Thoughts from travel around Baltic Sea [The Korea Times] 10-25-2011

I recently visited seven countries around the Baltic Sea over 13 days. This trip is an annual event of the United States Association of Former Members of Congress. I traveled on a big cruise ship, the Holland America Line, which consists of three lower-decks and nine upper-decks. They say that it can hold 2,000 passengers, and I have never seen such a big ship in my life.

On Sept. 7, I arrived in Amsterdam, the capital of the Netherlands, whose population is 770,000. The population of the Netherlands is 13 million, and its per capita gross national income (GNI) is $36,000, which is much higher than Korea’s $20,000. I felt close to this country, perhaps because it is the native land of Guus Hiddink, manager of the Korean national soccer team that reached the semifinals of the 2002 World Cup.

I boarded the ship there and headed to Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark. The population of Denmark is 5.6 million, and the population of Copenhagen is 540,000. Denmark’s per capita GNI is $53,000, which is a little higher than Germany’s. Its government provides many services free through its welfare system. One-third of the workforce of Denmark is employed by the government, and the residents pay the highest tax in the world, but they don’t seem mind.

The next day, I visited Warnemunde, a port city in Germany. It takes two and a half hours by car to get to Berlin from there. The population of Germany is 83 million, and 3.4 million live in Berlin. Per capita GNI of Germany is $41,000, and it is known as the most affluent and influential country in Europe. As Germany continues to pour money into Greece, its citizens have begun to talk about a breakaway from the EU.

The Germans took part in a terrible history; they killed 6 million Jews, as well as homosexuals and the mentally challenged, during the Holocaust. The Berlin Wall was erected to divide the East and the West portions of Germany in 1961. As the number of people who defected to West Germany increased, East Germany finally gave up; in 1989, the wall was taken down and Germany was unified. Germany has a close relationship with the U.S. After a census report that about one-fourth of Americans have direct or indirect German ancestors, Oct. 6 was proclaimed as an annual German-American Day.

On my way to Berlin, the car that I was in was running at 200 kilometers per hour on the Autobahn (a highway with no speed limit). I was scared, as even at that fast speed there were many cars that passed us. I was surprised to learn that the accident rates are very low.

As I was looking at the beautiful German Parliament building with its glass doors, renovated after their unification, my heart hurt from a sudden thought about my deceased mother. She was from Gangye, North Korea, and she wished that she could have visited Pyongyang as a city of unified Korea before her death.

On Sept. 12, I arrived in the capital of Estonia, Tallinn. Estonia became independent from Russia on Sept. 6, 1991. Maybe that is the reason why it still does not seem settled. Its population is just 1.3 million, and 400,000 people live in Tallinn.

It is a poor country in European standard whose per capita GNI is just $13,000, much lower than Korea. I was surprised to hear that the average male life expectancy is 69 years, just four years more the retirement age of 65. Retired at 65 and died at 69. It is believed that perhaps too much vodka causes that short lifespan.

The next day, we went to St. Petersburg, a famous city in Russia. During the time of the Soviet Union, it was called Leningrad. According to the U.S. Consulate in St. Petersburg, over 100,000 American tourists visit there every year. There were warning posters about pickpockets all over the city. Hearing that they often work as teams of three and how fast they are, I checked my pockets again. This city is a famous tourist site in the world. It is called the Venice of the North, as there are small canals everywhere and over 300 bridges crossing over them. With its grand palace, cathedrals, and museums, it is as beautiful as they say.

The population of Sweden is about 9 million, and about 810,000, 10 percent of the population, live in Stockholm. I could not find any beggars or homeless people in the street, maybe because Sweden is a rich country, with per capita GNI standing at $39,000. Sweden was once a powerful country that had Norway as its subordinate country. However, it is a neutral country now. It has strong agriculture and foresting industries, and is a rich country whose annual economic growth rate is expected to exceed 8 percent from 2018 on.

Stockholm is the capital of the famous Nobel Prize, and the city itself looked like a living embodiment of that prize. Sweden has close ties with the U.S. Over 1,100 American companies do business here, and they employ 120,000 Swedes. There are also 14 million people in America who have Swedish heritages.

Hyundai and Kia cars can be easily found in the streets of Stockholm. When I went to a Korean restaurant in the central district of the city, I was very surprised to see customers filling not only the inside tables, but also the tables outside on the sidewalk, during lunchtime. We felt rather out of place, since we were the only Asian customers. I did not know that Swedes liked Korean food that much.

During my travels, I was once again envious of the countries that make money from tourism. They fixed up the palaces and cathedrals their ancestors built 700 years ago to get such high admission fees from tourists, and make a fortune without spending too much for operation and maintenance costs.

Koreans don’t seem to have that many cultural assets built 700 years ago from which they can make money. However, we were really happy to see the Korean cars on the lands of these far-away foreign countries, and still happier to see the big Korean restaurant filled with Swedes.

