[VIEWPOINT]Korea Trapped in a Cycle of Unreadiness

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[VIEWPOINT]Korea Trapped in a Cycle of Unreadiness

Controversies over who is responsible for the disastrous appointment of the former Justice Minister Ahn Dong-su have ex-ploded into a factional struggle in the ruling Millennium Democratic Party. Meanwhile, the opposition Grand National Party argues that reform efforts should be made to rescue the nation and its ailing economy. No one can deny the importance of the in-house reform demands from some junior ruling-party lawmakers and of the opposition's call for reform. At the same time, we should remember that such movements face a long and tough road ahead.

In the early 19th century, when the Choson dynasty was rapidly waning amid rampant nepotism, Chung Yak-yong, a reformist in exile, strongly called for reforms, saying that unless the nation's ills were cured immediately they would bring about the country's collapse. His call to reform failed. Although Korea has witnessed many reform movements, big or small, during the past two centuries, the country has failed to achieve timely reforms. As a result, its political culture in the 21st century is similar to that of the 19th century.

Accomplishing reforms suitable to the time requires collective knowledge that will envision reform ideas beyond the contemporary global standard. Then, there must be political leaders who have long prepared for the future. And finally come future-oriented people. The tragedy of Korea's modern history is that it has not been able to ponder its future while struggling with immediate realities. This vicious cycle was played out even when the country put an end to the era of authoritarian military regime and introduced new, civilian governments. But after eight and a half years of civilian rule, we are yet again feeling the cruel reality of being unprepared for history.

Today's civilian political leaders had to be so devoted to fighting against the military regime every day that they had no time to develop the ability to prepare for the future. Civilian leaders who have failed to draw up strategies for the future because of tactical fights of immediate importance are now waging a trial-and-error struggle with the future. Externally, they are attempting with too much optimism to dismantle the bipolar structure of a Cold War in the post-Cold War era, and are only superficially adopting globalization and the information revolution, which have emerged as the standard for a new civilization in the 21st century. At the same time, they are seeing the inter-Korean relationship for the 21st century still from the viewpoint of the 1980s.

Internally, while unable to ditch the civilian authoritarianism that was unfortunately born amid confrontation with military dictatorship, they are belatedly trying to map out reform plans for a 21st-century Korean Peninsula with 1980s ideas.

Today's reform movements, whether staged by junior ruling-party lawmakers or the opposition party, are of great significance as efforts to overcome the tragedy of Korea's modern history. What should be noted, however, is that despite such efforts, today's tough march will likely be prolonged and eventually lead to further tragedy in the future. The political leaders who will succeed the Three Kims (Kim Dae-jung, Kim Young-sam and Kim Jong-pil), including people in their 30s, are an unfortunate generation that had to grow up fighting with immediate reality rather than thinking about and preparing for the future. They will find it difficult to go beyond their limited understanding and to reform 21st century reality with 1980s ideology.

For Korea to escape from the vicious cycle of its modern history, these leaders-in-waiting should give up their dream of becoming the cornerstone of the 21st century Korea. They should do away with civilian authoritarianism and be politically prudent enough to volunteer to become the stepping-stone for yet a later generation of political leaders who have sufficiently thought about and prepared for the nation's future.


The writer is a professor of international relations at Seoul National University.

by Ha Young-sun

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