|Chang Won-suk, center, a senior researcher of the Academy of Korean Studies (AKS), poses with students of the Korean language and literature department at the Taras Schevchenko University of Kiev, one of the most prestigious universities in Ukraine, in July. / Courtesy of AKS|
By Chang Won-suk
One of my friends once asked me, “Won-suk, do you know what Korean people do not know about themselves?” I had no idea. He explained that firstly Koreans do not know they live in a developed country. Secondly, they do not know that the border between South and North Korea, 35 miles from Seoul, is risky and dangerous. Because I have little knowledge about the second question, I will confine myself to answer the first.
It echoes Bill Gate’s recent evaluation that a developed country like Korea does not need to “catch up” with other nations and at the moment the biggest challenge it faces is to create its own way. Gate’s suggestion is in line with my observations and experience.
When I visited the Korean language and literature department at the Taras Schevchenko University of Kiev, one of the most prestigious universities in Ukraine, I met many young students who were learning the Korean language, loved director Kim Ki-duk’s films, read Shin Kyung-sook’s “Please Look After Mom” and had questions about Korean philosophy. Many bright students who can speak Russian, English, Korean and Ukrainian fluently wished to come to Korea and study the experience Koreans underwent from ancient to contemporary times.
At the National University of Singapore, it was not unusual to find the best students enjoying “kimchi jjigae” and “bibimbap” for their lunch in the Korean restaurant on campus. Many Koreans including me have good reason to be proud of Korea’s worldwide popularity and fame which could never have been expected at least two decades ago.
Yet let me return to Bill Gates again. What he reminded us of was that growth and reputation are always accompanied by commensurate responsibility. Korea, Asia’s fourth-largest economy, must raise its official development assistance (ODA), which is less than the average of other OECD countries. He suggested now is the time for Korea to become more responsive to her global neighbors. When I looked at the lively faces of the international students aspiring to be Koreaphiles, a natural question in my mind was, “What should we teach such promising students about Korea?”
France taught that humans have inborn rights of freedom, equality and fraternity. Definitely U.S. cultural dominance in the world provides humans with more than Michael Jackson and McDonalds. Its cultural essence may be freedom and individualism. U.S. society is an experimental example of a postmodern ensemble of multicultural diversity where tolerance and pluralism are cherished.
Then what kind of value and experience can Korean contribute to the world? In this regard, we need more than K-pop idols and commercial advertisements for Korea tourism.
To realize our burden, we should understand the increasing presence of Korea in the world from the broad context of global changes.
In the early 20th century, a fundamental shift in the intellectual trends has marked a new phase of philosophic awareness. George Lakoff, an eminent linguist and cognitive scientist, has expressed his views using the term “New Enlightenment” in support of his claim that Western philosophical tradition still hold tight to the view of human rationality and reason, arguing that we need a new vocabulary pertaining to the concept of body, metaphor and relational nature of humanity, which constitute its philosophy. Immanuel Wallerstein, one of the most respected social scientists today, argues we live in the age of a crisis of knowledge which implies a paradigm shift from Newtonian Science and certainty to the process-oriented science of uncertainty.
Our age is also marked with the increasing presence of Asian economics, politics and culture in the global world order. The renewal of Asian tradition and contemporary culture as a repository of values and conceptual resources for contemporary dynamics is more critical than ever. Enormous human energy and resources are being invested in the Asian cultural sphere in China, Korea, Japan and Southeast Asian countries for creating new values.
Yet where do we Koreans stand? Can we create new values in an emergent global culture where we may be able to become one of the responsible participants? Or do we limit ourselves to short-term pecuniary gain to sell our products? Or Are we not responsible even for ourselves failing to achieve the least of the humanities in society? Some of the saddest news we can hear these days is of some irresponsible Koreans acting as arrogant startups whose world is littered with bad behavior, bullying and trickery, tending to look down upon people and experiences from the rest of the world.
“The White Man’s Burden,” a poem written by Rudyard Kipling and a rhetorical urge for countries of white men to colonize and rule non-white men and women’s countries for the benefit of the colonial era, was a mere rationalization of European racism and imperialism. It is both ironic and surprising that Korea, which was the victim of arrogant imperial self-aggrandizement, is in a position to think about its own burden in the rest of the world. I believe we can get insights from Kim Ku’s “My Earnest Wishes” one of the most read essays among Koreans. He had a daring belief that someday Koreans will find unique responsibility for human’s betterment as the Greeks and Romans did. Yet unlike the white man’s burden, he did not want Koreans to rule the world with either sword or money. What he wanted was for Koreans to be responsible and to create cultural values for achieving a robust and peaceful world community.
I believe it is high time for Koreans as individuals, citizens and a government to rethink our responsibility in the deeper sense and try to redefine what our “burden” for the rest of the world is. Then it will be possible for Koreans to realize Kim Ku’s wish.
The writer is a senior researcher and head of international support for Korean studies division of the Academy of Korean Studies.