Park and her carefree nation

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Park and her carefree nation

North Korea has posed a major test for all South Korean presidents. The path of the North will shape the future of 75 million Koreans on the peninsula. In the past half-century, the people in the southern half have created a modern economy in the ranks of the world’s most advanced. We may proudly refer to the past few decades as a renaissance period for Korean civilization.

But that civilization is incomplete because a third of its population on the northern side still live in extreme poverty, deprivation and complete oppression. They must be saved, liberated and included for any age of Korean civilization to flourish. The new president of South Korea, Park Geun-hye, must answer the age’s call and pass the test for the sake of helping the people living there.

At his swearing-in ceremony in December 1963, President Park Chung Hee’s face was more solemn than usual. His head was filled with two goals - protecting the country from North Korean leader Kim Il Sung’s ambition for communist unification and, at the same time, pulling it out of poverty for good.

He kept his mouth straight throughout the ceremony. He stood expressionless even as a Beauty Pageant winner handed him a congratulatory bouquet and a student choir sang a song to celebrate his inauguration. The Chosun Ilbo recounted that the dour military general, who first came onto the political stage two years earlier, spent most of his most glorious inauguration day in smile-less gravitas.

Park’s inaugural address was laden with heavy language. He vowed to clean up “corruption and vice” to help the country escape from the pit of “humiliation and underdevelopment.” He pledged to triumph against the communists to free the 10 million people in that slave state. He kept his words. Under his control, South Korea rose from poverty and outpaced Kim Il Sung’s North Korea.

His daughter stood on the same podium yesterday to be sworn in as the president of this nation. At a glance, her job looks incomparably easier compared to what her father faced. South Korea is now the world’s fifth largest industrial powerhouse, seventh largest trading nation and 15th largest economy. In terms of gross national product, the economy is 40 times bigger than that of North Korea.

But the North Korean threat is more alarming today. The Pyongyang regime is pushing its 25 million people to the brink of collapse while threatening to wipe out 50 million on the southern side with nuclear weapons. Kim Il Sung’s power was stable while his grandson is treading on thin ice. A third-generation communist succession has never worked in history.

What’s worse is our people’s relative lack of interest in the dangers to their security. Park’s father’s days may have been poor and deprived but South Koreans were united in nationalism. When their leader cried, “Let’s work fighting and fight while building,” most people dutifully followed. The reserve army was created and the defense industry flourished. People kept vigilance against spies. They waved flags when our young people were deployed to fight communists in the Vietnam War.

Today’s security awareness is hardly the same. Former President Kim Dae-jung organized the first inter-Korean summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il after paying a generous reward (or bribe) of $450 million. Kim returned home after the summit and promised the people there was no longer the threat of war. It was the most naive remark a leader of our country could possibly make. His successor Roh Moo-hyun even questioned why North Korea could not have nuclear weapons when India could. It was the second most naive comment in our post-war history.

Outgoing President Lee Myung-bak and his military weren’t the strongest. An inhabited island on the frontline was bombarded by North Korean shells, but the South Korean military had trouble firing back in retaliation. The military was armed with state-of-the-art fighter jets but actually feared to use them. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff blithely bluffed that we need not worry about Pyongyang’s nuclear threat because the South could destroy the North’s nuclear weapons through pre-emptive strikes.

The people in the South go about their lives with little care about security affairs. Many are skeptical about the North daring to fire nuclear weapons against their compatriots. Some advise giving them more money to calm them down as if that was a solution. Many among the elite believe that the North Korean nuclear conundrum should be solved by Washington and Beijing. The opposition, meanwhile, badgers the electorate to choose between war and peace. South Korea has become one of the world’s most naive and, in effect, carefree nations.

The new president must fight North Korea with such a set of elite, military, people and opposition parties. She must challenge mankind’s biggest fear - nuclear weapons. The situation is bad. But there is still a way. She must first re-arm herself to pave the way to peace. She must wake up from her fantasy about building a trust mechanism to restore inter-Korean ties and peace.

Park received a generous welcome when she visited Pyongyang 11 years ago and met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. But what she saw there was entirely an act. Behind the stage are millions who are chained and starving. She must reset her head and heart with strength and a sense of reality to win the security war.

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Jin

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