[Viewpoint] Could Korea stay cool amid terror?

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[Viewpoint] Could Korea stay cool amid terror?

The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters invited me to speak at an international conference in May, when some praised the country’s economic success and its sense of democracy, equality, social openness, tolerance and reputation for upholding peace. However, one veteran political science professor from Oslo University bore a different view. He saw numerous contradictions and conflicts brewing under Norway’s honorable facade. The country, in his opinion, was experiencing a lull before the impending storm. As it turns out, the scholar, who was only one month away from retirement, may as well have been gazing at a crystal ball.

Several months later, on July 25, a blonde-haired and well-spoken anti-Muslim extremist unleashed a bombing and shooting rampage that left 77 dead and many more injured. The massacre turned this peace-loving nation in northern Europe into a killing field, and sent a somber message to the world.

The attack by 32-year-old Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik reminds us how vulnerable we are, not only to unexpected terrorist attacks from outside, but also from within our own borders.

For Korea, our biggest threat comes from Pyongyang, especially given reports that the North has trained more than 165,000 people to commit terrorist attacks. The government also sees pro-North Korean activists as a potential threat.

Others fear that there may be terrorists lurking among the 130,000 Muslim migrant workers in the country.

But the Norwegian massacre implies that right-wing extremists could be equally dangerous under the glorified pretext of serving nationalist ideals.

The tragedy also suggests the need for tougher controls over guns and ammunition. The Norwegian shooter was an avid collector of ammo. He not only stocked up on fertilizers and produced his own explosive cocktail, but also practiced at firing ranges long enough to pick off targets in a panicked crowd in Utoya using both a semi-automatic rifle and a pistol he had purchased legally.

Korea has strict gun controls, but related regulations and surveillance should be heightened to keep dangers at bay.

Political strife has been cited as the main cause for the recent tragedy in Norway. In the manifesto that the suspect posted online before he embarked on his killing spree, he showed a deep resentment for mainstream right-wing politicians for encouraging the inflow of immigrants and foreign capital and for promoting multiculturalism.

He also criticized the policy of chasing greater European integration for undermining traditional European values. The Labor Party that Breivik targeted vehemently upheld Norway’s belief in socialist democracy.

What is worrying is the fact that Korea is even more divided, and fragmented by ideological differences, bitter resentment and mistrust. Korea has the potential to become a breeding ground for radical extremism, which springs from partisan political soil lacking room for agreement.

Breivik proclaimed himself a modern-day warrior destined for martyrdom as he moved to preserve European Christian values. Ideologically armed with his xenophobic nationalism, Euro-centric Christianity and white supremacy, the suspect was out to sabotage Islamic fundamentalists, Muslim immigrants and anyone who supported multiculturalism.

He paraphrased British philosopher John Stuart Mill when he posted the following words online: “One person with a belief is equal to the force of 100,000 who only have interests.” But his self-delusion was instrumental in supporting his abhorrence of difference.

What is scarier still is that this kind of toxic xenophobia is spreading around Europe and in North America. As such, we must open our eyes and build walls of openness, tolerance and engagement for our own protection.

In spite of their suffering, the Norwegian government and people have managed to remain remarkably calm and level-headed. Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg gave mourners hope when he said he believed that “the Norway we will see after will be more open, a more tolerant society than we had before.”

This brings us to the question: Would we display the same level of sanity and maturity if we found ourselves in Norway’s shoes?

*Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a political science professor at Yonsei University.

By Moon Chung-in
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