A sad portrait of modern Korea

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A sad portrait of modern Korea

“Modern-day South Korea shows exactly the same symptoms of the late Joseon Dynasty before it was powerlessly annexed to Japan,” I once said during a media interview. I would like to change the tone a bit: “They are worse today.”

Unprecedented geopolitical tensions are rapidly building and looming over the Korean Peninsula, and yet South Korea is too engrossed in political division. Some would protest that today’s South Korea is no longer a tiny peripheral society in the Far East like it was a century ago. But the four global powers grew far bigger and powerful than South Korea, which also has to deal with a nuclear-armed North Korea. In the late Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), conflict had been at least restricted to the royal court, but today’s cuts through the entire Korean civilian society.

Just look at the layers of “air defense identification zone” lines China and Japan drew on their maps, blatantly squeezing and infringing on the frontiers of South Korean waters and territories. See how the new dynamics simmer in the region? The competition on expanding the airspace among the East Asian countries is just a symbolic prelude to a brewing rivalry in the region. South Korea is straddled between two axes. It sits in the middle of the vertical axis of history between China and Japan. The horizontal military axis that puts South Korea, the United States and Japan in one pole and China and North Korea at the other complicates Korea’s geopolitical status quo.

South Korea inevitably must move to and fro depending on geopolitical variables. Japan’s rightist movement only has aggravated the dilemma. The right-wing government of Shinzo Abe prodded the nerves of territorial conflict and hid behind the United States. South Korea and China are suddenly pulled into military confrontation. South Korea can only sit around and watch bombers and fighters fly over waters off Jeju Island. What is the difference between helpless Emperor Gojeong - imprisoned in his royal chamber and praying for help from global powers - and South Korea, which cannot come up with a good solution to free itself from multi-layered tangles?

If North Korea suddenly enters and territorial disputes explode, South Korea’s future may once again be left at the mercy of global powers.

As in a century ago, Korea is a subordinate variable in the Northeast Asian equation. Inner divide is even severer than late Joseon times because it dithers without knowing which direction to turn in the crossroad. The only thing politicians have done throughout the year is argue and fight. As a result, civilian society has broken in half. Priests and monks have joined up in singing mantras for the president to step down. The government has long lost its authority. Even if it recovers power to some extent, it is questionable if people will ever pay heed.

The people also have lost good judgment. They have become weary by the replay of political wrangling and immune to the persistent noise and protests against the government by the opposition. It is hard to decipher what is democracy in this nation - whether it is right to demand an elected president to step down or to leave it up to the judiciary to end the reckless competition in demagogy and slandering by lawmakers. Political divisions, weakened national power, bisected society, absence of vision and conflict among global powers are all ominous signs to a national breakdown. The epic tragedy that brought down the Korean empire 110 years ago is creeping back.

Let’s admit our pitiful state. The dynamics that helped build South Korea politically and economically in the 20th century have ended. We stand at the end of the cliff. The once-galloping growth engine by our industrial companies has outlived its lifespan. The opposition forces that led the democracy movement have become greedy mainstream politicians. Militant labor unions have turned into interest groups lobbying to safeguard their privileges. The validity of the growth paradigm running on human resources has long expired, and yet the conservatives and liberals have failed to come up with a new model. They missed the chance to shift the paradigm from individuals to public society.

The new times called for social transformation built on unity and trust, but were wasted in individualism and fierce rivalry. Polarization and inequalities only widened and social mobility broke down, leaving just the victors at the top of the social echelon. In a society teeming with individualistic aspirations and greed, who would care for the ordinary folks trying hard to make a living? Who can afford to speak of civilian ethics and the spirit of the community? Koreans helplessly may have to watch global powers move around the fate of their country, comprising of selfish civilians divided among themselves with self-enforced ideological lines.

Some would say I am too pessimistic. But am I?

In the late Joseon Dynasty, at least the intellectuals united to help save their nation. But today they join up to break it.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

*The author is a sociology professor at Seoul National University.

by Song Ho-keun

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