[Viewpoint] Time to break the cycle of conflict

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[Viewpoint] Time to break the cycle of conflict

In his book “Discourses on Livy,” Machiavelli wrote that in a divided city, “it is impossible for a Prince or a Republic to please both old parties. For, by nature it is given to men to take sides in any difference of opinion, and for them to prefer the one more than the other.”

The perspective of this consummate European politician who lived some 500 years ago is also applicable to present-day Korea. Roh Moo-hyun was elected president on the wings of one party’s enthusiastic support and the other party’s cold response. When he served out his presidential term, the differences between the two parties grew. Both sides saw only what they wanted to see and refused to see the other side. Roh’s achievements and flaws were blown out of proportion or ignored by the two groups.

His successor took over a presidency stuck in a rut created by hostility and strife. The rut may have become narrower but it has certainly also grown much deeper. Once he began sliding down into it, Lee fell deeper and deeper. He grabbed whatever he could hold on to, whether twigs or thorns.

He managed to stand on his feet on the ground again and escaped the rut. He heaved a sigh of relief - but when he looked back, he found his predecessor had tripped over a root and was falling into a bottomless pit.

In a divided city, the predecessor and the successor, the leaders of the two factions, cannot stand beside each other. Their very existence means blessings for one faction and curses for the other. One of them must fall and get trampled by the other’s feet. If the leader himself does not become the victim, his brother, son or daughter must be offered as a sacrifice.

As the successor becomes a priest to appease the winning faction, so the predecessor is placed on the sacrificial altar. This is why there is not a single former president in Korea who has enjoyed a happy ending upon retirement.

What sets our republic apart is its short history - 50 years at most. During this short period, the two factions have stared at each other until their eyes grew bloodshot, picking at each other’s wounds and hating each other as if they were ready to attack the other party and tear them to pieces.

Our history of conflict and hostility is short but very concentrated, unlike many other countries in the world. That is the result of both sides exacting repeated political revenge. One reason for this is that the vicious circle of corruption has never ended. But in a divided society, gains earned through corruption can easily be mistaken for rewards.

How long will the spiral of political revenge and corruption continue? The former president’s choice of an extreme measure seems the expression of his determination to end this vicious circle. He wrote in his will, “Do not feel sorry. Do not blame anyone.” These words must have come from such intentions.

When George Washington retired as the first United States president, he did not write memoirs. He knew more secrets than most people in government, but he did not want the United States to be divided because of dirty, disgusting and mean fights behind the holy cause of the American Revolutionary War. His successors upheld his will. The country had a time of strife during the Civil War, but Washington’s spirit prevented society from splitting for more than 200 years.

It is time for us to stop picking at each other’s wounds. Instead we should care for each other and heal them. In order to do that, the successor must bear the cross. Even though the successor did not wish for what happened to his predecessor, history makes the successor take responsibility for the predecessor’s tragedy.

To unite this divided society, or at least to lighten the burden, the successor must bear the cross. That means he must continue the reform that the predecessor could not complete. The time the predecessor’s term ruled must not be regarded as wasted time. The predecessor had achievements, such as cutting the corrupt link between politicians and businessmen, breaking the custom of favoring people from the same hometown or school and eliminating authoritarianism. The successor must add to this and achieve even greater things. In doing so, discontent will be minimized and joy will be maximized. Ultimately, division in society will disappear. That way, the predecessor’s mistakes will not be repeated. That is the right way for the living to pay respect to the deceased.

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

by Lee Hoon-beom
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