[OUTLOOK]Not with a bang, but a whimperHistory shows us that as surely as a person who is born is bound to die, one day a country rises only to fall some day. This unchangeable law has been true of all countries, small or big, and even the United States, master of the world as it is now, can be no exception. But what about Korea? Are we on our ascent to our climax or are we on the downward slope toward the end? A common sign of a country’s fall is the simultaneous occurrence of internal strife and external threats. When there is strife and rebellion within and pressure and invasion of foreign powers outside, a country loses its control and crumbles.
This, however, is merely a description of the symptoms that occur when a country perishes. It does not explain the “how,” the causal factor in how a country reaches such a point of decline. The brilliant 14th-century Arab historian and philo-sopher Ibn Khaldun pointed to “a sense of solidarity,” or collective resolution, as the most important factor determining the rise or fall of a nation. According to him, only those tribes retaining an unbreakable spirit and frugal means of living in the harsh environment of the wilderness can possess the strong sense of solidarity that would enable them to repel foreign threats and grow to absorb neighboring tribes, conquering cities until an empire is born.
The generation that follows those who build the empire further develops the empire and achieves prosperity, but at the same time gradually loses its sense of solidarity in the luxury and comfort of stability. The third generation will forget the hardships of its forefathers in building the empire and mistake its present prosperity as the result of its own efforts, completely losing the solidarity that is the essence of the country’s rise and fall.
Which generation are we, the Koreans of today? How strong is our sense of solidarity? The ultimate judgment will probably have to be handed down by historians a century or two from now, but it seems that those who built this country from the ashes of war, achieving economic development and fighting for democracy, comprised the first generation. Despite their haggard figures and shabby clothes, the men and women we see in the black-and-white pictures of those days still retained a determined flash in their eyes. Now, that “hungry spirit” is gone.
They say we are in a worse recession than during the financial crisis in 1997, and yet luxury products and services are still flourishing. The wealthy are still speculating wildly in real estate and over 3 million credit delinquents owe debts amounting to 10 trillion won ($8.3 billion).
Students would go to any part of the country if they could attend a medical school but Seoul National University has a hard time finding applicants for its engineering department. Our reality is that university libraries are crowded with those studying for the national judicial exam ― the conventional way to life-long guarantees of wealth ― while someone who earned a doctorate in his academic passion committed suicide recently because he could not get a job to support his wife and children.
Maybe it’s too late to talk about solidarity now. Maybe we’re not even the second generation. Maybe we’re the generation with doom staring strai-ght into our eyes. A good reason to despair is the collapse of the authority that our leaders should hold in managing our country and society. It is not the stubbornness and ignorance of the people who are not following legitimate authority. It is the absolute incapability of our leaders to set up any proper authority.
The true authority of the leader of a country is not in his delightful speeches and friendly manners, but in a firm, reliable ability to rule. This is the same logic as the authority of an actor; it is not in his good looks but in his ability to act. The authority of a singer is not in dancing skills but singing, and the authority of a scholar is not in rhetoric but in the knowledge of the field in question.
A leader must grasp the needs of the people and lead them in the right direction. The leader must be the center of solidarity, uniting the people with determination and impartial rule. Should the leader fail to do so, should Koreans be left in this state of strife and tension, we might be criticized by our dependents as the generation that led our country down the path to its doom.
* The writer is a professor of Asian history at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Kim Ho-dong