[Viewpoint] Korea’s need for reconciliation

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[Viewpoint] Korea’s need for reconciliation

Should reconciliation and forgiveness remain only in the religious realm and not be allowed in the political arena? There is no stronger prescription for forgiveness than Jesus’ admonition to “love your enemies.” Requiting evil with good is difficult in concept, not to mention in practice.

Forgiveness is a concept that doesn’t exactly thrive in politics. Politics is a cruel world where the winner takes all and the loser wears a bitter smile and silently plots revenge. Every election ends in the same way - it’s all about winning and there’s no room for compassion or justice or peace.

But we have the living example of Nelson Mandela, who proved that there is no revenge so complete as forgiveness. Upon becoming president after serving 27 years in prison, South Africa’s most famous anti-apartheid activist placed top priority on reconciliation with the white minority and encouraging peaceful coexistence from the country’s black majority.

In a symbolic move to unite the country, Mandela didn’t allow the disbanding of the all-white South African national rugby team - the Springboks - which epitomized apartheid. The 2009 film “Invictus” captured the powerful reconciliation brought about by one man’s persuasion and inspiration, which culminated in the team’s winning of the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa. It also won the hearts of black South Africans.

In the film, the team’s captain wonders how Mandela “could spend 30 years in a tiny cell and come out ready to forgive the people who put him there.” But it was his enormous heart that united South Africa after decades of deep hostility and distrust.

History’s most famous advocate of reconciliation and forgiveness would be U.S. President Abraham Lincoln. His Gettysburg Address - a speech ostensibly intended to consecrate the grounds of a cemetery for Civil War victims, but which reminded the American public that equality was the bedrock of their nation - is lauded as one of the best speeches about the spirit of democracy.

But at its core the Gettysburg Address emphasizes reconciliation and peace. Nowhere in the oration does Lincoln blame enemy soldiers. To Lincoln, they were all brave men who must be honored by the living by upholding and protecting the freedoms of the country.

Our society thirsts for such empathy. Our community is scarred by two deep schisms: one between the descendents of the Syngman Rhee regime and the April 19 Movement, and another between pro-industrialization forces and anti-dictatorship forces. The descendents of the country’s first autocratic government endeavored to reconcile with the victims and families of the April 19 Movement, in which hundreds of students were killed while protesting Rhee’s autocracy and election rigging. A group led by Rhee’s adopted son went to apologize during a memorial service on April 19 of this year, but was shunned by the victims’ families. Yet it was nevertheless a start for genuine reconciliation.

In this supposedly cruelest month of April, I hope to see a spirit of compassion rise from this land. If I wanted to Koreanize the Gettysburg Address, it may read like this: “Three score and three years ago, our fathers brought forth on this land its first-ever democracy, conceived in liberty from 35 years of slavery, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

The Republic of Korea was born on the sacred bedrocks of freedom, equality, human rights and democracy. The creation of such a republic has blessed this land. In contrast, the northern part has been turned into a wasteland.

Syngman Rhee envisioned a democratic and free republic at a time of postwar ideological turmoil. When such vision came under threat by communist forces, he sought help from the United States and United Nations allies. The land has been purified by the blood of the honorable dead, and their sacrifices to protect free will and democracy were valiantly upheld by the April 19 heroes. Without their blood, we would not have lived to enjoy today’s luxury of freedom.

The nation’s founders and the April 19 generation together planted and nurtured freedom on this land. They are co-producers and co-stars in creating a democracy. They should not dishonor one another any longer. As Mandela saved the white rugby team, it should be the April 19 generation who reaches out to restore the honor of the founding president. It would represent true closure - and a new beginning - for this country.

*The writer is a civil ethics education professor of Seoul National University.

By Park Hyo-jong
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