We still remember that in the past our military dictators vastly exaggerated the threat from North Korea to justify tyranny, intimidating people with the fear of imminent war. Ex-military generals frequently triggered that fear so they could suppress the general public. At that time, the right-wing dictators bragged, “We are the only ones who can prevent war from breaking out on this peninsula.”
Today, the situation is reversed. Now, the left-wing politicians who fought against the military tyranny have seized political power in South Korea. Interestingly, however, they too seem to be using North Korea to gain popularity and votes. The difference is that our left-wing politicians use the word “peace” for political gain, instead of “war.” They play on the people’s wish for peace so they can win the upcoming election. Positioning themselves as peacemakers, our left-wing political leaders boast, “We are the only one who can prevent war from breaking out on this peninsula.”
When it comes to the pendulum of war and peace, South Korea is sharply torn between optimists and pessimists. Left-wing progressives are optimistic and fantasize about the best-case scenario. They seem to think South Korea will become a socialist paradise where everybody is equal, without class distinctions. They firmly believe they can succeed in turning South Korea into an idealistic socialist country despite the worldwide failure of communism and socialism. In their eyes, South Korea should be a nation where justice is served by eliminating the social evil represented by their conservative capitalist political enemies. To them, South Korea no longer needs protection from the US because they believe North Korea and China are their good friends.
Those left-wing radicals predict that by collaborating with North Korea, they will accomplish the unification of the Korean peninsula soon. They seem to think that as long as unification happens, nothing else matters, even though North Korea will be a serious financial liability for South Korea and as a result, everybody on the peninsula is likely to end up being poor. These optimists naively believe that when and if the two Koreas are unified, Korea will be a superpower with nuclear weapons that its neighbors fear.
On the other side of the bank, right-wing conservatives are pessimistic and worry about the worst-case scenario. According to their grim vision, South Korea is on the verge of turning into a socialist country or “people’s democracy” instead of a liberal democracy, one subdued by a North Korea armed with nuclear weapons. They predict that Washington will soon pull its troops out of the Korean Peninsula, leaving South Korea helpless and vulnerable to aggression from neighboring countries. These pessimists warn that as soon as the US gives up its influence over the Korean Peninsula, another big country will take over.
Conservatives assert that the current South Korean government has completely failed in three major areas: the economy, foreign affairs and national security. They contend that the South Korean economy has never been worse, and they blame the current left-wing government’s populist policies, such as radical increases in the minimum wage and taxes that bankrupted numerous small businesses. They point out that unlike other OECD countries, South Korea’s unemployment rate is skyrocketing due to its faltering economic situation.
They also argue that due to clumsy diplomacy, South Korea is hopelessly isolated in the international community these days and is losing respect and credibility in the eyes of its neighbors and allies. Not since the late 19th century, they say, has South Korea been left out in the cold diplomatically like this -- a time when Korea lost its sovereignty due to its inept diplomacy and its ignorance of radical changes in the world.
Right-wing people also criticize the South Korean government for its radical reduction of joint military drills by the ROK and US armies, pursuant to the demands of North Korea. They worry about South Korea’s irreparably damaged relationships with Japan and the United States, saying this will seriously jeopardize national security and invite the influence of communist countries on South Korean soil.
Presently, the pessimists and optimists are waging a civil war on YouTube. Never has South Korea been divided in such a radical way before, with both sides so full of resentment and hostility. The pessimists foresee a dystopian future for the Korean Peninsula, while the optimists daydream of a utopian future. The problem is that both the best-case scenario and the worst-case scenario are dreadful and appalling. Either way, the Korean people will be miserable and their country will be damaged irrevocably.
Perhaps the real best-case scenario would be the opposite of the worst-case scenario stated above, not the one left-wing radicals are dreaming of. At any rate, we should be prepared for the worst-case scenario. Or, better yet, we should prevent the worst-case scenario from happening on the Korean Peninsula. Otherwise, we will be doomed. Now we are at the crossroads of prosperity or ruin. Where to? The choice is ours.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting professor at the University of California, Irvine. -- Ed.