What if you slept?
And what if in your sleep you dreamed?
And what if in your dream, you went to heaven?
And there plucked a strange and beautiful flower?
And what if, when you woke, you had the flower in your hand?
Ah! What then?
– Samuel Taylor Coleridge
SEOUL, South Korea – Not long ago, a man dreamed he was walking in a beautiful garden. Flying all around him were 20 infamous kkatchi, the magnificent purple, black and green colored Korean magpies. The kkatchi are the only animal on planet Earth who boast their own New Year’s Day. Koreans believe they can bring both luck and special messages from beyond the natural realm. Suddenly, the wind picked up and pure, white cherry blossoms rained down upon the garden. It was then that the man realized he wasn’t dreaming.
Fall comes to South Korea (All photos by Anthony C. LoBaido).
In the midst of such surrealistic scenes in 21st-century Korea, it’s mind-boggling to comprehend that merely six decades ago this nation was a land of smoldering ruins.
At first Korea was pillaged, raped and devastated by two generations of Japanese imperialism. (Few Americans know that President Theodore Roosevelt signed off on the Japanese annexation of Korea via the Russo-Japanese War’s peace treaty inked at his “Summer White House” on Oyster Bay, Long Island.) After that came the Maoist/Soviet communist insurgency of the Korean War.
Korea’s young people look toward a bright future.
Since then, Koreans have produced their “economic miracle.” They’ve taken their place on the world stage via hosting the 1988 Olympic Games, their stellar performances in the 2002 World Cup and more recently in the World Baseball Classic. Just as Korean chaebols, or mega corporations like Daewoo and Samsong, have become household names, Korean entertainers like Nell and the Wonder Girls are wooing audiences with their talent and retro-1950s class and style.
One of America’s staunchest allies, Korea has sent their tough, well-trained troops to help the U.S. in conflicts ranging from Vietnam to Iraq. Korean soldiers are well-known for their excellence in tae kwan do, their English language skills as KATUSAs, as well as their marksmanship as jo kyuk su, or snipers.
The Korean magpie, the kkachi, in full flight.
How has South Korea ascended to this point so fast? Is it their reliance upon the four pillars of identity – nation, race, religion and family? Is it their ability to “do the group thing” like nobody’s business? Is it their respect for their culture and traditions? Is it they way they use nim and yo to verbalize the concepts of honor? Is it the way they bow to show respect for superiors? Or is it their never-ending cognitive dissonance concerning their relationships to those older and younger than themselves?
Some wonder if it’s because Korean high-school students remain in motion from 6 a.m. till midnight almost seven days per week. Others say it’s their ability to minimize the concept of personal “sin” in exchange for avoidance of group shame.
Some observers note the Gramscian culture war against the Korean patriarchy has been silenced – as South Koreans have refused to allow divorce, gender role confusion, abortion, homosexuality, welfare and political correctness to be exalted to places of nobility. There are no Paris Hiltons or Dennis Rodmans in South Korean society.
The cherry blossoms of April bloom in Korea.
Like Russia, China, Japan, India and Israel, Korea’s lack of multiculturalism and diversity have not prevented her from becoming one of the world’s foremost nations. Most Koreans believe they are related through the various historical dynasties and common family names like Lee, Kim and Shin. Thus, Koreans don’t hesitate to call strangers ajuma or ajoshi, which translates to “aunt” or “uncle.”
With this in mind, Koreans could fairly be described as chi shi hada, meaning they’re ensconced in the “cookie cutter” concept. Korean men wear short hair and eschew earrings. Every male serves in the armed forces. Korean women don’t wear gang clothes or their pajamas to school. Rather, they have nice legs and high cheeks bones – features Westerners highly prize. All elders (and the elderly) are respected.
Morning in Songnisan, South Korea.
Big dreams are commonplace in Korea. The current South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, was once a garbage man. Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. secretary general, commands respect to the four corners of planet Earth. Korea has already sent a female astronaut into outer space (Yi So-yeon) and appointed several women as generals in their armed forces. Additionally, Korea maintains the world’s largest foreign exchange reserves and ranks a major global exporting nation. Its agro-industrial high-tech economy has enabled her citizens to reach a standard of living that is the envy of much of the developing world.
South Koreans could easily build an atomic bomb if they wished. Surprised? They are acknowledged to have the world’s highest national IQ at 107. Their rates of drug use is around seven citizens per 100,000. Korea’s high-tech video game industry is the envy of the world as top video game players can earn over $100,000 (U.S.) per year.
That said, is it any wonder that futuristic South Korean dreams of a reunited, peaceful peninsula featuring high-speed KTX rail links from Pusan to Beijing appear possible, if not probable? The reunification of North and South Korea would instantly create a military superpower almost without peer.
South Korea’s freedom has, of course, come at a great price. U.S. casualties in the Korean War included over 36,000 killed, over 92,000 wounded, over 8,000 MIA and 7,000-plus POWs. Today, South Korea is free, thanks to the bravery of South Korean, American and other Allied troops. Was it worth all the blood and treasure?
The leaves at Haeinsa, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Consider that if one were to the compare rates of murder, rape and burglary between Seoul and Los Angeles, he’d find Korea in many ways still resembles the nation depicted on the hit TV series “M*A*S*H,” where actor Jamie Farr, playing the beloved Max Klinger, handed out hot dogs to Korean children while sporting his Toledo Mud Hens baseball cap.
Yes, it is true that Koreans can be greedy, lazy, racist, spoiled and infantilized. They eat dogs. Drunkenness is a national obsession. They put toilet paper on restaurant tables. They certainly can be inflexible and hysterical, as exemplified in the anti-U.S. “Mad Cow” protests. Yet most often you’ll find Koreans to be kind, brilliant, courageous and thoughtful. Along with the Israelis and Afrikaners, they rank as some of the best people in the world. Koreans are truly good folk – certainly people worth dying for.
In the final episode of “M*A*S*H,” entitled “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” (at the time the highest-rated program in U.S. history), Cpl. Klinger, who’d spent his army career engaging in every antic imaginable to earn a Section 8 discharge, decided to stay behind with his pretty Korean bride, Soon Lee, find her missing parents and help rebuild the country. The Hawkeye Pierce character told him, “Klinger, we’re all going home now … you don’t have to act crazy anymore.”
Koreans enjoying making small stone towers that symbolize their aspirations.
Considering all things Korean – ancient, modern and postmodern – those of us who have loved and served the South Korean people long ago realized that Max Klinger wasn’t so crazy after all.