Referendum on textbook issue

When faced with serious controversial issues that may have a negative impact on the nation, developed countries often resort to referendums for a resolution. For instance, in the U.S. state of California, starting with Proposition 13 in 1978, the state inquires citizens’ opinions on bills that citizens themselves have proposed at every election. By principle, in a democratic political system, only the representative body elected by the citizens, i.e. Congress or the National Assembly legislates. However, when the legislative body malfunctions, citizens are allowed to propose a bill and decide by vote whether to enact it.

In Korea, the 72nd Article of the Constitution allows a national referendum, but unlike the U.S., a referendum is only possible through the president and the decision to enforce it is at the president’s discretion. Recent controversy over the government-issued school textbook divides public sentiment and further threatens national security; it has become a serious issue. This is the time to exercise the 72nd Article.

A referendum is a privilege allowed by the Constitution for the citizens to make the law themselves. A cost reduction is also possible if we include a vote on the government-issued textbook as a part of the 2016 general election. All parties must adhere to the result of the vote once it is delivered, and for those who did not vote, they must let the matter rest since they did not exercise their voting privilege.

Our neighbor China does not have a national referendum system. China has a single party system without an opposition party. Whatever decision is made by the premier that the Communist Party of China selects, the decision gets enacted promptly without room for any opposition. Everything in China, therefore, is rapid and efficient, and perhaps China’s economic miracle can be credited to that. North Korea, where any opposition is silenced through execution, is worse. On the other hand, the Republic of Korea is a democratic nation. Through respecting opposition from its citizens, Korea took nine years to build Incheon International Airport, which would have only taken a year if built in China. Construction of pedestrian paths in Namdaemun, where accidents are frequent due to the lack of quality installation, is also experiencing a few years’ delay because of opposition from the vendors nearby. Despite of all this, we have chosen democracy. Our choice has given us the proud reputation as a model democratic nation where democracy matured at an incredible speed.

We have survived through the rubble and mounds of casualties after the disastrous Korean War. Further, we persevered as our loved ones perished through North Korean atrocities in the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong.

If history textbooks assert that Yoo Kwan-soon is a fabricated history by the Japanese sympathizers and that the Korean War was an invasion of North Korea by South Korea, they certainly need to be corrected. However, the criticism that just because there are several errors in history textbooks, the government issuing entire history textbooks is in fact an anti-democratic practice that only happens in authoritarian countries is not necessarily wrong. Likewise, the ruling party’s logic that the future generation of Koreans needs to have a proper view and value of history is also not wrong. I don’t think that there is much difference between the assertions for a proper view of history and prevention of government’s autocracy. It really isn’t right to go for a black and white approach to fiercely divide between “my” side and “your” side to turn it into an emotional battle.

It is also too much to ask to reveal the members of the writing committee; if their names are revealed, they may be in physical danger. There is the “the right for citizens to know,” but the government also has “the responsibility to protect” the well-being of the committee members. The names of the committee will eventually be revealed when the time comes, so I believe it is the duty of the citizens to be patient until the time arrives. It’s important that we trust the government; if we don’t trust it on each and every issue, then the responsibility is in part with the citizens who have elected the representatives.

We overcame the Asian financial crisis. The world knows it. The controversy over government-issued textbooks will cease soon, since it is a battle over emotion. Such battles are often seen in the U.S.

Such distress is due to appear periodically in a country that has achieved democracy in such a short time span.

So it is timely that we exercise the referendum that our Constitution guarantees. A referendum will be a great opportunity for Korea to display our matured democratic institutions to the international community. Such a movement will reinforce our status in the international sphere, as well as help our economy.

 

Why no Korean Nobel laureates?

Until now, 790 Nobel Prizes, undoubtedly one of the world’s most admired honors, have been awarded to people in 50 countries. Within Asia, 21 laureates came from Japan, five from China, and even seven from India, whose GDP per capita is only $1,600. The U.S. is at the top with 320 Nobel Prize winners, which is about 40 percent of all Nobel Prizes awarded. Korea, on the other hand, has had no such achievements in the field of scholarship, aside from the former President Kim Dae-jung’s Nobel Peace Prize. It is rather an embarrassing lack of achievement for this economic powerhouse. Why is there such a lack?

