Tigers with Wings

Y.S.Kim (1996.5.21)

You have read an interesting article written by Mr. Joon Shik You in our previous communication. He will be the first-year graduate student in the biophysics program of the Univ. of Maryland. I like him and he has many interesting ideas in physics. In his article, he pointed out that the qualification of a Korean high school teacher is measured by the number of students he/she has sent to SNU.

It is not fair to blame any single person for transforming Korea into an Entrance-exam Hell. However, if I am forced to name one person most responsible for this mess, I would mention the name "Kim Wonkyu." He holds the top record in sending students he sent to SNU. I knew him very well because he was my high-school principal. After he died in 1969, his family set up a private institute named after him. The business was quite profitable because the word "Kim Wonkyu" was synonymous to successful entrance examination.

Let us invite another interesting person to this conversation. You all know who Kim Hogil was. He was the founding president of Pohang Univ. of Science and Tech. He spent ten years until 1978 at the Univ. of Maryland. Kim Hogil was not only a brilliant man, but also had a colorful style of talking. He often told me he knew about me better than I do, and he gave many different stories about me. I do not remember all of them, but I would like to present one interesting version to you, because it tells Kim Hogil had a deep interest in the Korean educational system many years before he became the first president of POSTECH.

He told me that he knew about me before coming to the Univ. of Maryland in 1968 (I came in 1962), and studied about me more carefully after having direct contacts with me. He then said he carefully compared me (Y.S.Kim) with Dr. Kim Myungsun (my uncle whom I mentioned in my articles) and with Principal Kim Wonkyu. I then asked him where I stand in comparison with those two gentlemen. He bluntly told me that I am nothing compared with them, and that, If I (Y.S.Kim) have anything, it is because of their influence. When I asked how much he knows about those two Kims, he said he knows much more than I do even though he never met them. As some of you know, this is the way Kim Higil used to talk. He did not always sound logical, but what he said sometimes carried a deep meaning. If he studied Kim Myungsun and Kim Wonkyu and their influence on one particular person that carefully, he was indeed interested in becoming a great educator.

Then what led Kim Hogil to go through such a thorough investigation of my connection with those two Kims? Kim Wonkyu was a very outspoken person and used to bragg about his ex-students. You can now guess whose name he mentioned most often. Kim Hogil heard about me from what Kim Wonkyu's public speaches. Even though, he was known as the "Exam Czar" among Koreans, he never praised me as an efficient exam taker. When I was in his high school, he used to praise me for my extra-curricular activities on electronics and short-wave communication.

After I came to the United States, he started praising me for "judiciously" managing my life as an "exemplary citizen" of the world. Because he was not so familiar with American or Western life style, he often made up his stories according to his educational philosophy. The point is that his ideal student is not an exam-taker, but a person who can play leading roles in the world. Kim Hogil was one of the small number of Koreans who knew this, and this is presumably why he knew Kim Wonkyu better than I do.

You are then tempted to ask Kim Wonkyu why he created this exam mess if his ultimate purpose is not the exam. Since he is not around, let me answer the question for him. Tigers are known to be ferocious animals. However, since tigers do not have wings, they can play only a limited role in the world. Koreans use the word "tiger with wings" for a superperformer. When you are fully prepared for the entrance exam, you are like a tiger. After the exam, you should build your own wings. You can start this during your freshman year. It is not too late, and you should not complain. How about the knowledge you accumulated while preparing for the exam? Keep it and use it later. I am writing many articles these days, and they are based on the knowledge I acquired during my high-school period.

There seems to one phenomenon which contradicts common sense. It is natural for people to praise the exam system when they pass, and curse the system if they fail. However, in Korea these days, the exam system is thoroughly cursed by those who pass the exam, while those who fail stay silent. According to the Washington Post article (May 7, 1996), the average cost for the exam preparation in Korea is $30,000, perhaps the highest in the world. Thus those who passed the exam should know how fortunate they are. Let us ask Kim Wonkyu again how we can deal with this problem. He will say

Kim Wonkyu was a Spartan-style educator. We can agree that the death penalty is too severe, but we can start making progress if we stop complaining about the system. If you passed the exam, you are a tiger. Your next step is to build your wings. You would agree that Kim Wonkyu has a better solution to our problem than Harvard has.

