By Jeongnam Kim
(Former Senior Presidential Secretary for Education·Culture·Society, World Korean News advisor)
I no longer hear people say this, but until lately Korean people used to refer to themselves as “a cheap penny,” a misnomer implying a self-abasement, scorn, or self-torment. The sense of self-scorn was so widespread once that we used to call being late to an appointment or a meeting was delayed “the Korean time.”
It is an established theory that this attitude we hold of ourselves, our things, and our culture originated in the time of the late Chosun dynasty. We had our eyes wide open observing the nation perishing at the time, which was quite natural, considering the people who would refer to themselves with such a misnomer. Furthermore, I suspect the self-abased mentality of the people was influenced by the Colonialism indoctrinated by the Japanese imperialists.
Even after the Liberation, we were engaged in a fierce ideological struggles between the Right and the Left, which led to the division of the land and then to the Korean War, a fratricidal war. And through these periods, the misnomer was kept in fashion. The abnegation, “Nothing can be done right in this country,” was generalized in our country while going through the 10 years of the “White Dictatorship” of Syngman Rhee, followed by almost 30 years of the military dictatorship of Park Chung Hee and Chun Doo Hwan.
I am not quite sure when the misnomer stopped being dripping from the lips of our people. Older people, whose ears were so used to this expression of self-degradation and believe it to be real, are now feeling like it was such an old story. To the young, this misnomer sounds very strange indeed. This is quite a welcome phenomenon. Now people have gained self-respect and confidence.
That this was presumably possible thanks to the national pride and the big national power and heightened national status of Korean people following the so-called condensed industrialization of no comparison in the world history and a bloodless realization of democracy.
Despite this fact, we still view our history with disdain. However, the view is based on historical fact, it is impossible for us to claim it wrong black and white, There has been quite a lot vicissitudes, or ups and downs on our way to the present. For us to achieve what we have achieved as the present state of our nation was a miracle. What we have to beware of is defeatism, self-disdain as well as the frivolous vainglory as in such an action to celebration victory too early.
It is more urgent and important than ever for us at this juncture to confirm our identity, asking “Where do we stand?”, “Who are we?”, and “Where did we come from and where are we going?” Now is the time for us to look deep and find our identity, the antithesis and synthesis, neither Left or Right, our own selves “between and beyond.” This is why I write these column pieces, a collection called, “O, The Republic of Korea.”