Unlike any other, the year 2021 was an especially turbulent one worldwide. In fact, together with 2020 it was one of the worst years in memory due to the continuing surge of COVID-19. To make matters worse, variants of the coronavirus, namely delta and omicron, spread rapidly, devastating the slowly recuperating world. Some suffered the loss of family members or a job. Others had to endure the shutdown of a business or bankruptcy.
People expected the pandemic would end in 2021. To our disappointment, it has continued to threaten us and, as a result, we still had to wear face masks and keep social distancing indoors this year. International travel has been restricted for the past two years and tourist attractions have become desolate and deserted. We still had to refrain from social gatherings and outings. It made us sad to see our young children constantly having to wear face coverings. As the coronavirus continues to evolve, it seemed that we were living under a never-ending pandemic situation.
The year 2021 began with the inauguration of Joseph Biden as the 46th president of the United States under the slogan, “America is back.” The world welcomed the Biden administration with high hopes because the America they used to know and adore was completely gone during the Trump era.
However, Biden’s inauguration was not smooth. On Jan. 6, right-wing supporters of Trump stormed into the US Capitol in order to protest and attempt to nullify the outcome of the presidential election. The whole world was appalled at this violent attack on the US Capitol and disappointed to see that America’s democracy was so easily assailed by some of its own citizens. It was an embarrassing incident because US democracy had been an admired model for other countries for more than 200 years. Indeed, it was a shameful day in American history.
In 2021, other countries, too, went through political turmoil. For example, a military coup took place in Myanmar on Feb. 1, ruthlessly crushing civilian protests and democracy. On Aug. 15, shortly after the US withdrew troops from Afghanistan, ending nearly 20 years of war, the Taliban occupied Kabul, which resulted in the Afghan government’s surrender. In 2021, North Korea reportedly conducted eight missile launch tests, including supersonic ballistic missiles launched from a train.
Also in 2021, the US’ clash with China continued in what some fear may be the beginning of a new Cold War. On Dec. 6, The US announced a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing over China’s human rights issues. In addition, Washington indirectly criticized China’s totalitarianism at the virtual Summit for Democracy held on Dec. 9-10. In response, China pledged its future retaliation to any country that interferes in China’s internal affairs. It also declared the superiority of Chinese “democracy” over the Western model.
The antonym of democracy is tyranny and dictatorship, because democracy is a system of government in which the people, not the ruler, have the power and authority to decide everything. Therefore, democracy means a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” as Abraham Lincoln aptly described in his famous Gettysburg Address in 1863.
However, even a tyrannical country can adopt democracy, for there are different types of democracy.
As is well known, the two outstanding types of democracy are “direct democracy” and “representative democracy.” The problem is that both systems are vulnerable to corruption. For example, direct democracy is likely to degenerate into mob rule, while representative democracy can easily turn into puppets manipulated by a dictator, who pulls the strings behind the scenes. Historically, the free world has subscribed to liberal democracy and communist countries have adopted a people’s democracy. We thought the rivalry ended when the Cold War ended. In 2021, however, we once again watched the clash between these two types of governance.
In 2021, the coronavirus and its variants severely hit the world, including South Korea. Inflation, too, hit the world, as many countries gave out generous stimulus checks to their citizens. As a result, prices soared worldwide. South Korea was no exception.
To make matters worse, the prices of real estate in Korea skyrocketed. Even the price of a relatively small apartment in Seoul can cost $1.5 million. Consequently, young people in South Korea despaired and became furious because they could never be homeowners in their lifetimes.
As the year 2021 wanes, Koreans are looking forward to the presidential election next year. Currently, we have two major candidates, from the ruling party and main opposition party, respectively. Unfortunately, the Korean people think that neither of them meets their expectations. Still, however, they have to choose one of the two, hoping that he can choose the right path and make South Korea safe and prosperous.
Looking back on 2021, a year full of turbulence, we strongly hope that things will get under control and onto the right track next year.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.