By Oh Kongdan
Regardless of the lack of consensus on several important issues at the G20 summit, Korea did a great job of hosting the meeting. Among my colleagues in Washington, the opinion is that Korea proved itself to be a skillful economic and diplomatic player on the global stage.
After a moment of satisfaction and pride, it is time for Korea to get back to work and keep the momentum going. What’s the next step for Korea to become an even stronger power on the global stage?
I have been known to call Korea a ``strategic squeak” power. Korea possesses neither the strategic military capability nor the international political clout to deal with potential aggressors on its own. Korea continues to rely on the United States for political support in the global arena and also for some military resources, including the U.S. nuclear umbrella.
There is good reason to believe that as long as North Korea maintains its belligerent stance (which I do not believe is primarily a response to U.S. military power in the region), Korea will need to sustain its alliance with the United States. The March 2010 North Korean torpedo attack was bad enough; imagine what North Korea might do if it did not have to worry about US military intervention. In response to such military crises, Korea squeaks and the United States and the global community lend their support.
In the years ahead, I believe Korea’s squeaking voice should be upgraded to ``strategic squelch” status. At the G20 summit and in many other venues, Korea gained membership to the club that includes the world’s most powerful nations, and these nations will find it difficult to ignore any situation in which Korea is imposed upon. By successfully hosting the summit, Korea has also once again demonstrated its competence. Korea is no underdog. It is no longer a small power that can be swayed by bigger or more aggressive neighbors. It is a medium strategic power with the ability to participate in the global agenda, and it should think like one.
Moreover, the path that Korea has taken from being an underdeveloped country to a leading economic nation significantly adds to its credit. Developing countries will find Korea a more appropriate economic and social model than the model provided by older economic powers because Koreans still remember the agony of poverty and the importance of hard work.
I don’t think Korea’s future lies in becoming a military power, although improving its military capabilities to defend against North Korea is necessary. And I don’t suggest that Korea needs to climb to another level of economic power, because Korean expertise and tenacity in tackling national economic problems has been proven twice, first during the financial crisis in the late 1990s and more recently in shaking off the global economic recession. However, in the social and political arena I see a few areas where Korea needs to make progress if it wants to consolidate its internal strength and sustain smooth progress in economic growth.
One important issue of concern is the breakdown of family life and the fragmentation of society. As recent stories about the tragic nursing home fire remind us, an increasing number of the elderly are left alone in nursing homes by their families. If the family is no longer willing to take responsibility for their welfare, the government will have to play a stronger role. It seems likely that, in many cases, current safety guidelines for nursing homes are not being enforced. This is not just a Korean problem; even countries with more extensive social welfare programs often fail when it comes to serving their less fortunate citizens. But Korea is closer to its roots as a family-centered society than most Western individualistic societies, and rather than follow the sometimes heartless model of these ``advanced” societies, Korea still has the opportunity of developing a more caring model for its own society.
Second, and related to the first issue, Korea needs to work to achieve a society where honesty and truth are the two most important guidelines of life and work. This is a tall order, and again I am not saying that Korea is unique in facing this challenge. But I think it is time for Korea to advance substantially toward this goal. Business leaders accumulate tons of money and try to avoid paying lawful taxes. Educated people exaggerate or even fabricate their academic biographies to advance their careers. Television producers exaggerate and even fabricate stories to capture the imagination and passions of viewers. On a wide range of topics, from domestic politics to North Korea issues, the public unquestioningly accepts sensational rumors, fabricated stories, and lies. Young and old alike lie flat on the surgeon’s table to get cosmetic surgery simply to look more attractive. Didn’t we say in the old days, ``Your healthy body was a gift from your parents endowed with the blessing of heaven, so treasure it without changing any part of it unless it is broken or sick.”
Third, we need to take a hard look at the role of education in society. Superbly educated ― one might even say overly-educated ― college graduates with advanced degrees too often face under-employment and even unemployment. Everybody wants to go to college because for some reason society demands a college degree even for manual work. It is time to develop a different view of education. Not all people were born to be scholars, and scholars are not the only builders of society. A nation does not need a uniformly educated citizenry. Korea needs to pay more attention to specialization. Koreans need to recognize the honor and value of all kinds of educational paths and occupations.
Fourth and finally, it is time to think about all the positive things that Korean unification will bring. Economists warn of the high costs of unification, and sociologists warn of the psychological burden that South Koreans will have to bear when poor and out-of-touch North Koreans enter a unified society. But in my view, unification is the inevitable path toward a political strong, economically prosperous, and socially healthy nation. It is foolish to make plans that don’t include the northern half of Korea as well.
Oh Kong-dan is a research fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. She is a major expert on Asian affairs. Her recent publications include the report, ``Moving the U.S.-ROK Alliance into the 21st Century" and the book ``The Hidden People of North Korea: Everyday Life in the Hermit Kingdom." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.