[VIEWPOINT]Korea faces a final examination

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[VIEWPOINT]Korea faces a final examination

In 1994, I had an opportunity to visit Germany with some of my colleagues. Needless to say, our chief interest laid in what kind of lessons could be learned from the German reunification. We kept asking the same questions of every person we met: "How did you prepare for unification?" We acted as if there was some kind of magic formula for reunification.

The answers we got were surprising. Professors, pastors, blue-collar laborers: According to them, there was no preparation. Unification just came.

This left me perplexed until a year later when I found an answer to this mysterious puzzle. One day I had a chat with a German graduate student. I asked him why Germans all answered that particular question the same humble way. After some deep thought, the student gave me his version of the matter.

He said that as a child he often felt ashamed to be a German. History lessons about atrocities against Jews that were committed by the Nazis were the main reason for that feeling of shame. He said that many Germans probably felt the same way he did, so the division of Germany was just karma to be accepted - just a price for the German people to pay. They did not feel right in standing up and making a big fuss about their divided nation.

According to this young man, West Germans helped the East Germans purely out of the camaraderie that one feels for poor fellow countrymen.

That made my eyebrows rise. Here was a nation that was sleeping in a sea of guilt, achieving something by not aspiring for it, while on the other side of the world is a country that has been screaming "unification" since the day it was divided. But because of a silly reason called ideology, it sometimes refuses to help its poor compatriots in the North. Reality bites, but we should not be surprised at where we find ourselves; we brought our problems on ourselves.

The reason why we cannot celebrate as the Germans did is simply because we are not ready yet. Even though the course of history may seem unpredictable, the Germans had a foundation on which to built something. We should take this to our hearts instead of hiding ourselves behind a wall of ideology. In my opinion, the most important thing in inter-Korean relations is not the result but the process to reach it. Well...let me correct that. What I should say is that the process is the only thing that matters.

The year 2001 is ending, a year full of hatred and remorse. Right now, we are prisoners of despair. But there is hope. For starters, we don't need to worry about coups d'etat from the army anymore. No more landslide victories in a presidential election where voters were just a part of a charade. Those days are over.

It seems that we have improved even in the political scandal department. A 28-year-old businessman has been making the headlines these days, perhaps acting as a catalyst for another political scandal. But even this episode has its bright side. Normally in a political scandal of this magnitude, the main players involved would have been at least a conglomerate and an influential political leader, but the actors have been downgraded to a start-up company and a senior presidential secretary. Some might disagree with me on this point, but I still call that progress.

We even beat Japan in a category called "economic crisis." We had ours four years ago and are on the way to recovery.

The winds of change that came after the end of the Cold War have shaped Europe for the past 10 years. That wind will blow into East Asia and guess who will be in the middle of the storm? The Korean Peninsula will be on center stage, and how to manage that change is a grave task for us.

The antidote for division and Cold War politics - a political situation out of fashion everywhere but here - is peace, cooperation and reconciliation. This is the rule of thumb and it will not change. If we accomplish this grave task, we will be setting the stage to become a leader in a region that has been rattled by nationalism and has become an arena for arms races.

Looking at our problem from a new perspective, we should be able to see that our division is painful but is also a blessing, a golden opportunity, just like ripe fruit on a tree waiting to be picked. Our nation is facing the granddaddy of all examinations - history itself.


The writer is a professor of political science at Seoul National University.

by Yoon Young-kwan

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