[OUTLOOK]Go on, disagree, but do it legallyA reporter asked Jeffrey Jones, the chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea, about the incident in which members of the student activist group Hanchongryon, or the Federation of All-Korean University Students, attacked his organization's office, shattered a window and hung placards inscribed with anti-U.S. slogans to protest U.S. President George W. Bush's visit to Seoul. He said that the students were rough, but he could understand their passion and wished that passion would be used for some useful purposes. He only regretted that the students smashed office furniture.
Those who fear that Korean society is divided after witnessing demonstrations welcoming and protesting Mr. Bush's visit should ponder Mr. Jones's comment. Mr. Jones is an American and was affected by the violence, yet he is not agitated and shows tolerance toward the students who attacked his office.
A recent series of articles by the JoongAng Ilbo, which surveyed ideological principles of National Assembly legislators and presidential hopefuls, revealed that Korean society was on par with other advanced nations in terms of ideological diversity. The survey results distinguished conservatives, moderates and liberals among National Assembly legislators.
Korean political parties, often criticized for their lack of views and distinctive character, showed clear differences in the poll. The survey showed the wide spectrum of ideological disparity among lawmakers, who ranked from 1.3 to 8 on a scale from 0 (most progressive) to 10 (most conservative), forming a distinct bell-shaped curve. This is the Korean reality, regardless of its merits and ills.
The ideological chasms in society will become clearer and more diverse. Under such circumstances, relating mildly violent demonstrations or disputes with fear of social division or unrest is rather anachronistic.
Koreans must shed their outdated way of dichotomized thinking, which neglects to look at events in a multifaceted fashion. If a person perceives the world in only black and white, his understanding is limited. If there were only two sizes of clothes, large and small, people would be discontent because people vary greatly in size. But Korean law and the system are flawed, as they are very rigid in respect to reality.
In the wake of the terrorist attacks on the United States, Mr. Bush asked the world to join the war against terrorism. He said those who failed to do so were on the terrorists' side. Last month, in his State of the Union address, he virtually declared war against North Korea, Iran and Iraq by branding them the "axis of evil." He has made repeated statements, suggesting that the United States may resort to force if necessary to quell terrorist activities the axis might give rise to. Mr. Bush's comment about war against North Korea might have been diplomatic rhetoric to force Pyeongyang to resume talks and shed conventional arms and weapons of mass destruction. But like the Aesop's fable that says children having fun by throwing stones into a pond may be jeopardizing the frogs living in the pond, Mr. Bush's statement is a great threat to smaller nations, including South Korea, which would be caught up in the war should one occur. In this situation, taking anti-Bush rallies as a sign of the segmentation of South Korean society and of its disintegration due to internal conflict is dangerous. Taking into account the weight of Mr. Bush's visit, one would be surpised if there had not been any rallies.
Illegal rallies should not be endorsed. Reasonable causes expressed in illegitimate ways should not be tolerated. But rallies are not signs of segmentation and conflict, which hinders the wholesome development of society.
Some scholars and journalists see the rallies and protests against the United States as issues that should be quickly resolved and some even go further and say that they should be "cured." But their diagnosis is mistaken and there is no illness to be cured in our society. As ideologies diversify, extreme ways of thinking proliferate. Conflicts in a civil society are settled by logic and public opinion.
We should change the way we view conflicts. Conflict is not entirely a bad thing. Conflict has some negative aspects, but it can also serve to cure societal ills and act as a source of change.
To dampen the negative side of conflict and make the best possible use of it, we must recognize our diverse ideological spectrum. People should respect the thoughts of others although they may not agree with them. This type of respect should be guaranteed by the social system rather than forged relying on individual tolerance. The negative side of expression would be checked if different opinions were presented peacefully and legally.
The writer is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Yu Seung-sam