The Korea Herald


[Kim Seong-kon] The courage to make apologies -- and accept them

By Kim Seong-kon

Published : April 10, 2018 - 17:28

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These days, apologies seem to have become a controversial issue in Korea. When a scandal breaks out, we immediately demand that the person involved apologize. Some people apologize instantly, but others refuse. Either way, we do not forgive. When someone apologizes, we seldom accept the apology. 

We complain that the apology is not sincere enough. If the person refuses to apologize, we condemn him or her as an insolent, brazen creature. In fact, apologizing for something in Korean society is always a difficult thing to do, because, we seldom say, “Apology accepted,” and forgive the person. Instead, we tend to dismiss the apology and demand more.

Lee Kiho’s critically-acclaimed novel, “At Least We Can Apologize,” is an account of two outcasts who are confined and abused in a social welfare institution. In the institution, the social workers constantly force them to apologize for things they have nothing to do with.
In order to avoid beatings, however, the two young men cannot help but apologize continually. Later, they actually do the bad thing they have confessed to in advance. Gradually, the two men begin to commit crimes in order to apologize later. After the social workers are arrested by the police for abuse, the two men escape from the institution and open an agency of apologies where they apologize to people on behalf of their customers.

Through this inversion of the cause and effect dichotomy, which is a postmodern perception, the writer explores in depth the complex relationship between sin and atonement, or crime and punishment. Lee also perceptively renders our present reality in which we sin or commit crimes without remorse because we can apologize later. In that case, however, apologies become nothing but a hollow gesture.

In this hilarious, yet thought-provoking novel, Lee delves into the predicament of the modern man who is thrown into a world where people commit crimes and sins every day remorselessly without a sense of guilt. To make matters worse, people no longer apologize for their misdeeds, sins and crimes, as apologies become a hollow mockery.

Rumors said that some politicians in the previous Park administration did not like Lee’s novel, assuming that it was a critique of the government for not apologizing for the Sewol Ferry sinking tragedy. 

If it was true, perhaps shallow politicians, who were allergic to criticisms about the Sewol issues, became judgmental when they came across the title of the novel. Despite its title, however, the novel had nothing to do with the tragic Sewol disaster. As a result, the politicians, who were unable to understand the complex theme of this novel saturated with social parody, ended up being a laughing stock.

These days, we see heads of government institutions publicly apologizing for the misdeeds of their predecessors who worked in the previous administration. Their apologies remind us of the two protagonists in “At Least We Can Apologize,” whose job is to apologize on behalf of others. 

But we want apologies directly from those who are responsible for the misdeeds. For example, our incredibly incompetent political leaders who misled the nation in every critical moment for the past 10 years should apologize in front of the people. By the same token, we also want apologies from those who deliberately instigated and misguided the people by telling groundless lies about mad cow disease for political gain a few years ago. Unfortunately, no one assumes responsibility or apologizes for their incompetence or evil scheme that has disgraced and plagued the country for the past decade.

The same thing goes for those who have sexually harassed or molested their staff or students by misusing the power of their position. Maximizing the #MeToo movement, we must put an end to the chronic disease of sexual harassment at drinking parties that has been rampant in Korean society once and for all. People who cannot hold their liquor should not be allowed to drink. And those who commit sexual crimes or drive under the influence of alcohol should be more severely punished. Regrettably, we have been too generous with such despicable people.

If they apologize, however, we should accept the apology and forgive them unless they are criminally charged by law. That is what gentlemen or noblemen would do. If we do not accept the apology and demand more, they will not apologize. Living in a society where no one apologizes would be miserable because in such a society people would be unabashed and shameless without a sense of guilt. Living in a society where people are apologizing on behalf of others, too, would be uncomfortable because it will look like a self-aggrandizing political gesture. 

We should admit our mistakes and say frequently, “I am sorry. It is all my fault.” It takes courage to do that, and yet by saying it, we can prove “At least, we can apologize.” We should also show our generosity by responding, “Apology accepted!” and let bygones be bygones.

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.