[Viewpoint] Korea’s enduring harmony

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[Viewpoint] Korea’s enduring harmony

If the centrifugal force of radical change and evolution - one of the two key forces that balances a society - outweighs the opposing centripetal force toward gravitational stability and central unity, it can trigger dynamics of chaos and jeopardize a state’s viability.

Ominous signs have surfaced in various corners of the world battling with dire economic straits, especially in democratic states that are obliged to meet public demands. Makeshift and half-baked endeavors to respond to public complaints and needs can augment social centrifugal force at the risk of weakening the centripetal force that upholds state security and viability.

South Korea is equally exposed to the risk of imbalance of the two opposing forces. Our society is paying the heavy price of a shrinking middle-class as the result of polarization of wealth and ideology after its fast-track economic advance fuelled by globalization.

Most of our population is aware of the danger signs in our society. But we need a consensus on how to address these imperative problems. It remains doubtful if the central force of our society is strong enough to rein in the division and unrest amid the political fervor ahead of the Seoul mayoral by-election in October as well as the general and presidential elections planned for next year.

Our society is not afraid of major challenges and has attained enough confidence after having conquered them time after time. If we all open up and look for wisdom, we can overcome today’s stumbling blocks while defending the legitimacy of our democratic state and end up with a stronger and unified community.

We must first of all do away with the bad habit of scorning the tradition of harmony to instead idealize conflict and discord. The Korean tradition and our culture is deeply rooted in a faith in a shared destiny: that one’s happiness cannot be ensured unless the entire community is well. Some suggest Korea’s collective political mindset or practices are close to social democracy from the standpoint of theory on modern political ideology.

The Constitution, government articles and political platforms mirror such sentiments and the mental disposition of the Korean people. It may be because the Korean people historically never valued riches or luxuries as virtues. All of our religious heritage from Confucianism, Buddhism and Christianity has taught our people to lead and value humble and charitable lives.

Because we have silently and willingly helped one another, our society has successfully endured several dark periods. We need not envy America for having billionaire philanthropist Warren Buffet, who urges the super-rich to be more aggressive in contributing to the society by paying higher taxes. Our people are willing and ready to pay their dues to support and better their society regardless of their wealth. We must highlight this kind of strength in our people and society to reinforce the centripetal force toward unity.

We must re-evaluate and reappreciate our unique community-oriented customs as the pillar of a common public philosophy behind state governance in order to reinforce state authority and balance the nature of forces. The philosophical and policy legacy has remained intact under five presidents since the first democratic elections in 1987.

All of our presidents have upheld the basic framework of unification based on sovereignty, peace and democracy laid out in 1989 by four political parties - a good example of the continuance of governance. The coalition alliances that helped put dissident leaders Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung in power also contribute to the politics of compromise based on the social centripetal force that has been upholding democratic state management. President Lee Myung-bak also pressed forward with controversial projects launched by his liberal predecessor Roh Moo-hyun, such as Sejong City, the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and the naval base in Jeju.

We must continue to elect politicians who are willing to defend the legacy of compromise, harmony, unity and continuity in the community over division and conflict if we want to sustain democratic politics and solve the polarization problems.

No matter how hard these times may be, we must not give into self-indulgent heroism and populism that disregard our valuable common cultural heritage.

*The writer is former prime minister and adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Lee Hong-koo
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