Paying back the world

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Paying back the world

A global-scale war - the sixth largest in modern world history - played out on the Korean Peninsula from June 1950 to July 1953. The war made Korea an epicenter of ideological conflict during the cold war and at the same time brought about its deepest and most tragic encounter with the world in its many thousands of years of history. The Korean War made the biggest impact and was the biggest shock to Korean civilization.

Countries across the globe became involved as the war ballooned to a global scale. People from different nationalities risked their lives and shed blood fighting on behalf of the two Koreas. Some countries sent weapons, food and medical supplies, and others clothes, blankets and spoons.

The life of every Korean national was distorted by the war. For three years, life was a living hell. How important was the unification of the two Koreas that it became a central world issue and cost so many lives and such damage? How important was ideology to human lives that it had to generate so much bloodshed and hatred?

If Korean leaders had seen the bigger picture and the potential ramifications of their conflict, they would not have started the war or drawn in foreign nations. If they just looked around at the global powers in the midst of their intense conflict and division under ideological banners of capitalism and socialism, they would have stopped themselves. Behind everything were macro characteristics of the Korean conflict and a head-on clash of global ideological interests.

The epicenter of world conflict some six decades ago continued to remain at the heart of global ideological confrontation even after the war ended with a truce. The South and North, respectively, embodied the rival systems of capitalism and socialism. The capitalist South triumphed over communist North. As a result, North Korea became the most oppressive, impoverished and closed society in the world. North Korea, which maintained a dictatorship through horrid suppression and control over its people, could not beat South Korea, which evolved through mass revolt to eventually establish democracy.

Even under authoritarian regimes, South Koreans had much more room to protest and fight for other alternatives than North Koreans under their severe dictatorship. Amidst fierce struggles, rivalry, and transfer of power between the ruling party and the opposition, authoritarianism and democracy, industrialization and democratization, conservative and liberal, and security and reconciliation, South Koreans eclipsed their North Korean counterparts, who knew no other way under a tenacious autocracy.

The two Koreas went completely poles apart on the global map - one toward isolation and the other reaching out to every corner of the world through both diplomacy and trade. There is no longer any comparison between the two Koreas, with such astounding differences in national wealth. The South Korean economy is among the advanced and rich. South Korea would now have to share its experiences and fruits with North Korea as well as the world.

What are they? First, South Korea must teach the other Koreans the value of democracy, free competition and co-existence, and how they can conquer dictatorship, seclusion and oppression. In order to do so, South Koreans must look inward. The conservatives and liberals, who are being further polarized with mutual resentment and distrust, must accept one another and seek common ground through dialogue. If they cannot talk to each other, they can hardly reunite with North Koreans. South Korea must exercise foresight based on its advance over North Korea.

Second, South Koreans must think and act as global citizens who have the global community to thank for the peace and riches they enjoy today. They must endeavor to no longer cause losses to the world but contribute to global peace.

We should be embarrassed that there is still talk of another war after surviving one with the help of the world community. We should be ashamed that we are lowest in the rankings of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in overseas contributions since we recovered from poverty thanks to foreign aid. Donor nations’ per capita development assistance against the gross national income averages $150. Norway’s donations hit $989, Sweden’s $591, the U.S. $99, and Japan $83. South Korea ranks lowest with $27. Where exactly are we in the world?

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

*The author is professor of Yonsei University and visiting professor of the Free University of Berlin.

by Park Myung-rim

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