Unifying a nationChoi Sang-yeon
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Last week, the Korean government donated diagnostic kits and face masks to help Ethiopia ﬁght the coronavirus pandemic, nearly seven decades after the African nation helped us by sending ground troops to the 1950-53 Korean War. Ethiopia used to be richer than Korea. That changed, however, when Ethiopia entered a period of sharp political division following the Korean War. The person who brought that tumultuous time to an end was current Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
He treated everyone equally with the same set of standards and strived for political cooperation. Shortly after coming into ofﬁ ce, he pardoned every political prisoner of the past government. He ceased media censorship and ﬁ lled half his cabinet seats with women, contributing to the mitigation of societal conﬂict and hostility in a country that had been struggling with deeply embedded ethnic and religious strife.
Unlike his predecessors, Abiy focussed on political communication. BBC News once said he was a “revivalist preacher in the way he evangelizes for his vision.” It was he who ended Ethiopia’s 20-year-long conﬂict with neighboring Eritrea, a series of titfor-tat battles that killed nearly 100,000 on both sides. The young leader of his early 40s reached out ﬁrst, and by going against the global tide of division and confrontation, made peace with Eritrea and went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize for it.
In any group of thought leaders, everyone seems to be interested in what the young, 40-something-year-old economic expert has to say. Such tendency indicates how much hope people have about reformative leadership. In reality, many people in their 40s rose to leadership roles and transformed the world when people had yearned for social change, such as former U.S. presidents John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
Such zeal is evident in the election of French President Emmanuel Macron too. Macron successfully broke the left and right divide, and at times when he faced ﬁ erce opposition for a reform plan, chose the path of persuasion and discussion. When swarms of labor workers took to the streets in yellow vests to strike against pension reform, Macron spent an entire year meeting them in person and holding small nationwide debates.
Around the world, countries are struggling on the political front due mainly to social discontent from economic polarization. Even the United States, Britain and other European countries, which have long been considered the exemplars of democracy, have recently seen far fewer votes going to centrist-left or centrist-right parties than in the past. It’s become much more difﬁ cult than in the past to form a coalition of some sort or negotiate a compromise. Korea — which often faces criticism for its “third-rate” and ideology-centered political domain — is not handling the situation any better. President Moon Jae-in’s call for peace and reconciliation had signiﬁ cant reverberations in local society because it reminded us that even though politics is essentially war, it’s not exactly the same. The right and left should not see each other as adversaries that need to be wiped out.
In early 2017 when then-South Chungcheong Gov. Ahn Hee-jung was running for president, he said of the ousted President Park Geunhye that she had probably founded the Mir Foundation based on “goodwill.” Moon hit back, saying the “great reform to eradicate ‘deep-rooted evil’ can only be possible when there’s heated resentment towards deep-rooted evil.” Moon further claimed that the “start of justice is resentment,” and that without resentment, justice cannot be achieved. Ahn retorted that love is the “ﬁ nale” of justice.
Both Ahn and Moon had a point. What’s important, however, is that political leaders must express no less resentment when a person from their own side turns out to be associated with deeprooted evil — whether that be former Justice Minister Cho Kuk, a former civic group activist who’s newly been elected lawmaker, or a mayor from the ruling Democratic Party.
Over the past several days, Moon has preached elevating Korea into “a leading country.” Yet at the same time, he has yet to sever his connections with a former aide who’s involved in the Cho Kuk scandal — a person who’s known as “Cho Kuk’s guardian” and who reportedly said Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl should be the ﬁ rst person to be probed by the new independent investigation agency. Moon is pressing for dramatic reforms of powerful government agencies. A prosecutor who investigated Cho reportedly expressed his intentions to leave the prosecution. At a state like this, there’s no way the chasm between proMoon and anti-Moon members of the public can narrow.
It’s imperative for Moon to bring the thoughts and hearts of the Korean people together lest his rosy vision for the future become void. At least that’s what Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy did. As economist Paul Krugman said, political conﬂict widens economic inequality, not vice versa.
JoongAng Ilbo, May 15, Page 34