(Editorial Story) What's the image of Korea?


When I was in the United States years ago, a famed American professor asked me whether Korean culture is like Chinese or Japanese culture. I immediately corrected his apparent misunderstanding by stating that Korea has a culture of her own. I was exasperated by his superficial view of Korean culture. Naturally, as elsewhere, there are some cultural crossovers, but Korea has a unique cultural heritage all of her own, of which Koreans are very proud.

Korean traditional costume is entirely different from that of the Chinese or Japanese. Our cuisine is also drastically different, to the amazement of foreigners who arrive in Korea expecting culinary treats resembling those found in Japan. But for those Westerners who have not been to Korea, Korean culture may seem the same as Chinese or Japanese culture. For instance, they might confuse our own martial art Tae Kwon Do with Chinese Kung Fu or Japanese Karate, or see our traditional wrestling Sireum as a version of Japanese Sumo.

Part of the problem is to do with image. If someone asks, "what are the cultural images of Korea?" we will be embarrassed, for there seems to be virtually nothing to speak of at the moment. When it comes to Japan, people immediately think of manga cartoons, ninja and samurai. The recent movie, "The Last Samurai" proves that samurai themes have yet to be exhausted by Hollywood after all of these years. As for Hollywood's love of Chinese martial arts, nowadays it's almost standard that every action hero is a Kung Fu expert.

Except for the distorted representations in some American movies or dramas, Korea does not seem to have any recognizable image worldwide. Thanks to company marketing, people might think of Samsung, LG and SK as emblems of Korea. But then the Japanese have such famous brands as Sony, Panasonic and Toshiba. We have Hyundai, Kia and Ssangyong, but the Japanese also have Toyota, Nissan and Honda. So company brand association for a country is not that unique.

It is high time then that we put forward some attractive national images that can serve to represent Korea. A scholar in traditional costume and hat immediately comes to mind as a symbol of Korean culture. For during the Joseon Dynasty, scholars, not warriors, ruled the kingdom for five hundred years. This ruling class was markedly different from the Japan's pre-modern ruling class, which was comprised of warlords and samurai warriors.

Last week I was in Paris, strolling by the Seine and browsing old books displayed by the book venders situated along the famous river. On both sides of the river there were all sorts of exquisite classical buildings, palaces and museums. The scenery was so spectacular and gorgeous, like a postcard; and the entire city of Paris was like that, full of monuments and historic sites. Roaming that city was a delightful adventure for a stranger from a far eastern country.

Back in Seoul, I drove to the Han River. It is certainly bigger than the Seine but this did not make up for how gloomy it all looked. I was now seeing it with a returned traveler's eyes and before me was nothing but monstrous, unattractive clusters of apartment buildings and ugly gray cement embankments lining both sides of the river. Not a single monument or historic site was to be seen. I was as depressed as I could be, and ashamed for a famous city that has been the nation's capital for the past six hundred years.

Certainly not to our politically correct politicians who continue to spend their time and energy slandering opponents, yelling at fellow lawmakers at the National Assembly, and tearing a once-peaceful society into pieces under the pretense of social reform.

This all does nothing to present a positive image of Korea; and, if such representations of a lust for profit and power continue without a positive cultural image in place, a rather distorted image of Korea could emerge. In other words, if the proud legacy of the past is not resurrected and positive images are not remembered, we can hardly blame outsiders for their misguided perceptions; if action isn't taken soon, distorted images of Korea could be ingrained in the consciousness of outsiders for years to come. Before such a scenario, we must work to show the world a charming emblem that truly represents Korean culture.

- Written by Dr. Kim (a professor of English and the executive director of the Language Education Institute at Seoul National University) & Published by the Korea Herald (Nov 17, 2004) -