The following is a summary gathered from various experts in their fields. First, the research and development (R&D) budget allocated by the government is too little. The U.S. has the largest total R&D budget, followed by China, but Korea’s R&D budget ratio against GDP is greater. We spend about 4 percent of GDP on R&D, which is only second to Israel, and our R&D ratio is almost twice that of the U.S. Therefore, this assertion is essentially false.

Second, government policies have hindered innovation in R&D. Fostering innovation is an essential factor in producing achievements worthy of the Nobel Prize, but the emphasis in short-term research that produces immediate results prompts researchers to select low-risk R&D topics. The government’s interest is only focused on research achievements during the budgeting season, and if no results appear in the three-year frame, the budget is cut and projects dissolved ― this is rather persuasive reasoning.

Third, the choice of R&D topics chosen for government funding is based on personal networking, rather than objective evaluation of the topics. This is partially true, but I believe the problems also lie with the professors themselves. The Nobel Prize laureate in physics, Peter Gruenberg, professed that the most important factor in achieving the prize has everything to do with how long one can enjoy and focus on the research. I wonder how many of our researchers are keen on their research alone.

The term “polifessor” is widely known in Korea. It is a hybrid word derived from “politics” and “professor” to describe academics whose interests are directed to politics rather than scholastic achievements through research and teaching. If their core profession ― research and teaching ― is left on the back burner, what will come out of the universities and scholarships in Korea?

I believe it is right for the academics to leave their university posts behind for the younger colleagues to have proper chances for scholarship when they pursue interests outside the ivory tower. Many “polifessors” have already lost the passion for scholarship and teaching. It is certainly not advisable to sustain the current system that allows these “polifessors” the opportunity to come back to academia if things go wrong in the political realm. If one chooses to involve themselves in politics, one should be resolutely determined to “burn the bridge” that one just crossed for “no return,” just as Ahn Cheol-soo resigned from his post at Seoul National University before declaring his entrance into politics.

In the case of the U.S., the President often offers core government posts to academics, but many reject the offer. Such academics are determined, well-respected scholars who are dedicated to scholarship and scholarship alone. It is not difficult to see academics working night and day in pursuit of academic goals, and it is no coincidence that their achievements are often awarded with the highest honor ― a reason that allowed the greatest share of the Nobel Prizes to be awarded to American scholars.

If academics in Korea’s higher education are more interested in politics and wealth, the Nobel Prize is still a distant future. Unless significant improvements are made in the reality of Korean universities where “polifessors” are prevalent, Nobel laureates may be hard to find here in Korea for another couple of decades.

UN Security Council should act

Europe is suffering from an immense headache with the influx of refugees from the Middle East and Africa. The European countries that turn away these refugees are portrayed as inhumane, with the media reporting tragic stories of the refugees. The world watches with heartache as tens of thousands of impoverished refugees attempt to cross the borders of Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and even Austria, but at the same time, the European nations face a dilemma as their choices to block the refugees comes down to their own economic circumstances.

There is also the demand for other Muslim countries, including oil-rich Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, UAE, and Iran, along with neighboring countries like Russia and Turkey, to join in the efforts to accommodate the refugees. Although recent EU meetings resulted in a measure to share refugees among the EU countries through imposing quotas, it is questionable whether such a policy can be successfully implemented.

A worldwide audience is demanding that the UN lead the efforts to protect the refugees at this critical time. The UN Security Council has a 7.5 billion-dollar annual Peace Keeping Fund (the US funds 29% of it) to operate an 82,000-person military in 15 countries.

The demand is to relocate the forces to lead in solving the refugee question. If the UN does not act quickly by using a percentage of this budget, something more massive with global consequences may arrive; the fact that the UN is unresponsive to this demand aggravates the situation. Now is the time for the five permanent member countries (US, China, Russia, France, UK) and ten member countries of the Security Council to come together to reach a resolution ― they should not just sit back and watch one of the greatest human tragedies in history unfold. To this end, think tanks in the U.S. came to two recommendations as fundamental resolutions: one, mobilize UN forces to defeat ISIS, recapture Syria and let the refugees return to their homeland, or two, restore peace to at least half of Syria under UN mediation and have the refugees return home under the surveillance of UN forces. I believe that returning the refugees to their homeland is the optimal solution for now. If Syria is divided in half, with one side occupied by ISIS terrorists, the UN can maintain peace at the border.