Even though Koreans lost the brilliant cultural palaces that their ancestors carefully built thanks to so many wars, Korea still have the future. U.S also doesn’t have any old cathedrals to attract tourists, but U.S. attracts the most tourists from all over the world. It is because Koreans and Americans are helping shape the future, while others are dependent on and attached to the past to make money. Once I thought about this, I wasn’t so envious anymore.

Jay Kim is a former U.S. congressman. He serves as chairman of the KimChangJoon US-Korea Foundation. For more information, visit Kim’s website (www.jayckim.com).

(48) Freedom of religion in America

Everyone knows that the Christian faith played a profound role in the founding of the United States. According to history, the beginning of the U.S. was the Plymouth Colony, which was established on the Mayflower by the Pilgrims, who left England to escape religious persecution and arrived in New England in December 1620.

Their purpose was to build a new world in which they could practice their beliefs in peace. The belief that people should be free to believe and practice as they wish was carried over into the writing of the Constitution for the new nation after the revolution.

Nevertheless the Christian religion has held a dominant position since America’s inception, and the U.S. developed as a country based largely on Judeo-Christian values. In the 19th and 20th centuries the U.S. became a base for many Christian churches and organizations to send out missionaries throughout the world. As they worked in poor and uncivilized countries, many young missionaries often died from malnutrition and disease.

Some of these missionaries built new educational institutions and hospitals, as well as churches and orphanages, as in Korea at the end of the Joseon Kingdom. It is no exaggeration that their efforts made Korea one of the countries where Christianity flourishes most.

However, the influence of Christianity has weakened in the U.S. as time passed. As millions of immigrants came from all over the world, various religions spread and began to deeply penetrate into the traditional Christian culture of America. Not only in the U.S. but also in Europe, the number of people who have turned their backs on the Christian church has increased.

In fact, in the last 20 years, the number of Christians has decreased, while the number of atheists has increased fourfold. Younger generations increasingly resist Christian principles.

Movements arose to enforce strict observations that the government should not support or condone an official religion, which led to most public schools eliminating the habit of morning prayers.

Some also claimed that words from the Bible, pictures of Jesus, and the Ten Commandments should be removed from the walls of public schools. Their reason was that such coercion of religion violated the freedom of religion.

Several Republican lawmakers, including myself, decided to propose a school prayer amendment, and I took a lead on passing this bill as a sponsor. The content of the bill passed in 2002 can be summarized as follows:

“Nothing in this (U.S.) Constitution shall be construed to prohibit individual or group prayer in public schools or other public institutions. No person shall be required by the United States or by any state to participate in prayer. Neither the United States nor any state shall compose the words of any prayer to be said in public schools.”

In other words, schools can permit a prayer time as long as each student prays quietly following his own private religious belief without being forced to join in the prayer of a Christian or any other religion. This was a compromise with the hard-liners that wanted to get rid of prayer time in schools, and it contained the implication that private schools could continue to force Christian prayer.

In fact, there are many problems inside the Christian religion. As the great church leaders like Billy Graham became weaker, scandals involving Christian televangelists broke out, and as TV showed corruption and fights inside the church, the integrity of the Christian religion fell.

Christian groups had great influence in politics and society. They have fought strongly against abortion and gay marriage, and for allowing school prayer in public schools. However, they have lost a measure of their influence these days, as the American society has become a multiethnic, multicultural society of multi-religion. Even the military seems to recognize homosexuality with the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

Around 1830, Mormonism appeared in the U.S. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the main branch of Mormonism. Mormons settled mainly in Salt Lake City in Utah, after facing many adverse conditions during their move from the East to the West to avoid oppression from Christians. The hero of these people was Brigham Young.

One striking feature of the Mormon belief was a return to what they considered the Biblical practice of a man having multiple wives. This caused a great deal of friction between Mormons and others in the U.S., and moved Congress to pass the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act in 1862. The Mormon Church itself officially rejected the practice in 1890.

Even so, various pockets of fundamentalists continued the practice in various remote places even into modern times. Today, it’s against the law in all 50 U.S. states.

I remember magazine articles on the practice of polygamy among Mormon fundamentalists in the U.S. The articles contained several pages of pictures, and one of them was a picture of a shabby man with missing several front teeth with his six wives. The ages of his wives seemed to range from the 20s to the 40s, and they looked beautiful. After this picture, there were some men in the U.S who wanted to join the Mormon faith.

I was curious which wife the man who missed several front teeth has chosen to keep. As this issue has gradually disappeared from the interest and memory of the press and the people of America, I wonder what happened to these folks and their wives with children.

Jay Kim is a former U.S. congressman. He serves as chairman of the KimChangJoon US-Korea Foundation. For more information, visit Kim’s website (www.jayckim.com).

