Lessons from 120 years agoHumans reflect on history to learn from their past - more specifically, to understand the present through the lessons of the past and brace for the future. That’s why European academics and the press are busy examining the year 1914, when World War I broke out a century ago, and their Korean counterparts are rethinking the meaning of the Gabo Reform in the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), initiated 120 years ago after the Donghak Peasant Rebellion.
Experts say the situation surrounding the Korean Peninsula is quite similar to that in 1894 because Korea still faces the same tough external challenges from powerful neighbors. The Joseon Dynasty turned into easy prey for imperialist powers because of a lack of understanding of the tides of the time. Korea still must take sides among its powerful neighbors amid national division. But Korea now is not a poor country. It is a member of the OECD and has the 15th-largest economy in the world. But we remind ourselves of that year more than a century ago due to the grim reality of a divided nation.
If South and North Korea continue their exhaustive standoff like today, we cannot but walk a tightrope between America and China. While Japan is increasingly seeking a militarist path, the constant nuclear threat from North Korea makes our leverage limited. Considering the future of 75 million people and our offspring, we must not repeat the same mistakes our ancestors made more than a century ago, falling prey to short-sighted factional interests.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un urged South Korea to improve bilateral relations after suffering a terrible economic plight. Of course, we should prepare for the possibility of more provocations. At the same time, however, we should have the courage to extend our hand to the North. Both sides must unravel the deadlocked inter-Korean ties together. The first step is easing the May 24 economic sanctions on North Korea. It will help facilitate the globalization of the Kaesong Industrial Complex and investment in the North’s Najin project as well.
The Lee Myung-bak government imposed the sanctions, stopping all human and material exchanges with the North, to hold it accountable for the sinking of our Cheonan warship. Unless Pyongyang first apologizes and takes responsible steps, we cannot lift the sanctions. North Korea can find a breakthrough through a secret meeting with us.
The peninsula is again at a crossroads. The government must decide whether to aggressively confront the challenges or passively let the nation be swept by the streams. North Korea’s economic plight offers fertile ground for the government to take the initiative.