During Abe’s April address to a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress, there was a discussion between Abe and Obama on Japan becoming a member of the UN Security Council. For the UN Security Council to be more politically effective, it is advisable for Germany to have a seat along with Japan, increasing the member countries to seven from the current five. Last year’s contribution to the Peace Keeping Fund was led by the US at 29%, followed by Japan at 11%, Germany at fourth with 7%, China at sixth with 6.6% and Russia at eighth with a meager 3.8%. It is contradictory for Russia, which only contributed a little over 3%, to exercise the same veto power as the US, whose level of contribution far exceeds that of Russia’s. If the member countries are increased to seven, China and Russia’s veto power will be comparatively weakened, especially on matters relevant to North Korea, as five countries are bound to be favorable to South Korea while two (China and Russia) are likely to exercise an “Abstain” vote rather than vote “No.” In this seven-member dynamic, we can try to solve North Korea’s nuclear problem through the UN Security Council and further make steps towards a peaceful reunification of two Koreas, starting with economic cooperation under the UN surveillance.

Unification of the Korean peninsula still depends on the five permanent member countries of the UN Security Council, due to their veto power. With a nuclear deal with Iran soon to pass in the US Congress, the world’s eyes will be focused on North Korea as the only nuclear weapon state. It will be an opportune time to work toward a peaceful reunification by borrowing the power of the UN Security Council. Once reunification is within sight, we are bound to become flooded with North Korean refugees, like the movements we’ve seen from the Middle Eastern refugees. Korea needs money desperately to accommodate them. I have repeatedly argued for the government to issue Reunification Bonds, similar to Franklin Roosevelt’s War Bonds, which helped finance World War II and rebuild the US in the aftermath.

http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/opinon/2015/10/305_188021.html

Unification may be close at hand

The so-called followers of North Korea have been inactive in South Korea lately. It has become harder to spot demonstrators with red bands around their foreheads. Also, the once controversial Lee Seok-Ki incident is becoming a distant memory, especially as the political party that supported Lee has been dissolved.

Perhaps it is due to the narrowing of the North Korean base in South Korea, but North Korea is becoming increasingly offensive. Using vile language, the North continues to threaten South Korea, even threatening to turn South Korea into a “sea of fire.” About a week ago, two young South Korean soldiers were critically wounded by landmines in the DMZ that North Korea planted. It is encouraging to hear that South Korea, in response, decided to restart propaganda broadcasts, using dozens of loudspeakers pointed toward North Korea, a tactic that had not been used for 11 years. Although some people are uncomfortable with our government’s decision to use peaceful means rather than force to retaliate against North Korea’s actions, this is the optimal choice for now.

As a seeming first step in its plan to consume South Korea in the “sea of fire,” North Korea has installed an artillery platform targeting South Korea on the ocean front near Yeonpyeong Island, only a few kilometers from South Korean territory. According to recent polls, most young South Koreans want to continue to live in peace with the North as a divided nation. No one is against peaceful cohabitation as a family, but the reality is a stark contrast. South Korea has continued to offer humanitarian assistance by providing essential provisions such as rice, fertilizer and medicine, and many Christian organizations are also providing humanitarian assistance to North Korea. Yet, despite the decades of assistance, North Korea’s verbal and military threats are getting worse. Therefore, it is time to review our policy toward North Korea, which continues to humiliate us.

The U.S. has finally reached a nuclear agreement with Iran through President Barack Obama’s strong determination. The deal waits congressional approval, but I do not doubt that it will pass because Obama made it clear that he will exercise his veto power if it fails.

Now that Iran has agreed to cease its nuclear proliferation program, the world will focus its attention on North Korea, the only nation that makes threats using nuclear weapons as a bargaining tool. We have endured North Korea’s threats for a long time, and we must show our determination for a peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula. To accomplish this, we are in dire need of U.S. support.

