By Michael Breen
For G20 visitors in Seoul this week, two characteristics of their Korean hosts will by now be apparent.
One is that, from the smiling volunteer to the grumpiest dissenter who has hung up his protest headband for a few days, they all want the outside world to think well of their country.
The other is that they care personally about their nation’s economy. This side manifests in hard times when housewives queue to donate their gold rings to the state coffers and on other occasions when people take to the streets because they think the government is too weak to resist trade partners. (Except China which, we fear in self-interest, would respond to criticism with even harsher economic medicine).
These Korean characteristics can be understood as the nicer consequences of nationalism.
It was only a generation back that the country gathered its energies and pulled itself out of poverty under the leadership of nationalistic army generals who wanted to build a state which could defend itself without outside support against North Korea. The theme then was ``Grow or Die.”
As interest in North Korea and reunification rapidly recedes, that objective has morphed into something less focused, but South Koreans remain driven by the will not simply to get rich, but to be better tomorrow than they are today.
This is quite remarkable. In countries accustomed to their developed status, nationalism has been a dirty word since World War Two and even patriotism wears thin. Governments cannot suggest and schools cannot teach that the citizen act as an ambassador for his country, let alone make significant sacrifices in its interest, unless it’s his ``job.”
In Korea, however, young people were taught until recently to serve their family’s and country’s interests.
Times change, though. Just a decade ago, when asked, children tended to say they wanted to contribute to reunification or be useful citizens in some other way. Now the inner teenage Beyonce can express herself and most feel free enough to admit they would rather be entertainers than managers at Samsung Electronics.
Maybe when this new generation is in charge, Korea may look more tired and settled. But for now it is packed with earnest energy and zeal to both make something of itself and be affirmed.
And that is why the G20 hosting, which to the developed world may appear like a rotating obligation ― Canada hosted in June, next is France and then Mexico ― is interpreted here as an endorsement. It’s why the country glows so immensely this week.
Koreans are, of course, experienced hosts. In its day the 1988 Seoul Olympics was the best in history. In 2002, when Korea co-hosted the FIFA World Cup with Japan, the events here were electrifying. The entire country, it seemed, donned red T-shirts and turned out in the streets to watch their team play on giant screens. As a measure of the grace that matched the passion, tens of thousands of Koreans doubled up as supporters for adopted countries whose people couldn’t make the long trip east.
But the G20 summit is different. It is about economics and this is something that, in contrast to so many citizens of other member states, that so many Koreans with their ``Grow or Die” history, follow and understand.
They are not dumbed down by a media that requires news to be entertaining before it gets reported. They know what GDP is about, what FTAs are and what finance ministers are supposed to do.
In years past, when heads-of-state visited and Korea came to international attention, foreign journalists wondered aloud about the ``miracle on the Han River,” as the development story was called, and whether the Koreans could keep it up. They did, and for as long as the energy drives them, they will.
Michael Breen is an author, former foreign correspondent and the chairman of Insight Communications, a public relations consulting company. He can be reached at email@example.com.