Professor Lee Gil-sang of the Academy of Korean Studies
By Lee Gil-sang
Korea is referred to as "the land of the morning calm," "Hermit Kingdom," "Asia's small dragon," "the light of the East," "the country of courteous people in the East" and more. These names symbolize different facets of Korea: some reflect the viewpoints of foreigners; some reflect the expectations of Koreans; some represent both of these; and some have long been used while others have recently begun to be used.
In addition to these, there is another that has been used by many people for more than one century. This is "the Ireland of Asia." It is uncertain who started using this expression, but over the past century, Korea has long been compared to Ireland by many people.
Contrary to a general understanding that the comparison of Korea with Ireland is a product of Japanese annexation of Korea, Lillias Horton Underwood (1851-1921) will be the first to compare Korea with Ireland. In her book titled "Fifteen Years Among the Top-Knots: or Life in Korea," published in 1904, Lillias Horton Underwood stated, "Koreans are the East's Irish people."According to her, there was a close parallel between the Irishman and the Korean. Both were happy-go-lucky, improvident, impulsive, warm-hearted, hospitable, generous. Take either in the midst of his native bogs, untutored, they are thoughtless, careless, dirty; drink heavily, smoke and gamble away their time with apparently little ambition for anything better.
Lillias Underwood's symbolic expression of "Irish people of the East" clearly includes a strong racist instinct based on racial inferiority and superiority, and imperialism that supports the legitimacy of the West's ruling of the non-West. Such inclinations whereby Korea's situations were explained based on the unique ethnicity of Koreans, and whereby the future of Korea was discussed later on appeared in the descriptions of Korea's history frequently and in diverse ways.
Well-known for his saying "Don't bark if you cannot bite," Yun Chi-ho (1865-1945) compared Korea to Ireland, and Japan to the United Kingdom. He saw that Japan's crimes and mistakes it committed in the process of ruling Korea, perfectly resembled those committed by the U.K. in the process of ruling Ireland. To Yun Chi-ho, the U.K.'s ruling of Ireland was not a success but a failure. Thus, to him, it was a tragedy that Korea would become the Ireland of Asia, while Japan would become the U.K. of Asia.
Yanaihara Tadao (1893-1961), known to Koreans as a Korean-friendly civil colony-policy scholar, used the expression "Korea is the Ireland of Japan" during the 1920s. Yanaihara recalled the fact that although the Irish people used English, they were not mentally assimilated into the U.K., and strongly and persistently criticized Japan's assimilation education pursued in Korea. He was interested not in the two nations' similarities overall, but in their similarities in relation to their respective colonial powers.
John Dewey, a famous American educational philosopher, interestingly compared Korea with Ireland in 1920 when he was in China. He called Korea "the second Ireland,' based on the similarities between both peoples' and their strong resistance to their rulers. Just as Irish people got their national consciousness while under the rule of the British, according to Dewey, Korean people developed their national identity and consciousness for the first time under Japanese colonial rule. John Hodge, chief commander of the occupation forces, who visited Korea after the Second World War and led the U.S. Army Military Government in Korea for three years, referred to Koreans as "Irish people of the East," discussing Koreans' characteristics of hostility and lack of self-governance. Attempts to explain modern-time Korean society's characteristics in relation to the nationalistic similarity between Koreans and Irish people have continued until recently. When Lucian Pye, a famous American Asian-studies specialist of MIT, explained the causes of political crises and confusion that Korea repeatedly undergoes, he described the popular image of Korea as the "Ireland of the East." He indicated Koreans' nationalistic similarities with the Irish: first, they are overall deferential to authority. Second, Koreans individually are combative defenders of their rights. Third, they have a culture of taking risks. Francis Fukuyama, a well-known American political scientist and the author of "The End of History" and the "Last Man" (1992), saw that Korea was nicknamed "Oriental Ireland" because Korea, after the Korean War, staged more political strife than Japan, and such evaluation is based on the nationalistic uniqueness and similarity of Koreans and the Irish.
These days even common people usually compare Korea with Ireland based on three facts; first, the two countries have been poor until recently and modernized rapidly; second, the two countries are divided into North and South; and third, the two countries have excellent education systems.
To say the least, I do not agree on the last. A number of facts could be presented to show that Korea's education is totally different from Irish education and Korea is not the Ireland in Asia at least in terms of education. The transition year program in Irish education is one such difference. The transitional year for students in the Irish educational program is an optional one-year program allowed to all 10th grade students. Intended to be a broad educational and social experience, many non-academic subjects such as life skills including cooking and driving and many of sports are included in the program. Students are encouraged to develop creativity and responsibility in and out of the school freely without the burden of being examined.
Korean education, clinging only to a change of subjects in college entrance examination is impossible to catch up the Irish education. Without creative, educated people, Korea cannot be the first class nation at all. Without any effort to reduce the differences in education, Korea can't be the Ireland in Asia which exceeded the U.K., their previous ruler, in terms economics.
The writer is a professor of Education at the Academy of Korean Studies.