Thanks to its miraculous economic success, South Korea has now become one of the most affluent countries in the world. With an economy ranked 12th largest in the world, South Korea is admired as a role model by many developing countries and praised for its advanced technology and Hallyu, or the Korean Wave, that have enhanced its prestige in the international community. Indeed, it would not be too far-fetched to say that today’s South Korea is an advanced country in terms of economy, technology, and pop culture.
Nevertheless, we seem to seriously lack some crucial qualities that are prerequisite to becoming a truly advanced country. In an advanced country, you can find generosity, tolerance, and courtesy or public etiquette, among other things. Does Korean society exhibit such qualities? Unfortunately, few people would agree on that because we seem to neither forgive others nor tolerate differences. Though our public etiquette is getting better these days, it is not impeccable yet. Frequent violence in Korean society, both physical and psychological, is proof of a lack of generosity, tolerance, and courtesy.
After reading my recent article on apologies, pastor Christine Miller in the United States wrote me, saying, “Unforgiveness is like drinking poison and expecting your enemy to die.” Indeed, if we do not forgive, it is we who drink poison and end up dying, not our enemy. Referring to our unforgiving attitude and vengeance, she writes, “It justifies all your wrong behaviors as “getting even.” Indeed, under the name of revenge, all our wrongdoings are justified.
Miller said, “Accepting an apology means letting go of your anger and the chain you have been dragging around that binds you to this other.” She continued, “Then Koreans will not have to widen the public square to allow for bigger demonstrations. People can stay home, be happy.” Indeed, we should learn to forgive others, as we want to be forgiven by those whom we harmed, whether intentionally or inadvertently. Then we can be happy. The strange thing is that many of us are Christians who pray to God to forgive us for our sins every day. Yet, we do not forgive others, and hate them and seek revenge.
Instead of being big-minded and magnanimous, we tend to doggedly demand apologies and retributions. Instead of being tolerant and embracing others, we tend to exhibit hostility toward foreign workers and often discriminate against them. Even inside Korean society, we are divided by “us” and “them” and are hostile to others. And instead of caring about others, we often become selfish and ignore public etiquette.
An advanced country also has a code of honor, integrity, and decency. That is to say, there is a line that a decent man will not cross. For example, if you are rich and famous, you are not supposed to be cheap and indecent. And you should value the lives of children, not only because they need our care, but also because they are the future of human civilization.
Recently, four babies died at a renowned university hospital in Seoul because medicine bottles were reused. Mark Constantine in Australia recently wrote me that such an incident could happen in the early 20th Century only, not in the 21st century “in one of the richest countries on earth.” He lamented, “That’s not even wrong. It’s unthinkable.”
Constantine, who used to live in Korea and thus has a strong connection to the Peninsula, pointed out that behind these disasters lies the uniquely Korean phenomenon called the “Pali Pali mentality.” He wrote, “It’s the mentality that things need to get done quickly, that everyone needs to appear busy constantly, and that as long as it looks like it’s being done properly, everything is fine. This, in a nutshell, is Korea.”
Constantine’s diagnosis was quite accurate and persuasive. As he argued that even if Koreans seem to work very hard, “but there’s often a misunderstanding about what good work is. Too many people think fast work is good, and good work done slowly is bad.” Indeed, Koreans are constantly rushed through doing all sorts of work fast. Regrettably, the results are often disastrous. According to Constantine, that mentality “causes huge bus crashes, the Daegu subway fire and the Sewolho tragedy,” not to mention the death of the four babies at the university hospital.
There is another thing that can be found in an advanced country; you should be allowed to think, say and write freely without worrying about censorship and surveillance. If you should be conscious of and worry about thought police, it would not be a truly advanced country. For that, we should learn to accept and respect other’s different opinions. Otherwise, it cannot be an advanced country.
Today, South Korea has become an affluent society and thus looks like an advanced country. In order to be a truly advanced country, however, we should be generous, tolerant to others and embracing differences. We should respect the code of honor and people’s lives, especially children’s. Only then can we become a truly advanced country. Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and distinguished visiting professor at George Washington University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org –Ed.