[Viewpoint] Courage to stand up to society’s follies

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[Viewpoint] Courage to stand up to society’s follies

The opposite of truth is not false - it is oblivion. Indeed, many problems come to an end not because they have been solved but because they are forgotten.

Since the start of the year, Korean society has been swept up by a series of tsunamis. I am curious to see what truths remain once the tide recedes.

It was only some 100 days ago when Japan’s nuclear disaster began. The resulting radiation scare rippled across Korea.

The education superintendents of Gyeonggi and North Jeolla allowed principals of kindergarten, elementary and middle schools to temporarily cancel classes at their discretion.

Water supply facilities around the country were covered up when Representative Lee Mi-gyung of the Democratic Party predicted that radioactive materials would be carried over to Korea by easterly winds in April and by typhoons in the summer.

The Korea Institute of Nuclear Safety (KINS) is still under emergency operations today. Radiation measurements are taken every five minutes at 71 locations around the country and air samples are taken every day. Aside from a small amount of cesium and iodide, the measurements show little abnormal activity.

Even when Typhoon Meari hit, there was no sign of radiation. The meteorological administrations of the United States, China and Russia have long returned to normal operations, measuring radioactivity every 15 minutes and air samples once a month.

Aside from Japan, the origin of the nuclear incident, Korea is the only country to remain on alert. Lee Dong-myeong, KINS director of radioactivity detection and analysis, said that the institute concludes daily that no radioactivity has been detected. When I asked until when the institute would continue extended operations, he simply replied, “Until society forgets about the radioactivity scare.”

And how easy it is for society to forget about the Kaist student suicides earlier this year. Students claimed that they were forced to engage in inhumane competition and that they were not happy at the university. In turn, the school was vilified by the public for pressuring its students, and Kaist abolished its policy of revoking scholarships from students with poor marks and getting rid of its English-only lectures.

But take another look at the reality at Kaist, and the situation is completely different. In April, Kaist accepted applications from high school graduates educated abroad. The outcome was surprising: despite the controversy, Kaist attracted many outstanding students.

The average SAT score of the 80 international students accepted by Kaist this year was 2185 out of 2400, which is about as high as the average SAT score of students accepted at MIT. While the Kaist average is 20 points lower on verbal, Kaist students averaged 20 points higher on math than those accepted by MIT. Even an applicant with an SAT score of 2380 was rejected in the interview process.

Many of the applicants were also accepted by Princeton, MIT, Caltech and Cornell. One student chose Kaist over Cambridge. Yun Dal-su, the dean of admissions, said that the reaction of the parents of international students was the opposite of what they expected. They demanded more discipline and a stricter curriculum. The truth looks different from the other side.

Korean society is experiencing yet another tsunami. This time, the giant waves of populism are running high. In the world of professional Go, the worst move is to follow your opponent’s move. But politicians in Korea follow the public too easily. Even the ruling party has surrendered to the calls for half-price tuition and free school meals.

These folks are willing to intentionally neglect the dark corners of welfare society. They conveniently forget the children from underprivileged families - those who buy only what they can afford from the school store - even as the children from wealthy families buy whatever they want.

But Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon has stood up to society’s follies and taken a stand by promoting a referendum on free school meals in August. Even Grand National Party leaders and the pro-Park faction have turned their backs on the mayor.

The referendum may be a reckless move inspired by his conviction or a political tactic to set him up for a future run for the presidency. But at a time when every politician is shouting out “I will make all of you happy!” someone has to step forward and say, “What we actually need is courage.”

If you think about the reality behind Korea’s latest tsunami, it is Mayor Oh’s act of self-sacrifice on the altar of populism. Mayor Oh’s political survival depends on the 33 percent voter turnout needed to make the referendum legally binding. As he stands at the critical juncture, I would like to tell him a story from the play, “Mr. Yu, the Undertaker”:

“You may put all your efforts into building a tower, but it will someday fall. But the efforts you put in never collapse. Don’t be afraid of dying as living a life well is a greater challenge.”

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Lee Chul-ho
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