Toughness, adaptability needed

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Toughness, adaptability needed

Recently, I was struck by a survey in which students from different countries were asked which nationality they would choose to be reborn as. In stark contrast to most South Korean respondents, the vast majority of Japanese and French students expressed no wish to change their nationality. These findings, as I read them, shore up the commonly held perception that Koreans are extremely dissatisfied with their lot. This malaise can be attributed to two principal factors. The partition of their homeland is undoubtedly a difficult pill to swallow. The fact that the Korean people do not consider themselves masters of their own destiny can only have wide-reaching repercussions. Moreover, Koreans are deeply suspicious that the very outside forces that have a major say in Korea’s fate do not wish to see their homeland reunited. Another major source of frustration felt by Koreans is the rampant corruption found at all levels of society. This deplorable state of affairs cannot continue forever. A reunified Korea would act as a major stimulus toward a revaluation of its place in the world. While some argue that a cost-benefit analysis of reunifying Korea indicates its economic unfeasibility, I cannot share that opinion. The price tag for reunification could never be too high; we ignore at our peril the dreams of millions of separated families. For most Koreans, to consider reunification in strictly ledger-book terms smacks of heartlessness, and is lacking in true patriotism. Given the growing rise in the economic stature of China, Japan and India, Korea will sooner or later be confronted with a stark choice: Either be submerged by an expanding China, or hold its ground and emerge at the forefront of the world stage. Reunification will play an enormous role. Given that a reunified Korea would have a combined population of 75 to 80 million, an educated workforce and a solid infrastructure, and given the significance of the South Korean economic miracle, it could become a significant player in regional and worldwide affairs. Korea has enormous potential. Its high-tech industries, put to positive use, could offer benefits to the entire population. The creation of a social welfare program would help in tackling extreme poverty. Egalitarian and humanitarian values are widely espoused in Korea. Education is highly valued. Koreans are one of the most literate peoples on the earth. Risk takers by nature, Koreans have established many prominent worldwide companies in a relatively short period of time. They have a penchant for turning crisis into opportunity. This goes hand in hand with their propensity to fight injustice. These psychological traits have repeatedly helped the populace repel foreign invaders and struggle against internal dictators. Korea, however, is a land of ironies. Those very traits that are the backbone of the national character underpin some of its shortcomings. Unfortunately, Koreans have a strong xenophobic tendency. While this may be understandable given the country’s history, the time has now come to face the future. Koreans see things in black-and-white terms: good or bad; people are either friends or enemies. These characteristics are exemplified by the wanton nature of political alliances in which backbiting and disloyalty are common currency. Another major fault in the Korean political landscape is the complacency with which serious political crimes are accepted. Innumerable cases exist in which civil servants work for their own private gain. This phenomenon is widespread in society and hinders the country’s modernization. While politicians repeatedly promise sweeping reforms, all they do is pay lip service. A profound change of attitude is required to move the country toward a more service-oriented culture. The job of any future government is to optimize the country’s strengths and weaknesses so as to create a more mature and pluralistic society. On the whole, Koreans cling too strongly to the present “imperial” presidential system. The time will soon come when an adjustment will be necessary, whereby political figures embrace a more pluralistic society in which compromise and debate play an essential role. Korean democracy is still in its early days, but it is ripening. The Korean character embodies both toughness and adaptability, which will be necessary to overcome the nation’s shortcomings. Difficult as it may seem, the desire for a reunified Korea is not merely a dream; it is something that can be realized, and something moreover that all Koreans want to realize, whatever the cost. * The writer is chairman of Arirang TV. A senior staff member with the World Bank for 25 years, Dr. Yoon served recently as president of the Seoul University for Foreign Studies. by Yoon Tae-hee

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