[FORUM]Debate over ‘Asian values’ lingersIn October 1999, when the Asian financial crisis was at its peak, “Asian values” again became the focus of attention. That occurred when former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who is an advocate of Asian values, along with former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, visited South Korea. Then South Korean President Kim Dae-jung was on the opposite side of Mr. Lee in the argument over Asian values. But at the talks between the two leaders in the Blue House, there was no direct discussion of the topic. The two leaders, who knew each other well, avoided an issue that was awkward for both of them. Before then, however, when Mr. Lee had criticized South Korea for completely adopting the measures advocated by the International Monetary Fund, Mr. Kim had responded, “If there is no democracy, there is no economic development.”
The argument between the two over Asian values dates back to 1994. Mr. Lee claimed in an article in Foreign Affairs, a foreign policy journal published in the United States, that the concepts of “democracy and human rights of the West cannot be applied as they stand to East Asia, whose culture is different.” But Mr. Kim disputed Mr. Lee’s contention in an article in the same publication later that year, saying “Mr. Lee Kuan Yew’s contention is to justify the denial of democracy.” Mr. Kim added that Chinese scholar Mencius’s idea that sovereignty rested with the people was 2,000 years ahead of the views of John Locke, who established the theory of modern Western democracy.
The term “Asian values” began to be used by Western scholars and media as Asian countries achieved high economic growth in the 1970s. Such scholars as Herman Kahn and Ezra Vogel sought to locate the driving force of Asian economic development in Confucian values. As the financial crisis broke out in Asia in 1997, however, some scholars in the West began to say that “we expected this,” claiming that the concept of Asian values was just a virtual image and the miracle of the Asian economy was nothing but a mirage. But a few years later, when Asia, beginning with South Korea, recovered from the economic crisis, such scholars as Samuel Huntington again credited Asian values.
In fact, among Asian values, virtues like family values, community awareness and strong leadership, and vices like cronyism, collusion between politicians and businessmen, and favoritism have only small differences. For example, if family values go even a little astray, that becomes favoritism. The argument over Asian values is still going on.
It became a topic of conversation when Mr. Kim, in his first speech after his retirement, last week mentioned Mencius’s theory of revolution to change dynasties. Mr. Kim cited the words of Mencius: “If the king does not govern well and torments people, they are given the right to banish the king.” It is the idea that tyrants should be ousted as, in ancient China, King Tang of the Eun nation forced out King Geol of the Ha nation, and King Mu of the Ju nation forced out King Ju of the Eun nation.
But this idea is nothing new, as Mr. Kim has often cited it in the debate about Asian values. Also, Mr. Kim himself may just have been discussing a theory and his comments might not have had another meaning. But at this point his words are creating odd sensations.
I do not have much interest in the offense and defense of political circles around Mr. Kim’s remarks. But I would like to say one thing: “Is this really the point in time to say such words?” As is well known, a large number of his sons and relatives were involved in “Asian-style” corruption. His aides, including Park Ji-won, were also imprisoned and await the judgment of the law.
That must be an insult that is hard to bear for Mr. Kim, who asserted Western democratic values and even received the Nobel Peace Prize. But Mr. Kim should not open his mouth. This is so, even if he might feel that he is being “stabbed in the back” by the judicial handling of the case of money transfers to North Korea. Now is the time for Mr. Kim to keep silent. That is the way to keep the last of his honor intact.
* The writer is a deputy managing editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Yoo Jae-sik