It’s South Korea’s World; The Rest of Us Are Just Living In It

So, since I just spent more than 400 words equivocating on squat toilets, let’s talk Korea, shall we?

On average, Koreans are the most nationalistic people I’ve ever encountered – a fact that, more than anything else, influenced my time there for better or for worse (though mostly for the better). By and large, Koreans are extremely hospitable, and all too eager to make you feel welcome in their much beloved home country. While Seoul is certainly an international hub with exposure to plenty of expats and general foreign influence, I got the sense that most Koreans couldn’t imagine ever living anywhere else. You can certainly say that of people in most countries, but it somehow felt even more pronounced in South Korea.

I suppose South Korea’s extreme nationalism makes a fair amount of sense when you consider what they’ve been through over the past century-plus: from the disastrous early 20th century Japanese invasion/occupation that disrupted the nearly 500-year rule of the much-heralded Joseon dynasty, and which lasted through most of World War II, to a proxy war fought between two super powers that resulted in a divided Korean Peninsula (and a great number of families being separated on either side of the border) in the 1950s, it’s a wonder that South Korea exists as a sovereign nation at all today, let alone as one of the largest and fastest-growing economies in the world. And that’s not to mention the family of nuke-wielding megalomaniacs that rules north of the 45th parallel (looking at you, Kim Jong-Un).

With that said, I found some Koreans to be a bit lacking in perspective at times. While nobody disputes that the country has been through hell and back in the last century, largely at the hands of external actors, it often felt like many Koreans had an unhealthy expectation of entitlement, and even superiority relative to any non-Korean.

As I was told throughout my trip, South Korea won the Korean War (since there was no formal peace treaty signed, they’re still technically at war) against North Korea, which was aided by the mighty Chinese and Soviet armies. There was minimal mention of the US/UN-led effort to bolster the South and help turn the tide of that war and end the fighting, something that was particularly evident when I visited the DMZ, aka the heavily fortified border between North and South Korea, which is rife with shrines to the heroic efforts of the gallant South Korean army that singlehandedly slew the North and its evil communist allies.

I don’t mean to imply that other countries don’t suffer from the same affliction of revisionist, rose-colored history and an inflated sense of significance relative to global peers – it just seemed more pronounced in Korea. I also don’t think there’s a direct Korean translation for “self-deprecation.” I heard a joke the other day that seemed to aptly sum up the Korean worldview:

Did you hear about the Korean space program? They’re planning to launch a rocket ship into space to see what else they’ve already invented!

I’m going to stop with that, though, as I don’t want to seem like I’m just piling on here. Overall, I really enjoyed my time in South Korea, and got to meet some really cool people (more to come on that in my next post). I think I probably just miss writing these opinionated missives that I could once pass off as poli sci papers in college.

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