Things Koreans still seem unable to realise

Korean music is enjoying popularity today; in fact, there is a saying these days that if you do not know Psy, then it is likely that you are from outer space.

Traditionally, the Korean people are not particularly interested in learning about the world or becoming globalised. Surrounded by numerous small mountains and isolated from the rest of the world, Koreans are comfortable on this small peninsula and thus tend to be unaware about the world.

This tendency dates back to the Joseon Dynasty when Koreans thought the world was made of only three kingdoms: China, Japan and Korea. Therefore, when Crown Prince Sohyeon brought a world atlas from China in the 17th century, King Injo and his Cabinet members were greatly alarmed and immediately destroyed the map. They could not accept the possibility that other countries existed. Prince Sohyeon, who might have modernised Korea if he had inherited the throne, was killed by the king's decree. In the eyes of the king, the crown prince's knowledge of the world was too dangerous. Besides, the king assumed that his son's worldly erudition and fluency in foreign languages threatened his throne.

Unfortunately, this undesirable legacy still continues. Even today, Koreans do not seem to know the world that well. For example, we do not seem to realise that the world has changed radically since the 1960s. We seem unaware that the Cold War era has ended and Communism has disappeared. Perhaps that is why we are still waging ideological warfare not only between the North and the South but also between the left and the right in South Korea. Some people in the South still naively daydream that they can abolish capitalism and build a socialist paradise on the Korean Peninsula instead.

We also do not seem to know our place in the international community. Some of us do not realise that South Korea is no longer an underdeveloped, unknown country. Simply punch "nation branding ranking" into Wikipedia and you can see South Korea ranks No. 11. Visit Prague and you can see all the signboards at the airport display Korean instructions together with Czech and English ones; Korean Air recently became a major stockholder of the Prague airport.

In addition, many countries are lining up to invite South Korea as the guest country to their international book fairs. One can also find numerous admirers of the miraculous economic development of South Korea as well as countless consumers of the products of Samsung, LG and Hyundai. Even Korean music is enjoying popularity today; in fact, there is a saying these days that if you do not know Psy, then it is likely that you are from outer space.

On the other side of the fence, there are those who exhibit delusions of grandeur. These conceited people mistakenly believe that South Korea has become a superpower that can comfortably compete with China, Japan and the United States. They also believe hallyu has dominated the whole world and all the people on earth watch Korean TV dramas, movies and K-pop performances. They also naively believe that since the Korean Peninsula is so strategically important, our neighbours will constantly flatter us and our allies will never give up on us.

Recently, a friend of mine humored me with a funny but compelling joke. According to the widely circulating joke, there are three things Koreans do not realise. First, Koreans do not realise how lucky and well off they are. Perhaps that is why some radical Koreans vehemently condemn our society as unfairly capitalist and disrupt our peaceful society every day with demonstrations. South Korea has achieved spectacular economic success and democratisation in the short span of 60 years. Instead of denying or sabotaging it, can we not simply relish the prosperity and affluence we have earned thanks to our incredible diligence and hard work?

According to the joke, the second thing Koreans do not realise is how precariously they live in the Korean Peninsula. Although we live in one of the most dangerous places in the world, we are indeed completely numb to the imminent threat posed by the hostile North Korean dictatorship. While other countries are worried about our unstable situation, we are not. If South Korea is divided into left- and right-wing factions that fight each other like cats and dogs, North Korean politicians might misread the situation and do some incredibly stupid things.

The third thing Koreans do not realise is that China and Japan's position in the international community is different from that of South Korea. "How come the Swedish Academy has awarded the Nobel Prize to Chinese and Japanese writers but ignored Korean writers?" a Korean recently protested to me. "When Korea was inconspicuous," I responded, "China and Japan were already well known to the world."

We should know what is going on in the world and our place in it. We should catch up with the changes taking place in the world. In order to keep our nation safe and sound, our mindset should be global and international, not parochial or nationalistic. Indeed, we need to know and realise many things.

Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and the president of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea.

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