By Michael Breen
In an interview in this newspaper this week, National Assemblywoman Song Young-sun said her goal as a politician is to make Koreans proud of their country.
But surely, you would think, Koreans are already proud? Is nationalism not a matter of pride marshaled in the direction of national development? Where else does the giddiness about wired Korea, the miracle on the Han, and the Korean wave come from? What is the frenzied nationwide support for athletes in international events in obscure sports all about? Is this not national pride?
No. Actually, it is greed for achievement. Unwholesome because, when it comes, there is no satisfaction.
Consider these examples: when, after years of yearning for democracy, Koreans chose a president freely for the first time (Roh Tae-woo, 1988-1993), he was widely branded a dictator even by people who voted for him. Indeed, his successor, Kim Young-sam, from the same ruling party, fueled this peculiar national self-flagellation by declaring himself the first proper democratic president.
When, after years of yearning for a Nobel Prize ― a Seoul bookstore for a long time featured a silhouette of a future Korean winner at the end of a frieze of famous Nobel laureates ― a Korean finally got one (Kim Dae-jung, 2000 Peace Prize), many, possibly a majority, considered him unworthy.
Not only did national achievement in these instances fail to satisfy. It disappointed.
That is because the default level of national pride is low. South Koreans are not proud of their country. Rather, when they reflect on their country, they tend to be ashamed and mistrustful.
How do you change that?
Song, who was a senior government defense analyst before entering politics, says national pride would be repaired if the country didn’t have to go running to the United States and China whenever the North Koreans wave their nuclear weapons.
``I don’t understand why a country with the 6th largest armed forces in the world should be intimidated by the North,” she says. Good point. Why does this major power shriek and hide behind American skirts when the North Korean mouse runs into the room?
Her solution is for South Korea to develop nuclear weapons. As a security expert and strong supporter of the United States and Japan, Korea’s closest allies, Song proposes this be done in some way that achieves deterrence without threatening the alliances.
But national defense is not all. It is a matter of muscle. Citizens also need to feel the country’s goodness. That comes down not to power or money but to values.
Here is a topical comparison from Egypt: ``In those epic three weeks, I’ve seen everything good about this country,” wrote Joseph Fahim in the English-language Daily News of Egypt. ``The kindness thought to have long gone, the courage and resilience deemed to have been crushed by Mubarak’s iron hand, the love that has transcended every social, economic and religious barrier.”
The most inspiring moments for Fahim were when Coptic Christians among the protestors formed a human shield around Muslim worshipers in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during Friday prayers and when Muslims joined Christians for Sunday services. ``On Friday, it didn’t matter if you’re Christian, Muslim or atheist. It didn’t matter if you’re rich or poor. It didn’t matter if you’re liberal or conservative. That day, we were all Egyptians period, high on national pride, intoxicated by the victory brought about by our collective labor. And for the first time in my life, Egypt was home.”
To sustain such pride, people need to know their country is good. In the modern world, that doesn’t mean conquering markets or making the best semiconductors. But rather that, at home, justice is fair, liberty is protected, and all are given an equal chance, and that, abroad, we are on the right side of the world’s ethical issues.
And for as much as this is expressed in systems, it is also expressed in the words of leaders. If presidential hopefuls, envious that earlier leaders had simple definable themes to champion ― peace, three meals a day, growth, democracy ― are casting around for one that is relevant, then this may be it.
Michael Breen is an author, former foreign correspondent and the chairman of Insight Communications, a public relations consulting company. He can be reached at email@example.com.