The peril of exceptionalism

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The peril of exceptionalism


Lee Hong-koo

Contemporary world affairs appear to be edging closer to global chaos. After the Cold War ended, Europe appeared to set an example of how to reconcile the West and the East. In George H.W. Bush’s famous phrase, a New World Order was indeed thought to have begun. But that order now faces a series of crises. The dangerous division in Ukraine - which even led to the shooting down of a Malaysian Airlines jetliner - the indiscriminate violence between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, massacres in Syria and Iraq due to religious and tribal conflicts and the Ebola outbreak in Africa are happening simultaneously. It is undeniable that we are living an era of increasing global chaos.

After suffering a series of hardships at home and abroad over the past century, Koreans could feel unease as we watch such turbulent world affairs considering our own conflicts, confrontations and the perennial splits in our society. Divisions don’t heal overnight.

But history advances by the human will, particularly the autonomous choices of humans as to how to form and manage a community, and we cannot let defeatism govern the fate of our people. We are paying special attention to the return of a feeling of exceptionalism because we are sensitive to history’s challenges.

In my previous column on July 15, I pointed out that North Korea is paying a stiff price for its exceptionalism. During the course of modernization experienced by many formerly underdeveloped nations, South Korea was most successful in pushing simultaneously the concepts of a market economy and democratization. In contrast, North Korea insisted on its own singular way, falling into the trap of isolation due to its extreme sense of exceptionalism.

South Korea managed to succeed in its industrialization and democratization within one generation. Deng Xiaoping’s solution to pulling China out of penury was to transform into a market economy and open up the country. Witnessing that development, Kim Il Sung must have decided in June 1994 that he would start to reduce the extreme exceptionalism of the Hermit Kingdom, which had already reached a fatal limit. And expectations are high recently that Kim Jong-un will make a similar decision.

Taking a step forward, not only North Korea, but the entire Korean Peninsula, including the peoples of both Koreas, are trapped by the curse of exceptionalism. It has been nearly 70 years since the two Koreas were divided, but the Korean people have failed to escape the hangover of war. To overcome this exceptionality, the two Koreas must find a way out of it together.

In order to overcome such a feeling of exceptionalism, strategies based on exceptional ideas are needed, Korea University professor Im Hyug-baeg argued in his latest publication, “Security and Peace of the Korean Peninsula and East Asia.” In contrast to the experience in Europe, where the effects of exchanges and trade created a regional community, the Korean Peninsula continues in a state of confrontation, he said. An exit strategy from the inter-Korean deadlock based on a more creative openness is crucial, Im said.

To this end, there is a need to pay attention to the unique theory of Albert Hirschman, the social scientist who passed away two years ago. His theory was to find possibility from impossibility and to find hope from hopelessness. It is not easy to quote Hirschman, who had a great influence on a wide spectrum of social sciences. But when we make a bold decision to escape the ideological certainty and the stereotypical framework of ideology and stand with openness and skeptical eclecticism, we can find a surprising, unintentional effect from eccentric or abnormal circumstances, he argues. His position provides an important message to the Koreas, trapped by a suffocating inter-Korean confrontation.

The separation of the two Koreas is the last task left over from World War II and it is a unique situation. Therefore, an exceptional political package must be agreed upon by the two Koreas and relevant countries to build a unified Korean community. To this end, we must be creative and bold. If our society is relatively free, which it is supposed to be, there will be a lot of room to utilize its creativity. And it is natural for the South, which already experienced the productivity of compromise and agreement during the course of globalization and democratization, to take the initiative.

It is true that South Korean society is currently troubled by disappointing trends of corruption, bad practices and political polarities. Yet no one can turn away from the Koreans, who continue to dream of peace and unification despite the extreme strangeness of one million soldiers confronting each other from either side of the armistice line for over six decades. I hope the Korean people’s confidence and effort to escape from the trap of exceptionalism will lead to a historic leap to open the door to an era of peace on the Korean Peninsula and in Asia.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 25, Page 35

*The author is a former prime minister and adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo.

BY Lee Hong-koo
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