Shame, though painful or unpleasant, is an integral virtue of human beings. Human decency and integrity stem from a sense of shame. If we are shameless and brazen, we are no longer human and reduced to animal-like creatures. In fact, the spectacle of shameless people makes us feel ashamed on their behalf. Unfortunately, we encounter so many unabashed people and things that make us feel ashamed these days.
Recently, we were appalled at North Korea’s brutal shooting and presumed burning of a South Korean government official who was drifting toward North Korean shores. The incident made us ashamed for North Korea. No other country on Earth could commit such a cold-blooded crime to a person who needed help in the sea. If their rationale to kill the South Korean civil servant was to block the possible spread of the pandemic, should we, too, shoot foreigners arriving at our port of entry?
Meanwhile, the South Korean government, which neither attempted to protect its own citizen, nor protested strongly against his brutal killing, made us ashamed as well. As usual, our government assumed a low profile so as not to antagonize the North and thus lost the precious chance to save the life of its employee. The primary mission of a government is to protect its own people. Regrettably, our government has failed its citizens.
The South Korean government also made us ashamed when it sent North Korean refugees seeking asylum back to the North. Undoubtedly, it was an inhumane thing to do because, upon returning, those political refugees will surely face execution for treason. The South Korean government might have its own reasons for committing such an act, but it seriously degraded the image of South Korea in the international community.
Recently, a famed South Korean pop singer, Na Hoon-a, made us ashamed of ourselves by boldly criticizing the current situation of Korea in his TV concert. Na was immediately in the spotlight because he exhibited the courage to stand up and point out the problems of our society at a time when Korean writers and intellectuals remain silent. He deplored the social milieu derived from our propaganda-oriented press, our myopic, parochial leaders and our problematic political climates. In 2018, Na defiantly declined to join the performing artists who went to Pyongyang for a North-South concert festival.
Our left-wing politicians, who are constantly dragging us into the past, make us ashamed of them, too. We no longer live in the late 19th or early 20th century when our national liberation was at stake. We no longer live in the era of the Donghak Revolution in 1894 either, which called for class equality. Professor Lee O-young argues that there is no such thing as systemic class discrimination in today’s Korea. For example, he points out that Seoul National University is open to anyone who has academic excellence and admits students irrespective of social standing. Moreover, SNU allots a certain percentage of slots for applicants from rural areas. Why, then do we need another Donghak Revolution? Besides, The Donghak Revolution consequently invited the Japanese occupation of Korea, though unwittingly.
Our hopelessly incompetent right-wing conservative politicians, too, make us ashamed of them. Despite a series of mistakes and wrongdoings by the left-wing ruling party, the opposition party is so incompetent that it has not done anything about it. It does not even have promising candidates for the upcoming elections.
Our politicians who claim credit for successfully coping with COVID-19 make us ashamed of them, too. Rather than politicians, it was dedicated doctors and nurses who deserved our compliments. Instead, however, our politicians criticized doctors and treated them as if they were civil servants. They should know that doctors are not government officials, except in socialist countries.
Those who are responsible for the spread of the coronavirus make us ashamed of them, as well. Whoever they are, they should be deeply sorry for what they did. Due to the pandemic, so many people lost their jobs and lives and the whole world is now suffering indefinitely. In fact, human civilization is faltering now due to COVID-19, not to mention the world economy. Yet, no one takes responsibility or apologizes for it.
These days, we are ashamed of ourselves whenever we shun a person walking toward us in the street. In the past, we would greet him or her with a bright smile and “Hi,” or “Hello.” Now we avoid the person by hurriedly walking to the other side of the road. Of course, it is out of courtesy and thoughtfulness in the pandemic situation. Still, however, it makes us sad and ashamed. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, we have lost the warmth of human touch and contact. Surely, it is a shame, and makes us sad.
We only hope there are many things that we can be proud of, not ashamed.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. -- Ed.