Is South Korea a republic of jealousy?

Updated: 2013-09-12 10:48

( Korea herald)

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"What’s the secret of South Korea's economic success?" This is the question I am frequently asked whenever I encounter foreign public officials at the Korea International Cooperation Agency or the Central Officials Training Institute. I tell them that the key to our success is our strategy of manufacturing electronics and automobiles, and the creation of an export-oriented economy.

Then I always add that behind Korea's antastic success are the Korean people's diligence, dedication and determination to overcome poverty, together with our internationally well-known community spirit. Of course, I do not forget to mention that our political leaders’ visions for economic development have been important as well. Usually, however, I do not go as far as to say that the Korean people’s jealous nature and unstoppable desire to win also contribute to the so-called economic miracle on the Han River. Nevertheless, few would deny the catalytic role that envying our richer neighbors has played in our spectacular economic growth.

Jealousy, in moderate amounts, can play a positive role by serving as a motivating force. When jealousy becomes extreme, however, it inevitably creates problems. For example, when a person becomes famous or rich in a jealous society, he will become a target for slander and criticism. We want to shoot the person down, even though we may secretly wish to be like him. We cannot stand it if someone is better or more privileged than us, and believe that everybody should be equal not only in wealth, but also in intelligence.

It is no wonder that Koreans tend to gravitate toward socialism, while paradoxically enjoying the benefits of capitalism. Indeed, we constantly demand social welfare and the equal distribution of wealth. It is also no wonder that we abolished first-rate high schools a long time ago under the name of the standardisation of schools. And as a result, we find so many incoming college freshmen quite standardised and mediocre, rather than exceptional and brilliant.

In a society where jealousy is pervasive, you cannot possibly have geniuses like Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein, or amazing, creative men like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. In Korea, we believe no one can or should be better than our children or ourselves. We simply cannot tolerate it. Yi O-young, the preeminent cultural critic and inaugural Minister of Culture, once aptly pointed out the distinctive tendency of the Korean people’s jealousy: "While playing in an alley, children often run to see who is faster. If a child finds he cannot outrun his competitors, he customarily shouts: 'Fast runners are thieves and I’m a cop chasing you!' Suddenly the status is reversed." Indeed, we do not want to acknowledge another's superiority.

Perhaps that is why Koreans are obsessed with winning gold medals in competitions. We tend to believe that no athletes should be better than ours, for we are the best of the best. Naturally, Koreans do not esteem silver or bronze medals; only the grand prize or the gold medal deserves recognition. That is why our newspapers often incorrectly report that a Korean student graduated from an American university as the one and only top graduate. Unlike Korean universities, however, most American universities do not identify a single top graduate. Rather, the top 1 per cent or so graduate "summa cum laude", and there are quite a few of them.

I hear that at American universities, a professor is granted a sabbatical year just before retirement as a reward for his or her lifelong service to the university. Here in Korea, however, you cannot take a sabbatical unless you have at least two more years left before your retirement. Once again, we are loath to acknowledge or reward a scholar's lifetime of service. Instead, we resent his privileges and what we see as a retiree’s "idling." Or perhaps we are simply calloused toward "dated" senior professors who have exhausted their possibilities. When someone is no longer useful, we tend to think of him as expendable and discard him without due respect. Such behaviour is as bad as jealousy.

Another example of our society’s jealous nature can be seen in our pension policy. A pension should be a sacred and untouchable reward for your lifetime of work. You have earned it and nobody can take it from you. In Korea, however, if you get a job and thus have a regular income after retirement, you can only receive half of your pension. But is it not true that if you have another job after retirement, you pay income taxes for your salary? Why, then, must you be deprived of half of your pension? Once again, our pension policy seems to reflect a uniquely Korean phenomenon: envy and punishment of those who can earn money even after retirement. Or perhaps our policy is essentially an unspoken warning that one should not work after retirement.

Too much jealousy can be dangerous. We should tone down our jealousy and channel it into positive energy. Then instead of harming others, jealousy can serve as a motivating and constructive force.

Kim Seong-kon is a professor of English at Seoul National University and president of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea.