[OUTLOOK]The Lost Promise of the 'Spirit of May 18'

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[OUTLOOK]The Lost Promise of the 'Spirit of May 18'

Two historic events have defined our lives for the last 40 years. The first is the May 16 coup in 1961, led by Maj. Gen. Park Chung-hee. The spirit of the coup predominated in Korea until 1979. Since then, we have been under the spiritual influence of Kwangju Democracy Movement that took place in 1980. Two related events occurred before and after that movement. In 1979, just before the assassination of President Park by his close aides, a series of anti-government demonstrations erupted in Pusan and Masan. Then in June 1987 the ruling camp, succumbing to the demands of mass demonstration, had to grant direct presidential elections. Since many people died in the Kwangju Move-ment - more than in the other two incidents - it is natural that Kwangju has come to represent these years.

President Park put forward anti-communism as a political ideology. Even in the early 1960s anti-communism was anachronistic and held in contempt by intellectuals. It should have been relevant only in the Korean War, when we had to fight against brutal communist forces from the North. Economic development was possible, however, because its prerequisite, social stability, was produced by the military dictatorship.

That development was unprec-edented in more than 5,000 years of Korean history. Thanks to it, South Koreans are 10 times richer than North Koreans. Our gross domestic product is 20 times bigger than North Korea's. If our economy grows at 5 percent a year, the growth increment alone ex-ceeds the entire annual GDP of North Korea. But the dictatorship, anti-communism and economic development initiated by the "May 16 Coup" were resisted by liberals, socialists and nationalists for different reasons. The resistance culminated in the Kwangju Demo-cracy Movement.

Liberals increased in numbers as South Korea opened up to international society as a result of the open-door policy adopted by the military-backed government. They demanded democracy and cried out against dictatorship. They argued that economic development could not continue if the corruption and inefficiency endemic to centralized government bureaucracies were left intact. The liberals' arguments were neglected by subsequent presidents and bureaucrats. The economic crisis that Kim Young-sam's government ran into in 1997 was caused by a deficiency of market freedom.

After the victory of the people in 1987 socialism and nationalism became influential in South Korea. Nationalism in East Asia is state corporatism in which government operates free of external checks or accountability. So we can say that the era after the Kwangju Democracy Movement seemed in some ways a return to the days of military dictatorship.

What the socialists did first was to shed their socialist labels. They knew they could not be elected as legislators in South Korea under the flag of socialism. Furthermore, after the humiliation of the demise of the Soviet Union, the father country of socialism, socialists all over the world took to keeping indoors with their front gates locked.

Since then in South Korea bringing up ideologies for discussion has been regarded as vain speculations or as something motivated by McCarthyism. It has been a kind of unwritten law that we don't talk about socialism, even though numerous principles of socialism were worshiped. The most conspicuous aspect of socialism is that men and society can be planned in order to build a utopia. The dissolution of the Soviet Union showed us that this is im-possible. Socialists in South Korea tore off the wrapping paper of socialism, the constructivism, took out the ideas of equality and unification, and started selling them separately. All human beings long for equality. And almost all South Koreans are obsessed with unification. Unification in fact has to be pushed by nationalism. As in China and North Korea, socialism in South Korea is combined with nationalism.

For the sake of equality socialists regard economic growth and business corporations with hostility. They allowed a certain impunity for labor union leaders. They have reformed or are trying to reform the financial sector, education, medical services and the press to conform to a bureaucratic socialism.

Owing to such efforts, a society based on the spirit of the Kwangju Democracy Movement is like a car that breaks down in the middle of a road. The economy, politics and culture all are stalled. South Koreans are all frustrated. They can not figure out why we are in such a lamentable state, even after having had first civilian government and then people's government.

In order to find a clue to their frustration, we need a public discussion of ideology. We have to work hard to give distinct names and addresses and histories to all the reforms pursued in the era of the Kwangju Democracy Movement. As we had to overcome the tyranny of the "May 16 Coup," we have to overcome the breakdown of leadership based on the spirit of "May 18," the Kwangju Democracy Movement.


The writer is the publisher of monthly magazine. "Emerge."

by Kang Wee-seuk

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