[OUTLOOK]The meaning of nationalism

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[OUTLOOK]The meaning of nationalism

Recently suggesting that we solve all matters “between ourselves,” North Korea is appealing to our feelings of nationalism. What is nationalism, then?
The second half of the 20th century was a miraculous period for us. We habitually talk about our 5,000 year history, but there was no time when the speed of change was faster and growth and development was more remarkable than the second half of the 20th century. During this period, our economy made a leap from the lowest ranks to among the highest level in the world and democracy was achieved. As a result, we are now enjoying freedom that our ancestors never dreamed of.
What is more surprising is that our youth is taking the challenge toward becoming world leaders in various areas, such as sports, arts and sciences. This is indeed praiseworthy. The more I think about it, the prouder I am of them. But I am also worried. Could the miracle of the second half of the 20th century endure into the 21th century?
We should think about the reasons why the miracle was possible in the last half of the 20th century. Many people talk about the superior quality of our nation. Others talk about our Confucian culture. But these reasons cannot explain why such a superior nation could not make progress until the second half of the 20th century. Of course, the quality of our nation is important, but we should think, first of all, what the differences of the late 20th century were compared to other periods.
The last half of the 20th century was a period of national division for us. The division brought about the tragedy of fratricidal war and created a situation where the command economy of the North and the market economy of the South had to compete. Of course, North and South Korea did not faithfully reflect the command economy and the market economy in reality, but it is true that the two Koreas have operated their states in opposite directions.
Therefore, the comparison of South and North Korea can be seen as the result of a kind of experiment on the two systems contrary to each other. What could be the biggest difference between the two for the last half a century?
Advocating the juche ideology, North Korea insisted on going “its own way” in everything, while South Korea lived in a situation exposed to the influence of the United States and the international community in every field. From the perspective of nationalism, it is true that South Korea’s attitude was a very shameful one that deserted a national identity while North Korea’s attitude was an expression of heroic determination to decide its fate and pave its way according to its own will even if its people die of starvation. Here lies the reason North Korea’s “nationalism” appeals to many people living in South Korea.
From a nationalistic stance, the fact that North Korea fell into economic bankruptcy and failed in the operation of the country doesn’t matter. The more difficult North Korea’s situation is, the more it sticks with the “romantic” view that our nation can overcome all “difficulties.”
North Korea seems to have a strategic plan that, by making South Koreans advocate nationalism of their own accord, it will induce the South to break ties with the United States, stop its growth and development engines, and isolate the South from the international community.
But what is important is not North Korea’s propaganda of nationalism. Its propaganda that we achieve unification “between ourselves” is nothing but a boorish and childish slogan. The problem depends on how we ourselves decide.
It depends on our choice, whether we continue the progress of the last half a century or, by persisting in living alone “between ourselves” and according to “our own way,” we put ourselves in the same situation as North Korea.
The lover of a nation would not wage a war against the nation, impose dictatorship on it, or deprive it of its freedom and human rights. He would not live in clover while watching the same race starve to death. And the lover of a nation would do his best to ensure the happiness and dignity of all the people who make up the nation.
A person who loves his nation and a person who makes his nation unhappy should not be confused. We should not only be the lover of a nation but also become the nation that can refuse nationalism.

*The writer, a former ambassador to the United States, is a professor emeritus at Korea University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.


by Kim Kyung-won

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