[Viewpoiont] Courage to demand sacrifice

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[Viewpoiont] Courage to demand sacrifice

In his late 80s, Dr. Henry Kissinger is still full of insight.

During a recent visit to Seoul, the former U.S. secretary of state lectured on world politics, debated with young students, and met with President Lee Myung-bak with his usual passion and humor. His dissection of political and policy affairs remains persuasive. And I was particularly impressed by his deep thinking on a country’s fate.

He said genuine progress cannot be expected from a country without a vision of the future. The fundamental problem of this era, he said, was a lack of leaders in Europe and other advanced countries who are capable of demanding sacrifice from their people.

The comments themselves may not be particularly extraordinary, but they carry weight and illumination as they come from one of the most influential policy-makers of contemporary world history, a man who pioneered the West’s detente policy with communist nations during the Cold War. It was Kissinger who orchestrated normalization of ties between the United States and China through a secret sit-down with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. Together, they organized a summit between Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong. Though that was a long time ago, Kissinger remains today a prescient observer and adviser for Washington on global affairs.

Looking at ourselves, we have gained pride and confidence over the years, but those qualities alone cannot constitute vision nor assure us a solid future. Our medal achievements during the Vancouver Winter Olympic Games and the growing familiarity of our national flag in world events have bred great joy and confidence in our nation. As they raced to the center of the world stage with competence and fortitude, we saw a new hopeful future from the new generation that is free of the fear and self-doubt that had plagued this land for over a century.

But we cannot immerse ourselves long with triumphant euphoria as a more daunting and imperative task awaits us down the road.

This year marks the 100th year since we were robbed of our national dignity and identity through forced annexation in 1910.

As a consequence, we endured 35 years of colonial rule by Japan and 65 years of a divided land, not enjoying one moment as a genuinely free and united country. We live with this rude reality. We cannot, for one second, forget our historic task of unifying our nation, land and people.

Despite the urgency, the unification issue is shelved and forgotten by the broader public too caught up with run-of-the-mill obligations and interests to bother with the pursuit of a united future. Politicians also carelessly skip unification as they immerse themselves in a self-serving battle over the controversial Sejong City project.

Few speak of the effects of the post-unification era while debating the role of the new planned city. There is not a single politician from the ruling or opposition parties who argues for actions or plans on unification. We hardly hear anything new on unification from the forces and institutions who define themselves as proponents of unification.

We can find the primary source of the problem in our lack of courage to tackle the immense costs and sacrifices required for unification.

The unification initiative can only take off when the entire country is determined and ready to relinquish the current status quo and bear any price for a unified land.

No one dares to estimate the exact bill for unification. Nonetheless, it is not unbearable compared to the present, future and past cost of financing a country technically at war.

We simply need a leader who can inspire and campaign for sacrifice and conviction from our people so that they work toward the goal of unification.

It is hard to expect leadership that exacts sacrifice from the people in a democratic society. And it is particularly demanding to ask this of a political system that still has wobbly democratic legs. But we have witnessed from our history that a rise in public awareness of urgent needs can turn cowardly politicians into real leaders.

Recent events in global affairs suggests the tide is turning. It calls for our action to choose the path of our future. We must pay serious thought to this matter.

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

By Lee Hong-koo
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