Where is your dignity?
The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
“So sudden loss causes us to look backward, but it also forces us to look forward, to reflect on the present and the future, on the manner in which we live our lives and nurture our relationships with those who are still with us. If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let’s make sure it’s worthy of those we have lost. Let’s make sure it’s not on the usual plane of politics and point scoring and pettiness that drifts away with the next news cycle.
“The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better in our private lives, to be better friends and neighbors, better co-workers and parents. And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse, let’s remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy, but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make them proud.”
The words are not a reflection on the tragic deaths in Itaewon before Halloween. They come from former U.S. President Barack Obama at a memorial service after the 2011 Tucson shooting. His urging of healing and national unity came to stop violent discourse over gun regulations.
The words should also resonate in the ongoing ugly disputes in politics and the government nearly one month after the horrific night. The legislature is still inundated with harsh and vulgar language. The mud has spilled over even to the religious scene. A Catholic priest prayed for the fall of the plane used by the president and his staff on their diplomatic mission. The vicious rants pierce into the hearts of the bereaved families and shame the victims.
Rage has become a habit. An “angry society” has become fixated. Koreans bear an illness called “hwabyeong,” heartburn from anger. Complaints and reports filed with the police and prosecution total 490,0000 a year, 50 times more than Japan. Lawsuits average more than 50,000 a month — the largest since the 2007-08 global financial crisis — due to the surge from motions from politicians since the sharp divide over former justice minister Cho Kuk in December 2020.
Korea has topped all seven categories — ideology, political parties of support, wealth disparities, gender, academic, generational and religious — in a conflict index developed by London-based King’s College. The question about the role of a state has emerged in the land of deeply-rooted division and fissures.
Democratic Party Chair Lee Jae-myung whispers to floor leader Park Hong-keun before opening a Supreme Council meeting, Nov. 18, to call for a legislative probe into the deadly crowd crush before Halloween. [KIM SEONG-RYONG]
The Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) was structured as a polarized society. During the colonial period, Japan intentionally seated people from the fallen Joseon in top positions to deepen conflict. Later, communism promising equality among people gained ground after the Korean War, causing a division in the land and lasting scars. Infringement on human rights and the collusion between politicians and business leaders came from fast industrialization period under president Park Chung Hee. In line with wealth rise, distrust against more powerful and wealthy also increased. Conflict deepened under the Moon Jae-in government. The country is awash in hostility.
Politicians are most liable. National dignity should come from politics. The age calls for empathy from Yoeuido (the National Assembly) and Yongsan (the presidential office). Empathy arises when one tries to see and understand the perspective of others. Unity that places the nation and community before political party and individuals is also necessary. Devotion and self-sacrifice must come first. When a constituent during a town hall event a month before the U.S. presidential election in 2008 called the Democrat candidate Obama “an Arab” who could not be trusted, his Republican rival John McCain corrected her: “No ma’am, he’s a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign is all about.” Supporting the unpopular U.S mission in Iraq, McCain said he would “rather lose an election than see the country lose a war.” He indeed lost the election. But the media praised him for putting “the country over party.”
Former German chancellor Angela Merkel also shone best with her engaging power. Although she had ended the power of her predecessor Gerhard Schröder, she attended his biography publishing event to thank him for his labor and welfare reforms that helped revive the German economy. She credited her predecessor’s sacrifice for the national progress. In a symbol of peaceful transition of power, she took Olaf Scholz, a would-be successor from the rival party, to the G20 summit to meet with leaders.
Dignity also comes from habit. Few examples of dignified leadership can be found from South Korean politics of 74 years and democratization of 35 years. We urge the politicians to change the destiny of the country.