Our own wall of injustice

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Our own wall of injustice


Lee Ha-kyung

Are we really ready for unification? The extreme polarization underscored by two polar opposite pieces of news - a former corporate chairman who, thanks to his connections, didn’t have to pay his multibillion won fine in exchange for a day’s prison labor worth 500 million won ($475,150) and the suicides of a mother and her two adult daughters - raises skepticism.

President Park Geun-hye in a speech at Dresden University of Technology in Germany late last month elaborated on her vision for peaceful unification. Her dovish gambit comes even as North Korea returned to saber-rattling with nuclear threats and missile tests. The United States sticks to its so-called strategic patience, and China is quite happy with the status quo. Seoul proposed a package of reconciliatory aid, exchanges and cooperation as well as denuclearization endeavors.

It was a decisively flexible approach compared to the stern tit-for-tat attitude of the South Korea-U.S. alliance during the Lee Myung-bak administration. North Korea warns of a fourth nuclear test, but we responded with a peaceful gesture. Park has chosen an entirely new direction for the ultimate goal of unification. But idealism aside, we have to ask ourselves if South Korea poses as attractive an alternative for North Koreans.

The bench “awarding” a local tycoon 500 million won for a day’s prison labor exposes the loopholes and dangers of the justice system in this country. Ordinary working-class people cannot dream of earning that kind of money in their lifetime. The country has unfairly discriminated the value of labor and life when it deducted a wealthy businessman 500 million won off his dues from breaking the law. Just months ago, an elderly woman and her 30-something daughters ended their own lives in their home’s cold basement because they could no longer survive. For whom does this nation and community exist? If we do not fix the discrepancies in justice and welfare, we cannot earn the confidence of North Koreans.

Germany was united in 1990 because East Germans climbed over the Berlin Wall to join with the West. The four states of East Germany voted to integrate with the West. West Germany, according to Article 23 of their Constitution, simply accepted them. The West had been stronger and wealthier than the East. But that’s not all. If the gap meant discrimination as in South Korea, West Germany would not have been so envied. South Korea is neither as rich and strong as West Germany, nor does it have the bipartisanship, political unity and commitment to a greater cause that conservative German Chancellor Helmut Kohl displayed during and after unification by embracing the Ostpolitik legacy - rapprochement toward the socialist block - of former Social Democrat Chancellor Willy Brandt.

Former President Roh Tae-woo can offer us lessons. Roh became president in the first direct presidential election with 36.6 percent of the vote. His party was defeated by a landslide in subsequent general elections. Even so, he made breakthroughs in inter-Korean relations. He drew up the basic framework for an inter-Korean relationship based on reconciliation, nonaggression and exchanges, as well as initiating a joint declaration on denuclearization. He mapped out the basic law on inter-Korean cooperation to set aside funds for unification.

Under his leadership, South Korea normalized diplomatic ties with China and the Soviet Union. He also achieved Seoul’s peacetime command over joint military operations with the United States. He is still credited with restoring sovereignty in diplomacy. His key was in modest engagement of demands from the opposition and civilian society.

Although he came from a military background, Roh believed diplomatic power came from security at home. His government hosted the Seoul Olympic Games with high participation from both the capitalist and socialist blocs. During his term, South Korea made big strides in democratization. He invited progressive party figures to the presidential residence for the first time and accompanied union leaders when he went on overseas trips. He also adopted minimum wages in 1988 and in 1990-91 expanded labor guidelines, public medical coverage and national pensions. Kim Sun-hyuk, a Korea University professor, said Roh was undervalued as an extension of his predecessor and military colleague President Chun Doo Hwan. “But under Roh, it was a progressive period with the decisive goal of democracy,” he argued.

In her Dresden speech, Park envisioned the same peaceful process for unity pursued by liberal presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. To do so, she needs bipartisan support beyond unification issues. There should be no disagreements between the ruling and opposition parties in mending the gaps in justice and welfare benefits to build a more balanced society and better prepare the country for unification. Listening to the voices of the opposition and civilian society and joining up with the opposition to build a fair justice and social security system are practical steps toward unification.

JoongAng Ilbo, April 2, Page 31

*The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Lee Ha-kyung

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