[Viewpoint] The ideological divideIt was in August 1910 that the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty was signed and Japan robbed Korea’s sovereignty. It was another day in August 35 years later that Korea was liberated from Japanese rule. To Koreans, August is a month in which we remember both the disgrace and joy our ancestors experienced. However, we are still burdened by the unsolved challenge of unification, and Korean society suffers from serious fragmentations and divisions.
The internal schisms in Korean society run along various faults, such as divisions by region, class, generations and political persuasions. One of the most serious and constant causes of confrontation is ideology - a clash that has gotten worse over the last century.
Lately, some people have been advocating anti-ideological pragmatism, but that just papers over the ultimate cause of what ails Korean society. We all search for universal standards when we think of a state or a community, and when a nation is in crisis, we should not forget where ideologies came from and their meaning to their adherents.
The independence movement was born amid the shock of having lost both the independence that Koreans defended for millennia and the sovereignty the Joseon Dynasty maintained for 518 years. The movement consisted of a series of choices to make a new nation while ending seclusion and joining the outside world.
It also meant choosing a new political ideology and finding a new model for a political regime. Princeton University-educated Dr. Syngman Rhee became the President of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea after the March 1st Independence Movement in 1919, and the choice dramatically illustrated the ideology and the model for a new nation that the mainstream independence activists had adapted. They chose democracy based on free election of citizens and modeled the Korean state after the democratic states of the West.
Meanwhile, the Bolshevik Revolution led by Vladimir Lenin, which toppled the Russian Empire, emerged as another ideology and model for Korea’s independence movement. Marxism-Leninism, which advocated revolution and dictatorship by the proletariat, and the Soviet Union, which was based on the rule of the communist party, was the opposite of the democratic model. After World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union became the two superpowers of the Cold War era and were stationed in the divided Korean Peninsula. The confrontation between the two systems continues today.
From the chaos following the end of Japanese occupation, through the Korean War, and right up to the Cheonan incident, South and North Korea have had a complicated historical saga. However, what South and North Korea have become after decades of division clearly illustrates the relative position of the two Koreas. While South Korea has successfully joined the mainstream of global history, North Korea remains the only perfectly closed regime in the world, even compared to other communist countries such as China and Vietnam.
Now North Korea is struggling not only from a sclerotic political system but also severe economic failure. The ideological dreams of some of our early independence fighters are long lost, and Pyongyang has put the welfare of North Korean residents in danger by establishing an imperial power structure and militaristic control system. Therefore, it is hard to find anyone in Korean society who considers the North Korean regime and ideology as the ideal model for a nation.
Then why does the inter-Korean confrontation remain an important factor in the ideological division in Korean society? Some people are stuck in the past in their ways of thinking and rationalizing, and stubborn intellectuals have failed to keep up with the rapid development of history. A considerable level of intellectual inflexibility can be found in both progressive and conservative factions. If the ultimate goal of the conservatives is to preserve basic values of humanity and society, they should take a lead in improving the most basic human rights and needs of their fellow North Koreans. An example of upholding the norms of the civilization can be seen in the case of the successful unification of Germany.
The progressives also need to get out of the absurd trap of neglecting universal principles recognized by progressives around the world by citing the uniqueness of the situation on the Korean Peninsula. Once they clearly sign on to such universal values as human rights, anti-dictatorship and anti-nuclear proliferation, they can then add on their progressive goals, such as wealth distribution.
If the older generation, especially the ideologues stuck in their dogmatic beliefs, cannot change their positions easily, they need to at least show tolerance to allow the younger generation to freely choose the ideology and political model they would like to see pursued in their country.
*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer, a former prime minister, is an adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Lee Hong-koo