What Is the Korean Dream?

05/15/2015 08:28 am ET | Updated May 15, 2016

The term "Chinese Dream" is receiving a lot of attention since the President of the People's Republic of China Xi Jinping embraced the slogan in November, 2012 soon after taking office. In an article for the Huffington Post, French sinologist David Gosset described the Chinese Dream as the intersection of a "Modern China" of skyscrapers and factories, a "Civilizational China" of Confucius and a "Global China" symbolizing China's broad impact on the political economies of all nations. In sum, the Chinese dream signifies a new cultural and economic confidence that Xi hopes will resonate around the world.

The Japanese are profoundly aware of Xi's "Chinese Dream" and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has proposed his own version: "beautiful Japan" (utsukushii nihon). A beautiful Japan is one that is more culturally sophisticated and self-confident, a Japan that makes full use of its resources to be a global player. Abe is dreaming of a Japan that can move beyond just reflecting on its tarnished history and can strive for something bigger--or at least he would like us to think so.

But the country with the greatest cultural impact in Asia, the nation that produces the most popular television dramas and hit songs which have swept Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia, and the world has yet to fully articulate what its dream might be. I am talking about Korea.

It is my hope that greatest contribution that Korea will make to the peace and prosperity of East Asia is by articulating through its culture, through its songs and its paintings, its movies and its food, a vision for the future of Asia that is consistent with Korea's position as middle power that does not have imperialist ambitions. That vision of Korea as a stable and reliable nation without intention of cultural or political domination goes back far into Korea's history.

What are the other dreams out there?

In the Chinese case, President Xi Jinping defined the Chinese dream as "enacting a great revival of the Chinese Nation, the greatest dream produced by the Chinese nation since the beginning of modern times."

He also suggests that such a "Chinese Dream" could last for up to 200 years as a cultural Renaissance. This new self-confidence in Chinese culture and technology that goes beyond the push for progress we have observed over the last few decades. It is, in essence, an end to the feeling of insufficiency that has lasted since the Opium Wars.

Xi is suggesting that China can be a major power not only economically and militarily, but above all culturally. For him, the heyday of China's past, the "Strong Han Dynasty" and the "Prosperous Tang Dynasty," can be realized in the future.

When Xi Jinping makes these statements, he is thinking very specifically about two upcoming 100th year anniversaries. The first is the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, which will come in 2021, and the other one is the founding of the People's Republic of China, which will come in 2049. China sees as their goal that by 2021 they want to have reached the point of a "xiao-kang society," that is, a middle-class comfort level of living. The next stage of the Chinese dream would be the "Datong" or "great harmony" society, a point at which China reaches the apex of its power.

But if we look for a locus classicus in recent times for the use of the term "dream," as part of a national image, the source is without doubt the powerful "American dream" that the United States promoted in the 1950s and 1960s. As the historian James Truslow Adams wrote, the American dream was "that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement."

Ambitious people from around the world were drawn to the "American Dream" of a transparent and democratic society. They were inspired by that American dream even when they disagreed with American policies. That dream was far more successful than anyone had imagined. So many who studied in the United States at the time, like myself, came back to Korea feeling that American institutions and American culture offered models for our own countries. That "American dream" was something we did not only absorb from speech and books. We sensed the process of democracy and the rule of law in our conversations with fellow students, in the kind treatment we received from Americans on a daily basis. Many Korean reforms were inspired by that dream because it was not only about Americans, it was a dream for the entire world.

But although all of the above national dreams are powerful, yet each is essentially limited in their potential. The Chinese dream is about more powerful and more self-confident China. It is a dream for Chinese of a China that is no longer indebted to the West and that can act with confidence: a dream about China for Chinese. The Japanese vision of a "beautiful country" is primarily about moving Japan beyond the economic and cultural stagnation that has haunted the nation for two decades.. That beautiful country is also, ultimately, about Japan inspiring innovation and change for Japanese.

The American dream is the most universal, and was quite global in its target audience from the beginning. But the American dream has been undermined by torture at Guantanamo and drone strikes against civilians in Pakistan. Although the United States remains the most powerful nation, and its culture continues to inspire us, it is an undeniable fact that the American dream has lost its appeal in many countries.

What is the Korean Dream?

So what might a Korean dream be and how would it inspire us to move beyond our current limitations? Can we create a Korean dream that would both transform Koreans and also inspire people around the world in the manner that I was inspired by John F. Kennedy, or by Simon and Garfunkel, or by Thanksgiving when I studied in the United States?

The Korean Dream must be more than a slogan or a public relations routine. We should take elements from a broad spectrum of Korea's experiences to form a universal and inclusive culture for the world. The ideas of Korean thinkers of the Buddhist and Confucian tradition should be presented to the world as part of an inclusive conversation to which everyone is welcome. The insights of the Buddhist Monk Wonhyo into human experience should be made accessible to children in Africa as both Korean, but also universal and immediately relevant.

