[Viewpoint] The test of history

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[Viewpoint] The test of history

Tests are laid out across the path of history. A society must pass one test after another to move onto the next stage. The curves of a country’s historic trajectory are the evidence of how well it does. Upon passing a test, a society moves one step forward. If it flunks, it makes an about-face.

Our society is at a crossroads. Korea has often been praised as a star pupil that achieved democracy and economic progress over a short period of time. That praise is rebounding on us and has the chance to turn into a curse. History is now testing us.

We longed for a democratic society, and we have built one. But I wonder if this is the democracy we dreamed of. The country is entirely engrossed with elections. Elections have become its prime value and concern. In an election year, the country falls astray and teeters on an abyss of irrationality. Some have gone so far as to want to sell the country’s very soul to win an election.

It’s as if we have taken a time machine back to the Joseon Dynasty era, paralyzed with factional strife in the court. Opposition legislators are threatening to kill the freshly ratified Korea-U.S. free trade agreement. About 100 lawmakers protested in front of the U.S. Embassy to express their objection to it.

They obviously don’t appreciate the meaning of an international treaty or a country’s diplomatic credibility. If the issue serves as a means to grab votes and power, they will use it. What foreign state would want to negotiate and settle an agreement with a country like ours? A promise between individuals is made with honor. A written agreement between two states cannot be junked on a whim.

If a new government retracts the achievement of its predecessor government, we will be stuck standing in the same place merely marking time. The British Conservative and Labour parties are polar opposites ideologically. Upon becoming prime minister in 1979, Margaret Thatcher, leader of the Conservative Party, reversed a policy maintained since the Second World War and privatized state companies to reverse the country’s decline. A decade later, the Labour Party, led by Tony Blair, came to power. The left-wing leader, however, upheld those conservative policies and sought central ground.

A democracy must find new ways forward based on the paths laid down by previous governments. Instead of jackhammering them down to the foundations, defects and potholes should be repaired and rebuilt. This is how history builds on the past.

The debate over welfare can be viewed from the same angle. This is a country that has attained economic prosperity to a certain degree. The harvests should naturally be shared. The sharing should not be set at a particular time but continue to evolve. If the pie becomes bigger, more pieces can be sliced to go around. To enlarge the pie, the economy must grow. But this simple theory is ignored in today’s society. Anyone who lets slip the word “growth” is bound to be chastised as a greedy capitalist.

Our people have prided themselves as being independent and diligent. These characteristics have helped push the country ahead of others despite few resources at our disposal. But now we are thinking of harvesting before the fruits are ripe. Welfare has become a tool to gain electoral power, not better the lives of the less fortunate or truly needy. As a result, we have become a country full of complaints and resentment.

We must look back on our trajectory. The democracy we envisioned is not a contest for almighty power every few years. It’s a system that builds the country up when everyone does their best within their capacity.

But we now have a judge with a poor work-performance record publicly scolding and ridiculing the government for trying to sack him on the pretext of freedom of speech. A city education superintendent plays the victim of government persecution after being found guilty of bribing a rival election candidate. Their chutzpah comes from a feeling for a shift in power. They believe once power changes hands, their wrongdoings will no longer matter.

What we need today is the judiciary, media and public officials to be faithful to their office and responsibilities. That is what comes from a matured democracy.

We have come far in democracy and economic prosperity. We now face a test to advance to a higher level. Our luck may end here, or we may find a new horizon. It is a simple choice. We must choose between a country past its heyday or one with a stronger future.

*The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Moon Chang-keuk
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