The Korea Herald


[Kim Seong-kon] World Scout Jamboree and Korean society’s ageism

By Korea Herald

Published : Aug. 16, 2023 - 05:20

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Recently, two incidents left us gloomy and depressed. One was the World Scout Jamboree debacle and the other was a Korean politician’s biased remark on senior citizens. The jamboree disaster seriously damaged the image of South Korea in the international community, and the politician’s suggestion that senior citizens’ voting rights should be restricted according to their longevity irrevocably ruined the image of the Democratic Party of Korea to which she belongs.

The two incidents seem to be intertwined with two types of ageism prevalent in Korean society. The jamboree incident seems to reflect our ageism against teenagers, and the senior citizens’ voting rights controversy mirrors our society’s blatant ageism against society's elders.

The classic motto of the Scouts is “Be Prepared.” Ironically, however, the event turned out to be largely unprepared.

There is a common generalization that Koreans are not good at thorough preparations. This reflects a stereotype in Korean society that scrupulous or meticulous people are somehow not manly. Unfortunately, the jamboree debacle has only reinforced this tendency, this time at a major world event, disgracing the reputation of a country otherwise admired for K-pop, K-dramas and Samsung.

For the 25th World Scout Jamboree, approximately 43,000 middle and high school students from 158 countries came to South Korea. Given the scale of this event, preparations should have been thorough in order to protect young people under any circumstance. While it is true that the scorching heat wave that hit the country was something outside organizers' control, even so the organizing committee should have prepared for everything, including the hot weather. Obviously they did not.

A question therefore arises: Would the organizing committee have been this unprepared if the participants had been influential adults, such as foreign politicians or international celebrities, instead of children and teenagers? Was it not true that they neglected their duties because the participants were young students whom they thought they could easily deal with? If so, they must have forgotten that such children always have watchful parents who are ready to protest on behalf of the youth.

According to a CNN report, some participants “slept on the ground because there were no tents, cots or other gear available.” Quoting Spanish parents, CNN also reported, “There was no food, no way to protect them from the sun.” Foreign press reported on the unhygienic conditions of portable toilets and shower booths. Under the circumstances, more than 1,000 Scouts reportedly fell ill due to the sweltering heat and bug bites. Those reports are so embarrassing because such incidents are expected to happen only in an underdeveloped country, not in South Korea.

In the eyes of the young foreign participants, South Korea is the country of BTS, Blackpink and famous Netflix drama series. Thus, they must have come to Korea full of expectations and admiration. Now, they are terribly disappointed and disillusioned. Experts say that adolescents’ traumatic memories continue even after they become adults. So South Korea not only blew an excellent opportunity to boost its image, but instead created a negative image for the country, even after spending an astronomical sum of money for the preparations. Where did all the money go?

Fortunately, the president’s office interfered and consoled the young participants with compensation including an enhanced K-pop concert. We can only hope the Scouts ultimately leave South Korea with a good impression.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party, too, should sincerely apologize to the older people who were offended by their party member’s ageism. A similar incident happened before. Years ago, another member of the same party bluntly said that old people might not need to vote because they would be gone from the stage soon. Of course, he lost in the upcoming election. Alas! They never seem to learn from the past and make the same mistake repeatedly.

Ageism is a chronic disease of the so-called progressive Democratic Party members who think that old people are conservatives and thus useless to them in the election. In the eyes of those politicians, people are nothing but voters. They think that if old people are harmful for the election, then their voting rights should be annulled.

Suppose that a male chauvinist were to tell this female politician that women’s voting rights should be taken away? Surely, she would be furious and rightly so. Why does the same principle not apply to age?

These days, ageism is a taboo in all countries on earth, and anyone who is prejudiced with ageism instantly becomes a laughing stock in the global village. Our politicians should learn about the radical social change taking place in the world now. Otherwise, they can neither run a country nor succeed in diplomacy.

It is not too late to mend the damaged Saemangeum Jamboree. We should respect young people and treat them accordingly. It is also not too late for our radical politicians to apologize to senior citizens and respect them.

Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.