At school, we teach our students that Korea was founded on a humanitarian ideal called “Hong-Ik In-gan,” which means “devoting ourselves to the welfare of humankind.” In reality, however, you must go far to find someone who genuinely cares about others’ welfare these days. In fact, we are too busy securing and insisting on our own welfare. As a result, the so-called “NIMBY (not in my backyard)” mentality seems ubiquitous in our society.
Paradoxically, we also teach students, perhaps inadvertently through our seriously crippled educational system, to battle for good grades and win at all costs, ruthlessly crushing others if necessary. Thus our students perceive their peers as hostile enemies who must be defeated, not friendly colleagues to cooperate with. Consequently, we have produced too many identical, selfish young people who seem to be rolling off the conveyor belt of society. As a result, our current society is plagued by hostility, antagonism, and egotism.
Last week, Memorial Day happened to fall on a Monday. Taking advantage of the three-day weekend, many people escaped from Seoul to the countryside. In my eyes, people simply enjoyed the holidays instead of commemorating those soldiers who died on battlefield for their country. Indeed, who remembers the soldiers killed during the Korea War, when we do not even remember the 46 ROK Navy sailors who were killed on the unfortunate warship Cheonan in 2010, or the six war heroes killed in action during the Yeonpyeong battle in 2002?
During the holidays, I urgently needed some medicine to alleviate the severe symptoms of my cold. I rushed to five pharmacies in the vicinity of my house and found all of them closed. Worse, they were closed for three consecutive days. The law requires that at least one pharmacy remain open in a district at all times. Pharmacists, however, do not seem to care about rules and regulations these days. What if there is an emergency and someone needs medicine? In many advanced countries, non-prescription medicines are readily available at supermarkets and convenience stores. There is absolutely no reason why customers have to buy non-prescription medicines from pharmacists. And yet, Korean pharmacists selfishly oppose the bill that would allow local stores to sell non-prescription medicines.
A few days ago, a group of Seoul National University students occupied the university administration building, paralyzing all administrative affairs. Students’ primary reason for illegally occupying the main building was the reported possible increase of tuition, presumably caused by the incorporation of the university next year. If so, one might say that the demonstrations were held for a selfish reason, because the students’ immediate concerns were not so much for the future of the University, as the tuition hike.
The same thing often happens among faculty members as well. Instead of exploring the ways in which the university can fully extend its wings, colleges and departments often bicker with one another over selfish issues such as faculty position openings and student quotas. At the College of Humanities, for example, we often hate other departments that seem to flourish despite the crisis in the humanities, instead of searching for ways to start a renaissance in our own subject once again.
In the political arena, the opposition party seems determined to oppose virtually anything the ruling party proposes, constantly creating a hostile atmosphere. How nice it would be to see politicians from the Grand National Party and the Democratic Party work side by side as a team to build a better society! In reality, however, selfish goals for obtaining political gain prevail and few politicians seem to care about the future of their country. Meanwhile, the GNP politicians frequently betray their political beliefs and try to exploit the very populism they are supposed to defy, in order to win elections at any cost.
Terrorists are selfish, too. They do not hesitate to massacre innocent people, for they believe that their reward will be greater if they kill more people. Poet Charles Bernstein laments in his poem about 9/11, “Report from Liberty Street”: “They thought they were going to heaven.” Political demagogues who instigate people for their political purposes are selfish as well, because they impudently use nave, ignorant people to seize power.
On selfishness, Oscar Wilde once said, “There are many things that we would throw away if we were not afraid that others might pick them up.” Blaise Pascal, too, wrote, “Those who do not hate their selfishness and regard themselves more important than the rest of the world are blind because the truth lies elsewhere.”
Of course, we have altruistic men who are willing to sacrifice their lives to save others. Lee Soo-hyun, for example, saved a Japanese passenger at the cost of his life in a Japanese subway station in 2001. Like Lee, we should break the shell of egotism and learn to be more mindful of and caring toward others. As a nation, Korea should be more philanthropic, helping other countries as much as possible. Only then can Korea exert leadership in the international community.
By Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon, a professor of English at Seoul National University, is editor of the literary quarterly “21st Century Literature.” ― Ed.