By Lee Chang-sup
In a Seoul conference last week, Jon Van Dyke, a professor of law at the University of Hawaii, raised a thought-provoking question: Why do Koreans have an inferiority complex, for example, toward the Japanese when Hallyu and K-Pop dominate Japan.
He says Koreans tend to feel comfortable thinking of themselves as victims. Of course, Koreans have been victimized on numerous occasions throughout their history.
During the past two generations, hoever, Koreans have become major players on the world's stage. It has now become the 14th largest economy.
Korea has become a vibrant multiparty democracy and is justifiably proud of having emerged from years of military dictatorship.
Korea has provided international leadership in many ways. The secretary general of the United Nations and the president of the International Criminal court are both Koreans. Korea also has an outstanding judge on the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. Korea's films and TV shows are popular around the world.
He said Koreans should be confident of what they are doing or should not underestimate their potential, status and position in the world.
Many foreigners share this view. They say Korea is no longer an emerging or developing country. They say Korea has emerged.
They raise hosts of examples that help Koreans overcome the lingering inferiority complex in international settings.
Korea is an OECD member. Korea has become the world’s sixth country that has hosted the Seoul Olympics, the 2002 World Cup finals, and will hold the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games and the world track and field championships this summer.
Exports and imports will surpass the historical $1 trillion mark this year. A report showed that Korea would emerge as one of the top five traders in the world in less than two decades.
Korea is the first country which has successfully become a donor country after decades of being an aid recipient.
The IMF and the World Bank often cite Korea as one of their honors students. The country has one of the world’s best international airports in Incheon. It is one of the world’s most wired countries.
Koreans scratched their heads when U.S. President Barack Obama mentioned Korea for its education excellence in this year’s State of Union address. He also lauded Korea for having a high-speed Internet network faster than the U.S.
Korean musicians won five awards at the 14th International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow last Thursday. It is no longer news that a Korean woman golfer won the US LPGA title. Pro-golfers Choi Kyung-ju and Yang Yong-eun have won PGA titles.
Korea has been constantly driving to become number one, or a member of the global top 10. The media are interested in the global ranking of academic excellence or economic power.
From a different perspective, Korean immigration officials and employers treat white men and black men differently. Such a biased perception is attributable to nationalistic education and hierarchical thinking. In their minds, they have the fixed view that countries and races are ordered.
Many Koreans feel ridiculously inferior to Americans and superior to Egyptians. They feel a bit inferior to Americans because they are No. 1 in the world.
Koreans are grappling with an identity crisis over their status in the world.
Why does the perception gap exist?
Even Koreans were unable to catch up with the fast and condensed growth over the past six decades. Despite the global prominence economically, culturally and technologically, Koreans’ way of thinking seldom changed.
Their lingering inferiority complex is attributable to long foreign domination of the Korean Peninsula. In the Joseon Dynasty, a weak Korea was exposed to invasions or interventions from powerful countries, including Japan, China and Russia. The 1960s school textbooks depicted the European countries, including Greece, as wealthy and advanced nations. Now the baby boomer-generation Koreans are puzzled over the news that the troubled Greece is on the verge of bankruptcy. They came to realize that they are better off than Greeks.
The Korean word “han” is difficult to translate into English. The lingering bitterness or hopeless self-resignation epitomizes the inferiority complex of Koreans. The sentiment prevailed when Koreans were under the Japanese colonial rule or the authoritarian regimes of Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan.
In dealing with North Korea’s denuclearization program, Seoul’s preference for the six-party talks is a sign of the lingering inferiority complex.
Why don’t the two Koreas make direct contact in order to determine their own destiny? Why should the major powers play a main role in Korean issues?
Koreans also feel inferior over the fact that a Korean has not won a Nobel prize in science, medicine, literature and other fields, except for the peace prize.
Feeling inferior or superior creates problems. For example, foreigners sense China’s arrogance in international issues. Such arrogance is, they say, attributable to their pride that they emerged from the 2008 global recession relatively unscathed.
PyeongChang’s winning the 2018 Winter Olympics should be an occasion for Koreans to throw away their residual inferiority complex. What is necessary is Koreans should have a correct view of their global status. Koreans should pay more attention to global issues such as poverty in Africa, climate change, green growth and child labor.
Lee Chang-sup is the chief editorial writer of The Korea Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org