[OUTLOOK]Coolness in the face of history

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[OUTLOOK]Coolness in the face of history

Liberation Day is a national holiday that makes our people look back on our history once again. Perhaps it does more so now than it did in past years, because of the sense of crisis we feel at the Chinese attempt to distort facts about Korean history. As there is an aphorism saying, “There is no future for a people that forgets its history,” it is fortunate that the Koreans now have a greater interest in history.
As the Cold War came to an end, we wanted to take the optimistic view that perhaps the age of religious wars and ideological conflicts was over. But this turned out to be just a daydream that was shattered with the events of 9/11. No one can deny that the bloody fighting in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East have factors of religious war in them. Meanwhile, the events in Northeast Asia and throughout the world clearly show how hard it is to control the potential explosiveness of ideology, especially nationalism. In other words, we are still in an age of instability and insecurity.
As I pointed out some time ago in this column, a somewhat peaceful international environment has been maintained in Northeast Asia for the past decade or so. This regional peace is due to China’s opening and accommodation to the market economy system to achieve its priority of economic development. It was a fortunate case of the principles and logic of economics preventing political conflicts. But the ghosts of ideology are not going away easily. Looking back on the 20th century, we cannot easily erase from our minds the horrible damage that was caused by the extreme militarism of Japan, which deified its king, or the age of fear the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the wave of Red Guards produced. How we control the ghosts of ideology will be the key to whether or not we will be safe and prosperous.
History is neither simply a record of facts nor just a memory. History is the result of perceptions of the facts, and so it is made from continuous choices and recreation as time passes and generations change. Who will re-create what, and how? The choices can be political, and these results can make history political. We have witnessed in modern Eastern and Western history that dangerous situations unfold when a nation or party in power uses history as a method of symbolic manipulation to mobilize the people. The lesson learned from history to prevent unfortunate situations is to accommodate and execute the following two rules.
First, nations and political powers have to make every effort to stop playing a leading role in translating or perceiving history.
Second, we have to be on our guard against the dogmatism of political ideas. The “trap of dogmatism” needs to be avoided because nationalism or reform that strays to dogmatism damages the status and profits of a nation, and worsens the level of life for the lower classes who wait for the effects of reform.
We also have to be cautious of the geopolitical limits of our country, which is located between powerful countries, on the grounds of historical understanding. If our larger neighbors make the political choice of re-creating their history through nationalistic political doctrines and the mobilization of their people, a new tension will rise in East Asia, and we will be in a most dangerous situation ― in the middle of it all. “One China” and “Strong Japan” are symbolic expressions, and they also have the potential to be flammable. So what attitude should we take in order to prevent the worsening of these situations and to seek our safety by moving forward toward an East Asian regional society of coexistence and co-prosperity?
First of all, excessive excitement is inappropriate. Excitement does not give the country strength, nor is it a method of restraining others. Our position can be strengthened when we maintain cool-headedness and wisdom instead of excitement or vigorous confrontation. In addition, we have to take on the pioneering role in washing away nostalgia for the era of ideological conflict with Japan and China.
Our physical constitution can be all the more strenger, the faster we dust off schematized doctrines and old resentments. Perceptions of history that are free from dogmatism, that are human-centered and society-centered will spread peace even to our neighbors.

* The writer, a former prime minister, is an advisor to the JoongAng Ilbo. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.


by Lee Hong-koo

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