[Column] South Korea: From periphery to center

Posted on : 2024-01-05 17:31 KST Modified on : 2024-01-05 17:31 KST
As much as Korea has globalized, can we truly call ourselves an international or global nation?
(Illustration by Jaewoogy@chol.com)
(Illustration by Jaewoogy@chol.com)


By Roe Jung-hye, professor emerita of biological science at Seoul National University

Even today, I’m shocked to recall my visit several decades ago to a historical site connected with Korean intellectual Jeong Yak-yong (1762-1832) on the banks of Paldang Lake.

In the mid-1980s, I was a dewy-eyed professor, fresh from my studies in the US and still pondering what kind of research I should pursue in Korea. At a memorial hall at the site, I came upon a brief description of the thought and accomplishments of the Silhak scholars of the Joseon dynasty who advocated a more empirical and practical approach to learning.

The passage I found especially shocking came in an explanation of the theory of the earth as a sphere: “Therefore, China can no longer be called the center. There is no distinction between center and periphery. Even we could become the center.”

That was an excellent example of how Joseon-era Korean intellectuals who had been indoctrinated in the belief that China was the center of the world encountered Western science and civilization in Beijing and applied that to Silhak, adopting a perspective that was grounded in science.

That was also a moment of revelation for me, since I’d long viewed the Joseon dynasty as a synonym for a feudal society shackled in outdated practices.

“Enlightened” as I assumed myself to be, I was intimidated by the dazzling scientific achievements of the West and felt my only duty was to somehow catch up to that. But two centuries ago, these Joseon intellectuals (not all, to be sure) had boldly parted ways with a Sinocentric worldview and taught that Korea too could become the center. That was when I was forced to confront my sycophantic admiration for the West.

When Korea started becoming known around the world in the late 19th century, it was known as the “Land of Morning Calm,” a translation of Joseon, the Korean Peninsula’s last dynastic kingdom. In the 21st century, people are now referring to our country as “Dynamic Korea.” Throughout the past 20 years of economic growth and expanded interaction with the outside world, Korea has dramatically magnified its international presence and influence. The number of foreign residents has surpassed 2.5 million, and is expected to exceed 5% of the population this year. South Korea is on its way to becoming a multi-ethnic, multicultural society. Among elementary school students, 4.2% are from multi-ethnic families, and this proportion keeps growing. Approaching 130,000, the number of international students seeking university degrees in South Korea also keeps increasing. Around 50,000 of them are graduate students, comprising 15% of all current masters and doctorate rosters. While K-pop and K-dramas certainly played a role in this phenomenon, it’s notable that over 40 Korean universities were included in the QS World University Rankings. The UN officially recognized South Korea as a developed economy in 2021, meaning we can no longer be considered a backwater country. 

Yet as much as Korea has globalized, can we truly call ourselves an international or global nation? Sure, migrant workers fill unwanted jobs and international students help universities fill their coffers and staff unfilled research positions, but do we have international experts and specialists working in a wide spectrum of industries? It’s fortunate that more Korean companies are becoming main players on the global stage, but are Korean universities, tasked with producing new talent and knowledge, truly on a global level? 

As the 13th largest economy in the world, how much of a leadership role are we playing in solving the major issues that are currently burdening human civilization? We are an inclusive society that makes foreign residents feel at home? We spare no compliments for Koreans who go abroad and succeed, but we still maintain exclusive policies and attitudes toward international workers who choose to make Korea their home. We need some retrospection.  

It’s true that over 40 Korean universities are mentioned in the QS rankings, but only five of them are in the top 100, while a mere 14 are in the top 500. And even these schools are barely hanging on to their rankings. When looking at rankings that specifically examine the research capacity of universities, Seoul National University comes in at a dismal 129th place. Moreover, the five Korean universities in the top 500 keep falling in rank with each passing year. In rankings that rate the impact of dissertations by analyzing how often they are cited by other academics, Korean universities can’t break into the top 30. Korean universities are currently focused on quantity over quality in dissertations, and the dissertations students write often fail to address pressing issues in the global agenda.   

To become a global society in both name and reality, Korea needs to balance its output and input relative to the outside world. Korea has a high output when it comes to sending people to developed nations with a low level of public discrimination against minorities — or when it comes to Koreans working in developing nations that culturally admire Korea. 

The input from both these realms, however, remains low. Output simply requires sufficient funds, a proper program, or determination from the person leaving. Input, however, relies more on the country’s social policies and culture. 

Throughout the past 20 years, the number of foreign students in Korea increased from 8,000 to 130,000. In the same period, the number of full-time foreign professors increased from 1,300 to 4,500. Yet this number peaked 10 years ago at over 6,000, so Korea has actually been experiencing a continuous decline in foreign professors for the past decade. Seoul National University, the crown jewel of Korean academia, has managed to barely maintain 100 foreign professors, around 5% of its teaching roster, for the past 10 years. A closer look reveals that a lot of these professors are actually ethnic Koreans with a foreign passport. In no way can this be considered true globalization.      

To attract global talent and expertise to Korea and to keep professionals settled here, we need to not only offer competitive pay but multilateral support on the cultural and policy levels. Korea should be showing flexibility in their hiring requirements and allow, if necessary, simultaneous appointments with outside institutions. It should also be providing support for professionals to settle down in the country with their spouse and/or children. We need to break the unfortunate cycle that leads people to leave the country after failing to adapt themselves to requirements that are entirely tailored to Koreans. 

We should be telling these people with our systems and our culture that we accept them as honest-to-goodness members of our society whose successes we treasure. Only then will they become the catalysts for Korea’s globalization from within. 

“Global” seems to be the word of the hour. If, in this Year of the Dragon, we hope our national fortune will soar like a dragon in the heavens, if we want to live like a truly developed country that pursues the universal values shared across humanity on the global stage, then we must do our utmost to envision this land we stand on as indeed the center rather than the periphery. 

While the expression “glocal” that connotes that the local as being global is all the rage, it’s not enough to simply put on a surface-level show of becoming global. Only once we cast off our parochial mindset that treats foreigners as outsiders can Korea truly become global. 

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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