[Viewpoint] Conversation to end polarizationEarlier this year a historical conversation took place.
Paik Nak-chung, 72, and Ahn Byung-jik, 74, met to discuss the future of the Korean Peninsula. The two Seoul National University emeritus professors represent the political extremes in South Korea. Professor Paik is the chief editor of the leading progressive quarterly magazine, Changbi, while Professor Ahn is the publisher of the conservative quarterly Zeitgeist.
Their conversation was published in the last issue of Zeitgeist. Quarterly magazines are the tea salons where intellectuals have discussions. On Jan. 14, Paik was invited to come to the Zeitgeist office for a discussion with Ahn.
It must have not been easy for Ahn to invite the progressive leader, but I highly respect Professor Paik for accepting the invitation and personally walking into the middle of the “enemy’s” camp. The theme of the conversation was the past and future of the Korean Peninsula.
As Korea becomes more polarized, it is becoming rarer and rarer for leaders from the different sides to come together for a rational discussion. So Ahn and Paik’s attempt to see eye to eye is remarkable in itself. The two elders discussed a wide range of issues causing ideological frictions in our society such as the modern history of South Korea and the inter-Korean reunification.
Professor Ahn elucidated the legitimacy of the founding of the Republic of Korea and its development-oriented ideology, while Professor Paik advocated democracy and unification theories.
While they disagreed over how to evaluate President Syngman Rhee and the industrialization-driven leaders, their differences were in harmony.
They personally lived through every moment of the modern history of Korea, through industrialization and democratization, and every single word they said had significance.
The difference was apparent: Paik was a leftist who was nearly allergic to the term “development” while Ahn shrugged at the mention of “unification.”
The climax of the conversation came when Professor Ahn aggressively affirmed the value and justification of unification. “I cannot deny that the June 15 Joint Declaration was pursuing peaceful unification. I think the Inter-Korean Joint Declaration of June 15 was riding on the flow of the history that even those who made the declaration were not aware of.”
Professor Ahn also positively acknowledged the welfare state and freedom of ideology. Professor Paik responded that it was important to have awareness that development and unification were interconnected. On the amicable atmosphere of the conversation, Sookmyung Women’s University Professor Park Jae-chang, who presided over the meeting, said, “I am quite confused and start to think the progressive and conservative positions you each have adhere to are actually reversed.”
Intellectuals are largely responsible for building the communication barrier between people of different political or social ideologies in Korean society.
According to Professor Kang Jun-man of Chonbuk National University, the voices of the “bold intellectuals” have been too loud.
These “bold intellectuals” boasted their factional and ideological colors and attracted their own group of supporters. They stand in juxtaposition with moderate intellectuals who acknowledge that the values of others are also valid and try to find a middle ground acceptable to both sides.
The two moderate intellectuals transcended discord and showed us the possibility of communication. Dialogue is an art that takes two people. The key is simple. The most valuable technique in conversation is to respect the existence of the other. The masters were different.
When the two masters met, they could solve the discord. I would like to see more of the artistic feasts of the masters. Where are the masters in politics to solve the political entanglement?
*The writer is a deputy editor of culture and sports news of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Bae Young-dae