Metaphorically speaking, South Korea stands between the winds and the waves. That is to say, South Korea is located between continental and oceanic civilizations. According to the late cultural critic, Lee O-young, in the countries that belong to the continental civilization, people frequently use expressions with the word “wind” in it. For example, they say, “What wind brought you here?” Or “the coffee wind is blowing,” meaning: “Drinking coffee is fashionable.” In countries that belong to the oceanic civilization, people prefer the word “wave” instead of “wind” to describe fashionable currents. Thus, they say “The Third Wave” or “The New Wave.”
Historically, Korea had belonged to the continental civilization for a long time until the peninsula became divided by warring political ideologies. Since the division of the peninsula, North Korea has remained in the continental civilization, but South Korea has started to belong to the oceanic civilization. “And that has made all the difference,” as Robert Frost wrote in his celebrated poem, “The Road Not Taken.”
As a result, while North Korea has become an economically challenged, socialist country, estranged from the rest of the world, South Korea has become an affluent, capitalist country. Had it not been for the oceanic civilization, South Korea would not have accomplished her miraculous economic success.
Given this fact, it is natural and even imperative that South Korea remain in the oceanic civilization. If South Koreans are enticed by the propaganda of socialist countries that claim that the golden era of the continental civilization has returned, and absentmindedly cause the country to switch back to being a continental civilization, then she is likely to end up being a poor country, just like North Korea. If we consider the matter carefully, then there can only be one choice for the future of South Korea: remaining in the oceanic civilization.
Radicals argue that the era of the oceanic civilization is waning now and the age of the continental civilization is coming back. However, the countries that herald the advent of the continental civilization era are socialist countries, and so they are biased toward prognostications that would favor their success. Currently, these countries are a threat to world peace as they are either currently waging or preparing to wage war. Even if what they claim is true, then, South Korea has even less reason to celebrate the return of the continental civilization era, since it would effectively mean a new period of global violence and disruptions.
Geographically speaking, South Korea belongs to the oceanic civilization because it is surrounded by the sea, except for the North. One may ask, “Is South Korea a peninsula or an island?” It is a tough question to answer. South Korea is located in the Korean Peninsula and yet, due to North Korea, the northern border of South Korea is blocked. Strictly speaking, therefore, South Korea is not exactly a peninsula but almost closer to an island, because it is blocked on three sides by seas and on one by impassable terrain.
However, South Korea is not exactly an island, either. In order to be an island, it should be completely surrounded by water in all directions -- north, south, east and west. Therefore, South Korea is not wholly an island, even though one may metaphorically perceive the country as an island because it is completely isolated from another large body of land.
Yet South Korea could still be a strong maritime country. South Korea has a geographic advantage. Just like Spain, which is located in the Iberian Peninsula, or America, which is surrounded on three sides by the sea -- on the east, west and the Gulf of Mexico to the south. Moreover, South Korea is a leading country in the shipbuilding industry right now, which also makes it an excellent maritime country.
Therefore, all we need now is the dauntless spirit of oceanic adventurism to explore the possibilities of the sea. Traditionally, the Korean people seriously lacked a frontier spirit in the ocean. Instead of setting sail to go out to the sea and explore the unknown world beyond the horizon, Koreans tended to despise sailors and islanders by calling them derogatory nicknames. However, we must change, now.
Lee O-young also pointed out that Choi Nam-sun was the first Korean intellectual who realized the importance of the sea in the early 20th century. Majoring in geography and witnessing the power of the oceanic countries that defeated the continental countries, Choi came to realize the power and possibilities of oceanic adventures. That is why he wrote the celebrated poem, “From the Sea to the Boy.” In this monumental poem, Choi portrays the vast sea beckoning to the future generations of Korea.
South Korea is no longer a tiny country attached to the big continent. Rather, it is a dynamic oceanic country that can boldly sail out to the vast seas, exploring new possibilities. Indeed, South Korea’s bright future lies in the sea, not in the continent.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.