A new Korean citizen
The arrival of the Year of the Sheep carries great significance beyond a single celestial revolution around the Sun by the Earth. That’s not because the New Year marks the 70th anniversaries of our liberation from Japan’s colonial rule and the division of the Korean Peninsula, but because we must determine our direction for the future, salvaging a nation now stuck somewhere between utopia and dystopia.
In retrospect, the Year of the Horse was studded with all kinds of crises and accidents, from the tragic sinking of the Sewol ferry to the Constitutional Court’s last-minute decision to dissolve the pro-North Korean Unified Progressive Party, as well as the “nut rage” scandal. Our society was in total disarray and our hearts were heavy in 2014.
But looking ahead, 2015 appears to be loaded with minefields in all directions, as seen in economic pundits taking low growth as the new normal for Korea; the unpredictable fall of crude oil prices on international markets; and the diplomatic challenges that result from us being squeezed between the United States, China and a troglodytic Japan. Internally, Korea must confront even tougher challenges like an ever-growing jobless rate for our younger generation; the pain of non-salaried workers; the collapse of mom-and-pop businesses in our neighborhoods; the sad evaporation of basic principles of decency and democracy in the political sphere; and the enormous waste of national energy due to endless clashes between conservative and liberal forces.
A fundamental question arises here. Despite our unrivalled economic success over the last seven decades, a successful model based on working for the nation and its people doesn’t work anymore, as witnessed by our Coast Guard’s pathetic response to a sinking ferry. On the economic front, there’s a limit to traditional policy means - such as lowering interest rates and increasing government spending - to confront a recession. The government doesn’t have a magic wand anymore. In inter-Korean matters, too, our emotional nationalism was not enough to break down the decades-long division and hatred. Instead, an excess of nationalism in Northeast Asia is emerging as a threat to our peace and that of the region.
We cannot but ask ourselves where we should find a force to replace the outdated causes of the nation and its people. We want to find the source from one direction: the citizens. The concept of the citizen is not synonymous with a passive sense of citizenship or the masses in conflict with a ruling class. Rather, it refers to a more broadly defined citizen who volunteers to take part in democracy in a responsible and creative manner. That’s why the JoongAng Media Network chose the slogan “It’s the citizens’ turn now” as the agenda of the year on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of its foundation. That idea is based on the realization that the government and the market cannot achieve everything anymore nor can our communities change a thing - unless all citizens do their fair share.
Thawing icy South-North relations is the citizens’ job, too. They must elevate the confrontational paradigm based on discord between pro-North and anti-North groups to a win-win relationship. It is not right or desirable that an abhorrence of the regime in Pyongyang leads to a rejection of North Korea’s people. We need to present concrete ways to offer substantial help to North Koreans as they are our brethren. With the clock ticking, the Park Geun-hye administration must set up a new milestone for bilateral relations now, and must march toward it.
Our political circles must press ahead with reforms no matter what. In spite of the establishment of various types of organizations, few palpable changes have been made so far. Without reforming themselves by curing their own chronic diseases, politicians can’t call for meaningful changes in civil servant pension systems, labor market reforms or anything else.
The call for a constitutional amendment last year also needs to be dealt with in a wise manner this year, and the debate over such a revision cannot become a “black hole” of quibbling by cats-and-dogs politicians. Instead of leaving the issue to lawmakers, it could be better to establish a neutral body that finds solutions to many political problems, including the introduction of a primary system and the redesigning of constituencies in the nation.
Our economy must fight the chronic malaise of low growth, a battle that can only be won when our low birthrates are resolved. That’s not an easy job. It can only succeed when it’s backed by a fundamental restructuring of our economy.
As this year is a perfect time for the Park government to kick off such major attempts at restructuring - no major elections are scheduled this year - the government must concentrate on the task. Even if a slashing of welfare spending would be painful, the administration must ask citizens to do their share even at the cost of some political damage.
We must open a new era in which citizens themselves cooperate with their nation and race. It all begins with educating them about the concept of a mature citizenship deeply rooted in the values of responsibility for others. Terms like “nation” and “people” will never go away. But we hope our people begin the Year of the Sheep with some thought about a ripe notion of citizenship beyond the framework of nation and people that Korea should aspire to. Every journey starts with a first step.
JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 1, Page 30