The Korea Herald


[Kim Seong-kon] Reminiscing about the turbulent year, 2023

By Korea Herald

Published : Dec. 27, 2023 - 05:31

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The tempestuous year 2023 is waning and the hopeful year 2024 is dawning. Looking back upon this past year, the best thing that happened was the announcement of the end of the COVID-19 health crisis after the pandemic had devastated the world for three years. The worst thing that happened was the terrible war between Israel and Hamas that broke out amidst the ongoing horrors of the war in Ukraine, making so many people’s lives miserable. In addition, we witnessed the awesome power of artificial intelligence, ChatGPT, which has already become widespread in our world.

In Korea, too, some good things and bad things happened in 2023. One of the good things was that Korea returned to the right track after it had derailed and drifted for the past few years. Among others, Korea was able to restore its friendship with its allies, such as Japan and the US. The summit meeting with Japan and the US was a remarkable diplomatic accomplishment, together with the Washington Declaration that guaranteed the national security of South Korea.

Another encouraging thing was the successful launch of our spaceship, Nuri, which enabled Korea to join international space exploration projects. It was timely because North Korea succeeded in launching a surveillance satellite this year. Metaphorically speaking, Korea is now in the right orbit, soaring up into the future like a rocket ship.

Also in 2023, some incidents disheartened us. For example, the Saemangeum World Scout Jamboree disaster made us embarrassed in front of the world. We should not repeat the same mistake ever again. Then, the unprecedented drop of the birthrate dismayed us. Imagine our grim future without children. The suicide of an elementary school teacher due to the alleged harassment of her student’s parents also depressed us.

After the teacher’s suicide, Andres Felipe Solano, a Colombian novelist and a professor at the Literature Translation Institute of Korea, pointed out that there seemed to be no middle ground in Korean society. Indeed, we always go from one extreme to another. In the past, teachers’ corporal punishment was problematic. Now, we are witnessing students’ violence or parents’ ferocity against teachers. The same thing goes for our political climate: We have the extreme right wing and the extreme left wing only, without any room for the moderate.

In 2023, some bad things shook our society, even literally. For example, we had frequent minor earthquakes here and there that experts warned might be a forewarning of an impending major earthquake, for which we should prepare. Then, the street violence of indiscriminate stabbing of passersby appalled us. This was a serious social problem because the killers were psychopaths, misogynists, or vengeful people full of blind hate and fury toward others.

Yet the worst thing that happened in Korea in 2023 was undoubtedly the factional scuffles of our lawmakers, which disgraced the National Assembly. In the eyes of the Korean people, the lawmakers, especially those in the opposition party who occupied the majority, were interested in neither the welfare of the people nor the future of Korea. Their primary concern seemed to be how to veto the government’s efforts to run the country well and how to remain in power by pleasing their party leaders.

Just as obnoxious was the rise of the opposition party leader’s extreme fandom. They threatened to ruin the political careers of lawmakers who voted against their party’s policy. Such a thing could not happen in a democratic country, not to mention an advanced country. Indeed, it would be a shame if we still lived in a society intimidated by Red Guard-like extremists. We all should be gentle and moderate.

In 2023, our ideology-oriented politicians split the people into two mutually antagonizing groups, and as a result, a kind of civil war went on in Korean society. Despite the wiles and wicked designs of our politicians, we should seek reconciliation and unite in order to cope with domestic issues and international crises. When we think of the future for our children, we realize we cannot afford a bi-polarized society any more.

Recently, US media reported that Generation Z Americans are buying essentials in advance, such as rolls of toilet paper and emergency food, preparing for a civil war that may break out after the US presidential election in 2024. The report predicted that whoever becomes the winner, about half of the American people would not accept the outcome. In that case, they assume, a civil war would be inevitable. The same thing could happen to Korea in the upcoming elections. If so, that would be very depressing and sad.

Ominously, a variant of COVID-19 called JN.1 is now surging, but “we shall overcome” all these hardships in 2024. Bidding adieu to 2023, we hope that our best days are not behind us, but ahead of us. In the new year, we hope to build a society that we can be proud of and all others admire and applaud.

Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.