Exposing our flawsIn 1666, Hendrick Hamel dodged guards and escaped to Japan on a secretly built boat. He was a bookkeeper and a crewmember with the Dutch East India Company. The ship was headed for Nagasaki in 1653 and foundered on Jeju Island. Hamel spent 13 years in Korea. The Netherlands was a marine power at the time, but the Joseon Dynasty did not get any inspiration from the 36 of the 64 crewmembers that survived the wreck. Joseon remained isolated, failing to recognize the importance of the advent of modernity spreading in Europe.
But the Japanese were different. While they considered Christianity a threat and closed off their country, the Dutch merchants who did not engage in missionary work were considered different. On the man-made island of Dejima in Nagasaki, a trading post was set up to embrace Western science, navigation and shipbuilding technologies. The Rangaku movement, or “Dutch learning,” was the driving force of Japan’s modernization. The enlightenment of the 17th century allowed Japan to win the Russo-Japanese Wars and Sino-Japanese Wars in the 19th century. In contrast, Joseon was trampled by Japan for the seven years of Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s invasion in the late 16th century and became a colony in the 20th century.
Korea has not a single Middle Eastern camel but has been swept by Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). As more than 5,000 people are isolated and hospitals are shut down, people have lost trust in an obviously incompetent government. But in the long run of history, we are faced with an ironic opportunity to change the faulty system of the Republic of Korea. The MERS outbreak reminds us of the forgotten truth that all lives are co-dependent. More and more people are coming to the realization that we will fall together if we don’t change now.
Despite the Sewol ferry tragedy last year, we haven’t moved onto a more mature civil sensibility of respecting lives over money. MERS has revealed once again the miserable truth that we have to survive on our own when the state doesn’t do its duty of protecting citizens’ lives at moments of crisis. Korea is being tested by a virus that flew in from Middle Eastern deserts.
Fighting an infectious disease is a battle against uncertainty. When everyone is flailing about, we need a political leadership that calmly studies the situation and makes prompt decisions to win the battle. While we desperately need communication, the Park Geun-hye administration has failed. The president was debriefed by health minister Moon Hyung-pyo only six days after the first patient was diagnosed. That fact reminds Koreans that the president was not debriefed for seven hours after the Sewol ferry disaster. On the day that the country was shocked by a confirmation of a new generation of infection, the president visited a Creative Economy Innovation Center. She attended this event with no urgency and posed with a smile for photos. Citizens now ask who we have to rely on.
The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is understaffed to fight the epidemic. There are 34 epidemic investigators, but only two of them are regular employees and the others are public health doctors. The former head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who is now a Yonsei University professor, says that when investigators go to the scene, the army surgeons are not respected. “How can we fight a battle with unsharpened swords?” The operations of the Republic of Korea is not normal.
The fear of MERS is stronger than the grief from the Sewol ferry tragedy. People mourned for the victims and families when the Sewol ferry capsized. But MERS is a realistic threat to ourselves and our families. People have lost confidence that risk can be controlled by the government’s malfunctioning system. The economy is falling desperately and so is the approval rating of the president.
Many people deplore that idea that no structural reforms are possible in this country, no righting of obvious wrongs. Some say that the country will only change with a shock as devastating as the 1997 foreign currency crisis. That crisis put the country on the verge of sovereign default, but it ultimately brought the first major political change through elections. On the brink of national collapse, people solidly came together around the new president. People donated gold and cooperated with labor reform and corporate restructuring. Korea got over the crisis and rebuilt its economic health. It came out much stronger and healthier than before. We turned crisis into an opportunity.
The MERS shock demands Korea’s malfunctioning system to be overhauled. We desperately need a communication-oriented democracy that reflects the demands of the citizens, not the arbitrary decisions of an incompetent government. The government, companies and labor unions cannot survive without changes.
MERS may be the last chance to change the faulty system of Korea. 350 years after letting Hamel go, Joseon was faced with modernization in an unprepared state and became a colony of Japan. The aftereffects of “36 years as a slave” still paralyze the autonomic nerve system of our souls from time to time. History repeats itself. Curing MERS and cursing the epidemic cannot solve the problem. If we neglect the final warning of MERS to a community in crisis, Korea won’t have a future.
JoongAng Ilbo, June 17, Page 31
*The author is the chief editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Ha-kyung