[Cultural Kaleidoscope] A Korean in Beijing

Last week I was in Beijing with a small group of Korean delegates, including Seoul National University`s President, Chung Un-Chan, for the annual BESETOHA (Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo and Hanoi) conference held at Beijing University. Four presidents from four major universities in East Asia delivered keynote speeches in their respective languages, with simultaneous interpretations, rather than in English - a gesture of cultural representation that served to express national pride.

Indeed, it was good to see dignitaries from the four East Asian countries so full of national pride and confidence, each for their own reasons. For the Chinese delegates, it was likely due to their recent economic growth and rosy prospects for the future, with a big country of approximately 1.35 billion people it is an enormous market of unrealized potential. The Japanese were no doubt confident because their nation is recuperating fast after recent years of economic recession and their role in Asia is once again becoming important, especially as they still enjoy a great deal of support from the United States. The Vietnamese delegates were as confident as ever, as their country is proudly emerging as an economic force at a very rapid pace. The Korean representatives also had reason to be confident, given Korea`s remarkable achievements.

Yet, when a Chinese scholar abruptly asserted that world domination by the United States is in decline while the power of China is on the rise, Japanese scholars did not seem to agree. The Japanese were taciturn and did not say anything provocative, but I could sense a sharp tension between China and Japan over the hegemony of East Asia. Of course, they were all worldly, sophisticated and learned men, so there were no serious clashes of opinion or harsh words exchanged. Nonetheless, I could not help but detect a subtle rivalry between representatives of these two neighboring countries on certain international issues.

This was precisely the moment when I felt the sharp pangs of concern that accompany an identity crisis. While China and Japan sized each other up and warily broached political issues, Korea had to remain in the background. Korea might be strategically important both to China and Japan, but other than that it seems to hold no particular measure of significance. It was frustrating to be reminded that Korea is just a small peninsula caught between China and Japan, and often affected by their power struggles. There`s no escaping the fact that, while we all share similarities, we are all vastly different politically and in the way we are seen on the world stage.

I become only too aware, as often happens at conferences in Beijing or Tokyo, that Korea is far from being the center of East Asia or the world. Perhaps Korea could try to be more conspicuous. For instance, the Roh administration should have agreed on a motto like, "Korea in the world" instead of "Korea, the hub of East Asia." The conference was a great success, and brought us all together in a congenial international academic environment; I was happy to see old friends again from both from the University of Tokyo and Beijing University. But when all was said and done I remained troubled by the invisibility of Korea, occasionally lost somewhere between China and Japan. After the conference that day, I roamed the streets of Beijing before treading a solitary road to the Forbidden City. Once inside, the enormous grandeur of that famous palace was overwhelming compared to a rather cozy Kyongbok Palace in Seoul. It made me feel somewhat alone and reflective.

How much I shake my head these days at reckless young people and ill-informed politicians in Korea who haven`t had much experience abroad and believe Korea to be well known and powerful in the world! How amused I am at their naivety in believing that Korea can do anything without the intervention of other countries! They only need look at a map to find out where we stand in the world, landlocked between two powerful countries, for that represents more than just our physical location. It has a cultural and historical dimension, too. This might be disheartening, but while our physical position will always remain the same, everything else can be changed. It is up to us to make it happen.

Dr. Kim is a professor of English and dean of the Language School at Seoul National University. - Ed.

By Kim Seong-kon

(Korea Herald 2004-12-1)