(47) Humanistic interpretation of law

It has been long discussed whether the system of a country decides the character of its people. History has already proven that a democratic political system, where the people govern their country through their elected officials and the economy is left to the free markets, is generally the most successful of all political systems. This is not to say that democracy is free of faults. But it still rings true that no system better than democracy has been found on Earth.

The world could not hide its astonishment upon the adoption of the U.S. Constitution on Sept. 17, 1787 in Philadelphia. Until then most countries were ruled by a monarchy, where a single leader held power over everything in the country, including the lives of his citizens. It was even said that a monarch owned the birds that flew over his land.

However, under this new Constitution the people elected a president every four years, as well as representatives to Congress (whose numbers were determined by population size) to make the laws, and judges (not monarchs) would decide judicial matters. This stunned a lot of people; even at the time, there was a movement in the fledgling U.S. to put a member of the Russian royal family in charge, claiming that the Constitution gave the ignorant masses unlimited power. But in the end, the Constitution, created by the pivotal efforts of the 55 delegates from the 13 states which signed the Declaration of Independence, was ratified nationwide.

Some inherent problems of a democratic political system have become apparent. The most outstanding is the disparity between the rich and the poor. Though the Constitution emphasized the equality of people, abilities are not created equal, and the really unlucky found themselves left behind and in poverty. This led to the Socialist and Communist movements, and in Russia an egalitarian system where the country was governed by a committee of the people instead of a monarch took hold rapidly. However, even this system became an autocracy in the end, and Communism has slowly disappeared from the earth.

North Korea is the only major remnant, but even its system is not real Communism, but an autocratic monarchy where power is hereditary. North Korea, which rejects free market economy and deprives its people of suffrage, has become one of the poorest countries in the world.

On the other hand, the U.S., which introduced democracy, has become the representative of democracy and the richest country in the world. It drew the envy of the world, and every country began to copy its system. Numerous laws passed as the experience of democracy accumulated, and as the character of the nation was formed and changed by these laws, the unique American system began to stabilize.

Perhaps one unforeseen consequence of the principle that everyone is equal before the law is that the U.S. has become increasingly a country managed by law and lawyers, and where anyone who breaks a law may face stiff penalties regardless of the broader context. Contrary to this, Korea developed into a country governed by the law but with its unique humanistic tradition, under the principle that the people do not have to abide by bad laws. Abusing this has led to a lawless society where the police get beaten and violence occurs in streets, and even in the National Assembly, where laws are made.

Watching the Korean protesters against U.S. beef importation beating up policemen in the public streets of downtown Seoul became an everyday scene. However, when these same violent protesters came to the U.S. to protest, they held a quiet protest following police orders without complaint. I thought that the strict adherence of law and order in America led to this behavioral change. It seemed likely that they acted like meek little lambs because of the U.S. police’s reputation of shooting those that didn’t follow their instructions.

It was funny to see Americans frowning and sneering at the protesters, who had spent so much money only to march quietly on the sidewalks holding picket signs but not making any sounds, wondering why they even came to the U.S. to protest at such high cost of money and time. The protest was a complete failure; I was told that the protesters went sightseeing the next day and returned to Korea. A few days later I saw the returned protesters pushing and beating the police once again on Korean TV, as though they were making up for lost time in the U.S.

In America, both parties have dedicated major efforts toward solving the problem of crime. The Democrats poured hundreds of millions of dollars into crime prevention, claiming that prisoners should be rehabilitated to adapt to society. The Republican Party poured hundreds of millions of dollars into crime punishment, claiming that more policemen should be hired and more prisons should be built. Furthermore, the Republican Party strongly supports capital punishment and has regularly proposed a bill to limit appeals by those sentenced to death.

H.R.2703, H.R.729 and H.R.4029 are the exemplary bills proposed by the Republican Party. These bills propose that Americans a) build more prisons, increase the number of police officers and correction officers, and adopt a more effective capital punishment system; b) ensure that a death sentence cannot be reduced to life in prison; and c) quickly execute prisoners on death row.

I don’t claim that the U.S. laws should be copied without making changes. A large, diverse American society needs a strict system of law, and order cannot be easily kept without the strict system. I support the humanistic interpretation of law in Korea. I cannot accept that some people beat up the police, but I like the Korean system where people can push and take on the police. I think the benevolent system unique to Korea, where each person’s situation is taken into consideration even if he broke a law, is the right system. Instead of a cold, heartless punishment, Korean judges interpret the law from a much more humanitarian and sympathetic viewpoint.

Jay Kim is a former U.S. congressman. He serves as chairman of the KimChangJoon US-Korea Foundation. For more information, visit Kim’s website (www.jayckim.com).

