Today, I want to return to an earlier theme that I like to write about ― that of the stability of Korean history. The stability argument runs counter to the general perception of Korean history among the average Korean citizen these days. Of course, the 20th century was not very happy for Korea, with the Japanese takeover, division, war and unresolved division, but if one looks beyond the 20th century ― both forward to the 21st century, and back into the 19th century and earlier, leaving the 20th century, the hallmark of Korean history and culture is stability.
I have written about Korea's long dynasties, and the smooth transitions from one dynasty to the next. I've written about the uniqueness of Korea's surnames ― that there are so few, compared to other civilizations ― and that such large percentages of the population bear few surnames: Kim, 21 percent; Yi, 15 percent, Pak 9 percent. And that these surnames were the royalty of former dynasties. Along these lines, I thank professor Martina Deuchler for arguing that Korea's ruling aristocracy has not changed or been interrupted for over 1,500 years.
Today, I want to thank professor David Kang for arguing that as a peninsula, Korea really only has one border ― the land border with China. Actually, the border with China is two rivers ― the Amrok (Yalu) River and the Tumen River.
The Amrok River has been the northern border of Korea for over 1,000 years.
Kang asks the question: Can you name another border between two countries that has existed longer? Can you name another border that has existed for anywhere close to 1,000 years?
Think of the borders of Europe for example. Thanks to the technology of modern YouTube, one can see the historical movement of borders over time in Europe in a five-minute video. The borders of China ― with the exception of that with Korea ― also changed over time. One can even argue that the internal borders of Japan change with changes of shogunate dynasties. But the Amrok River has been Korea's border for over 1,000 years.
The Tumen River border was settled a little later ― basically at the beginning of the Joseon Kingdom, about 600 years ago. That's the new border, and it is older than almost all other borders, making the older border, the Amrok, all the more remarkable.
The point is that the border issue only underscores the other aspects of Korean stability. It is a rather dramatic feature, when you think about it. A huge marker on the land, unchanged, everlasting.
It's more dramatic than the other features that show Korea's stability. The river is visible, and the other features are hidden in the study of history ― although one can argue they are hidden in plain sight! But even the visible symbol of national and cultural stability, the Amrok River, needs to be interpreted. I must confess I didn't see it, until Kang pointed it out in a lecture I listened to on YouTube, and I've been preaching Korean stability for years.
Now the objective is to move these interpretations of Korea's stable history into the Korean consciousness. For the sake of Korea's collective self-esteem and understanding of its own past, we need to get the word out.
I have a dream ― to copy a phrase ― that everyone in Korea, from schoolchildren on up to their parents and grandparents, on up to the taxi drivers (who I enjoy speaking with so much on my visits to Korea) will come to appreciate the remarkable features of Korea's history. I have a dream that Korea will discard the "beaten-up Korea" image, the war-ravaged Korea that is so prevalent today. I have a dream that Korea will take new pride, not a phony, "rah, rah" pride, but an accurate and fact-based pride in its unique place in world history.
I've taken on the theme of the "Frog Outside the Well" as a vehicle for, on the one hand, poking my Korean friends in the ribs with my interpretations of Korean culture and history, and on the other hand as a beacon of light and hope that I want to show my Korean friends. "Come up, and out of the well."
It's a brighter story than is being told in Korean schools today. But in addition, now, to the clear evidence of the surnames as symbols of lasting royalty, and the long, stable dynasties ― the longest in the world ― we can add the 1,000-year border, the Amrok River, as a symbol of Korean uniqueness and stability.
Mark Peterson (email@example.com) is professor emeritus of Korean, Asian and Near Eastern languages at Brigham Young University in Utah.