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[Kim Seong-kon] South Korea in the Year of the Tiger

Jan. 5, 2022 - 05:31 By Kim Seong-kon
 According to the Chinese zodiac, the year 2022 is the Year of the Tiger. Although the younger generation in Korea is perhaps no longer interested in the zodiac, it still counts for the older generation. The zodiac says that those who are born in the Year of the Tiger are bold, courageous, and confident. At the same time, however, they tend to be impetuous, overindulgent, and unpredictable.

The shape of the Korean Peninsula has invited some interesting debates. Some people argue that the shape of the Peninsula resembles a rabbit. Others maintain that it looks like a shrimp. Yet there are also those who contend that the Peninsula resembles a tiger. The rabbit is the image of a weak, docile, and peace-loving animal, and the shrimp may have the connotation of being a victim in the midst of a fight between whales. On the contrary, the tiger is the image of strength and ferocity. Those who lived through Korea’s turbulent history over the last several decades support the rabbit or shrimp theory, whereas nationalists prefer the tiger image.

Lee O Young, former Minister of Culture, presents an interesting theory. He contends that the Korean Peninsula resembles a trophy that strong nations want to possess. Since competitors constantly arise to challenge each other to win the trophy, Korea has always been vulnerable to the rise of a new power in the international community.

In the Year of the Tiger, South Korea should be “bold, courageous and confident,” when dealing with neighboring countries when and if they act like bullies or are hostile and threatening. At the same time, Korea should not be “impetuous, overindulgent or unpredictable,” in her relationship with friendly nations. If we stand up to bullying nations, they would not dare to offend us anymore. When we are consistent and predictable to friendly nations, they will remain our faithful allies. If we act otherwise, we will be hopelessly bullied by hostile countries and lose respect and trust from friendly nations.

Some time ago, a group of Korean political science professors gathered at a roundtable meeting to discuss the future of Korea in the ever-intensifying conflicts between China and the US. They unanimously insisted that South Korea should not choose one of the two. Disappointingly, however, they did not come up with any specific tactic of managing this dilemma. Perhaps, not choosing a side is what “politics” is all about. Nevertheless, we expected some concrete guidelines from them in dealing with the compelling issues that will directly affect the future of Korea.

In 2022, the final hours for Korea to choose between the two options will come. We can no longer defer our decision and continue an opportunistic posture between the two. In the year 2022, we sincerely hope that our politicians choose wisely, so our country will continue to prosper and thrive. If our representatives make a wrong decision by any chance, our country would suffer the consequences and the future of our country would be grim. Besides, South Korea would lose respect in the international community. That would be equally fatal for the future of Korea.

The problem is that it is extremely difficult to find a solution to the dilemma we are now facing. Perhaps one way to get out of the quagmire is that we build a nation that is strong and has precious things the two conflicting countries urgently and desperately need. Among others, semiconductors and electric batteries come to mind. Then, the two rival countries would treat us with greater respect. Currently, Samsung and Taiwan’s TSMC manufacture 70 percent of semiconductors of the world. Since Samsung’s main strength lies in semiconductor memory, which occupies a relatively small portion of the market, it should expand its manufacturing capacity to other semiconductors.

In 2022, the Korean people will have to make another choice. In March’s presidential election, Koreans will choose the person who will run the country for the next five years. It will be a choice not only between conservatism and progressivism, but also between capitalism and socialism, or liberal democracy and a people’s democracy. Our choice on that fateful Election Day will decide the destiny of Korea.

Indeed, Korea will be at the crossroads in 2022. If we choose the wrong road, we will be lost and doomed. If we choose the right road, however, our future will be bright and prosperous. Therefore, it is imperative for us to choose the right leader who can steer our country in the right direction in a perfect storm.

In the year 2022, we wish South Korea to become the tiger that poet William Blake described in his celebrated poem, “The Tyger.” It begins with, “Tyger Tyger, burning bright,/ In the forests of the night;/ What immortal hand or eye,/ Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” We hope South Korea will emerge as a healthy, strong tiger roaring loudly and proudly on the peak of a mountain, not as a wounded, depressed tiger hiding in the jungle. 

Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.