The Korean Dream is also distinctive in that Korea as a culture forms a global diaspora. In the most profound sense the Korean wave is global. Large numbers of Koreans live in the United States, China, Japan, Russia, and many other nations. Those Koreans are very much a part of the countries that they inhabit and therefore the Korean dream is, perforce, a culture of convergence. In the tradition of "bibimbap" Korean culture is a mixture of diverse elements and it will continue to expand and to grow as it receives new cultural influences.

Moreover, Korean corporations must be a big part of the Korean dream. Korean corporations are deeply invested in every continent and are the driving force between Korea's increasing global profile. Korean companies have downplayed their Korean identity in the past, wishing only to appear to be global players following Western rules. The time has come, however, for Korean companies to stress their Korean cultural roots, while making that Korean culture something universal and accessible to the entire world.

But above all the Korean dream must be about young people. Our youth can create a culture of hope and transformation with their own hands and find new potential in Korea's culture and philosophy that others have overlooked. The process of transformation of the Korean dream, from its beginning in the Korean Wave of TV dramas and K Pop to its ultimate manifestation as a new civilization for the world which redefines our society and our values, will be an exciting process that all young people can be the authors of.

The first and most important part of a future Korean dream must be sincerity. It should be a dream based on a love of Korea and Korean culture, but also something that comes directly from the heart. The Korean dream must succeed because each person feels that the dream is his or hers. That is to say, the Korean dream should not be something plastic manufactured by a public relations firm, or put together by a bunch of politicians at a late night drinking bout. It must be something that Koreans, and others around the world, make together.

After all, what distinguishes Korean culture is that unadorned sincerity that we find among Koreans. It is something that grows out of feelings, "jeong," that go beyond rational logic. Koreans tend not to be as polished as other peoples in their speech, a bit too direct and too blunt, or even at times naïve. That part of Korean culture should be made into a strength in our Korean dream.

Perhaps the power of the Korean dream will be a result of the fact that it is a work in progress. The question should not be, "What is the Korean dream?" but rather "what can the Korean dream become for me, for us?" Many can join the Korean dream. It is not a hackneyed phrase passed down to you, but rather a treasure of tremendous potential that lies in your hands. And ultimately the creation of the Korean dream can be both a national and a global project.

The Korean dream comes in a very specific context. Korea is trying to position itself in a rapidly changing world. As the world evolves in an economic, political and cultural sense, cultural power, the power of the Korean dream, will not come simply from the imitation of what others have done. It will be something that is constantly evolving. And here is a fundamental break with the past: the Korean dream must move beyond the reverse engineering of a previous age. The Korean dream is not an imitation of other dreams, but rather an invitation to everyone to dream, to discover some aspect of Korea's culture that Koreans had overlooked.

Korea has tremendous cultural appeal, from the Buddhist and Confucian traditions of the past, to the remarkable handicrafts and architecture, to automobiles and cosmetics. Korea can be proud of the drive and motivation of its people, and the power of the Korean Wave, a new movement in music, film, art and all aspects of culture which has a tremendous appeal for both the developing and the developed world.

Korean culture is remarkable in that we have the discipline and the high managerial sophistication of advanced countries, but also have the flexibility, the accessibility and the simple warmth of people from the developing world. The Korean dream serves as a critical cultural bridge.

The Korean dream should be rooted in Korea's history. For example, King Sejong, who launched an age of culture and creativity can be a big part of that Korean Dream. Sejong oversaw a convergence between innovation in science, art and literature, governance and technology that was inspiring for Asia. You can find in his efforts to reshape government, bring in the best and the brightest to brainstorm about Korea's potential, and his restless quest of excellence, something of the spirit of venture capitalism, entrepreneurship. The challenge for us is to identify exactly what it was that he did and how that can be transferred and applied to our own age.

For example, King Sejong wanted to create something that was distinctly Korean, like the Hangeul script, to imagine a distinct Korean cultural perspective that included all Koreans and did not discriminate on the basis of class or education. He promoted Jang Yeongsil who was from a slave family and of the lowest social status because he fell Jang was a great scientist and inventor. The Korean dream can also be a dream of true equality.

The Korean Dream can play an important role in integration in East Asia, and be the foundation for a peaceful future. Korea does not have the imperialist past of China and Japan and maintains equal relations of respect with nations around the world. Lacking that historical baggage, we can play the catalyst in bringing about a lasting peace in Asia. We can build a new community for peace through everyone's efforts.

Go to Africa or to South America and you will find there great excitement about Korea's cultural and institutional potential. Korea is a middle power, but it has global reach through Samsung and Hyundai. That means that many people are attracted to Korea because at some level, they feel the Koreans are like us. They feel that the Koreans have gone through rapid development, they have suffered colonialism, and they have had to find their way in a world that gave them no advantages.

The Korean Dream is at present a rather vague concept, but people in China, in Japan, in Southeast Asia, in Central Asia and elsewhere are looking to Korea today for cultural inspiration and leadership. The moment is right for a Korean Dream that will inspire Koreans to do their best and inspire youth around the world to join hands and make a better world.

The author is chairman and CEO of the JoongAng Media Network -- one of South Korea's leading media groups, including the prestigious JoongAng Ilbo daily -- and a former South Korean ambassador to the United States.


Korea China Asia