[Viewpoint]Korea’s search for equality

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[Viewpoint]Korea’s search for equality

There are two things about Korea that go beyond my understanding. One is the reason South Korea still remains a non-socialist country and the other is why it has not become the 51st state of the United States.
The first question is raised because of the extreme egalitarianism that prevails in our society. I wonder whether there is any other people in the world that believes in equality as if it were a religious creed. There is an old saying in Korea that “one’s stomach aches if a cousin becomes rich by purchasing a rice paddy.” A modern version goes, “An empty stomach is OK, but having a stomachache after seeing someone else’s success isn’t.” There are many people who will not tolerate unequal treatment.
Although they are not rich, Bhutanese are reckoned as one of the 10 happiest people in the world. As the hermit kingdom is gradually exposed to the outside world and competition, however, it is said that the level of stress from inequality is on the rise there, too.
In the case of Korea, however, the problem of inequality stems from a different root. Koreans are satisfied only when the fruits of success are equally shared, and this goes beyond the level of equal opportunities.
Even when there are differences in the ability and the efforts of the competitors, people believe that there should be equal distribution, even if it takes government intervention. Doesn’t this thinking fit into the socialist system?
The fact that people support the comprehensive real estate tax system and the Education Ministry’s “three nos policy” can’t be explained otherwise. It is hard to understand why the popularity of the government that has implemented these policies is at rock bottom.
Secondly, a wide spread phenomenon in our society ― wishing to go to the United States ― raises another question to me. There are many pregnant Korean women who line up at the airport to visit the United States to give birth to their children, so that their children can get U.S. citizenship.
There are also many people who are eager to send their children to schools in the United States, even if it means the separation of their family. As a result of these separations, there are many Korean fathers who live alone in Seoul. There are even rumors that evil-minded gigolos aiming to seduce lonely Korean mothers in the United States have crossed the Pacific Ocean in large numbers.
In one American city, there is a high school where about half the students are Korean. It is even said that students tell their parents the Korean jokes they learned from other Korean students at school.
Now that the offspring of lonely fathers and mothers are studying in American schools in great numbers, I wonder what shape our society will be in when they return home in large numbers. Of course, we welcome cosmopolitans who are active on the world stage, but those who have received half-baked American education will have no other choice than finding jobs in Korea.
With things having gone this far, I thought that we would be hearing voices calling for the creation of Korea Ltd., a state of the United States. This would allow Koreans to enjoy the benefits of being citizens of the sole superpower of the world, without having to conclude a free trade agreement. However, the only voices we hear are the ones that chant anti-American slogans. This is what I can’t understand.
Socialism and the United States is not a good match. If socialism implies equality, the United States is the symbol of freedom. The problem gets complicated because the two concepts are as mixed up in the minds of individuals as they are in society.
Certainly, there are contradictions in our society. Although people are ready to pitch a tent on the street for days and nights to get a ticket to buy an apartment that will pay back a big premium, they raise their voices high to demand a tax increase if other people’s apartment prices rise. After voting in support of the high school level-off policy, people send children who are not qualified to enter a prestigious high school here to an overseas school.
Freedom and equality are the ideals and the basic principles of democracy. This means that we have to look for a way to pursue both of them in a balanced manner. Our society has become even more polarized owing to the lack of equal opportunities.
Meanwhile the values of efficiency, diversity and excellence that should be defended by freedom are being damaged beyond repair. I am afraid that it will only be possible for us to find genuine equality in the graveyard, as the German proverb goes.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Lee Hoon-beom
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