Disgust against political establishment [The Korea Times] 10-03-2011

By Jay Kim

The Ahn Cheol-soo sensation that broke out before the mayoral by-election in Seoul made the Korean political establishment think about a lot of things. The approval rating for Professor Ahn, over 50 percent in a poll, surprised the nation.

When he announced that he was not going to run for mayor of Seoul and expressed his support for Park Won-soon, a civil activist whose popularity was much lower than his, he surprised the nation once again. This sudden rise of Professor Ahn clearly shows how disappointed the people are with their current politicians, and how eagerly they want a new, fresh face.

The current state of our political reality is enough to make anyone frustrated and disappointed. For example, the free-lunch referendum that brought the resignation of Mayor Oh Se-hoon ended up just wasting a tremendous amount of taxpayers’ money (estimated at 31 billion won) on a political fight between the ruling party and its opposition, as the referendum turned into a vote of confidence in Mayor Oh.

The case of Kwak No-hyun, the education superintendent of Seoul, was another blot on the nation’s political system. He claimed that he gave 200 million won out of good will to his opponent in the superintendent election, Seoul University of Education Professor Park Myoung-gee, because the law he has learned and taught is warm and just. This logic is strange indeed.

The deepening distrust and disgust against current politicians is the essential cause of the Ahn Cheol-soo sensation. Now people no longer regard conservatives and the liberals as political groups divided by their ideological differences on the issues that arise from the pursuit of people’s happiness. Instead, people think of them as political groups that only care about their own interests and the expansion of their political power.

In this current situation, Professor Ahn’s announcement not to run for mayor of Seoul seems to suggest that he has the presidential ambitions for next year in mind. However, I am pessimistic about whether he can maintain his amazing current popularity for a year and remain as the people’s candidate until the presidential election. Until now, Ahn is a fresh face untainted by politics, only recognizable from events like the “Youth Concert.”

However, the way people look at him can change completely once he runs for president. People will start making attacks on him, and you need to wait and see how long the Ahn sensation will continue after those hypocrites who are willing to walk over so many dead bodies just to get votes go after him. I’ve also already seen editorials that expressed disappointment over those who entered into politics just because they got recognition in the polls.

This reminds me of Ross Perot, who was once a promising newcomer, like Professor Ahn, that brought a breath of fresh air into the American politics. Perot, whose fortune is worth $3.4 billion in 2011, is one of the 100 richest people in the U.S. He ran for president on his image and ability as a successful businessman in 1992. It was a time when people’s disappointment and disgust against political establishment was highly elevated.

The sudden entrance to the race by Perot, who criticized the political establishment as a group of incompetent people who only sought to further their own personal interests instead of the better future of the country, made him a hero overnight. He emphasized that he was moderate, hired Ed Rollins, a Republican, and Hamilton Jordan, a Democrat as his campaign managers, and shouted out “United We Stand America” during his speeches.

He supported traditional liberal positions such as anti-abortion rights and anti-gun control, as well as conservative positions such as closing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). His support once reached over 39 percent. At the time, 31 percent supported Bush and 25 percent supported Clinton.

However, Perot’s stubborn personality trait, typical of all other successful CEOs, of not listening to others, was revealed to be a problem. Finally, Republican Rollins resigned due to Perot’s stubbornness, and Democrat Jordan also resigned as a campaign adviser. His popularity went down to 25 percent. But the real downfall of Perot came during the first presidential debate. The rating of the debate was very high, because people wondered what kind of person Perot was.

During this debate, Perot gave a poor argument against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). At the time, 57 percent of Americans supported NAFTA. After his poor performance against the experienced Bush and the handsome, polished young Clinton, his popularity nosedived from 39 percent to 7.9 percent.

There was such a big difference between Perot as a successful businessman and Perot as a presidential candidate, a potential leader of the U.S. His 1992 dream to become president failed when he received 18.9 percent (19,741,000) of the vote. Perot ran for president as the candidate of the Reform Party in 1996, but he lost again, failing even to join the presidential debates.

People long for a fresh face in Korea, having long since tired of endless political fights between the ruling and opposition parties. However, I wonder how Professor Ahn will look to the people when he becomes a presidential candidate. Furthermore, if he runs as an independent, he will look less promising. It is hopeless for him to get a nomination from the governing Grand National Party.

If he gets a nomination from the main opposition Democratic Party, or becomes a single candidate of the broader opposition camp, he would have a chance in the race. However, it does not look so easy for him to get that nomination, due to the vested interests of other politicians.

It is dangerous to run for president without any political experience. The president of Korea is not such an easy position to hold. One can never exclude the possibility that Professor Ahn’s popularity will turn into a mirage overnight as Perot’s did.

Jay Kim is a former U.S. congressman. He serves as chairman of the Washington Korean-American Forum. For more information, visit Kim’s website (www.jayckim.com).