From Elation to Shame

People ask me -- slyly -- if I've heard about "what's going on" in Korea, as if to say of an errant neighbor, "did you hear about so and so?" They ask me how I feel, and add with a shake of the head, "Isn't it a shame?"Yes, I want to answer, yes it is a shame. But it is much more than that -- for me, for my family, for millions of ethnic Koreans. The elusive emotion encapsulates sadness, guilt, justice and humiliation.To describe how the Korean people feel now, you must first understand the elation of our nation's success. Forty-five years ago, Korea was impoverished, crawling out of a civil war, its countryside ravaged and its people haunted by poverty and despair.Today, the streets of the capitol city, Seoul, are filled with glass skyscrapers, luxury black sedans and cellular phones. I returned to Seoul in 1995, and I was astonished at the transformation. My distant, but distinct, memories of Seoul in 1980 included peering out into the night at the planes above during an air raid drill and dropping my bicycle to stand at attention when the anthem rolled out over the loudspeakers at dusk.It was a military dictatorship, and the buildings were cold and gray. This time, 15 years later, I saw color, I saw flesh, I saw MacDonald's. I saw the word globalization "segyehwa" heralded across front pages and painted on white banners, draping the windows of corporations.The most popular cigarette brand, "88," marked the year Seoul held the Olympics, the year Koreans saw themselves as truly international.People were making money, a lot of money, and spending it like mad. There was talk of corruption and decadence, and for awhile, it seemed a Babylonian fever dream. Korea was a "tiger economy," a model across Asia, and its conglomerates (chaebols) were bold and powerful.The memory of years of occupation dimmed in the light of newfound independence and success. Recognition brought a strong sense of pride.Now take it away. Take it away because the country wasn't responsible enough, because the money couldn't be managed, the leaders were too corrupt, the people too greedy. Take pride away because Korea is now the recipient of a $57 billion bailout package, the largest in history.Sadness rolls in with the loss of pride. It affects ethnic Koreans -- whether in America or in Korea -- for it is was happening to our country, "woori nada."The nationalism that resounds so strongly in Koreans stems from years of overcoming foreign invasions and occupations. When tragedies called for their help, citizens have historically complied -- this past year, many have sent donations through churches and youth groups to aid those stricken by the North Korean famine. More recently, Korean-Americans have sent millions of dollars to Korean banks -- and mothers have donated their baby's gold keepsake rings to the country's gold supply.Though these gestures may well be useless, the effort seems to quell our fears and guilt -- guilt about excessive spending. Economists point to the government, corporations and banks -- but fingers have also been pointed at consumers. Spending money on luxury items is a point of pride and sign of prosperity for Koreans -- indeed, the fate of the country now seems to satisfy some who believe that justice is being served to the greedy. Unfortunately, many spent beyond their means, which is not unusual for a country whose nouveau riche were war-ravaged only a generation ago.Korean Americans also have some guilt over being regarded as "traitors" to the motherland -- Korean nationals feel that many overseas Koreans left after the war, or in times of hardship or political instability, and have returned only when the country was doing well.In my family, four of my mother's five brothers and sisters live in the United States. All have their own businesses, directly or indirectly affected by the Korean economy: the uncle who is a subcontractor for Samsung and Goldstar feels he must now move into the American market. My aunt who is a dry cleaner in Queens worries about Korean Americans cutting back on spending -- a reflection of austerity in Korea. My eldest uncle worries about my cousin, an exchange student in Toronto who will likely have to return to Korea due to the depreciation of the won.And I think about the collapse of the Sampoong Department Store in Seoul in August of 1995. One of the country's most exclusive shops, the cotton-candy pink, nine-story building fell like a house of cards, burying hundreds of shoppers in rubble, because the rods used in its foundation were centimeters thinner than regulations allowed and sea salt used in the cement damaged the rods. Unchecked growth without a solid foundation.It's too bad no one paid enough attention to the warning signs. In fact, it's a shame.PNS correspondent Katherine Kim, a Korean American journalist who has lived and worked in South Korea explores the highs and lows in her family and her community.


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