Perspectives on Korea
Dr. Emanuel Pastreich, a long-time resident of Korea who has worked with various Korean academic and government institutions in efforts to increase Korea’s global stature, has recently released a remarkable book that presents the quintessence of his philosophy. Dr. Pastreich is the director of the Asia Institute and a professor at Kyung Hee University, and has penned A Different Republic of Korea about Which Only Koreans Are Ignorant, which has drawn considerable attention.
Pastreich adopted a Korean name, Lee Man-yeol, which he says was given to him by his father-in-law when he married his Korean wife in 1997. An active writer and columnist in Korea, he has established himself as a public intellectual in Korea in this age of internationalization.
The book is meant as a touchstone to point Korea in the right direction towards its true long-term potential on the global stage. Much of the focus falls on the various hidden treasures in Korean culture itself. Pastreich uses a powerful parable taken from the Lotus Sutra to describe Korea’s relationship with its own culture.
The parable goes like this. A man meets an old friend and they talk until late in the evening. Before dawn, the friend leaves while the man is still asleep. The friend takes a priceless gem and sews it into the lining of the man’s jacket as a special gift to help him, and then he leaves before the man awakes. When the man wakes up he continues on his travels, unaware of the jewel sewn into his clothes. He suffers painful experiences, being subjected to hunger, disease, and terrible poverty. After many years, he meets up again with his friend who tells him that he had had a priceless jewel in his clothes all that time, but had been unaware of it. The point of the parable is that often the most valuable things in our lives we have right with us, but we are completely unaware of their presence. In the case of Korea, there is a profound lack of awareness of the richness of Korean culture itself.
Pastreich shows a profound affection for Korea and its culture, listing many aspects of traditional Korean culture, from Buddhist meditation to traditional urban planning and the concept of propriety, or “Ye,” ideas which have been cast aside in the rush to become modern. His message is eminently clear: “See the gem you hold inside yourself and establish your own identity.”
In his view, Korea is a curious paradox. Koreans lament that their country is not yet an “advanced country” when it has many services and attributes which put it on a par with, or ahead of, other industrialized nations. As Koreans wring their hands over their lack of modernity, they overlook their own strengths. Pastreich writes, “There are priceless gems all around the country just waiting to be discovered, but Koreans have made few efforts to dig them up or to display them.”
He relates how ignorant many Americans and Europeans are of Korea, happily driving Hyundai automobiles or watching LG televisions and using Samsung smart phones, but unaware of their country of origin. And Korea has suffered because of this by way of a serious discount of the value of Korean goods and services. According to the author, the average price discount on Korean goods and services amounts to around 9.3%, no less than 58 trillion won (US$52 million) lost because of a habitual discount of the value of Korea’s total exports, some 625 trillion won (US$562 million) as of 2011.
One of the causes of this Korea discount is an underestimation of Korea’s importance by Koreans themselves. Pastreich refers to this way of thinking as the “shrimp complex.” There is a Korean proverb frequently invoked by Koreans to describe their country’s geopolitical status: “A shrimp gets its back broken when whales fight.” The point being that Korea is a little country squeezed between great powers like the United States, China, and Japan, and must be extremely careful because of its own fragility.
But today Korea has a remarkable range of technologies and access to considerable finance, Pastreich argues. It must move beyond this defensive posture. He notes, “If Korea wants to play a leading role in the international community, it can, but the first step is to move beyond that shrimp complex. How? By affirming its long-term cultural identity and finding inspiration for its moves forward as a global leader in its own thousands of years of history.” His opinion that “tradition is the key to the future” has been articulated before, but his specific proposals are quite thought-provoking.
For example, at a time that Koreans uniformly praise the so-called Hallyu (Korean Wave) which has brought Korea to every corner of the world, the author admonishes Koreans that the Hallyu of recent days has become increasingly superficial as a cultural phenomenon, and if it remains limited to music videos and soap operas set in sleek concrete and glass buildings, it will not last. “I don’t mean to under-rate the power of popular culture. I want to suggest that the focus on the outstanding essence of Korea’s cultural tradition dating back for centuries is far more important to making sure that Hallyu takes root globally than just releasing one more hit song or a blockbuster movie,” he writes.