With Iran out of the picture, if the U.S. decides that peaceful reunification is the best route to resolve North Korea’s nuclear proliferation, it is likely that the U.S. will fully support reunification efforts. It is in the best interests of the US as well, because pressure on the already tight American defense budget ― which has been stretched to deal with North Korea’s nuclear threats ― will ease.

If North Korea falls apart, South Korea will be inundated with hungry North Koreans. To accommodate their immediate needs, we need money ― lots of it ― to prepare for their food, accommodation, immunization, medicine and other services.

During World War II, foreseeing that the U.S. would eventually be dragged into the war, President Roosevelt issued war bonds. He was successful in instilling patriotism in Americans, which resulted in huge financial backing to fund the war and keep the U.S. economy vibrant after the war.

Likewise, we need to issue reunification bonds. The Assembly no doubt would support such a move. We Koreans collected and donated gold rings and bangles during the IMF crisis to help repay the nation’s debt without asking for a cent in return ― we are the only country to demonstrate such patriotism. With our strength pulling us together, reunification bonds are bound to become a success. The reunification bonds would be a bonanza, as their value would increase once the two Koreas reunify.

Many experts in the U.S. have been imagining the effects of the two-Korea reunification with access to Manchuria, as well as to the Tumen river valley that connects Vladivostok in Russia, China and North Korea. Reunification is an opportunity for the united Koreas to reach deep into the Asian continent. Reunification is the way to the future, offering unlimited challenges and an excellent channel to resolve youth unemployment completely.

Further, with the nuclear threat extinct in North Korea, we will be able to contribute to world peace. Ultimately, the experts predict that a reunified Korea will become a G7 country, rising from its G20 status, within five years of reunification. This means Korea would surpass Japan.

These experts are aware of Korean strengths that shine in the face of crisis. Let’s issue the reunification bonds, and let’s spread the news to North Korea engaging the methods we use now. Reunification may be nearer than we think.

MERS, Grexit and politics

The entire country had been plunged into fear by Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, but it now seems to be under control. Relentless night-and-day efforts by doctors, nurses and other medical professionals were critical in overcoming this odd disease known to have originated from camels in the desert. The excellence of Korean medical capacity and responsibility has been proven to be at the world’s highest level. Korea has now accumulated enough know-how; it seems, to tackle any communicable disease.

Now that we’ve regained normality from the MERS’s fear, we find that the National Assembly is in a mess. Some people say that Korea’s politics seems more fearful than MERS, as the Assembly is torn apart over partisan battles. Unspeakable personal criticism has been targeted at President Park Geun-hye after she vetoed a revision to the National Assembly Act, saying it was unconstitutional. What is going on? I can’t make sense of this situation ― there are too many public welfare bills for the Assembly to take care of instead of fighting over a vetoed one.

The problematic part of the Assembly’s decision on the National Assembly Act is that the bill was designed to empower parliament to demand amendments to government ordinances, which may be translated as an encroachment on executive power. I also believe that it is out of line with the principle of separation of powers among the legislative legal, administrative and judicial branches ― the very backbone of our democratic system. The President objected to the bill and returned it back to the Assembly. After reconsideration, if two-thirds still approve, the President’s veto becomes invalid, while the bill becomes dead if less than two-thirds approve. The President only exercised the legal veto power allowed by the Constitution, and the Assembly did not gain the necessary two-thirds majority approval, which should then end the discussion; it is not right to continue to attack the President.

It is time that we stop these factional fights like the ones from the Joseon era 200-300 years ago and get ready for the impact the Greek financial crisis will have on us. Whatever happened to Greece with all its past glories? Millions of tourists from every part of the world travelled far and spent big money to see what the Greeks’ ancestors accomplished. The Greeks earned easy money for decades, but money entered easily is bound to exit easily as well. Moreover, the Greeks have become complacent with their abundance of benefits and an overgenerous welfare system; most of their public facilities, including subways and buses, are free of charge. However, with the passage of time, tourism declined while the Greeks made no attempts to improve their assets to keep the tourism industry competitive and vibrant. Income naturally declined, while spending kept on rising.

