[Viewpoint] Another momentous decade begins

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[Viewpoint] Another momentous decade begins

The weight of history falls especially heavy upon this year as it marks the start of a new decade of the 21st century. A century ago this year the country was helplessly annexed into Japan, then, 60 years ago on June 25, it was violated and split by war. On April 19 a half-century ago it witnessed the first major student protest to bring down an autocratic government, and 30 years ago on May 18 a student riot and massacre in Gwangju erupted that later proved a valuable seed for Korean democracy.

These pieces of history are no old tales from textbooks, but have been lived, experienced and shared by many of us living in this land today.

Reminiscing about the path we have walked is a meaningful exercise not to discern who has done wrong or good, but to take history as a reference to tell us where we should and where we should not be going in the future.

The last century of our history is overshadowed by two major catastrophes.

First was the existential crisis of our national identity. The 1910 annexation stripped off our ethnic and national rights, and a war orchestrated by the Communist Soviet Union and North Korean torchbearer Kim Il Sung devastated the land less than two years after the Korean government’s flag had first been hoisted.

Second was the internal crisis manifested in extreme division and unrest, which was unleashed at several historic turning points that determined the country’s future direction and strategy.

The most important of these watersheds were the student protests of April 19, 1960 and May 18, 1980.

Whenever the country entered an existential crisis or experienced extreme internal tumult, incompetent, ignorant and oscillating political and administrative leaders failed to exhibit proper priorities and make swift, correct decisions.

In his famous book “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers,” the British historian Paul Kennedy explained how around the world, nations that ascended to power and then fell over the last 500 years could provide lessons for nations today.

No matter how strong and wealthy it may be, a state is headed for demise if it overextends itself militarily and economically.

Kennedy’s thesis may be used to criticize America’s military profligacy and its overextended commitments in foreign affairs. But striking a chord with Korea as well is the idea that a strategic judgment of costs and benefits in view of limited national resources and capacity can determine a country’s fate.

Behind any major choice in state affairs must be a leadership willing and ready to drive the people to take on risk and accept whatever comes for the sake of national progress. No step forward is possible without braving risk and accepting costs, whether for the individual or the state.

With 35 years of confused identity under Japanese rule followed by 65 years of national division, with the two Koreas still technically at war, our people have not lived a moment as a whole nation during the last century.

Are we ready to place unification as the top state priority and accept its risks and costs? Are we capable of weathering the tumultuous storm that would result from dramatic internal developments in our neighbor to the north?

We must remember that our past loss of national identity came because our ancestors were oblivious to the geopolitical weakness of the imperial powers at that time.

But are we able or prepared to share the burden necessary to break out of our national boundaries, surpass China and Japan and build a new international order?

To do so, we must safeguard our hard-won democratic community from division between generations, regions and classes and from the dangers of fragmentation. We must develop the public prowess and strength to push forward with difficult political decisions and reforms to set the grounds for political tolerance, respect for the Constitution and prosperity. “To govern is to choose,” as the old saying goes.

Let us start the new year by remembering and learning from our past to make better choices for our future.


*The writer is a former prime minister and an adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.


by Lee Hong-koo

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