Political divide is the real problem

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Political divide is the real problem

Lee Jung-min

The author is a senior editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.

In his novel “Harbin” on Korea’s independence fighter An Jung-geun (1879-1910), Kim Hoon wrote an epilogue recording all the affliction, humiliation and separation An’s family had to go through after he assassinated Hirobumi Ito — Japan’s first prime minister and Japanese resident-general in Korea — in Harbin, China. The author carried the aftermath story of his family because their hardship had been “too much for the novel.” Because it is a true story, their end was more poignantly heart-breaking.

An’s wife moved to Shanghai after she lost her first son a year after her husband died. She did not return home after Korea was liberated from Japan. She died in Shanghai, but where and how is not recorded. An’s younger brother, Jeong-geun, also an independent activist, died in Shanghai while in self-exile. An’s second brother Gong-geun went missing in Chongqing in 1939. Cousin Myeng-geun was imprisoned during armed independence movement and died in Jilin in 1927. An’s mother, who moved to Vladivostok, died in Shanghai.

An’s second son and daughter were forced to pay respects to the shrine of Ito and bow in apology to Ito’s son. The scene was plastered on the front pages of Japanese newspapers.

The tragedy of An’s family resembles the fall of the last royal family of Joseon. Crown Prince Yongchin was taken to Japan and forced to marry into a Japanese royal family and become a military general. His son came to Korea after liberation but went back to Japan upon finding difficulty living in Korea and died in a hotel room.

Both Korea and Japan were preyed upon by Western powers a century ago. Japan quickly modernized, but Korea became colonized after dilly-dallying. Their fate was determined by the standards of politics. Pulitzer Prize-winning author and UCLA Prof. Jared Diamond in his book “Upheaval, Turning Points for Nations in Crisis” takes Japan’s Meiji Restoration led by shogunates as an example of how a state can survive against external threats. The Meiji Restoration was not a typical top-down bureaucratic reform.

Japan had been in a state of mayhem amid pressure to open from Western powers and internal strife from never-ending shogun conflicts and farmer revolts. But Diamond found the shogunate leaders were skilled to engage the opponents when necessary to end internal division for the common goal of rebuilding a stronger nation. Politics had been a key to unity. The restraint to yield for a greater cause and the determination to confront crisis may have come from upright patriotism.

Korea today has become a country many envy. Japanese media regularly report how Korea is outpacing Japan in per capita GDP, wages, and purchasing power. Korean-language films “Parasite” and “Minari” won Academy awards and Netflix drama series “Squid Game” took six Emmy awards, including for the best director and best actor, a first for a non-English TV series. BTS made history with a non-English song topping the Billboard charts.

Korea also has been making big strides in arms exports, selling K2 tanks, K9 self-propelled howitzers, FA-50 fighter jets to Poland, Australia, Indonesia, Norway and the United Kingdom. It may outrun China in defense capabilities.
Flanked by his colleagues in the Democratic Party (DP), February 10, Song Young-gil, center, DP chairman at the time, criticizes People Power Party presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol for his “retaliatory politics” even before he became president in the March 9 election. [KIM SANG-SEON]

Since the foundation of Korea, the country has achieved industrialization and modernization in 30 years. Despite the staggering advances, Korean politics remains underdeveloped. It has actually receded to the late monarchy period when weak politics lost the country to global powers. The People Power Party (PPP) cannot even handle its 30-something maverick former head. It has been forming — and unforming — interim leadership and wasting time wrangling with the courts. The Democratic Party (DP) is busy building fences and shields even through it dominates 169 seats in the 300-member legislature. The DP seated a presidential candidate — who had been accused of corruption throughout his political life — as its new chairman and keeps attacking law enforcement authorities for investigating him by defining it as “political oppression.” Politicians only have instincts to chase power and greed and entirely lost restraint and boldness.

Every country has problems and issues to deal with. But nothing can be more dismal than a country looking at the lowest birthrate and highest suicide rate among OECD members. Korea was forecast to be the first to disappear on the map. Imperialistic specters are looming over the country that internally faces the birthrate and polarization cliffs. But we see little political leadership to fight the crisis.
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