Recently, a friend of mine sent me a summary of Dr. In Yohan’s speech on the current situation of South Korea. Dr. In, also known as John Linton, is the son of an American missionary who built churches, schools and hospitals here before South Korea began its modernization. Dr. In is a renowned medical doctor and professor who loves South Korea so much that he has lived here all his life.
According to the summary, Dr. In visited North Korea some time ago. In the car headed for Pyongyang, his North Korean guide asked him, “Is there anything in the South that’s better than in the North?” Dr. In answered that South Korea was far more affluent than North Korea and the South owed its economic prosperity to the leadership of President Park Chung-hee, hardworking people, and scrupulous, enduring Korean women. Listening to Dr. In, the North Korean guide said, “In my opinion, South Korea is just lucky. The South has the US as an ally, whereas the North has the Soviet Union as an ally. It has made all the difference.”
In his speech, Dr. In pointed out that even Abraham Lincoln was dictatorial at times, as he faced the crisis of the Civil War. Yet Americans remember Lincoln as a great man because they consider the historical background and social milieu when they assess a person. That is why Americans have decided to forgive and forget the flaws of Lincoln and remember his merits and accomplishments only. Consequently, you can find the grand Lincoln Memorial at the National Mall in Washington frequented by tourists from all over the world.
Dr. In laments that unlike Americans, South Koreans judge the past by today’s standards and thus see the flaws and problems of the past only. He pointed out that as a result, there was no Park Chung-hee Memorial in Seoul, even though he turned South Korea into an affluent country and many leaders in China, Singapore and Malaysia, among others, continue to hold a high opinion of him. Of course, President Park was almost the opposite of President Lincoln. While Lincoln was revered by Americans and his tyrannical qualities were overlooked, Park was certainly a dictator, but what is overlooked are some of the positive by-products of his regime.
Indeed, we South Koreans are quick to stick labels on controversial figures rather than to look at them more analytically or to see them in their historical context. As a result, we are unable to perceive accurately any positive developments that followed directly or indirectly from their actions. We believe that we are considerate and thoughtful. Obviously, however, we are not.
South Korea’s current political leaders often say that Lincoln is their role model, perhaps because they think Lincoln is an emblem of democracy and they want people to compare them to him. It is embarrassing because they obviously do not seem to know Lincoln well. For example, do they know that Lincoln called for mutual forgiveness, not revenge, in his 1865 speech after the Civil War? Do they know that Lincoln said, “I am a slow walker, but I never walk back”? Do they know that Lincoln said, “We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses”? Obviously, they know about Lincoln only superficially. Otherwise, they would not be so preoccupied with political vendettas or past grudges, while they claim to emulate Lincoln. They also would not denounce our spectacular economic and democratic accomplishments for the past seven decades simply because their ideological stance differs from those of previous governments.
Dr. In also advised us that all the things we now take for granted -- such as unlimited hot water, heating, air conditioning, owning a car and traveling freely -- are not available in socialist countries like North Korea. He urged us to appreciate those luxuries and stay on alert to protect our country from turning into a socialist country and losing everything we now cherish.
A few days ago, an American intellectual found “Philosopher AI” on the internet and asked it about the future of South Korea. The Artificial Intelligence’s reply was disheartening. It answered, “Few politicians have any vision for the future of Korea other than a desire to maintain their own power. As a result, South Korea will fall further behind other countries. It will be more corrupt and less wealthy than it is now.” Then, it continued, “South Korea is likely to become more nationalistic and xenophobic in the future. South Koreans are more likely to turn away from democracy and back into dictatorship. I think that the South Korean government is likely to become more authoritarian in the future. The government will be corrupt, and democracy will be unstable.”
The AI’s prophecy for South Korea’s future is grim. In order to have a bright future, we should keep in mind the admonitions from the above doctor and the AI.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. -- Ed.