When I returned to Seoul from New York City to join the faculty of Seoul National University in the early 1980s, South Korea was sharply divided into two mutually antagonizing factions: anti-government left-wing political activists and pro-government right-wing supporters, radicals and conservatives, socialists and. capitalists.
In academia and the literary community, scholars and writers were also divided into two factions: national literature and world literature, socially engaged literature and pure literature, realism and modernism. The former condemned the latter as dictatorial regime collaborators, and the latter criticized the former as ideology-oriented extremists. At that time, the sociopolitical landscape of Korea was monochromatic and bleak.
That was why I held a graduate seminar on postmodernism at Seoul National University and taught my students how to overcome the binary opposition and to instead embrace the both, exploring a third possibility. I taught students the importance of ethnic and cultural diversity and the colorful rainbow coalition. I tried to help my students overcome tribalism and nationalism, and embrace globalism and differences instead, opening their eyes to the outside world. It was not an easy task because such an effort was against the grain and therefore faced hostility and suspicion from both sides.
Fortunately, postmodern perspectives on diversity and crossing boundaries became prevalent in Korean society by the early 1990s, coinciding with the fall of Communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. As the Cold War era came to an end, the decade of political ideology was over at last. At the time, I was pleased to see the advent of postmodern perspectives in Korea, which enabled the emergence of important female writers and other marginalized voices, and brought about work that delved into personal agonies and the private dimension of human beings instead of inhumane political ideologies.
In the 1980s, extreme left-wing activists thought that literature must serve political ideologies and therefore individuality was a luxury of the petty bourgeois. Since the 1990s, however, writers have finally become free from political dogmatism. The Korean people have since witnessed not only an economic miracle but also cultural prosperity. Indeed, colorful diversity has since been rampant in Korean society.
Unfortunately, we are now witnessing a deja vu of the 1980s, when Marxism and ultranationalism prevailed in Korea. Our left-wing politicians -- with their moral superiority and self-righteousness -- are once again preaching their monochromatic mentality, condemning their political opponents as national traitors and “native Japanese pirates” simply because the latter does not support their anti-Japan campaigns.
Meanwhile, right-wing Koreans criticize left-wing politicians as “native commie guerillas.” Indeed, left-wing politicians are staunchly pro-North Korea and pro-China, whereas right-wing people tend to be pro-America and pro-Japan. Once again, Korea has regrettably become a monochromatic country hopelessly divided into two mutually exclusive factions.
Consequently, a growing number of Koreans are dismayed at both left-wing radicals and right-wing conservatives these days. Initially, Koreans, who were fed up with the Park Geun-hye administration, supported the Moon Jae-in administration, believing that it replaced an incompetent, corrupt conservative regime. Now, they are equally disillusioned with obstinate, ideology-oriented left-wing politicians who preach tribalism in the age of globalism, and trumpet socialism in the era of capitalism and liberalism. At the same time, people are also disappointed with the incompetence and banality of right-wing conservative politicians.
The problem is that there is no third way in Korea. And there is no heroic figure such as John F. Kennedy, who can embrace diversity, denounce the bipolarity that tears a nation apart, and overcome the unprecedented crises we are now facing. We deplore that we are hopelessly marching into harm’s way while our spectacular accomplishments are rapidly deteriorating.
Standing between native Japanese pirates and native Commie guerillas, we cannot but recollect what US President Abraham Lincoln said during the American Civil War, “A house divided cannot stand.” We can also hear the whispers of our hostile neighboring countries, “Let’s divide and conquer,” as they did in the late 19th century. We lament that our nation is torn between two antagonizing extremists in this era of diversity.
Experts keep pointing out that if we do not change our current path, we will reach a dead end eventually. Perhaps we may be able to turn back and return to the starting point. But it will be a huge waste of time and energy, accomplishing nothing in the meantime. That is why we should be very careful not to stumble into a dead end where there is no way out.
The world has changed, and we are now entering the 2020s. We should be free from the 1980s mentality. If we turn a deaf ear to warnings, we are likely to end up facing a cul-de-sac soon. Then it will be too late to regret and turn back, and we will be lost forever.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting professor at the University of California, Irvine. -- Ed.