Most valuable asset we have
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
“Please help us. Save my country’s future.” A desperate woman appealed repeatedly. Some 30 young men and women were on their knees in a video filmed in front of the Korean Embassy in Yangon, Myanmar last Friday. Considering their accurate Korean pronunciation, they seemed to be students majoring in Korean language at a local college, according to a Korean resident who sent the video. I became emotional even before I finished the three-minute video. The present of Myanmar overlaps with Korea’s past. There was a time when Koreans desperately hoped for democratization.
Another young man in the video pleaded, “As we love and support Korean culture, I wish Korea to cheer for Myanmar’s democratization.” A local man I met when I visited Yangon 10 years ago told me the same thing. The student majoring in computer science at the National Yangon University had never logged onto the internet because the military government had blocked it. I was speechless that students learned about the internet only based on theories without actually accessing it. He said, “So I admire and envy Korea. Two countries got out of colonial rule around the same time, but Korea attained democratization and economic success.”
Until a civilian government was established in 2016, Myanmar had to go through a number of failures and sacrifices. As the hard-earned democracy was about to disappear because of the military coup, people came out on the street. Suppression resulted in casualties, and more bloody incidents may happen. The last resort for the people is to appeal to the international community. The young people on the video were holding up signs, “Please do not recognize the military coup in Myanmar.”
The international community is denouncing the situation in Myanmar. The Biden administration values diplomacy and is leading the efforts. G7 countries also issued a joint statement. International sanctions may be imposed on Myanmar depending on how the situation develops.
It means Korea needs to state its position clearly. But instead of passively following the powers, Korea needs to make a proactive choice. The international community has started to treat Korea as one of the D10, or 10 democratic countries in the world. Korea is also a role model for developing countries, having accomplished democratization and industrialization after the long tunnel of colonial rule, war and military regimes. The main axis of the Moon Jae-in administration is the people who regard their contributions to democratization as their political assets. There is no reason to delay joining the international campaign for human rights and democracy. Myanmar is not the only test. On many issues, like the Hong Kong situation, Uyghur human rights and North Korean human rights, Korea should assert its position and principles.
But the portrait of Korea in reality does not live up to expectations of the international community in recent events. Last week, Korea sent to not join the declaration denouncing detention of foreigners in Myanmar, which was signed by 57 countries, because of China and North Korea. I find it questionable that Foreign Minister Chung Ui-yong made public that the government is negotiating with the Myanmar military authorities to salvage the Korean Air 858, which crashed 34 years ago.
It is understandable that an agreement made during the Aung San Suu Kyi government is still being negotiated. But what’s the point of getting misunderstood by making the issue public even before the international community concluded on recognizing the coup regime? It is harder to understand because it was made by none other than the foreign minister.
We tend to think the Korean Wave is a phenomenon in the popular culture industry. But the video made by the young Burmese reminds me of an important fact. Developing and nurturing the democracy earned through a difficult course and setting a model is the best Korean Wave asset we have. People around the world are watching Korea’s democracy carefully.