Muster energy for unityA deepening social chasm underpinned a public hearing hosted by the Special Committee for National Unity. For fourth consecutive years, cross-generation differences were cited as the country’s biggest source of conflict (74 percent) in an opinion poll. Ideological confrontation was cited by 73 percent, up 9 percentage points from last year’s survey.
Cross-generation and ideological conflicts are two sides of the same coin. When inequalities widen, so do ideological confrontations between the rich and the poor. When generational and ideological conflicts escalate, practical solutions become elusive. As dialogue and compromise become difficult, people resort to extreme means of protest. We have seen fallouts in regions rife with conflict over construction of a naval base in Jeju and power transmission towers in Miryang.
The country’s social unity levels hover way below those of advanced societies. According to the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, the country ranked 21st among 29 member countries in the social consolidation index of the OECD in 2010. Social viability cannot be guaranteed with such fissures. No matter how the economy advances, society cannot sustain itself on hostile grounds. Another study estimates the country loses from 82 trillion won ($77.5 billion) to 246 trillion won a year because of social divisions. The economy could grow 7 percent to 21 percent if the country could resolve conflicts and stabilize society. No civilization can be without conflict. But communities must endeavor to seek common ground for shared interests. It is how a society can evolve into a cycle of normalcy and endure.
First of all, we should start with changes in the system. We could adopt a system like the independent administrative authority in France - the CNDP, or National Public Debate Commission - to gauge public opinion and draw on social consensus before acting on new projects. The government also could consider establishing an objective measurement system to estimate social ramifications before initiating large-scale national projects.
Political leadership also must change. Politicians only aggravate social conflict by drawing a line and demanding support for their side. Disregarding the opponent only exacerbates confrontation. A poll shows that people demand a reduction in corruption and privileges for the elite (30 percent) and political stability (24 percent) in order to achieve national unity. Despite the schism, Koreans have the potential to unite and collaborate. It’s up to the leadership to generate and muster energy for unity.