[Viewpoint] Many paths to a happy societyThe death of former President Roh Moo-hyun has made us contemplate the society in which we live and what it’s all about. What is the face of society today? What were the ideals of our former leaders in that society?
After Korea was liberated from the Japanese in 1945, Koreans started to really examine what it was they wanted from the nation and its people.
Eventually, we were able to establish a country where citizens, not a monarch or aristocracy, have sovereign power.
In 1948, South Korea drafted its first constitution of the civil society. It was 161 years after the Americans, who had moved from Europe, drafted the U.S. Constitution and declared independence from the British Empire.
President Syngman Rhee had the agony of first establishing the nation. Patriot Kim Gu, whom former President Roh Moo-hyun idolized, desired unification of the South and the North.
However, Rhee believed that Korea should denounce communism and establish a nation based on liberal democracy and capitalism even if it meant establishing a government in the South alone. It was soon put to a grave test. President Rhee defended the nation from the invasion of the North.
During his term, tenant farmers came to own land and people had wider educational opportunities. Most importantly, the security framework for an enduring Korea-U.S. alliance was established.
While Korea finally had a framework that could cobble together a future, citizens were far from satisfied.
Though corruption by those in power was a major problem, the absolute challenge was poverty.
This became the No. 1 item on the late President Park Chung Hee’s agenda. Though Park was once a socialist and a member of the South Korean Labor Party, he soon realized that the cycle of poverty that went back five millennia could not be broken with socialism. When he became president, he rushed to establish a development-driven capitalistic dictatorship.
Park was a commoners’ president. Born to a poor peasant family, Park dedicated himself to eradicating poverty. In order to do so, Park believed Korea needed to develop economically.
He believed that he should concentrate on building national strength and could neglect freedom and human rights in the interim while a poor nation accomplished significant growth. He thought that democracy could be made possible not through slogans but through the emergence of a middle class.
He drank humble rice wine with peasants and encouraged factory workers while shunning democratic activists.
Finally, Koreans did not have to worry about their next meal. People were no longer hungry, but that does not mean they had attained a civil society.
People were still yearning for democracy.
Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae-woo did not command history like their predecessors Rhee and Park had. They were not presidents for the greater population, but instead managed several hundred billion won in slush funds.
However, they did not resist the historical trend of democratization. The world became more democratic, but the change was not complete. People wanted reform and raised voices to include North Korea. Reform and inter-Korean reconciliation were tasks left to the Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung administrations. Despite the historical progress, they were unable to close the gap between rich and poor and regional imbalances.
That’s when President Roh Moo-hyun made his appearance in Korea’s modern history. He dreamt of a society where even someone who is poor, powerless and uneducated could share of a piece of the pie and find a happy life. He thought society was not acceptable if the socially weak were hard-pressed. This was also his thought after the larger community had joined the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development and the per capita income ranged between $20,000 to $30,000.
The passion and sincerity of President Roh were noble. However, he had his limits in terms of methodology. If Roh had acknowledged the historical legitimacy from Syngman Rhee and Park Chung Hee and chosen his own realistic methodology, he might have been able to avoid failure.
If we were to realize a society for the people, we should have a solid foundation first. Security should be maintained and the constitution should be defended through the Korea-U.S. alliance and the National Security Act.
The president is supposed to keep his authority, the prosecutors are supposed to investigate wrongdoing and the media are supposed to keep the power in check. Within this framework, the well-being of the underprivileged can be enhanced through wise and reasonable economic and societal policies.
The happiness of the populace cannot be attained through passion alone. A commoners’ president is different from a commoner president.
Many leaders had passion for the people. However, each leader chose different methods to improve the people’s lot in life.
Though President Roh Moo-hyun’s passion should be cherished, his methods are open to question.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Jin
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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