[OUTLOOK] The True Meaning of StrengthCalls for a Strong Nation and Government Run Counter to the Current of Our Times
One of the phrases our Korean ancestors were fond of using was that the weak can easily triumph over the strong. How can the weak overpower the strong? Do we not believe all who gain a victory are strong? A key example is the power of grass roots. According to Mencius, the people at the grass-roots level are extremely feeble and humble, but a person, no matter how strong and powerful, cannot ascend to power without winning their heart or is soon driven out after rising to power.
Another phrase our Korean forefathers frequently used was that flexibility could easily gain supremacy over hardness. How can tenderness defeat toughness? Do we not have to be firm and tough to have others under our control? Water is a typical example. Nothing, no matter how firm and tough, can defeat water, according to Lao-tzu.
For some reason, we have been hearing untimely calls for the strong and powerful lately. The cry for creating a "powerful state" is coming from the North and that for a "strong government" and a "strong ruling party" is coming from the South.
The calls are untimely because they go against the current of the times and because they are hardly opportune goals to pursue in this age. By calling for such ideas, the advocates reveal their ignorance of the drift of the times and of the meaning of timeliness. Consider how greatly the thoughts and patterns of behavior have changed from the era of Lao-tzu and Mencius, sages who knew the foolishness of pursuing such goals even 2,500 years ago. Perhaps there are no intellectuals capable of keeping abreast with the times and of identifying timely policies aiding today's leaders.
A powerful state is a legacy of the pre-World War II period. It was a concept that prevailed when countries around the world sought to become powerful with a strong military in their headlong pursuit of imperialism. The notion of a strong government and ruling party dates to the era of authoritarianism before the 1980s. The theory of a powerful state is the product of an era when power was thought to be the father of a state. The theory of a strong government is the concept of an era when leaders thought power provided a strong foundation for their rule.
The theory of a strong ruling party is an idea conceived for the goal of holding onto power during an era when a single, strong political party, or one with a powerless opposition, was thought to be the bastion of prolonged rule.
These notions are grounded in a way of thinking that prevailed during an era when leaders flaunted their power by flexing every muscle, idolized violence and believed hardware was the only necessary condition for ensuring their existence.
They are patterns of a behavior that prevailed during an era when pushing with force ended in victory and ruling with power subdued the opposition. They are the notions of an era when leaders thought more of conflicts and rivalry than coexistence through cooperation and more of zero-sum than synergy.
If by any chance today's leaders believe they can manage the nation and rule the people with such conceptions, then they are not thinking as their contemporaries do. If they believe they can silence criticism and overwhelm resistance with such conceptions, then they are not fit to run the nation.
Do they mean to revert to an era of imperialism by creating a power state? Do they then intend to overpower other countries with force? Do they plan to introduce an era of neo-government rule and of neo-authoritarianism by creating a strong government and ruling party? Do they aim to rule over the people through a blatant display of power?
Throughout history, every country that sought power and strength eventually collapsed, and every government that called for a strong government eventually weakened. Every political party that advocated a strong ruling party also eventually broke up.
The truly strong do not believe in power or rely on toughness. The strong always crumble and toughness always cracks in the end. What is truly strong are principles, morality, transparency and responsibility. A truly strong government is an efficient one anchored in principles, morality, transparency and responsibility. A truly strong ruling party is one that strictly abides by the rules of the game based on these qualities. No morals advocate power and no principles seek the goal of becoming strong. No transparency ever came from the powerful and no responsibility was ever achieved in the hands of the strong. The stronger the power wielded by leaders, the darker and longer the tunnel of corruption.
Aspiring to become a strong nation and government is a concept that became an empty shell long ago. Leaders have to discard the notions and behavior of a bygone era?aking sides, condemning and repressing one another by clinging to this empty shell of a concept.
The writer is a professor of political sociology at Yonsei University.
by Song Bok