Openness is everything
To celebrate the Lunar New Year holidays, we often hurry to our hometowns for happy reunions with our families. At the very least, we think of our homes even if we can’t actually get to them. The holiday is a time for us to remember the relationships we have established with our neighbors, think back on the path that we have taken and think ahead to the path that will bring us into the future. It is an opportunity to catch our breath, reflect and plan ahead.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of Korea’s liberation from Japan’s colonial rule and also the 70th anniversary of our national division. In this holiday season, it would be wise to look back as a people and as a nation on the meaning of the history of the Korean people. Seventy years ago, we faced a great misfortune at the exact same time that we experienced the excitement of liberation. Due to the superpowers’ secret agreement and with no involvement of the Korean people, the peninsula was divided at the 38th parallel. The division of the land and its people was undeniably the biggest misfortune and disaster for Korea.
On the other hands, the United Nations, which aimed to promote a new global order, was established in 1945, the year of Korea’s division, and history will recall that it would become a benefactor of the Korean people. The Cold War had started and the main Communist power, the USSR, had expanded its influence over the Asian continent. How was it possible for us to establish a free, independent country under those circumstances?
Fortunately, the UN General Assembly voted in 1947 that the Korean people should create their own government through a free election despite a dark and chaotic situation.
On May 10, 1948, a free election took place in Korea for the first time in our history and the Constitutional National Assembly was launched, the Constitution was established and the government of the Republic of Korea was founded. In other words, the United Nations was instrumental in the foundation of Korea.
When North Korea started its invasion of the South on June 25, 1950, the UN endured an enormous sacrifice to fight for the South to display its commitment to defending an international order that respects the UN’s authority.
Since the Korean War’s truce in 1953, we managed to succeed in modernization through industrialization and political democratization over the last six decades. We must never forget that those achievements were possible because we made a bold move to join the mainstream international community while avoiding isolation and self-righteousness. Despite a period of authoritarianism, which ruled over an entire generation, the generals as well as the people did not turn away from the obvious: that we must not be isolated and that we must open the country and join the current of advancement in the world. That was how we were able to build today’s Korea.
Through democratization in 1987 and the Seoul Olympics in 1988, the Korean people, particularly the young generation, managed to move beyond the isolationism, defeatism and any kind of inferiority complex. Today, Korea’s official development assistance amounts to 2.4 trillion won ($2.18 billion), which reflects the sense of internationalism of our people.
The Korea International Cooperation Agency, which started with an 18.6 billion won budget 25 years ago, had a 650 billion won annual budget this year. Each year it sends 4,500 volunteers to countries around the world. That is the second largest number of national volunteer aid workers after the Peace Corps in the United States.
And yet, the spirit of the government and the people, who have worked hard for the development of the country, has dwindled recently. Taking into account the struggles of the low-income class, a sense of disappointment among the middle class caused by the economic slowdown, big disasters like the sinking of the Sewol ferry and the unceasing, self-serving squabbling in our government and amongst our politicians, some may say that it is not the time to worry about other countries or the world at large.
However, if we look back on the path that we have taken during the past seven decades we will clearly see the many hardships we overcame. To ensure a better tomorrow, we have maintained ties to the international community based on the belief that we must raise the prestige of our country.
We must stay on the frontline of missions led by the UN, which contributed decisively to the foundation and security of Korea. The Millennium Development Goals, launched by the UN as we entered the 21st century, will wrap up this year. Over the past 14 years, the project managed to halve the number of households in absolute poverty, which are making ends meet on only $1.25 a day, the number of people without clean drinking water, the death rate of children under the age of five and the death rate of pregnant women. The project has accomplished landmark achievements.
Following those efforts, how will we promote sustainable development from 2016 through 2030? UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a report at the end of last year entitled “The Road to Dignity by 2030,” a blue print that he will promote for economic development to end poverty, building a fairer society and protecting the environment of this planet.
Over the past seven decades, Korea managed to become an example of development, and we must actively and passionately join the efforts to realize the goal of sustainable development by the United Nations, which celebrates its 70th birthday this year. We must do so, because the destiny of our people, and the world, depends on it.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff
JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 17, Page 31
*The author is a former prime minister and adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Hong-koo