By Jenny Choi
Reminiscing on the past 60 years of global economic and political history, South Korea seems remarkably successful. In this time span, it has pulled itself up by its bootstraps to become a major player in both international trade and East Asian geopolitics, not to mention a cornerstone of 21st century global popular culture that goes beyond the occasional YouTube stints. It was a mad and clear dash forward that was too good to allow the country to stop, take a breath, and look back. But today, Koreans are confused. With the luxury of reflection afforded by having “made it,” frustration has settled in, especially through self-criticism of the corporate-centric and sometimes ruthless society that has served as the base for such economic growth.
Although the exact political issues in contention are different, Chileans and Koreans alike have finally been afforded a pedestal, in the form of relative economic stability, from which to reflect on their histories and their status quos. These young democracies have grown simultaneously and often in tension with their impressive economies, and are now providing a stage for citizens to voice their reflections and grievances. While Chile’s post-dictatorship reflection is just starting to burgeon, Korea’s already flourishing democracy is ripe for a shift in the national psyche. And although the exact direction of the shift is unclear, the excited, tingling sensation of Korea’s active reflection on its political and economic status quo is embodied in the color yellow.
While the color yellow has come to represent the vague ideals of hope and fellowship, its undertones tell the story of a Korean public that is coming to the realization that the old and tireless go-go-go mentality of doing business will no longer serve the country. Roh’s campaign promise of working towards “a world in which human beings live,” which was later rekindled by Moon Jae-in’s campaign promise of putting “People First” in 2012, and the recent public outrage over Korea’s shortcomings on industrial safety measures after the Sewol crisis, showcases a nation that is only now taking the time to look back at its tireless history of pushing towards the “best.”
As a young and wide-eyed immigrant to the United States from Korea almost 13 years ago, I took in with wonderment and, at times, a sense of vexation American “slowness” when a bus took an extra five minutes to lower the lift platform for a senior, and I was bemused by American “softness” when teachers at school began hyperventilating over a small paper cut. Although the comparison of my two backgrounds stretches into deeper differences of culture and tradition, economic success has brought many Koreans a sense of security, satisfaction, and confidence that opens the door to more deliberate and slower reflections on how we are living as human beings, and this contemplation is shaking the Korean psyche. It’s the kind of subtle yet absolutely game-changing transition that doesn’t get recorded in history textbooks. The color yellow is so much more than just a ribbon of passive hope and solidarity.