Tolerance, dialogue key to healing fractured Korea

By Shin Hyon-hee
  • Published : Aug 22, 2014 - 20:38
  • Updated : Aug 22, 2014 - 21:22
Chung Kwan-yong likes to call himself a “gray man.” In a country long plagued by ideological extremism and political hostility, the label often connotes cowardice, irresoluteness and disloyalty. But to the renowned liberal intellectual, debate host and commentator, it is a proud reflection of his life-long endeavor to promote communication between left and right and forge a middle road based on fairness, tolerance and civic awareness.

Korea is acutely in need of such virtues, now more than ever. The country is wracked by bitter political friction and popular grievances in the wake of the April 16 ferry disaster that killed about 300. Deep grief and anger has elicited disillusionment toward a system that has long prioritized economic growth and efficiency over safety.

Chung said the nationwide soul-searching should focus on ways to raise civic consciousness about deep-seated, long-veiled malpractices in society to set up checks and balances and bring about change.

“On the bright side, the disaster demonstrated the growth of the civic sector,” says Chung, who currently teaches at the Hallym University of Graduate Studies and hosts a weekday evening radio show on CBS.
Chung Kwan-yong (Kim Myung-sub/The Korea Herald)

“Unlike 20 years ago, when the Seohae ferry sank, the survivors and victims’ families had a chance to receive counseling this time, while psychiatrists and counselors, as well as a countless number of volunteers, rushed to the scene.”

The change, he says, was only made possible through the maturity of a citizenry that makes growing public demands.

But there are many areas that are still outside the sphere of public attention and thus manipulated by “a few near-omnipotent actors with vested interests” ― maritime affairs, for instance.

“In a country that has long been under the yoke of military-backed governments and authoritarian bureaucracy, the public sector can be changed when the people keep demanding, arguing and clamoring for it,” Chung says.

“We have to make sure that mature future generations keep close tabs on the government, hold it in check and criticize it, focusing particularly on fields that have long been out of the limelight. That’s a way to put into action the lessons of the Sewol, and the slogan ‘We will not forget.’”

The 51-year-old professor is recognized as one of the most trusted debate moderators, having hosted some 2,000 discussions on and off the air since his 2003 debut on KBS.

On air, Chung manages to fling sharp questions, divide them fairly and keep the exchanges on track while staying largely above the fray even as rivalries heat up between the sides.

After a face-off between Reps. Moon Jae-in and Ahn Cheol-soo to determine a unified standard-bearer for the opposition camp in the December 2012 presidential election, Seoul National University professor Cho Kuk called Chung “the true winner,” praising his skillful moderation in contrast to the two contenders’ relatively bland performances.

Korea’s debate culture has greatly evolved over the past decade, he assesses. But it still often tends to “go backward” on some highly controversial issues. Despite his long career on TV, he is critical of the stereotyped broadcast discussions.

“Broadcast debates are for show ― participants focus on carrying out their arguments and changing their counterpart’s mind rather than listening to them,” Chung says.

“Such an image often creates an illusion about our perception of debates in general because that’s far from our daily lives, in which we debate in order to understand each other and find a middle ground.

“On the other hand, the shows help the public sort out their thinking as some of the best experts guide them through the pros and cons on a certain issue.”

But he has never been free from political fire during his checkered career.

As a commentator, he is known as a rational liberal and often receives criticism from conservatives. Chung is a cofounder of Pressian, a liberal online newspaper. As a board member, he wrote a slew of articles critical of conservatives’ policies.

In 2008, he was abruptly replaced as the host of the main late night debate show on state-run KBS, which he had steered for five years.

The public broadcaster said the decision was to save costs but rumor had it that the conservative Lee Myung-bak administration had pressured the new chief of the network to dump Chung. Later in 2013, he returned to TV as the host of MBC’s flagship “100 Minute Debate.”

A victim of divisive politics himself, Chung calls for the restoration of fairness, balance, trust and openness to overcome the persistent ideological and social strife which he considers a product of the country’s breakneck transformation.

As the political culture has failed to keep pace with economic growth, society remains a melting pot of irreconcilable remnants of the past, ranging from Confucian ideas from the Joseon era to aspects of Japanese colonial rule and military dictatorship in the late 20th century.

Conservatives, he says, asserted their role in the country’s industrialization but the process has failed to bring about a moral order and contribute to the community. Their result-oriented approach led instead to labor repression and a back-scratching alliance between the government and businesses.

Progressives, for their part, claim credit for ending the iron-fisted military rule and bringing about democracy. But their intellectual and ethical “rigorism” has empowered radicals, while often posing hurdles for their own search for alternatives.

“What we need is a spirit of tolerance,” he says. “Both camps should accept each other and seek ways to coexist. At the end of the day, it’s all about political compromise and negotiation.“

In recent years, he has been preaching the need for communication and leadership as the keys to conflict prevention and greater social integration through his writings and lectures.

His 2010 book, titled “Leadership Matters,” looks into challenges facing the nation and ways to overcome them through dialogues with four senior politicians and scholars.

“When I published the book back then, I sought to highlight that we had accomplished great strides in democratization, digitalization and industrialization in such a short period, (but that) the big transformation was accompanied by sources of social conflict, and communication is essential in precluding discord and moving forward,” Chung notes.

“But the culture of communication is established by the leader ― whether it be within a household, a company office or a country.”

Nearly 17 years into commentary work, he hopes to continue contributing to promoting social communication, at least until he turns 60. His activities at Hallym University are also in line with his commitment to nurturing skilled communicators through classes on speech communication and mediation.

Asked whether he still opts to remain a “gray man,” Chung did not waste a second in responding.

“Of course. It’s the best color in the world.”

By Shin Hyon-hee (