Pastreich suggests that we can find hints as to Korea’s possible future in its past. With some brilliant insights and creative convergence, he believes that we can brush the dust off of Korea’s glorious past and reinvigorate it, creating a new global culture. For example, Pastreich speaks about the traditional “Sarangbang,” the drawing room in the traditional Korean home wherein members of the community gathered for entertainment, artistic expression, and also serious discussions about current issues. The Sarangbang brought together artists, bureaucrats, farmers, and other scholars into a single creative space for a free and open dialog. That traditional cultural space provided a positive stimulus for citizens, helping them create new ideas.
Pastreich goes on to say, “Let’s create a new vision on Korean society that makes use of the powerful tradition of common culture and community to be found in Korea. The Sarangbang can be a model for us as we try to rebuild a community here and around the world.” What Pastreich is advocating is that the Sarangbang gathering of diverse individuals from the community, motivated by cultural creation and concern for society, could become a global model for addressing the alienation and disconnect we see in many societies. If Korea can put forth a new model with roots in its past, the country can rise to a new level of cultural significance.
Pastreich touches on many other aspects of traditional Korea, including the concept of “Hongikingan,” the idea of extending benefits to all humans, a powerful universalist and idealist concept in Korea that goes beyond the narrow definition of interest groups and nation states. This concept could have tremendous impact in the current age, he suggests. Also, Pastreich suggests that traditional geomancy can return to its roots in ecology, not fortunetelling, and play a powerful role in urban planning. He speaks of the tremendous potential in traditional organic farming techniques and those aspects of traditional Korean art and literature that could have global appeal.
Pastreich devotes a full chapter of his book to the concept of the “Seonbi,” the committed scholar in traditional Korea. He notes that Korea had a remarkable tradition of learned scholars who maintained noble ideas and were deeply committed to society and to the nation. That Confucian tradition offers much for the modern age which suffers such alienation and in which so few can find a calling that makes good use of their skills. A “Seonbi Spirit” refers to the iron will to sacrifice even one’s life for a greater cause on the part of intellectuals and to hold to human dignity in all cases. That tradition of the Seonbi is exactly what our age demands, and is an opportunity for Korea to develop a global national image, just as Japan developed the samurai and the ninja as elements of global culture linked to its own traditions.
The priceless gems in Korean culture that Pastreich identified are the essence of true power. Pastreich goes as far as to claim that if Korea recognizes its inherent strengths, it can establish a powerful tradition of soft power. “If Korea can make good use of its soft power, Korea could end up at the center of a cultural renaissance in this century,” he explains, “Korea is the first country that joined the ranks of advanced economies that has not inherited the imperialist legacy of colonialism and which has emerged from poverty in the shortest span of time. Its valuable experience is inspiring for developing nations worldwide. But this state is not something for Koreans to take pride in. It should be a source of responsibility and duty. Korea must lead the world in a positive direction.”
Pastreich speaks as a non-Korean who perceives Korea’s strengths and weaknesses with an objectivity Koreans often lack. At the same time, his book has a great appeal for Koreans, now #5 on the new book bestseller list, because he speaks with great affection and concern for Korea.
About the Author
Born in 1964 in Nashville, Tennessee, USA, Dr. Emanuel Pastreich has an undergraduate degree in Chinese language and literature from Yale College (1987), a master’s degree in comparative literature from the University of Tokyo (1992) and a doctoral degree in East Asian studies from Harvard University (1997). He has taught East Asian studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and George Washington University before coming to Korea in 2007. Pastreich was a consultant to the Korean Cultural Center of the Embassy of the Republic of Korea in the United States of America where he served as the director of the policy think tank KORUS HOUSE run by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (2005-2007). He is currently a professor at the College of International Studies at Kyung Hee University and the director of the Asia Institute, a think tank focusing on Asian policy issues.