[Viewpoint] Odd tempest over Hwang Suk-young

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[Viewpoint] Odd tempest over Hwang Suk-young

A lender urged a debtor to pay up. The debtor asked, “If you add to a pile of stones or remove some, the shape changes. Is the pile the same as the old one?” The lender replied, “Of course not. It’s an entirely different pile.”

“Well, then,” said the debtor, “a person constantly changes, doesn’t he?” When the lender agreed, the debtor argued: “Then I no longer have to pay back the money. I am not the same person who borrowed it in the first place.”

This is a story by Epicharmus, a fifth century B.C. Greek dramatist, who is considered the first comic writer. But if the story ended here, it wouldn’t be a comedy. The lender grew furious and began beating up the debtor. When the debtor protested, the lender said, “There is no point arguing with me. I am no longer the person who hit you.”

The story is a fable often told when we talk about the growth and development of character and ego. Yesterday’s self and today’s self are the same person who, at the same time, are different. If you cultivate your mind and seek wisdom, you will become a better you than you were yesterday. If you become egoistic and greedy, you are a lesser self than yesterday. And so it is with philosophy and ideology. There is no absolute philosophy or ideology that holds true regardless of time and place. Ellen Glasgow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning American writer, said: “No idea is so antiquated that it was not once modern. No idea is so modern that it will not someday be antiquated. It is foolish of a person to tie oneself to the frame of an idea and fail to look at the changes of the world.”

Such a folly can be found at the center of the latest Hwang Suk-young controversy. What is all the fuss about the dramatic decision of the leftist intellectual to help out the rightist government? Left or right, the raison d’etre of an ideology is to have the nation succeed and help people prosper. It’s strange that both camps are fulminating over the actions of this writer.

On the left, Hwang is attacked as a turncoat. He is even compared to those writers who cooperated with Imperial Japan during Korea’s colonization. Witness the rhetoric coming from progressives: “Once a pile of stones, forever a pile of stones” - a favorite slogan of conservatives.

Is it their “progressive” way of thinking to oppose, until the end of this administration, every opinion and interfere with every action, of a president elected through a popular vote? They are truly pathetic.

Whether or not the president was impressed by the surprise of the “Eurasian peace train,” it is hard to deny what can be made possible when inter-Korean relations become more advanced rather than through a breakthrough of reconciliation as Hwang had thought. It is doubtful how feasible his ideas for an “Altaic Union” or “Mongol Plus Two Koreas” can be while ignoring Beijing.

However, Hwang is far more productive and progressive than those leftists who make fun of his plans and demand the government make unconditional concessions to the “Workers’ Paradise” where people are starving, workers are persecuted and power over the Democratic People’s Republic is about to be handed down dynastically.

You can pick out a star only if you look to the sky. At least Hwang has opened a channel of communication between the leftists and the government. This is quintessential moderate pragmatism.

More ridiculous is the response from the right. It is rather clever to assume that Hwang’s moves are a tactic to win the Nobel Prize. He might have had the prize in mind, but if such change can actually help him win the Nobel Prize, all the better.

But it’s hard not to laugh at the grumblings about the president rubbing shoulders with a Red instead of so many rightist writers who have been supporting the president. Does that mean they wished for some kind of return when they helped the president?

The Lee administration has already brought a crisis upon itself by promoting only insiders. If they had to criticize, the rightists should have asked why Lee chose Hwang Suk-young, who was a mere acquaintance, out of so many leftist writers.

Epicharmus famously said, “One hand washes the other.” If he were living in the Republic of Korea and witnessing such outdated ideological confrontation, he would have said, “The left hand washes the right.”

It can be the other way around. The important part is washing, since the right hand and the left hand have to come together to wash. When they are far apart and spurn each other, neither hand can ever get clean.

*The writer is a deputy political news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Lee Hoon-beom
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