[Viewpoint] History may be calling us

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[Viewpoint] History may be calling us

A few pieces of good news arrived to brighten otherwise dreary days. Last year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics, Thomas Sargent, will be teaching full time for two years at Seoul National University. The New York University professor said he accepted the job because South Korea is a research challenge for any economist, calling Korea’s history and and its economy a miracle.

Chinese human rights activist Chen Guangcheng, who escaped from house arrest and flew to the United States to study, used his first public address to urge the Beijing leadership to look to neighboring nations like Japan and South Korea for examples of democracy. “We cannot just copy Western democracy ... but we could learn Eastern democracy,” he told the Council on Foreign Relations.

New economic data also gave a boost to the country’s morale. South Korea became the seventh member of the so-called “20-50 Club” of developed nations, with the country’s per capita income surpassing $20,000 with a population of over 50 million in June. South Korea is the second Asian country in the group after Japan. The club’s other nations are all Western: the United States, Britain, France, Germany, and Italy. We should all feel proud and grateful for what we have achieved.

How the outside world sees us is quite different from how we regard ourselves. We can come to a better awareness of ourselves when looking at our reflection in foreign eyes. Our society has become an object of both envy and study, and yet there are many within our society who prefer to look to wayward North Korea as some kind of model.

We tend to be too harsh and unforgiving about ourselves. We habitually discredit and torture ourselves with self-doubt and feelings of inferiority. We have much to be proud of and yet our minds often fail to move beyond our poor and difficult days. It’s time we rewrite history. We should not forget the painful and shameful pages in our history, of course. But we should focus on our new chapter of great accomplishments. This is the history we must teach our younger generation.

How have we achieved so much over such a short period of time? It is a question posed by many who have been watched our evolution. Harvard University professor Samuel Huntington, author of “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order,” studied South Korea’s economic development in its cultural context. He attributed our stunning development to the Confucian legacy shared among Japan, China and Singapore. He has a point.

Others like to credit President Park Chung Hee’s Saemaeul Movement in the 1970s, a nationwide redevelopment campaign, as the driving force behind the miracle. Traders who travelled around the globe to sell everything from wigs to electronic appliances, soldiers who devoted their youth to defend the country, and parents who sacrificed their comforts to educate their children all contributed to the country’s success.

It may be theoretically impossible to capture the essence of a country’s accomplishments. Economics, the so-called most developed social science, often cooks up an economic model with a few variants to explain ongoing economic phenomenon. No economists can confidently forecast a financial crisis. So it’s not surprising that it’s hard to encapsule the causes behind the Korea’s economic development in a few words. That’s why people use the term “miracle.” Others might call it luck, or destiny, while the religious would prefer to call it God’s will. God may have taken pity on us for our long years of suffering - or he may have a great design for the Korean people.

Looking back on our trajectory, we have been wise in our choices at historical crossroads. We strengthened defense, accomplished economic progress, and transitioned to democracy. If we failed in any of these achievements, I can’t imagine where we would be now.

We should be thankful for our past and protect our achievements. What we have accomplished today should not be credited to a few or a certain class because it came from the sweat and tears of every one of us.

In a 1929 poem entitled “The Lamp of the East,” India’s great poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote, “In the golden age of Asia, Korea was one of its lamp-bearers. And that lamp is waiting to be lighted once again, For the illumination of the East.” The poet perceived the potential and will of Koreans even under colonial rule. The same people draw similar awe today. We must live up to expectations by mustering our wisdom and potential for more common goals. We must balance liberal and conservative values and ideas.

But we should always try to be completely grounded. Being pro-North Korea is not liberal. Genuinely liberal forces should grow and help to balance the nation. Other developing countries are looking to us, not to the Western societies whose wealth was based on imperialism and are now battling financial turmoil, populism, and spiritual dilapidation. They are seeking new lamp-bearers. History may be calling us.

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

by Moon Chang-keuk
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