The Shrimp That Became a Whale: Impressions of South Korea and a Commendation to the Resilient Korean Spirit – by Marin Ekstrom. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports
[1) An ancient Korean music and dance performance 2) Masks used in traditional Korean plays and performances 3) A historical Korean household]
Korea is known by the moniker “a shrimp caught between two whales”. This nickname describes how Korea has historically been eclipsed by its two neighbors, China and Japan, in terms of geography, cultural influence, military prowess, and other such factors. Furthermore, several of my colleagues who had previously traveled there described it as “the bridge between China and Japan” or “the middle ground between China and Japan.” In my and others’ experiences, China and Japan are two very different places from one another (in some regards, even polar opposites!), and they considered Korea as the halfway point or blend between them. I kept these descriptions in mind when I visited South Korea, as I was anxious to see whether they rang true or if my expectations would be totally blown away. Now that my journey has concluded, I believe that framing Korea in terms of its relations with China and Japan are true in certain respects and can help one better understand it. However, it overlooks the unique characteristics of Korean culture that make it its own civilization. My assessment has its limitations, as I can only give my perspective based on visiting South Korea. Yet overall, I admire how Korea as a whole seems to have incorporated Chinese and Japanese influences while resiliently maintaining its own distinctive identity, making it a place of both reverence and fascination.
In the past few decades, Korea has skyrocketed into prominence on the world stage due to the emergence of South Korea as a major economic and cultural power, as well as controversy over the North Korean regime’s actions. Yet for centuries, the pursuit to maintain a Korean identity has been an intense struggle, to say the least. A distinctive Korean nation has existed since recorded antiquity, but spent a good portion of its early years divided into several states. China, the unquestionable hegemon of East Asia during that time period, tried to invade Korea several times. Yet in a truly David and Goliath effort, Korea managed to fend off Chinese forces time and time again. Although Korea was able to maintain its sovereignty for the most part, China remained a key presence in the nation. Korea served as a tributary state for China for centuries, and Chinese culture heavily influenced the development of Korean culture: Korea adopted both Buddhism and Confucianism, Chinese aesthetics permeated into everything from architecture to clothing styles, Chinese vocabulary entered into the Korean language, etc. Korea still hung on to its own identity despite Chinese influence, and gradually the previously fractured Korean states united as one Korean state. In the later half of the past millennium, as Chinese decline coincided with the rise of Japan, the latter decided to assert its regional hegemonic ambitions by staking claim to Korea. After a number of attempted invasions, Japan finally colonized Korea from 1910-1945, and left behind a mixed historical legacy that still raises debate and discussion to this day. On one hand, Japan encouraged industrial development and mass culture that laid the foundation for the development of contemporary South Korea (and, to a certain extent, North Korea). However, Japan tried to promote, sometimes violently, the Japanese language and cultural traditions at the expense of their Korean counterparts. Korea suffered immensely during the Second World War, with thousands of men being conscripted into the Japanese Army, while thousands of women were forced into being “comfort women”, or sex slaves for the Japanese Army. Japan’s loss in the war resulted into Korea’s independence for its former colonial holding. However, these circumstances directly led to another bloody conflict, the Korean War, as the communist-affiliated North Korea, backed by the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, sought to seize control over the more Western democratic-leaning South Korea. Ultimately, the war resulted in the division of the two Koreas, a situation that remains in place to this day. Both sides of the Korean peninsula were decimated after enduring years of relentless warfare and tragedy. North Korea has not recovered well from this trauma, as it is controlled by one of the world’s most isolated and authoritarian regimes, and is frequently dogged by reports of unwarranted nuclear activity, mass human rights abuses, and other issues. Yet South Korea, like the proverbial phoenix, was able to rise from the ashes to success. After years of muddling along amidst continued poverty and suffering, South Korea experienced an “economic miracle” after reorienting itself as an export-driven economy. This prosperity continues to grow and expand, and South Korea today scores at or near the top in terms of such indicators as wealth, technological sophistication, academic success, and standard of living. Thus, after years of trials and tribulation, Korea has finally entered a period of national self-determination, and the South in particular has proven remarkably adept at forging ahead on its own path.
[4) A Korean porter at the turn of the 20th century 5) Chinese influences in Korea: the entryway to a Buddhist shrine, which features Chinese characters and mythological creature motifs 6) Japanese influences in Korea: a record detailing Japan’s invasion of Korea in 1592]
During my own visit to Busan, South Korea, I observed signs of the complex international interweavings that make up the fabric of Korean history. Chinese characters, which also once served as the Korean language’s writing system, adorned historical sites. Mythological motifs traditionally associated with China, such as the dragon and the lunar calendar zodiac animals, appeared on everything from fridge magnets to temple statues. A few museums showed Japanese language textbooks used in schools during the colonial occupation period, and anime-influenced cartoons decorated magazine covers and key chains. In recent years, the United States has also more heavily influenced Korea (or South Korea, at least), as everything from fashion trends, music genres, and shopping malls all ring reminiscent of American culture. Despite all of this, Korea has carved out and determinedly clung onto the idea of its own independent nationhood. This too proved evident while vacationing in Busan. Signs, books, and posters all featured hangul, the phonetic Korean writing system that replaced Chinese characters in the 1400s. Dining out at a traditional Korean restaurant offered hundreds of tiny side dishes, flat, metal chopsticks, generous servings of spicy cabbage, or kimchi, and smoky, savory sauces and flavorings. The country’s K-Pop songs and K-Drama TV shows, which have exploded in popularity the world over (including China and Japan!) blared over TV screens and radios. South Korea has thus been able to skillfully combine all of these elements to fashion a mosaic of cultural influences while remaining a place all its own.
Korea has essentially been the quintessential underdog throughout its history, and has valiantly fought back from Chinese and Japanese efforts to stamp out its sense of nationhood. Today, the perseverance has paid off, as South Korea is one of the strongest and most influential nations in the world, and (for better or worse) North Korea is also a key player in global affairs. The Korean “shrimp” now swims along China and Japan as a “whale” itself, and instead of just being a bridge for its two neighbors, Korea today is building bridges across the world in an effort of mutual exchange and inspiration.
[7) The bustling industrial development of 20th century Korea 8) The countless side dishes and delectable flavors of Korean cuisine 9) Modern-day Busan, South Korea, with its buildings plastered with Hangul signs ]
Marin serves as an editor for The North Star Reports.
“Brief Summary of Korean History.” Kscpp.net. Korean Spirit and Culture Promotion Project. Accessed August 28, 2016. http://www.kscpp.net/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=rTE6VQ2GHSc=.
Harris, Scott Duke. “South Korea: The Little Dynamo That Sneaked up on the World.” Csmonitor.com. The Christian Science Monitor. May 19, 2013. Accessed August 28, 2016.
J. J. “Stuck in the Middle.” Banyan: Asia. Economist.com. The Economist. April 12, 2013. Accessed August 28, 2016. http://www.economist.com/blogs/banyan/2013/04/korea-chinese-history.
“Korea as a Colony of Japan, 1910-1945.” Asia for Educators. Columbia University. 2009. Accessed August 28, 2016. http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/main_pop/kpct/kp_koreaimperialism.htm.
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