National integration is key

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National integration is key

Nam Jeong-ho
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

In November 2016, Donald Trump narrowly won the U.S. presidential election. Two weeks after the victory, he visited a place no one expected. It was the headquarters of the New York Times, which criticized him harshly through the campaign. When asked if he reads the newspaper, Trump responded, “Well, I do read it, unfortunately. I would live about 20 years longer if I didn’t.”

In January 2003, Roh Moo-hyun also narrowly won the presidential election in Korea. He also visited a media company three weeks after the victory. But the nature was completely different from Trump’s visit. Roh visited the Hankyoreh, which had been relatively friendly toward him during the campaign. Saying he wanted to visit the newspaper once, Roh greeted employees and executives as he toured the executive office, the editorial office and the distribution center.

Things changed completely later on, but what Trump did shortly after the election victory was quite impressive. He showed a gesture of tolerance. This is what President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol needs.

As the March 9 presidential election was won narrowly, “integration” and “coalition” emerged as social topics. Unlike past elections dominated by regional and ideological discord, gender and generational discord have been added this time. It feels like the society has been torn apart.

It was not the case in the past. Coming from different regions and having different ideologies could not be an obstacle to friendship. Many people grieved the death of lawyer Cho Young-rae, a human rights activist who defended the sexual torture case of Kwon In-suk, at age 43. When a memorial essay in remembrance of Cho was published, many conservative writers, including famous rightwing journalist Cho Gab-je, contributed. Friendship transcending ideologies existed in the literary circles.

The friendship between Hwang Sok-yong, a liberal icon, and Lee Moon-yeol, a conservative writer, is well-known. When Hwang was imprisoned for visiting North Korea in 1989, Lee attended a rally calling for his release. In 2001,when Lee Moon-yeol wrote a column criticizing the liberal Kim Dae-jung administration, members of a liberal group put his books in a coffin and held a “book funeral.” This time, Hwang wrote a contribution defending Lee. They had different beliefs but did not ignore the character and caliber of each other.

But now, the Korean society has fallen into the polarization where conservatives and liberals, men and women, old people and young people are divided and hate one another. Friends and family members become estranged over the choice of candidate they support.

President-elect Yoon seems to have realized the seriousness of the situation. He announced he would establish a national integration committee under the transition committee. It is the right direction, but the key is execution. There had been similar apparatus in the past. The Park Geun-hye administration had the National Grand Integration Committee directly under the president, and President Moon Jae-in set up the Committee for Government Integration when he was a candidate, but both fizzed out.

Then what should Yoon do? He needs to make multidirectional efforts to achieve national integration, but what the next president can do right away is “coalition” and “communication” with the opposition party over personnel affairs. Traditionally, incoming U.S. presidents appoint opposition party figures to their cabinet. Democratic President Bill Clinton named former Republican Senator William Cohen as secretary of defense. Republican President George W. Bush named Norman Mineta, who served as secretary of commerce in the previous Democratic government, as the secretary of transportation. Barack Obama went further and appointed Republicans Ray LaHood as the secretary of transportation and Chuck Hagel as the secretary of defense. Through these appointments, U.S. presidents could ask for opinions and cooperation of the opposition party.

Coalition failed not because presidents didn’t know how. President Moon and other administrations have tried. But opposition figures who were offered a cabinet position didn’t accept appointments as they were afraid of being labeled a “traitor.” If this tendency continues, national integration is a distant hope. The ruling Democratic Party emphasized cooperation throughout the Moon administration. If the next conservative administration asks for help, cooperating for the greater cause is the way to reach national integration. Tradition is something we can make.
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