The Korea Herald


[Kim Seong-kon] Calling for an end to factional retributions

By Kim Seong-kon

Published : Jan. 16, 2018 - 17:46

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Foreigners often wonder why political revenge and personal vendettas are rampant in Korean society. Indeed, whenever a new president is elected in Korea, retribution immediately begins. There is a compelling reason for this regrettable phenomenon. For 500 years during the Joseon era, regime change often came about as a direct result of Confucian factional feuds, which meant that as soon as the throne was occupied by a new king the purging of political opponents ensued. In order to root out the rival faction, those who seized power ruthlessly persecuted and eliminated their political foes by executing or imprisoning them.

Unfortunately, the tradition still continues. Even today, we witness numerous former high-ranking government officials being arrested, convicted and imprisoned. If you have served the previous government, you are guilty of collaborating with political enemies and therefore must be punished.

In his novel “Your Republic is Calling You,” Kim Young-ha humorously, but fittingly, wrote, “In Korea, being a politician is like walking on the fence of a prison. If you fall to the wrong side of the fence, you will find yourself in prison.” It is a cruel joke, and yet it is reality in Korea

That is why a Korean president should be concerned about his or her safety when he or she steps down from office. And that is why the ruling party in Korea desperately wants to win the election at any cost because it is a matter of life and death for them. And that was why military dictators did not want to hand power over to opposition party leaders in the past. They knew retribution and punishment were awaiting them. Indeed, losing your political power could mean losing your life in Korea.

The problem is that if that is the case, no peaceful power transition is possible in Korea despite appearances to the contrary. If you worked in the previous government, suddenly you would find yourself an object to be eliminated and in the worst case, imprisoned. Unlike other countries, therefore, you risk your life to become a politician in Korea.

We should put an end to this vicious circle of political vendettas. All we have to do is start afresh. If we find negative things the previous administration has done, we can decide not to repeat mistakes and start over. We should move on instead of returning to the past and clinging to it. If we cannot get out of the quagmire of the past, we will be sucked into it eventually. Meanwhile, people will become fed up with us and turn away.

Today, we are at a crossroads. It is imperative that we choose the right path. Otherwise, we are likely to crash. Now is the time for Korean politicians to decide what to do. To return to the past or to move on to the future, that is the question. If they waste precious time on investigating things that happened in the past, they will lose not only popularity but also the momentum to start over. These days, people are tired of political retribution and are getting impatient. If they stop clinging to the past and decide to move on, people will support them wholeheartedly. If not, they will lose people’s support eventually.

Korea now faces an unprecedented crisis as tension between North Korea and the United States is escalating. Every day, American media outlets report the possibility of war on the Korean Peninsula, and people all over the world are watching us anxiously. In their eyes, Korean politicians are busy digging up past misdeeds of their political enemies and punishing them, not realizing the grave situation they are in and paying no heed to the impending crisis.

We should be prepared for all plausible developments on the Korean Peninsula, including the worst-case scenario. Suppose some terrible things happen in Korea in the near future, are we ready? Or do we naively expect our allies to save us again, as they did before? We should know that unlike the Cold War era, no country will come to our rescue this time.

In his intriguing novel “Genocide,” Takano Kazuaki writes, “If our ancestors did stupid things, we suffer the consequences.” Likewise, if we do stupid things, our descendants will suffer the consequences. In his insightful short story “A Bird’s Eye View,” Jung Chan writes, “The past is not a fixed entity. Rather, it is a dynamic life-form that constantly changes by the present’s viewpoint. Imagination connects the past to the present, thereby making the past a flexible living tissue. If we lack imagination, we will be confined in the past forever. If we are not free from the past, our present does not mean anything.”

Writers constantly warn us that if we are too vindictive or obsessed with the past, we will be doomed. To build a better society for our children, we should stop factional retributions now and soar into the future together instead.

By Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and distinguished visiting professor at George Washington University. He can be reached at –Ed.