A long way to goHave we built the country they dreamed of? This question came to me as I was overcome by emotions while watching a scene toward the end of the blockbuster epic movie “Assassination” in which sniper and independence fighter An Ok-yun danced with her young accomplices during a mission to kill leaders of the Japanese regime during the colonial period. Even as they were offering themselves as martyrs for the goal of freeing the country from Japanese rule, they were at the same time youthful. They were staking their lives “to demonstrate that they were not giving up.” Are we today the country they longed to return to when they heard the news that Japan was defeated and surrendered?
The movie’s fictional ending includes a purge and persecution of Japanese loyalists that was never realized in reality. I cannot but think of the contrasting scenes of liberation heroes in France and Korea after the end of the war. General Charles de Gaulle triumphantly led a military parade down Champs-Elysees amid thunderous cheering from Parisians. Kim Gu, Korea’s liberation leader and president of the government in exile of Korea, stood in a photo at an airport with a few people when he returned home after the surrender of Japan.
The contrasting images may have been a harbinger of the different fates of France and Korea after their liberations from Nazi Germany and Japan. The liberation leader and his comrades led the government to rebuild France with the full support of the people. But the provisional government and liberation activists were shunned and isolated in Korea. France has moved on and achieved closure with the past, but Korea has never been free from its colonial legacy and remains haunted. We may not have had the right talents to create a modern nation on our own. Instead we chose to hide from the past on the pretext of fighting poverty. The skeleton remains in the closet for contemporary and future generations because we never boldly faced up to it.
In the movie, independence fighter An says she wasn’t making any repairs to her home in Manchuria because she would be returning to her “real” home once Korea was freed. What home and country was she imagining? She would have dreamed it to be free, equal and democratic with civilian dignity and rights. She would have shared the vision of her leader Kim Gu, who romanticized a country rich enough to feed everyone and strong enough to defend itself from enemies.
Young people like An would also have visualized a country that bred hope, love and friendship. Are we that kind of nation today? Korea achieved so much after liberation that it earned respect from the world. We have many reasons to be proud. We are nevertheless far from the homeland that fighter An had longed to go back to. There is still much more to do, and the path is far from easy.
The ruling party floor leader who questioned the president’s will to uphold democracy and the state intelligence agency that tampered with elections and spied on civilians underscore how fragile our democracy and politics are. The shameful display of impotence and irresponsibility from the government that let hundreds of young students on a ferry trip die in the sea and an epidemic go out of control raised serious doubts about the government’s role, its will to protect the lives of the people and its basic seriousness about the role of a government.
With a population of 50 million and per capita income of nearly $30,000, Korea has become a rich nation. But that wealth comes with household debt exceeding 1,130 trillion won ($940 billion).
Other data is equally troubling. The ratio of social welfare overheads against the gross domestic product was the last among 28 countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in a 2014 survey. The poverty ratio among the elderly and Korea’s suicide rate were the highest in OECD rankings in 2010. A third of the working population, or 6 million people, don’t have regular salaried jobs, double the OECD average. The Gini coefficient, a measurement of wealth equality for a population, was among the sixth lowest in the OECD in 2012. About 84 percent of the rich with assets of more than 1 trillion won inherited their good fortune compared with 33 percent among Americans and 12 percent among Japanese, suggesting this country is where riches and social rank are exclusive to a permanent ruling class.
Does the future look any better? The young are giving up on relationships, marriages and having kids because they cannot even support themselves. They are the hopeless generation breeding more resentment than hope for their country. The government and older generation have the duty to reignite hope and dreams for the young and build a society where people equally share the fruits of prosperity. There is no future if the youth lose hope. We owe it to An and many anonymous martyrs who sacrificed their lives to free this land.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, Sept. 5, Page 27
*The author, a former prime minister, is the head of the Korea Institute for Shared Growth.
by Chung Un-chan