Cultivating a new civil society

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Cultivating a new civil society


During my trip to Australia, I spotted surfers enjoying rough waves in the ocean. I took a few steps toward the ocean, where I found an interesting sign that read, “Surf at your own risk.”

Since sharks sometimes appear in the area, surfers should make prudent judgments. Perhaps there were shark-related incidents in the past. I was impressed by the sign, though, since authorities let each person to make the final decision on whether to surf despite the risk.

What would have happened in Korea? If the beach remained open after shark attacks, the media would criticize the indifference and slack response by the agency in charge, and the authorities would have to prohibit people from entering the beach, putting up a fence. It would be the easiest way to prevent further incidents and avoid accountability, but as a result, people would be deprived of the chance to enjoy the beach. As state authorities intervene in the issues that citizens can resolve themselves, excessive regulations, which President Park Geun-hye has called “cancerous” and “the enemy,” are implemented.

The Sewol ferry tragedy shone a harsh light on these flaws. The government’s incompetence and structural corruption by bureaucrats are serious issues, and the captain and most of the crew abandoned the ship, neglecting the safety of hundreds of passengers to save themselves. Before the state got involved in the rescue operation, many of the victims could have been saved had efforts been taken on the ship first.

A recent cruise incident near Hongdo Island, South Jeolla, can be used as a comparison. When the cruise ship got stranded, local residents approached in fishing boats and passenger ships and rescued everyone onboard. There was a similar incident in the area, and the local residents had engaged in rescue training in case of a repeat, which would likely impact tourism and the local economy. But before the government got involved, the citizens found a solution themselves.

The Hongdo cruise ship rescue has great implications. For some time now, we came to believe that the state could resolve everything and have been overly dependent on the government. Since democratization, citizens have had a strong sense about their rights and unilaterally demanded the role and responsibility of the state. In a democratic society, the citizens are the owners and taxpayers, and therefore, the nation must handle any problems.

When there is a fire, firefighters should extinguish it. When there is a thief, the police must catch him. Citizens sit back and watch the government do its job, then criticize the state when it fails. But in this era of globalization and complicated interests, not all problems can be resolved by the state, and excessive dependence on state authorities only leads to more regulations.

In U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration speech, he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country.”

This phrase reminds us that a country cannot operate properly without the participation and devotion of its citizens. However, in Korean society today, the citizenship devoted to the maintenance and development of the community has weakened. Extreme competition has created a society of sand grains, where each member becomes increasingly selfish. Education is about “me,” not “us,” while we emphasize how to excel over others.

As the Sewol ferry incident has proven, the state cannot resolve all our problems. We should break free from these expectations and our dependence on the state. Moreover, this incident has reminded us that safety and the development of each individual goes along with the fate of the community to which one belongs.

Citizens must think about what they can do for the safety and development of their communities. It’s urgent to remove unnecessary regulations that allow the state to interfere with the lives of the citizens. But it is also important for civil society to build up the capacity to resolve its own problems. We need to reinforce citizenship education to teach people to live along with others.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 27, Page 31


*The author is a professor of politics and international affairs at Seoul National University.

by Kang Won-taek


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