[INSIGHT]Crises can lead to opportunities

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[INSIGHT]Crises can lead to opportunities

The Roman historian Tacitus was 10 years old when the tyrant Nero died. Tacitus left behind two volumes of history. One of those volumes is "Annales," which covers a period beginning about 40 years before Tacitus' birth and ends during his teenage years. The other volume is "Historiae," a record of the 30 years of chaos in Rome after the death of Nero. If "Annales" is a reenactment of the near past, then "Historiae" is a record of Tacitus' own time.

As most of us tend to do, Tacitus is comparatively generous to the past but unyieldingly severe in his criticism of contemporary history. He harshly criticizes his time: "What I am about to relate is a story of a period filled with suffering and anguish. In a grim war with the enemy, with disharmony and antagonism everywhere, with four emperors victim of foul deaths and three outbursts of violence among the Roman citizens themselves, there had never been a period when it was so obvious that the wrath of the gods were turned against the Romans."

Those sentences are excerpted from volume 8, "Crises and Overcoming Crises" of Shiono Nanami's "The Roman Story." Shiono Nanami, however, strongly refutes Tacitus' view of this period. Undoubtedly, the age Tacitus lived in was a time of chaos, but the prosperous times known as "The Age of Five Wise Emperors" had its share of strife and chaos. What is important is not the chaos and the crisis, but the fact that the ability of the leaders and citizens to turn this crisis into an opportunity can be a force used to further fortify the state and the empire. Shiono Nanami's assertion is that the history of the Roman Empire is a history of crises and the overcoming of crises.

Our own history of the past half-century has been one of chaos and crises: the April 19 Students' Uprising, the May 16 Military Coup, the Dec. 12 coup, the May 18 Gwangju Movement, the June 29 Declaration. The dates almost seem like a table of random numbers entwined in a continuum of conflict and confusion. With one president exiled, one president assassinated, two presidents jailed, this was indeed, as Tacitus put it, "A period filled with suffering and anguish." Just as Korea seemed to be done with a military dictatorship, that was replaced by a civilian dictatorship and then a reformist dictatorship. At the end of the respective terms, all sorts of corruption erupted with yet another power struggle. Chaos and turbulence seem to be part of the ages in which we have lived. If that's true, has our past only been a history of punishment, suffering and anguish?

I don't think so. I opt for Shiono Nanami's optimism rather than Tacitus' pessimism. The optimism of looking at Korea's past as a history of crises and the overcoming of crises is advisable for the welfare and development of this country. History is a cycle of alternating stability and strife. Because I believe that people's power can turn confusion back into stability, I see this optimistic view as the very substance of our people. I can say this with confidence because it was the power of the citizens that had changed a dictatorship into a democracy with the June 29 Declaration.

We are now facing a crisis. The remaining year of President Kim Dae-jun's term will determine whether we are headed for a deeper crisis or an opportunity. I have a premonition that this crisis will lead to an opportunity. There were two types of emperors in Rome. The "emperor" (imperator) rules as a sovereign power while the "first-person" (princeps) concentrates on administering as a top-ranking citizen. The emperors who had succeeded were of the princeps type and generally those who had failed were of the imperator type.

I would like to point out that the stepping down of our "sovereign" president from his party-presidency was an example of a self-transformation into a "first-ranking citizen." There is yet another sign of crisis turning into an opportunity. The Grand National Party has withdrawn its demand of extending teachers' retirement age. The majority party has voluntarily checked itself and stopped relying on the logic of power. Depite risks of losing face and suffering humiliation, it preferred to listen to the public for a future-oriented education. This can also be applauded as a "first-person" decision.

The government's decisions to freeze the rice purchase price and to privatize the debt-ridden National Railroad Administra-tion can also be seen as signs of turning crises into opportunites.

In this one remaining year, we need to prepare ourselves with the grim resolution that this year determines the outcome of our next decade, our next century. The president, the politicians, the civil officers and every one of us need to arm ourselves with patriotism and turn this crisis into an opportunity.


The writer is the editorial page editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kwon Young-bin

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