[GLOBAL EYE]A fragmented society must unifyWhat took place on Aug. 15 resembled the “liberation atmosphere” of the newly freed Korea 50 years ago. The confrontation between conservative and progressive demonstrations in central Seoul fortunately ended without any physical clashes. But the slogans chanted by both sides were more than enough to create a warlike atmosphere.
“If the majority remains silent, our society will turn into an ultra-leftist world. Let’s send the traitors to court and the Hanchongryun to North Korea,” conservatives declared. Progressives retaliated by calling the conservatives “reactionary retards” and the U.S. forces in Korea “killers.” They also advocated the demands of North Korea, such as a non-aggression promise from the United States.
On the same day, a ceremony commemorating Liberation Day was held in Neungnado Park in Pyeongyang which called for “peace and unification.”
In Seoul, a rally protesting the rising militarism in Japan was held in Tapgol Park, while anti-American rallies were held in front of the 8th U.S. Army base which were supplemented by an Internet campaign to disrupt the U.S. Embassy’s official Web site by flooding it with anti-American messages.
The development of democracy has brought a diversity of opinions to be voiced in our society. Unfortunately, this has led to a social atmosphere teeming with the vicious demands of interest groups, transforming our country into a battleground of its own kind.
Our society today strongly resembles that of a period of severe ideological conflict and confusion that was witnessed during the three years from the day of liberation from Japanese control until the South Korean government was established. That is not the only resemblance. As then, the fate of the Korean Peninsula is about to be decided by four major powers. South Korea finds itself in a precariously weak position as the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear development are about to begin. Seoul lacks independent diplomatic capabilities and, more fundamentally, it does not seem to hold a clear vision or philosophy of the future for cooperation among Koreans in the north and the south beyond current politically motivated inter-Korean cooperation.
It has only made the situation more awkward by calling for “autonomous national defense” out of the blue in this age of collective security which rests on multilateral cooperation in nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
There seems to be a serious problem with our government, which is so intent on breaking down the structure of what it sees as vested interest and authority, because it has forgotten to provide a replacement system. The government party is fragmented and even the judiciary is divided by an internal conservative-progressive clash right now.
The government and the media seem to be engaged in purposeless, emotionally charged bickering. A survey showed that over 85 percent of the people feel that the conflict between interest groups and the taking of sides in our society has reached a serious level.
Of course, this confusion could just be a transitory growing pain on the path toward a new order. The social unrest after liberation also was an indication of an age of possibility, when we fearlessly faced our problems. It is the tragedy of our modern history that we failed to make use of that opportunity to learn lessons for our future.
What is most urgently needed in this ideological confrontation and social unrest of 2003 is unified leadership. It is imperative that we keep our minds open. Not all those who call for equality of opportunity, social compassion for the weak or restriction of the conglomerates are dangerous, radical leftists. In a free market economy system, national wealth and national interests sometimes precede that of the individual. We must get rid of the anachronistic dichotomy of ideology lingering in our mentality. We must all become conservatives and progressives in accordance with our society and country’s needs.
The first step towards this development is for the conservatives, who relying on their vested rights have failed to reform themselves so far, to change.
The progressives, who have criticized the conservatives for too long without presenting any systemic alternatives of their own, should also get rid of their sense of moral superiority and self-importance.
There can be no conservatives and progressives in the fight against authoritarianism and regional conflict, in the struggle against prejudice, or in the pursuit of equality between men and women, conservation of the environment, anti-trust regulations and public participation.
The president’s biggest task is to defuse the fundamental concern over the preservation of our state identity and the guarantee of national security. He must show leadership in combining the aspirations of the young and the wisdom and experience of the mature into a systemic energy to be used as a valuable social resource.
It would be a national tragedy beyond that of the Roh Moo-hyun government should we fail to turn today’s crisis into an opportunity. It is the responsibility of all to prevent ourselves from repeating the mistakes of 50 years ago.
* The writer is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Byun Sang-keun