Posted : 2009-02-20 16:55
Updated : 2009-02-20 16:55

Koreans Yearn for World-Ranking Ascendancy

By Jon Huer
Korea Times Columnist

Most foreigners are quite baffled at how single-minded Korea is in knowing exactly what ranks it holds compared with other countries. After all, the victim psychology and the desire to be great are perhaps two facets of the same framework.

It is indeed difficult to read a newspaper in Korea without finding some references to Korea's world ranking in one area or another. Koreans are very keen on knowing how many notches they have moved up in one area and how far behind they have fallen in another. It makes their day as easily as it breaks their heart.

Naturally, nothing thrills them more than finding out that they are ranked higher than countries normally considered their competitors.

Similarly, a great collective lamentation takes place if they have fallen in one ranking or another. Korea is also keen on how many years it will take before it become number one in this, or number two in that, or number three in the other.

For example, upon the death of Pope John Paul II, the Korean press had lively coverage of why Korea had only one cardinal whereas neighboring Japan, with fewer Catholics, had two.

Perhaps as a response, the Vatican appointed another Korean cardinal. So Korea did have two cardinals for a while, until Cardinal Kim, the first, passed away last week, meaning the one-cardinal issue might flare up again.

The conclusion was that it happened the first time because, Heaven forbid, Korea is ``a weak, small nation.'' Until recently, now somewhat doused by the current global economic meltdown, Korea's buzzword was "a 30,000-dollar-a-year economy."

Researchers are fond of figuring out and announcing to the eager public how many years it would take Korea to command an average income level of $30,000 a year.

Watching Korea in this mode of thinking is like watching a very insecure person constantly comparing himself with others to see how good he is or how well he is doing.

Of course, Korea should not feel insecure about its place in the world, not objectively or subjectively, and not get so anxious about this ranking or that.

If Korea is worthy of a high ranking, the world will rank it highly. Fretting about it will not help.

But this view is, of course, very American, or Western.

If told of Korea's world-ranking accomplishments and their undue anxiety to reach the top, Koreans would simply retort that because Americans are strong and powerful they can afford to feel so sanguine about their place in the world and are not as sensitive. But not Koreans, who have many hills to climb before they reach a place in the sun.

Of course, the whole world knows that Korea wants to be one of the "advanced nations''.

This yearning for world-ranking ascendancy is expressed everywhere. No day goes by without hearing about Korea's ambition to be an advanced nation, and not just an economic and technological placing. The word "advanced" has a loaded meaning in Korea. Those who know Korea understand why it so desperately wants to be thought of as an advanced member of the world community.

It has to do with all the sorrows and suffering of the poor, powerless nation that Korea once was. Its climb to a higher echelon has been achieved with blood, sweat, and tears. Nothing satisfies Korea's soul more than being thought of as securely lodged among the world's most advanced countries.

When Korea aspires to move up in this world, it is its soul that yearns to move up and have a place in the sun. Thus, Korea counts the days, often like counting the eggs, to see how close it is to being an advanced country.

Korea compares itself with other OECD members, the world's elite nations, and which it was last in joining, to see how close it is to being an advanced member. It laments that it has a long way to go, so many years to pass, so many dollars yet to add, so many steps to take, each one so painfully difficult and unforgiving.

It complains that Korea has won only one Nobel prize and wonders how long it will take before it wins more, like other advanced nations.

To many Americans, Korea's desire to be one of the world's big boys borders on obsession. The typical American reaction to this obsession is one of pity, wonde, and puzzlement.

Why, the foreigners ask, can Korea not sit back and enjoy what it richly deserves, without the torturous self-doubt and lamentation of not being there yet?

Who Is Jon Huer?

Jon Huer received his Ph.D. in Sociology from UCLA in 1975 and is the author of a dozen books of social criticism, including 1977's The Dead End, which TIME Magazine's Lance Morrow called "an important and often brilliant book"; The Wages of Sin in 1991; Tenure for Socrates in 1990; The Great Art Hoax in 1992; The Fallacies of Social Science in 1989; Marching Orders in 1988; The Post-Human Society in 2005; and The Green Palmers in 2007. Most of them are available at and Dr. Huer taught at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, where he was an associate professor of sociology before joining the University of Maryland University College in 1994 and is currently a professor of sociology at UMUC-Asia. He specializes in American society and considers himself an avid observer of all things Korean.

The opinions expressed and the observations described in this article are strictly the writer's own and do not represent any official position of the University of Maryland University College or the USFK. He can be reached at
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