Korea, a new global player
South Korea is on the right path to becoming one of the most dynamic societies in the world. My optimistic prophecy comes as the result of a recent experience at Yeungnam University near Daegu. Invited there to celebrate the 60th anniversary of this University Foundation, I gave a talk to its faculty and students on globalization, which I introduced as the next world civilization. My surprise came from the students’ positive response to my hypothesis and from the active participation of both genders in the debates. Many of the students could express themselves in English, some in French, a sharp contrast to similar conferences I gave in other South Korean universities some twenty years ago when most were male and dared not speak their minds. When confronted with deadpan silences, the faculty hosts would excuse themselves and explain how it would be impolite to debate with a foreign guest.
At that time, the students didn't express opinions because they weren't trained to do so. The lack of democracy and the strong Confucianist tradition concurred to keep those in the young generation silent. Revolt was their only alternative. This no longer remains the case. The Internet and an abundance of non-governmental organizations have transformed South Korea into an open society. Older people and strict traditionalists of course don't approve of this evolution and it's easy to see why. They lose power over the young and men lose power over women. Does this shift in cultural norms, a by-product of globalization, threaten the Korean civilization? It all depends on how you define the Korean civilization. Yes, globalization transforms the Korean way, but it doesn't make it less Korean nor less creative. Korea as a civilization isn't threatened at all. In its contemporary form, it can now be shared by non-Koreans. Through Korean exports of goods and culture – the Korean wave – Korea has joined the narrow club of key global players, such as Japan, the US, Germany, and France. Much more remains to be done at home and abroad.
The decisive factor of success in the global competition is education, especially at the university level. South Korea requires an innovative and open elite. Innovation and a good knowledge of the world are the key ingredients for economic progress. If you need to understand why the US remains at the top, look at its universities. South Korea still lags far behind, in spite of the progress mentioned above. Higher education in South Korea is stifled by State bureaucracy, depressing uniformity, lack of competition, lack of money, and lack of communication with other nations. Knowledge of foreign languages remains low. It would be wonderful if the rest of the world learned Korean and Hangul, but I don't foresee this happening, making it especially important for overseas Koreans to remember their native language.
Beyond the language, Koreans abroad, millions of them, are a tremendous asset for Korea, a cultural and economic network to be maintained. Also young Koreans should be encouraged to complete their studies abroad, without fear of a brain drain. Either they will stay abroad and become part of the Korean overseas network, or they will return home with new skills. Incentives to study abroad should be a built-in element of the necessary reform of the higher education system.
Does it make sense to advocate some kind of US model, where tuitions are so high? Isn’t the Korean university model more democratic? Any attempt to increase tuitions in Korea angers its students and to a certain point, they're right in protesting when they're offered the same kind of education at a higher price. Higher tuitions could be introduced only within a comprehensive reform of education, including credit for poor families.
The message to be conveyed to the nations by the next government should be the following: there's no better investment for a nation and for an individual than higher education. It leads to higher incomes for the educated and to a higher level of innovation for the economy. These investments will have to be financed by either taxes or the individuals and will perch South Korea far above those countries whose comparative advantage is cheap labor.
As South Korean entrepreneurs know which strategy to follow in order to stay or become global players, they certainly do not need any foreign advice. This is why I focus on education and, if I may, on culture. Before Korea opened its doors to the world, basically at the time of the Seoul Olympic Games, I often observed that the only known Korea outside of Korea was Nam June Paik. An isolated artist in Paris and New York, he lived in poverty and received no support from the Korean government; however, he was the true ambassador of South Korea to the West. Times have changed. Some remarkable private foundations, supported by leading Koreans firms, now sustain Korean creators at home and abroad. Art for art's sake? Not only that. It's better understood that culture, old and new, is a winning strategy to promote South Korea as a global player. Like education, supporting culture requires investments; compared to other national projects, these are not that costly, and the return will be much higher.
Guy Sorman, Seoul