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[Opinion] Fun Geography

Posted August. 05, 2006 03:14,   


Most people over the age of 30 remember geography as a boring subject requiring memorization. They share vivid memories of memorizing the names of unfamiliar locations in order to answer questions such as, “Which of the following locations does not produce tungsten?” Seoul National University Geography Professor Yoo Woo-ik blames remnants of Japanese colonial rule for making geography boring. During the colonial rule, the Korean language and Korean history were persecuted, but academic research itself was not prohibited. In contrast, geography was demoted as a form of traditional folklore topography; hence, its academic base was uprooted. The logic behind the demotion was that the more one studied geography, the more one’s patriotism would grow.

After independence, the importance of geography increased, but there weren’t professors or textbooks to teach the subject to students. Geography amateurs hastened to create textbooks, and as a result the books carried only scraps of knowledge such as “tungsten in produced in such locations,” and taught a negative geographic perspective of the Korea peninsula, citing, “Our country’s land is small and three sides are surrounded by water.” Professor Yoo also studied such a form of geography. However, in 1967, after meeting Professor Kim Do-jeong, who had learned genuine geography in Germany, he rediscovered the Korean land. Students who have learned from Professor Yoo stared to create interesting geography textbooks in the 1990s, and he himself has been elected as the first non-European secretary general at the International Geography Union (IGU) and will start working at the new post starting next year.

With the advent of the Internet, it was predicted that borderlines and geographic barriers would vanish. However, this was far from the truth. Geography and geopolitics are still valid and important. Professor Yoo argues that the country’s location and geographic characteristics determine different national development strategies. Korea is a peninsular nation, and in geopolitical terms, it is surrounded by four powers composed of China, Russia, Japan, and the U.S. By neglecting such facts, no policy or national development strategy would be effective. Take Hungary for example. It built a great empire in Eastern Europe, but it collapsed by misjudging its situation.

Peninsular countries can only succeed by advancing to the sea. Ancient Greece, Rome, Italy and Spain all enjoyed their golden era as peninsular states. Although, blessed by being located between Asia and the Pacific Ocean, Korea is still a closed society playing unnecessary zero-sum games amongst us. Maybe this is because we had no fun learning geography back in the school days.

Kim Sun-deok, Editorial Writer, yuri@donga.com