April 5, 2023
SEOUL – There are certain English words that Koreans misunderstand due to awkward or erroneous translations. For example, the Korean translation of “people” is “gungmin” in the famous phrase from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.”
The Korean word, “gungmin,” means “citizens of a country.” However, the word “people” has nothing to do with a country. “People” are just people without political implications. According to the late cultural critic, Lee O-young, therefore, the wrongfully translated word “gungmin” ironically binds people to their country, against Lincoln’s wish.
The Korean translation of “nation,” which is “gukga,” is also problematic, for “gukga” means “state or country.” However, a “nation” is not always necessarily a sovereign country or state. The “Oxford Languages” defines a nation as “a large body of people united by common descent, history, culture or language, inhabiting a particular country or territory.” Thus, there are 574 Indian Nations in the US.
Therefore, a nation is different from a country or state, even though sometimes they are interchangeable. Matt Rosenberg writes, “While the terms, country, state and nation are often used interchangeably, there is a difference. A state is a self-governing political entity. The term state can be used interchangeably with country. A nation, however, is a tightly knit group of people that shares a common culture.”
What, then, is nationalism? According to the “Oxford Languages,” nationalism is “identification with one’s own nation and support for its interests, especially to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations.” That is why “nationalism” is often interchangeable with “tribalism.”
Mild, healthy nationalism may be necessary for establishing cultural identity. However, ultra-nationalism is problematic in the global village because it seeks our own nation’s interest at the cost of other countries’ interests. In that sense, nationalism or tribalism is the opposite of globalism or internationalism. The problem is that oftentimes, extreme nationalism blinds people to the outside world and makes them choose wrongfully, thereby endangering the future of their country.
This was precisely what happened to the Korean Peninsula in the late 19th century. At a critical moment, our politicians pursued an isolationist agenda instigated by ultra-nationalism and thus, were not able to see the radical changes happening in the world at that time. Consequently, they ended up losing the sovereignty of their country, helplessly caught in the vortex of international conflicts between China, Japan and Russia.
Some people argue that no matter how hard Korea might have tried, it could not have avoided the loss of its sovereignty, considering the turbulent international turmoil at that time. However, many historians agree that Korea lost its sovereignty primarily because of its political leaders’ incompetence, ignorance of the tempestuous international headwinds and numerous wrong choices. Closing the doors of the country based on misguided ultra-nationalist sentiment, too, contributed to this disgraceful tragedy.
Although today’s world is quite different from the 19th century, South Korea once again faces a similar situation now. This time, South Korea is caught in the crossfire of international disputes between two groups of countries: China, North Korea and Russia vs. Japan, the US and the nations of the European Union, in addition to Australia, India and others. Although international tension is escalating, we can overcome the crisis if we are keenly aware of the situation, remain alert and make a wise choice.
In the 19th century, ultra-nationalism seriously hampered Korea’s friendship with other countries. In the 21st century, we should avoid the same mistake by balancing nationalism and globalism. When ultra-nationalism triggers emotional patriotism, it is likely to ignite anti-foreign country sentiment. That would be the last thing South Korea would want, especially considering its vulnerable national security and prosperous economy based on trade.
Recently, President Yoon Suk-yeol took a giant step toward Japan despite harsh domestic criticism in order to mend the severely damaged fence between South Korea and Japan. That is why American media called Yoon’s trip to Japan for a summit meeting “a historic visit.” We sincerely hope that the two neighboring countries can restore their friendship. From Japanese political leaders, we expect a sincere reciprocal response in light of “hon-ne,” rather than “tatemae.” A Japanese expert on Korea, Sasaki Yasuo, recently wrote, “Hon-ne means true feeling and desire, while tatemae is only a polite behavior or opinion displayed in public to avoid unnecessary friction or waves.”
Some people have hastily announced that the era of globalism is over due to COVID-19. However, the true spirit of globalism will continue in the future, even though some aspects of globalism, such as free trade or offshoring, may decline.
In order to widen the horizon of our scope, we should overcome a narrow, myopic vision of ultra-nationalism and gain a global perspective. Only then can we have a truly bright future ahead of us.
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.