Neural Linguist
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Neural Linguist

Tinkering in Absence of Recognition

A humble innovative tradition has persisted in Korea

Last March, a small peninsula was recovering from a collective national high. While Director Bong endearingly fanboyed over his fellow nominees, Korea was also receiving praise for its effective response to a globally emerging viral parasite.

More than 600 years ago on the same land, Jang Yeong-sil was born a slave. He had a knack for addressing water shortages by drawing water into regions of draught from afar. This series of feats reached the ear of King Sejong one day, and Jang was eventually working for the sovereignty itself. Jang’s talents were employed to build a clock that kept time by the flow of water, which revolutionized how people went about their days when the sundial was made useless after sunset. He also created a celestial globe by which solar eclipses could be predicted from calculating where the sun, moon and stars would align.

King Sejong, portrayed by Han Suk-kyu, and Jang Yeong-sil, portrayed by Choi Min-sik, in a scene in Forbidden Dream (credit: Lotte Entertainment, 2019)

Just as Jang had defied all expectations and even bought envy from the officials in the royal government for gaining so much of King Sejong’s trust, President Park Chung-hee refused to let the war-torn country stay helpless. In the starkest of poverty, when children found nourishment from mountains, a 1950s Korea slowly began to stand up. The economy became export-oriented. Homes and businesses switched from having electricity only a few hours to 24 hours a day.

Before the war tore the country apart and sent family members ricocheting away from each other to opposite poles of the peninsula, when children were made to give up their Korean name for a Japanese one, a no-name grocery store in Daegu supplied its community with some dried fish and noodles. Three generations of Lees have carried the morphing business from textiles, life insurance, and now to an electronics and technology company with which most people around the planet are familiar.

Defying the gravity of poverty — Korea, 1951 (credit: Allan Manuel)

On top of the hilliest of hills eastward along the Han River that ran through King Sejong’s home and after which is named the miracle of Korea’s economic growth, sits the birth of modern Korean astronomy. In the same year when Samsung created its aerospace division, the Sobaeksan Optical Astronomy Observatory was built. Its curves closely resemble those of the Cheomseongdae, built more than a millennium earlier to observe the stars and purported to be the oldest observatory still standing in Asia.

And now to this tiny chip that claims to cut typical costs of manufacturing such a gem by as much as half: If Jang Yeong-sil had seen how far Korea has come to have a significant portion of the world bleed in Three Stars as well as make way for artificial intelligence technology, would he quietly shed tears of joy? All this history may not have much to say about the country’s recently touted COVID-19 response. However, it does speak to how surprising it is that Korea’s response to the pandemic was — ironically — surprising to some. Tucked away in its little corner of the world, an unrecognized nation has tinkered on. The sheer scale of preparation that Korea had under its belt for 10 years before the first case hit may actually have been closer to 10 decades in the making.

Candlelight protests, held in Seoul between November 2016 and March 2017, eventually led to the impeachment and ousting of President Park Geun-hye from office.

Spurred on by a tragedy of nearly 300 adolescent lives trapped under water, an entire nation came together under collective candlelight few winters ago to reform safety laws, keep leaders accountable, and demand justice. Just as tragedy can bring about positive reform, Korea’s preparedness behind its response to the pandemic was rooted in the MERS outbreak of 2015.

The longer the bubbling of soft tofu stew, the deeper the taste. You know you’ve hit the right amount of spice when you can feel all the ancestors in you completely content. A certain quality of wisdom pervades the cooking tradition of Korea. With a little playfulness and resilience, the flavors of the spices, garlic, and root vegetables co-mingle, fermentation eventually making them explode. In the same way, the manner in which Korea has approached its technological innovations belie an almost playful resilience. Amidst the global sorrow of not being able to see family or even have a proper funeral for the departed, reflection on a small nation’s scientific history hints at all humankind’s potential for overcoming the worst of disasters. The baton has been passed: May no country ever stop learning from the past, or lose its poverty-defying curiosity.

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