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

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.

Works Consulted

“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.
http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Asia-Pacific/2013/0519/South-Korea-The- little-dynamo-that-sneaked-up-on-the-world.

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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The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy (http://NorthStarReports.org) is a student edited and student authored open access publication centered around the themes of global and historical connections. Our abiding philosophy is that those of us who are fortunate enough to receive an education and to travel our planet are ethically bound to share our knowledge with those who cannot afford to do so. Therefore, creating virtual and actual communities of learning between college and K-12 classes are integral to our mission. In three years we have published over 250 articles covering all habitable continents and a variety of topics ranging from history and politics, food and popular culture, to global inequities to complex identities. These articles are read by K-12 and college students. Our student editors and writers come from all parts of the campus, from Nursing to Biology, Physical Therapy to Business, and remarkably, many of our student editors and writers have long graduated from college. We also have writers and editors from other colleges and universities. In addition to our main site, we also curate a Facebook page dedicated to annotated news articles selected by our student editors (http://www.facebook.com/NorthStarReports). This is done by an all volunteer staff. We have a frugal cash budget, and we donate much of our time and talent to this project. The North Star Reports is sponsored and published by Professor Hong-Ming Liang, NSR Student Editors and Writers, The Department of History and Politics of The College of St. Scholastica, and the scholarly Middle Ground Journal. For a brief summary, please see the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History, at: http://www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2013/1305/Opening-The-Middle-Ground-Journal.cfm

Hong-Ming Liang, Ph.D., Editor-in-Chief and Publisher, The North Star Reports; Chief Editor, The Middle Ground Journal; Associate Professor of History and Politics, The College of St. Scholastica. Kathryn Marquis Hirsch, Managing Editor, The North Star Reports. Eleni Birhane and Matthew Breeze, Assistant Managing Editors, The North Star Reports.

(c) 2012-present The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy http://NorthStarReports.org ISSN: 2377-908X The NSR is sponsored and published by Professor Hong-Ming Liang, NSR Student Editors and Writers, with generous support from The Department of History and Politics of The College of St. Scholastica, and the scholarly Middle Ground Journal. See Masthead for our not-for-profit educational open- access policy. K-12 teachers, if you are using these reports for your classes, please contact editor-in-chief Professor Liang at HLIANG (at) css.edu

10 Comments

Filed under Marin Ekstrom, North Star Student Editors, Professor Hong-Ming Liang

10 responses to “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

    • Greta

      Hi Marin,
      This article is done with great detail and interesting features. It’s interesting to see how one country can have such a big influence on other courtiers, near or far. Ideas are able to travel and therefore influence is possible. Korean nation has existed since a historic time period and has learned from other countries that allowed them to grow into a better country within itself.

  1. Matthew Breeze

    What a wonderful piece on the proverbial shrimp caught between two whales! You gave an excellent brief overview of the history of the Korean peninsula and how both Japan and China, as well as the U.S. today, have influenced and changed Korea. The fact that Korea has been able to keep some of its independence throughout history is a remarkable fact. More impressive may be, as you pointed out, that Koran culture is its own vibrant brand. The dominance of K-pop and the massive economic boom of South Korea are evidence of South Korean independence in a political and cultural sense. Comparing a country to its neighbors can be useful, but looking into a country as you have done provides a unique and wonderful insight.

  2. Megan Bingham

    Thank you very much for the quick background of the these countries. I actually realized I was quite uneducated about some of these details like why north and south Korea is even split. I would like to take a second to applaud you for not just listening to other peoples opinions and taking them as your own. You took their opinions and then pushed yourself to go and visit yourself so that you could find out for yourself! That takes a strong person. It is so interesting to see how one country can be influenced by so many different aspects of different countries. This definitely shows that humans are adaptable and can learn new ways. Thanks you for sharing!

  3. Avnish Miyangar

    This article is very clear and well presented. It is good to see that even though it has been heavily influenced by China, Korea has still maintained its own identity. We do not hear much about Korean culture today, which is a shame. The food looks amazing and something I would definitely like to try. I like the fact you noticed how other countries have influenced the way Korea looks today. I think this point can be reflected in most countries today. Most things today that we eat, buy or use have some sort of influence from another country.

  4. Francesca Do

    This post is truly amazing. I have a deep interest in the Korean culture and would hope to one day visit the country to experiences their culture first hand. I did not know much of Korea’s history, but this article really helped me understand how Korea came to be. I believe that it is important to learn about the history of any country, for it makes one understand the origin, as well as process of how humans adapted to their surrounding. The imagery that you provided are a great representation of the Korean culture, from food to old history text, it is a great way to communicate to others, without saying a word. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us!

  5. Alexa Lee

    I can tell that a lot of time and analytical thinking went into this post. That is a wonderful thing for someone who knew very little about any of this (someone like me). I think the shrimp/ whale analogy is so unique because it makes a lot of sense. I think that connecting countries together, like Korea as a bridge, is important, but so is keeping true to it’s distinctness and individuality. It shows how the world is both similar and diverse. I wonder, though, if Korea has been successful and was able to emerge as a whale because of its “underdoggedness”? Despite what anyone thinks, though, Korea has been around for a long time, flight many battles, and still
    Stands on its own today. I think that is memorable and important, and I’m thankful that you’ve helped me recognize that!

  6. Nouqouja Yang

    What an awesome post! I really enjoyed reading this post because at one point of my life, I was really into the Korean culture (mainly due to kpop). It’s always so interesting to me how countries rise to be such a beautiful place full of culture and history. I’m very impressed that it was able to fight off so strong and become its own. This definitely connects to what has been talked about in professor Liang’s class. We all come from somewhere and are more similar than we may think. This post describes how South Korea has a lot of things borrowed from the Chinese and Japanese culture, just like how today we also borrow many things from other cultures and try to make it our own. But its only normal to want something you like. I’m still really enjoying your post! Thank you again for sharing!!!

  7. Ellen Hansen

    I love how you basically took the story of Korea and its misuse and turned it into one of triumph and resilience. (This is especially poignant in the final sentence of the piece, describing its existence as a whale rather than a shrimp). As we have discussed in class, it is important to recognize the complexity of communities. Just because the region was under trial at one point, does not mean that its story has to be one of permanent victimization. Similarly, this is a great example of how the patterns of the world are static and dynamic at the same time… Korea’s history is static in the way that its past environment could easily be applied to any community, and that community would have undergone a similar cycle of struggle. Its dynamic shows in the way that its people proved resilient and strong throughout times of injustice, and they were able to turn the preexisting conditions upside down to create something beautiful.

    Thanks for the lovely post!

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