m a r k a n d e y a

Korea’s Image vs. Reality

Posted by Brian on September 17, 2003

Yesterday at about 5:30pm PST, CNN was showing a report on the current Korean nuke crisis that used a montage of recent video clips of South Korean politicans slugging it out to illustrate the domestic divide on the issue. I found it, well… funny, while my (Korean) girlfriend was quite ashamed by the childish behavior exhibited by people who are supposed to be leaders in her country.

Their behavior, and her response, brings to mind one of the more interesting paradoxes that can be found in and among Korean people: Korea’s obsession with its image abroad vs. the behavior of Koreans themselves.

Ask anyone who has spent time in Korea or pays attention to the Korean press: Koreans are fixated on how the world sees them. The media often mulls over the issue, with regular editorials coming down on those within society that “harm” Korea’s image abroad (usually corrupt businessmen or mighty kung-fu warriors working day jobs as Korean politicians). Large international events (World Cup, Olympics, etc.) are invariably seen by Koreans as a chance to strut their stuff to the world, with the actual event itself nothing but a sideshow to the real goal of flashing as many flat screen tv’s, tiny hand phones, and high-speed internet connections as possible to visitors in a heavy-handed attempt at proving “Korea’s competence” (a phrase used by the Korea Times a few years back) to the world.

Implicit in all this is a Korean view of the world that sees practically everyone else as either Korea-haters or Korea-ignorers. They usually cite Korea’s short and turbulent democracy, the native protest culture (unions and students), Korea’s unfortunate (but true) reputation for engineering disasters, and their kooky cousins in the North as the reasons for Korea’s lack of respect around the globe. This feeling that the rest of the world is somehow looking down on Korea drives Koreans to go to great lengths to right this perceived injustice.

Now, I say this is a paradox because in my experience, the goals of the Korean government and the Korea people as a whole (that is, improving Korea’s image abroad), is more often than not ruined by the behavior of individual Koreans themselves. In other words, everyone in Korea says they want the world to like and respect them, but on an individual level they just don’t seem to care, and this makes them their own worst enemy as they strive to improve their image.

You can see this in action whenever you see pictures and videos of Korean pols re-enacting a bar fight at the National Assembly; or when Korean passengers on planes ignore directions from the flight crew and jump out of their seat as soon as the plane hits the tarmac; or when protestors get violent over whatever the latest protest-inducing issue is; or when pure cowardice and lax safety inspections results in the deaths of 200 people at a subway station. I see all this going on and I wonder, do these people really care what the world thinks about them? Because it certainly doesn’t seem that way, otherwise, middle-aged men in suits and ties wouldn’t be throwing punches in front of a video camera.

If Korea is really serious about improving their image overseas, I suggest the government dump this crusade they’re on and instead work on making Korea a better place for Koreans and foreigners to live. The standard of living will improve all around, word will spread, and the world will be impressed. Individual Koreans also need to do their part, meaning that if Korea’s image abroad is important to them, they need to realize their behavior affects the way people see their country, whether they like it or not.

UPDATE: Big Hominid comments (and even points out a misspelling in my piece. Damnit!)

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