In South Korea today, all kinds of extremism are rampant. They are instigated by two extreme political forces: conservative and progressive. On the other hand, the print and electronic mass media is also divided into the two opposing ideological camps and is trying to “indoctrinate” the general public. Under these tense circumstances, ordinary people are confused and easily manipulated by these political forces and the mass media. These extremist conservative and progressive forces blame each other for inciting innocent people to hate the other side.
It is quite natural for various political forces to compete with one another in democratic states. But Korea’s confrontational politics are quite unusual and dangerous mainly because South Korea is confronted with a totalitarian communist regime in the north, making it is easy for the conservative forces to accuse the progressive forces of treason, while the progressive forces call it a new McCarthyism. This kind of confrontational politics politicizes every aspect of life in Korea.
More seriously, it divides NGOs and religious organizations into pro- and anti-political forces, aggravates regional antagonism and generational conflicts, and imbues the people with class consciousness. Korea has been blessed not to have religious, ethnic and class conflicts. If this kind of diehard conflict between the ideological forces continues, not only will the existing regional and generational conflicts intensify, but class and religious conflicts will also come to the fore.
Under the circumstances, what Korea needs is not a third political force, but a non-political force independent of all the existing political forces and civil society organizations. Since practically all segments of society are politicized and the general public is either apolitical or feels helpless, the only available and viable force is intellectuals.
In different times and countries intellectuals have been defined differently, but their essential characteristics are the same. One is that they are better educated than ordinary people, mostly with college and postgraduate degrees but from different class backgrounds. In this sense, they are an independent class. Another is that they have a strong sense of objectivity in analyzing and evaluating political and social issues and also a strong sense of morality in identifying themselves with political and social positions. The third is that their views and ideas are highly moralistic, advanced and global.
Therefore, they support and promote universal moral values and norms, rejecting exclusive religious, ethnic and national creeds and norms. They not only produce ideas but also disseminate them. Finally, they support or promote certain ideologies and policies but do not join any organized political forces. Instead, they organize and lead political movements or civil society organizations to achieve their goals. In other words, they have no intention of seizing power for themselves or working for the political force in power. Once they do so, they become politicians and are no longer intellectuals.
Right now, Korea needs true intellectuals with the above characteristics. They are the only group that the people can trust and rely on. They should help the confused or manipulated people think and act independently. The most serious defect of democracy in all capitalist democratic states is that money can buy votes. Another defect is that people can easily be influenced and indoctrinated by political demagogues and lend them their support. The third defect is that because of these two defects all kinds of extremism prosper and make the government ungovernable. Korea is in this situation. When I read an opinion survey of North Korean defectors living in South Korea on Korean reunification in a newspaper, I was deeply depressed to find that only 44.5 percent of them wanted to live in South Korea. I hoped and expected that all of them would support reunification at any cost so that all Koreans could live under a free and democratic government.
Unfortunately, many intellectuals in Korea have become politicized and identify with political groups, and the number of intellectual leaders is dwindling to none. The strongest weapon of intellectual leaders is ideational and moral power. They can revolutionize the masses. Bertrand Russell, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Jean Paul Sartre were intellectual leaders in the Cold War period. Where are Korean intellectual role models?
By Park Sang-seek
Park Sang-seek is a former rector of the Graduate Institute of Peace Studies at Kyung Hee University and the author of “Globalized Korea and Localized Globe.” ― Ed.