as far and as fast as South Korea has. 

Furthermore, the Korean people have overcome the International Monetary Fund crisis and hosted the Olympic Games, the World Cup, and the Winter Olympic Games successfully. It is no wonder South Korea is much admired as a role model for developing countries.

It is a shame that we have not yet been able to shake off the above-mentioned undesirable old habits yet. It is true that old habits die hard. Yet, we should try. We cannot afford to repeat our past mistakes again and again. The world is watching us now. We must show that we have truly changed and we can be much better than seven decades ago.

These days, there are so many important things we should be doing together, hand in hand and side by side. It is well known that South Korea is currently in the vortex of an international crisis due to the recent conflicts between China, Japan, North Korea and the United States. If we continue to be divided by different factions and antagonize one another, we will not be able to overcome the impending crisis we will face soon. Then, it will be too late to regret or redeem our mistakes.

We can deal with external crisis with the help of other countries. When it comes to internal disintegration, however, there is nothing much we or other countries can do. In order to survive the next crisis and thrive in the future, we should be different from seven decades ago.

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.