[FOUNTAIN]When ‘folly’ turns out to be wise

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[FOUNTAIN]When ‘folly’ turns out to be wise

Alaska is a vast territory, one fifth the size of the mainland United States, seven times the size of the Korean Peninsula and fifteen times the size of South Korea. It is also the largest state in the United States, and one of few places in the world where we can witness the majesty of Mother Earth’s colossal icebergs.
Though its population is only 650,000, Alaska has abundant natural resources such as gold and oil, and is strategically important to the United States.
The civilized world first learned of Alaska in 1741, when Danish explorer Vitus Bering led an expedition commissioned by Russia’s Peter the Great. Russia’s main interest was in Alaska’s fur; the Russian Navy was stationed here because of it. When the fur trade dwindled, debt-ridden Russia suggested selling Alaska to the United States in 1859.
In 1867, the United States purchased Alaska for $7.2 million, or 2 cents per acre. The American public at the time was skeptical about the purchase. But Secretary of State William Seward insisted that they look not at the ice covering the territory, but at the enormous natural resources hidden beneath. He said the purchase was not for their generation, but for the next. The Senate barely approved the purchase; the bill passed by one vote, thanks to the secretary’s lobbying. Meanwhile, the Russian government paid its negotiators a bonus for having disposed of the useless land at a good price.
The Alaska purchase followed Secretary Seward everywhere. Alaska was ridiculed as “Seward’s icebox”; the phrase “Seward’s folly” was used to refer to failed deals. But Alaska became a U.S. treasure 30 years later, when gold was discovered there. And in the 20th century, oil reserves were found.
When public opinion collides with a far-seeing vision for the future, Seward’s purchase of Alaska is often mentioned. If Secretary Seward had been swayed by public opinion, or if he had lacked the will to push for his vision, Alaska wouldn’t exist on the map of the United States. Perhaps it was in that same spirit that the Korean government, after signing a normalization treaty with Japan 40 years ago, used reparation funds for economic development instead of compensating the victims of colonial rule. If we apply Seward’s example to the controversial Saemangeum land reclamation project, what conclusion would we reach?


by Lee Se-jung

The writer is an editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.

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