[VIEWPOINT]Korean liberals at critical pointThe Song Du-yul case is shaking our society. Citizens are not hiding their shock and disillusion. Judging that they have seized a good opportunity, the conservative forces are ready to launch an all-out ideological attack. Even the liberal camp, which had taken a sympathetic and friendly attitude toward Mr. Song, is expressing disappointment and surprise at his actions, though it has reserved comment.
I also was disappointed because I had taken a constant interest in his achievements. A lesson was again proved on the reality of the division of the North and the South, a situation so harsh as to lead to the marginalization of this bright scholar. The weight of history is heavy. With the sharp and close scrutiny of the past ahead, Mr. Song should be responsible for the way he has chosen to take as an intellectual. He should stop making clumsy excuses and make everything clear. That would be the least he could do to apologize for his activities, which brought disappointment to those who had believed and supported him as an advocate of democratization, and which, in the end, were a big blow to the cause of Korean democratization.
Mr. Song's case leads to the inevitability of an examination of the environment for intellectuals in our society. Preoccupied with protecting their vested interests by taking advantage of the national divide after liberation from Japan, Korea's conservative forces abandoned concerns about responsibility that accompany conservatism and took the lead in distorting liberal democracy. As a result, the conservatives came to be considered, as a whole, equal to the adherents of old customs, and the right-wing and extreme right-wing were treated the same.
From the perspective of the liberal forces that led the democracy movement against the military autocracy, the conservatives were nothing but the vestiges of history to be overcome. As long as the Korean conservative force tries to depict North Korea as an evil group in an effort to perpetuate its vested interests, the progressive forces will take an interest in the true conditions of North Korea, and understandably so. But the most important thing in everything is a sense of balance.
Some liberals have hated conservatives so much that they lost such a sense of balance, and the Song Du-yul case is one of the tragic results. They ignored the obvious fact that although the military despotism of South Korea was detestable, the feudalistic totalitarianism of North Korea, which was horrible, was incomparably worse.
Liberals played a great role in leading the democratic movement and opening our eyes to our blindness toward the cold war and anti-communism. Even now, as we enter another stage of “democracy after having achieved democracy,” the importance of liberals is never exhausted. In other words, liberal intellectuals still have the heavy burden of constructing a comprehensive logic for progressivism and a line for a democratic movement that goes beyond their simple anti-autocratic actions.
One of the greatest obstacles to their carrying out of such a task is the problem of factual judgment and a balanced view on North Korea. In other words, they now have to clarify their attitude toward North Korea as a partner for coexistence and, at the same time, confront the gloomy reality of the self-reliant juche socialism, now epitomized by defectors, suppression of human rights and the worst of famines.
In an age of North-South exchange, government officials may have to take into account certain policy considerations to maintain smooth relations between North and South Korea. But this is not the case with intellectuals, because their duty is to look at the reality clearly and to make criticisms and diagnoses based on facts. The view is unflinching in its honesty even if the facts and reality are painful, and threatening to their ideological belief. The power of facts is great. Liberal intellectuals, who tend to cling to outdated theory and unreasonable faith, often forget about this simple lesson.
If liberals claim to fight against all kinds of suppression, exploitation, exclusion and discrimination, but then turn away from the anachronistic self-reliant ideology and the wretched reality of North Korean socialism, this is a mere self-contradiction. For the revival of liberals, impartial criticism and discussion about self-reliant socialism are indispensable in the sphere of public opinion.
Liberals can no longer be virtuous if they make various eloquent speeches while avoiding North Korean problems. In other words, whether Korean liberal intellectuals speak frankly about North Korea will be, sooner or later, a critical gauge of how genuine they are.
* The writer is a professor of philosophy at Hanshin University. Translation by JoongAng Daily staff.
by Yoon Pyung-joong