The world is now experiencing an unprecedented crisis due to a new coronavirus pandemic. So is South Korea, where the number of COVID-19 patients are increasing exponentially each week. At the same time, unfortunately, we have so many other compelling issues to deal with these days.
Recently, I had a long conversation with professor Lee O-young, an eminent literary critic and former minister of culture, on a variety of issues we are now facing. When our conversation drifted into North Korea’s current nuclear threat against South Korea, Lee provided me with a remarkable insight.
The perspicacious cultural critic pointed out that any modern war was a war of “A.B.C.” that is, a war fought with atomic weapons, biological weapons and chemical weapons. The A-bomb and the hydrogen bomb could kill millions of people, annihilating human civilization instantly. Widespread viruses could also be lethal, as recent epidemics such as SARS, MERS, and COVID-19 demonstrate. Chemical weapons, too, would be equally fatal. Unfortunately, North Korea has them all.
Yet, according to professor Lee, those days are over, and now we are actually living in the age of the “G.N.R.” war. G.N.R. stands for Genome technology, Nanotechnology and Robotics technology, respectively. Of course, the G.N.R. war may primarily refer to a rhetorical, metaphoric war, meaning that a country with these advanced technologies can become a superpower that rules the world. At the same time, however, genomic technology can actually create clone soldiers, mutant soldiers, and super soldiers, as foreseen in such movies as “Resident Evil,” “X-Men” and “Universal Soldier.” Nanotechnology, too, can create formidable but invisible weapons that we cannot discern with our eyes. Robotics technology incorporates AI-related weapons such as drones.
“That means,” professor Lee said, “North Korea belatedly jumped into the nuclear weapons competition, and thus could not become mighty, not as much as it had expected, even though it had nuclear missiles.” Indeed, nuclear bombs and biochemical weapons have now become conventional weapons, overpowered by cutting-edge technologies such as genomic, nanotech, and robotics. That means, if South Korea could have super-advanced technology that could remotely paralyze North Korea’s missile launching system with electromagnetic waves, North Korea’s nuclear weapons might no longer constitute a serious threat to South Korea. As a country of foremost technology, South Korea could surely overpower North Korea when it comes to an electronic war. If this is true, we may have some hope.
Then, professor Lee brought up some gloomy facts. In his eyes, the Korean Peninsula is the last place on earth where capitalism and communism, or the Oceanic Civilization and the Continental Civilization, may confront and clash. In that sense, the Korean Peninsula is geopolitically a pivotal place where the two ideologies and the two civilizations could collide in an attempt to conquer the other. The problem is that the Continental Civilization comprises socialist countries where totalitarian governments control and manipulate everything, whereas the Oceanic Civilization incorporates capitalist countries that value freedom, individuality and personal properties. Therefore, South Korea must be very cautious not to stumble into its neighboring socialist countries unless it wishes to surrender its freedom, individuality and autonomy.
Communism has completely vanished as a failed project. In fact, even China, Russia, and Vietnam have adopted the capitalist free-market economy. Strangely, however, our left-wing politicians belatedly try to practice the obsolete socialist economic system controlled by the government. The outcome is the unprecedented economic recession and stagnancy we now face. Although they call themselves progressives, South Korean politicians are hopelessly old-fashioned, regressing infinitely rather than moving forward. To make matters worse, they always act belatedly as is the case with COVID-19.
While conversing, professor Lee and I agreed that our politicians’ mental clock was stuck in the 19th century, when the Donghak Uprising occurred, demanding equality, fairness and social justice. Today’s Korean left-wing politicians seem to think of the Donghak Uprising as a symbol of socialist revolution, the spirit of which must go on even today. However, we no longer have the social caste that nurtured discontent among the common people and peasants of the 19th century. Granted we still have problems with the distribution of wealth, we do not need a socialist revolution. Besides, the Donghak Uprising, despite its good intentions, invited the Japanese army to Korea and consequently sparked the Sino-Japanese War that eventually enabled Japan to occupy Korea in 1910.
As a distinguished literary critic, professor Lee was also worried about the future of Korean literature, as left-wing politicians always use literary and film texts for political propaganda. Referring to Yi Hyo-seok’s “The Buckwheat Season,” he raised a question: “Which one would make Korean literature great between the following two readings? Reading it as a story about a ruthless capitalist society that forces a man to become a poor travelling vendor, or reading it as a story about the circle of life, in which a father searches for his long-lost son, and vice versa?” Listening to him, my mind vacillated between hope and despair.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. -- Ed.