Reflecting on his diplomatic experiences in Italy, Vietnam and Iraq, Korean General Consul Hyun-myung Kim spoke of how South Korea transformed from being one of the poorest to richest nations over the past 50 years. His lecture was organized by the Young Kim Center for Korean American Studies (YOK) last Thursday in CHASS 1128.
Kim says that the “Korean wave,” or Hallyu, is conventionally thought of as the worldwide phenomenon of Korean pop music, drama and food, but also represents the struggle through which South Korea changed from being a country of “nothing to something” since the 1960s.
With a keen ability for learning foreign languages, Kim joined the Korean foreign ministry in 1979 because he wanted to travel around the world more easily. “It was very difficult for Korean(s) to get passports,” he said.
In 2010, Kim made the decision to go to Iraq as a South Korean ambassador. “I thought if I go to Iraq, I’d be challenged,” Kim said, considering the experience to be both exciting and rewarding. Volunteering to go to Kurdistan, he was surprised to see the popularity of Korean dramas there. Even as early as last year, Kim noticed that the Korean drama, “Queen of Housewives,” had also become popular in Cuba. “It was interesting to know that many people have this interest (in other countries),” remarked Kim.
Another “Korean wave” was the ability for South Korea to transition from an underdeveloped to industrialized country. “Back in my day, we went through economic development and knew what it was like to be poor,” he said. “The world is changed by people and people are changed by education. Life is a process of learning.”
Kim read a sentence from a 1951 editorial in the United Kingdom’s The Times newspaper which said, “Expecting democracy to bloom in Korea is like hoping for a rose to blossom in a garbage can.” South Korea would eventually prove the world wrong.
Over the last five decades, Korea has made a rapid switch from being a large recipient of international aid to becoming a donor nation. In 1996, Korea became one of 30 members in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, an international body consisting of democratic countries dedicated to supporting free market economies.
The country has also experienced setbacks, however, in its path to development. From 1997-99, South Korea was hit with a financial crisis, encouraging the citizens of the country to donate gold to the government, which he estimates to be worth nearly $2 billion. Kim expressed, “Our attitude gave some trust to (foreign) lenders,” who felt unconfident about South Korea’s economic stability.
“During the last 20 years or so, we sent more than 4,000 or 6,000 Korean people all around the world in more than 90 countries,” he said.
Kim believes that the “Korean wave” of democratic and economic prosperity will wash over North Korea (which split off in 1945), encouraging it to reunite with its southern brethren. At the same time, South Korea still faces the challenges of overcoming its low birthrate and aging population, which places a strain on its economy.
Many classes ranging from Ethnic Studies 136 and 191 to Korean 20B were invited to attend the public event.
Alejandra Delgado, a third-year psychology and ethnic studies major, attended the event because she noticed how relevant it was to her class, noting the rise of Korea’s economic prominence equivalent to that of Japan and the U.S. “I’m not Korean-American, but I … thought it was pretty interesting learning about Korean history,” Delgado said. “We are actually learning about this state and how they’re forming relations within the U.S.”
Edward Oh, fourth-year art major, explained that the lecture was a “big gesture” because it served as gathering place for discussion within the community. “It’s relevant to my life. I’m Korean and American and I’d like to see a reunited Korea,” he expressed. “I liked that (Kim) was optimistic about the reunification process because I feel like it could be easily dismissed and never become a serious topic.”
The event was a part of a Korean American Lecture series organized by YOK. “I hope this event inspired students to learn more about international and global issues,” expressed Professor of Ethnic Studies and Director of YOK Edward Taehan Chang.
Two upcoming YOK events include: a roundtable discussion about the everyday lives of Korean Americans after the Korean War on Feb. 18 and a public art display of Korean women raped by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II on Feb. 26.