Dealing with the ‘new things’On New Year’s Day, the sun rose in the east, as always. But it was not the sun that rose a year ago. Although there was only a single year’s difference in the calendar, the difference might as well have been that of a century in the history of civilization. Because this year’s words of blessing could be “Rerum Novarum” - meaning “Of new things” - that addresses the centuries of industrialization in the civilizations of the West.
The Rerum Novarum encyclical issued by Pope Leo XIII amidst a severe economic crisis in Europe in 1891 was a warning against “the evils of capitalism and illusion about socialism.” And a century later, Pope John Paul II issued a memorial of Rerum Novarum, warning against “the evils of socialism and illusion about capitalism” as if it were a proposal of an economist.
Apart from purely religious views, we are well aware of the contradictions that were the backdrop of the prosperity of Western civilization following the industrial revolution. Unless we overcome the evils and illusions of both capitalism and socialism, we cannot avoid the “decline of the West” predicted by Oswald Spengler and the age of the “great disruption” warned about by Francis Fukuyama. Since the Lehman Brothers global financial crisis, the declines and disruptions have accelerated, and we are acutely feeling the pains accompanying a rapid shift of civilization’s axis from the West to the East.
French futurologist Jacques Attali said Japan and China will be the cores of an integrated country if such a thing is created in Asia, but predicted that Seoul will be its capital, not Beijing or Tokyo. This is not as loopy as it sounds. In its prediction of purchasing-power parity for 2050, the British magazine the Economist said Korea’s gross domestic product per capita will rise to 105, while that of Japan will drop to 58, if the figure for the United States is used as the basis of 100.
The International Monetary Fund also forecast that Korea’s GDP per capita will be close to that of Japan in five years. In the Human Development Index for 2010, Japan dropped one notch to be ranked 10th, while Korea climbed as many as 14 notches to reach 11th. China saw a remarkable improvement, yet it was still ranked 18th.
These observations are not made to brag about Korea’s advanced status. The important thing is that Korea’s emergence will end the binary power equation in Asia between China and Japan and change the structure into a three-way game of rock, paper, scissors.
In this game, no one can reign as the absolute power. It’s like the mutually beneficial model of trade in the region, where Korea earns profits from China, China from Japan and Japan from Korea. There is no monopoly in the new paradigm as today’s Asia is not a pyramid formed with the G-2’s China, the G-7’s Japan and the G-20’s Korea. Instead, it’s a circle.
Expectations are high for Korea’s first-ever woman president among the new leaders in Asia. But five major threats face Korea: the North Korea factor, the decline of economic growth due to the alarmingly low birthrate, structural weaknesses in domestic consumption, deepening wealth polarization from an increasing number of non-salaried or temporary workers, and growing household debt.
To resolve these dilemmas, a motherly love capable of uniting the people and healing their wounds is crucial. At the same time, our leader must have the capability to go beyond the “evils of capitalism and illusion about socialism,” and the “evils of socialism and illusion about capitalism.”
Korea’s stunning industrialization brought about prosperity based on the principles of free competition, and the country’s democratization was a trophy worthy of the bloody war based on political principles. When the two ideologies of liberty and equality are fully embraced, fissures are bound to emerge in a society.
As in the early French Revolution, a third principle - fraternity - will be the answer to overcome the contradictions in the two noble concepts of liberty and equality. We will need the tears of vitalization to wash away the sweat from industrialization and the blood from democratization.
Korea cannot surpass China or Japan militarily or economically. But as we have witnessed with the Korean Wave, we are able to touch the hearts of more than one billion people around the world and bring them joy with our vitality and the power of empathy just like Psy’s horse-riding dance in “Gangnam Style.”
If the driving force for industrialization and democratization was our hard power, the soft power to imbue it with love and life should come from a new woman president. President-elect Park Geun-hye must demonstrate wisdom to learn the meme shared by Korea, China and Japan for thousands of years by reaching out to those two countries if they fail to see the futility of territorial disputes and nationalism. Only then will the age of Asia in the new year open when the three major countries solve the conundrum of Rerum Novarum as Western civilization could not.
*The author is a former culture minister and adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Lee O-young