PS. I was one of the 360 boys who entered his high school in 1948. Because of the devastating war (1950-30), only 250 of them were able to graduate in 1954. During the war, we had to study in roofless class rooms for one year and in temporary veneer shacks for two years. Yet, my class produced three Harvard PhDs, two Princeton PhDs, and one MIT PhD.

Russian Ladies praise Korean Education

Y.S.Kim (1998.7.5)

I came back last night from my trip to Armenia. Armenia is a small country surrounded by Turkey, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Iran. There are many Armenians in the United States, and they are known as very stubborn people. In 301 AD, Armenia adopted Christianity as the national religion 32 years before the Roman Empire did. However, it is very interesting to note that Armenians still preserve their pagan traditions.

Like most of the former Soviet republics, Armenia is depressed from the economic point of view. But they know how to make themselves happy. On my hotel floor, there were many French girls from Paris, and I was able to compare them with their Armenian counterparts. Indeed, to my eyes, the Armenian girls were quite capable of pushing those French girls to back seats.

Quite contrary to the impression we have about the former Soviet republics, Armenian maintains a very close tie with Russia because they need each other. For instance, Armenia's Turkish border is guarded by Russian combat troops. The physics conference which I attended was jointly organized by Yerevan State University and JINR (Russia's Joint Institute for Nuclear Research at Dubna). For all practical purposes, the JINR was running the show, and its director and his secretarial staff came all the way from Dubna (north of Moscow).

I was told by the organizers that I would receive an honorarium (extra money) of 50 USDollars, but I was not happy in view of the financial problems Russians are having these days. Yet, it would be very rude to decline their offer. After some agony, I pulled out a piece of Korean wisdom: to eat up and drink up. Then, two intelligent-looking Russian ladies came to me and hand-delivered to me five fresh $10 bills. I then proposed to them that I and they go to one of Yerevan's best French restaurants and spend all $50 (about $300 if spent in the U.S.). They laughed and readily agreed with me. So we went, and spent happy hours there. It would not be appropriate to mention here their names and their positions, but both of them spent more than 20 years at JINR as administrators and they know very well the physics world.

After we left the restaurant, we spent one hour on the streets. At one point, we met an ice-cream vendor who speaks fluent English. I asked him how old he is, and he said sixteen. I then showed him my two hands and told him I went to the United States when I was 19 years old with two empty hands but I am now famous enough to be invited by his country. I told him further that he should also go to the U.S. to study. Then there was a surprise. One of the Russian ladies said to him "Prof. Kim had an excellent preparation before going to the U.S. You should therefore study very very hard as Prof. Kim did." How did she know that I had an excellent preparation?

I frequently say that I had the world's best education before coming the United States to young Koreans in order to encourage them. However, I never say this to non-Koreans for diplomatic reasons. Then how did these Russian ladies sense my thinking? It is also remarkable that I heard similar comments from a number of Russian women during my earlier visits to Russia. Then, is there a secret communication channel between Korean boys and Russian girls? I wrote an article in 1995 on this subject, and you are invited to read my article entitled "Can Koreans talk to Koreans?" (1995.11.14), which contains the following two paragraphs.

One hundred years ago, Korean boys (girls) were not allowed to talk to girls (boys). These days they talk too much. Then when and how did they pick up the romance culture? It was during the period 1920-40. During this 20-year period, Koreans learned how to write Hangul and learned how to write love letters. The romance culture during this period was well documented by the Korean novels written Lee Kwang Soo. These days, he is known as a pro-Japanese traitor to our young people, but I am not interested in discussing this issue here.

I was told by my friends in literary circles that Lee Kwang Soo was heavily influenced by Tolstoy. This means that Koreans and Russians had the same romance style at least for 20 years. However, this 20-year-period could be a slice of several hundred years. Thus, my recommendation is that you should talk like Captain Bronsky when you talk to a Russian girl. She may then talk to you like Anna Karerina.