[Viewpoint] A beautiful sacrifice

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[Viewpoint] A beautiful sacrifice

Our destiny is beyond our choice, but how we accept it is not. The unfazed way in which the Japanese have accepted and endured their worst postwar national catastrophe - an unprecedented earthquake and giant tsunami - has been jaw-dropping.

The ancient Stoics would have been proud of how the Japanese people have picked themselves up in the face of unfathomable grief and hardship. We witnessed a nationwide practice of amor fati, Nietzsche’s concept of embracing one’s life completely with an appreciation for suffering and loss that is as great as that for happiness.

Courage in the midst of adversity is always moving. Survivors tell disconcerting and stunning stories of brushes with death when a 30-foot wall of water slammed into villages and towns on the eastern coast. An employee at a village community center in southern Miyagi Prefecture continued broadcasting warnings through loudspeakers urging villagers to get to higher ground until she was swept away and swallowed up by the black waters. Her name was Miki Yendo, and she was 25 years old.

Regardless of the scope of the crisis, Japan will survive this immense calamity and bounce back. That is not because its currency is one of the strongest in the world or because its government can afford to print money for recovery. It is because its citizens maintained calm and orderliness in dire circumstances and public servants put the lives of other people before their own.

Such high morale pushes the country further along the recovery arc. Miki Yendo of the village community center didn’t act like the mere junior member of staff that she was; she acted in the manner of a top government executive committed to serving the people. Her sacrifice underscores the real meaning of public service. A civil servant’s duty in any country is to do his or her best to serve the community.

To become a public servant in Korea is simple: you either take the public service exam or get elected. Aspiring public officials must pass the state administrative exam or work their way up by taking the lower-grade public service test. It is no different from any corporate admission test.

It is hard to gauge morals, ethical standards or a candidate’s mind-set from test scores. Public service is no ordinary job: it involves a solemn promise to serve civilians and, if necessary, sacrifice one’s life for the good of the community. It is hard to find such public officials around us. At the peak of the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease during the unusually cold winter, eight public quarantine officials died after working day and night to contain the epidemic. These people devoted their lives to protect others.

News of a sex scandal, in which several Korean diplomats had affairs with the same Chinese woman, has since raised serious doubts about public officials on the higher rungs of the civil service ladder.

But their office, the Korean Consulate in Shanghai, cannot afford such private escapades. The men were dispatched to represent their country and protect their nationals on foreign soil. They were paid by the country to serve, not to seek pleasure.

Prohibited love is romantic in a fictional context but not in real life, especially when diplomats allegedly exchanged sex for confidential government information. How can our public officials stoop so low?

Is it too much to ask for high morality in public service? Elite educations and backgrounds obviously don’t breed high ethical standards. Such standards come from sincerity and modesty and a dedication to serve the public while keeping temptations of money, sex and power abuse at bay. That is why the Japanese public servant’s last moments move us so much. Miki Yendo’s desire to save others’ lives at the expense of her own was truly beautiful.

*Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a professor of civil ethics education at Seoul National University.

By Park Hyo-jong
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