I often think about how much more interesting the world would be if we could free ourselves from the confines of conventions and see things from different perspectives. For example, we customarily think of refrigerators and televisions as two different things. What if, however, we were to combine the two and create a refrigerator with a built-in TV and MP3 player so people could watch a television drama or listen to their favorite music while cooking in the kitchen? By thinking outside of the box, Korean home appliance manufacturers have already combined normally unrelated products to create innovative refrigerators praised by consumers all over the world.
Thanks to the Korean Wave and world-class companies such as Samsung, LG and Hyundai, Korea is widely known throughout the world these days. Last week, I found a nice jacket at Macy’s in New York and brought it to the cashier’s desk to pay. Suddenly, the cashier asked me, “Are you from Korea?” “Yes, I am,” I replied. “But how did you know that?” “I just know,” she said, smiling brightly. “I watch Korean TV shows. Kim Jong-gook is my favorite. Boy, I like ‘Running Man’ so much.” To my surprise, she began speaking in almost-fluent Korean. “Oh my, you speak Korean!” I exclaimed, astonished. “Well, I learned it from the Korean TV show,” she answered proudly.
I was amazed by the fact that this American woman watched Korean television shows on the Internet and liked them so much that she even learned the Korean language. She was so excited to have conversed with me that she forgot to take off the plastic security device from the jacket. So I had to return to the department store the next day. But the trip was worthwhile because the cashier was living proof of Korea’s unprecedented popularity.
We should not only think outside of the box in the home appliances and technological realm, but also in the historical and political arena as well. For example, we learn at school that when the Chinese invaded Korea in A.D. 612, a Korean general named Eulji Mundeok sent a four-line poem to the Chinese commander in an attempt to make him withdraw. Deeply moved by the poem, the Chinese general actually pulled back his troops. Taking advantage of the situation, Eulji Mundeok ambushed the retreating Chinese troops and killed approximately 300,000 Chinese soldiers in the Cheongcheon River by abruptly opening the temporary dam he had constructed.
When taught the story, Koreans applaud the tactics of the genius Korean general and worship him as a hero who saved the country. We should not simply cheer for our side, however. There are many questions that should be discussed. For example, was it really necessary to massacre the already-retreating troops? And was Eulji Mundeok’s strategy morally and ethically sound? Was his move not a violation of a gentlemen’s agreement? These are the questions that crossed my mind when I first learned of the historical incident during elementary school. Strangely, however, no one seems to raise such questions in Korea.
Another historical incident that should be examined from a different perspective is the division of the Korean Peninsula. Strictly speaking, Japan, not Korea, should have been divided after the Second World War, for it was Japan, like Germany, who was the aggressor. But Japan remained safe and sound, and Korea was divided instead. This is far from fair in every sense; in the whirlwind of postwar politics, Korea became a scapegoat. However, it does not seem to occur to the Japanese people that the division of Korea, not Japan, is so unfair. Even Japanese politicians do not seem to feel sorry about the division of Korea. In fact, however, they should have an unmitigated sense of guilt whenever they are reminded of Korea and the Korean people.
By the same token, Korean politicians should change as well. Instead of incessantly demanding apologies and compensation, or holding onto age-old grudges, they should seek reconciliation and partnership for the future. We are now in the 21st century, the age of unprecedented interconnectivity. When will we ever forget the past and stop hating each other? Perhaps we should not forget history, but we should at least have the generosity to forgive.
Indeed, we should learn to alter our consciousness. An American friend of mine recently told me that if a biography or an autobiography of Psy were to be published, it would become an instant hit. Such an idea has never occurred to the Korean people; we are just intoxicated with the huge success and enormous popularity of Psy. Among his many unique experiences, Psy was drafted and served in the ROK Army twice. Perhaps “Life of Psy” would be an appropriate title for the book, since Psy’s life has been just as turbulent as the life of the young man in the “Life of Pi,” who survives a perilous journey, stranded at sea with a ferocious tiger.
We need to transcend the boundaries of conventional thinking and innovate. Then we may enter a whole new world.
By Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor of English at Seoul National University and president of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. ― Ed.