[Viewpoint] Cracks in the ivory tower

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[Viewpoint] Cracks in the ivory tower

During the last administration, internal conflict in South Korea spilled over into academia. The scholars who had played a key role in establishing the Roh Moo-hyun administration’s North Korea policy tacitly ?? or sometimes overtly ?? left scholars with other views out in the cold. The spoils of the presidential election victory could clearly be seen in academic circles.

Just like the shake-up in the political arena, a transition of power took place in academia, and the scholars known for their “386” progressivism became the hegemons of the academic world.

Experts with other views were excluded from the administration’s advisory committees, and they were also left out of various research projects.

Not all the liberal scholars acted narrow-mindedly, but some went too far. Scholars with other views were called “reactionary retards.” Some were accused of having enjoyed an excess of privileges.

It was distressing for social scientists to lose the opportunity to present their opinions about government policies, but there was nothing they could do. They just had to take it. When a rare chance cropped up, their criticism of the Roh administration’s North Korea policy became unnecessarily severe, and it was sad to see.

What’s really heartbreaking was that North Korea policy only unfolded in a single direction. The administration failed to listen to different views on the topic, and the opportunity to review a wide range of alternatives was lost.

Constructive criticism was not accepted, and the core scholars built a world of their own. Policies become shallow, which was unfortunate for the administration.

With Lee Myung-bak’s victory, a new group of scholars emerged.

Academia hoped that communication would take place between scholars with a wide range of views and ideologies. Because the new core group was composed of veterans with long careers, scholars expected the new power group not to act like children or conquerors.

Academia believed that it would grow mature, and that society would naturally develop as history marches forward toward the future.

And yet, the academic split remained.

Perhaps the newly appointed advisers hated the Roh administration’s North Korea policy. Or perhaps their resentment over being ignored for the past few years was too strong.

Of course, not all scholars acted this way, but many did. Again, they failed to embrace criticism. Opinions that differed from their own were ignored and sometimes shot down outright. They showed displeasure when a tiny problem in a policy was pointed out.

A new phenomenon has even surfaced, in which the South has been divided three ways. In the past, the conservatives and the progressives were split, but now, a new sub-division has emerged among the conservatives, people say.

Previously, the conservatives were all labeled as such by the liberals, but now, conservatives are divided between those who follow the Lee administration’s North Korea policy and those who do not.

Depending on the interpretation, the conservative split was nothing more than a power struggle, and healthy criticism was nothing more than a sugarcoated condemnation.

Scholars were pressured to choose between the North Korea policy of the Lee government - pushing for denuclearization, openness and an average $3,000 annual income in the North - and the Sunshine Policy of the former liberal administrations.

The sad situation repeated itself again, and nothing changed from previous administrations. In fact, the tragedy is actually more serious.

It was time to mend the rupture in South Korea’s academia, but the divide actually widened.

A scholar must be able to listen to other opinions and embrace criticism in attempting to come up with a better alternative. For the success of a government and a policy that he or she supports, such capabilities are critical. When others have different opinions, a scholar must try to persuade critics and win their support. And yet, they turned their backs on their colleagues.

The whole situation reminded me of the professors who had won the nickname “the 10 million a month” scholars. They were the academics who were said to have each earned an average 10 million won ($7,860) a month honorarium during the Roh administration through outside activities.

It is of course an exaggeration that they earned that much money, but the nickname came from their extremely active work in advising the government on its business.

Although I do not know their whereabouts, it is easy to guess that their side activities have now significantly slowed. Because the split in academia has grown worse, their vivid experience and constructive criticism have likely been shelved.

They should be given opportunities to work at least as “5 million a month” scholars.

Of course, the specific amount is not important, but they should be given room to maneuver. That’s the way for the scholars currently in power to succeed in the end.

*The writer is a professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Jo Dong-ho
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