[Viewpoint] A year of death, and hope for the future

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[Viewpoint] A year of death, and hope for the future

Next to my computer, there are two books on my desk. One is “The Korean Peninsula Peace Report,” written by the late Professor Suh Dong-man and his colleagues, and the other is the “National Foundation and Rich Country” by the late Professor Kim Il-young.

As I look back at this year, death has had a big impact on our society. The deaths of Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan and two former presidents, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, impacted us greatly. The three deaths also provided a lesson for society about the importance of reconciliation and unity. And the deaths of Professor Suh in June and of Professor Kim in November added more sorrow.

Personally, I was not very closed to the two scholars. With Suh, I worked on a forum called “27 Goals for Progressivism and Reform” a few years ago. Suh was a well-known expert on engagement policy toward the North. He once served as the planning and coordination director of the National Intelligence Service, but he was more of a shy scholar.

He returned to academia in 2004 and provided acute analysis on the North Korea policies of Washington and Tokyo. He also made public concerns that the Roh administration had lost its initial determination. Yi Dae-
keun, an editorial writer for the Kyunghyang Shinmun, deplored Suh’s death, calling it a great loss for the academic world and the government, and I agree with that view.

My relationship with the late Professor Kim goes back many years. In the mid-1980s, we attended graduate school and a seminar of the Korean Research Institute for Industrial Societies together. After we became professors, we used to engage in public debate, representing the new right and the new left. Just as Lee Seon-min, the culture desk head at the Chosun Ilbo, described him, Kim was a great scholar of political studies who had the most in-depth understanding of Korea’s modern history.

When I was told about his death, I immediately thought of my last telephone conversation with him in late October. I told him to feel better, but I still remembered the sound of his gasping voice.

The deaths of the professors prompted me to think about two things.

First, I came to wonder what was behind the life of an intellectual. It’s a lesson from the Yangming school of philosophy that a scholar must not be obsessed with the quantity of his achievements but with their quality. That means that success or failure does not matter, intentions and motives are more important. The ethics of conviction must come before the ethics of responsibility, and this lesson was also emphasized by Max Weber in his “Science as a Vocation.”

To me, Suh and Kim both stood at the boundary between the ethics of conviction and the ethics of responsibility, and they endured the tension. Establishing peace between the two Koreas, helping the nation grow into a rich country and nurturing a mature democracy are still our society’s most important tasks, transcending mere ideology. To achieve these goals, academic research and policy development must take place simultaneously. Both Suh and Kim have conducted research into peace and wealthy nations with their ethics of conviction while looking for blueprints and alternatives for Korea with their ethics of responsibility.

The second subject that came to my mind was the future of our society. The year 2010 is a meaningful year in Korea’s history. The year marks the centennial anniversary of Japanese annexation and the 60th anniversary of the Korean War. It’s also the 50th anniversary of the April 19 Revolution and the 30th anniversary of the Gwangju Democratic Movement.

When thinking about the two late scholars, I want to pay special attention to the year 1970 and the year 2000.

In 1970, the bright and dark sides of the Park Chung Hee regime’s vision for a rich nation emerged clearly. It was the year that the Gyeongbu Expressway was completed, and it was the year that labor rights activist Jeon Tae-il killed himself.

In 2000, the historic inter-Korean summit took place. A decade later, inter-Korean relations are frozen.

Suh and Kim were never close politically. And yet, peace and wealth are not opposite values, but rather complement each other. If one loves one’s country and works for its future, ideological differences are not very significant. While their political ideologies may have been different, their love for their nation was the same.

I believe the ideas that democracy leads to peace and wealth and that peace and wealth lead to democracy are the legacies the professors left to their colleagues and students.

Once again, I go back to the books by Suh and Kim. The two scholars probably would have risen early in the morning, just as I did, and fallen into deep thought, worrying about our society.

I earnestly wish that the two scholars’ visions for a path to peace between the two Koreas and toward becoming a wealthy nation will begin to be realized in 2010. And I hope, once again, the two scholars rest in peace.



*The writer is a professor of sociology at Yonsei University.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Ho-ki
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