Despite barely surviving through enormous support from the European Union’s Central Bank and IMF, Greece did not cut their spending enough and kept the welfare spending high. It is natural for the creditor nations to press Greece toward stronger austerity measures to reduce pension and welfare spending and increase taxes to repay the debt. In the midst of all this, a former member of the Communist Youth of Greece, Alexis Tsipras, became the Prime Minister. Arousing the public through a traditional leftist method, Tsipras asserted that Greece would withdraw from EU membership if its creditors do not write off 30 percent of their debt. Greece held a national vote that resulted in a “no” result to the bailout referendum, but that had no effect whatsoever.

Korea went through a harsher time during the Asian financial crisis, but Korean citizens scrapped their wedding bands and gold necklaces to donate to the government in support of the country. The efforts resulted in the early repayment of the debt by an entire year. An alien disease, MERS, created confusion at first, but it was under control in just a month’s time with our collective efforts. Isn’t it time for this ugly factional battle that has gone on for the past 300 years to finally disappear?

It only took us three years to pass the Constitution when the US spent 13 years to pass theirs, and we’ve never annulled our Constitution, nor dissolved the National Assembly. The Republic of Korea is the only nation that achieved a democratic political system and became an economic powerhouse in such a short time span.

The fighters in our society

South Korea is a nation of envy for many developing countries. The Republic of Korea is at the forefront of the state-of-the-art technology, and Korea’s medical technology has won world’s accolades for its excellence.

In terms of democracy, Korea took only three years to pass its Constitution, whereas the US Congress took 13 years. It has been a little more than half-a-century since the establishment of the Republic of Korea, but the Korean democracy is already firmly rooted.

With such achievements, Korea is perceived as amodel nation by the world, and the nation that most rapidly established democratic political institution. Although there were numerous struggles and hiccups on the way, our accomplishments are the results of every Korean’s relentless efforts.

Korea, with so many proven strengths, will not falter by the MERS or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. Some say that Korea is under God’s curse for punishment, but that can’t be true.

The Korean Christians were eager to do the work of God by reaching out to the poorest parts of the world and building schools and hospitals. Korean Americans have also sent many evangelists to various parts of the world. God will certainly bless us.

According to the press, Korea’s culture of paying visits to comfort the sick is one of the main causes for the spread of MERS. One foreign press reported that it is customary in Korea for friends and family to visit the sick with fruits and other gifts, and there are many instances where a church congregation visits the sick to pray and sing hymns to wish for a rapid recovery.

The second cause is attributed to a national health insurance system that ensures affordable medical services to the nation’s citizens. Koreans have the tendency to visit doctors for minor symptoms and “shop-around” for second opinions by more prominent doctors at bigger medical centers.

On the side of the hospitals, they tend to accept patients indiscriminately to meet the operation costs; at Samsung Seoul Medical Center, one of the most prominent medical centers in Korea, approximately 8,500 patients visit the hospital on any given day. With 1,800 beds at the hospital all filled with a long wait list and a crowded lobby packed with inpatients, outpatients and their friends and families, the scenes at Korean hospitals are quite susceptible to the spread of contagious diseases like MERS.

It is clear that MERS is now under control, as evident from the decreasing number of patients isolated for test and treatment. For those still isolated, I hope they will persevere despite all the discomfort for the next couple of weeks for the sake of public health.

During the Asian financial crisis , often called the “IMF crisis,” Koreans practiced an unprecedented patriotism unseen in other countries through donating gold rings and silver spoons in their possession to help their country in crisis. We are a proud people strong in the face of adversity.

When my American friends ask how Korea was able to grow in such a short timeframe both economically and democratically, I always mention “gold rings and silver spoons” during the IMF crisis as an example of the Korean spirit. They all nod when I assert that Greece and Spain need to learn from us Koreans.

I was once again touched as I read the newspaper this morning. One health official in Seoul’s Dongjak district clinic has spent the entire June at the office without once going home, sleeping on a makeshift bed in the corner.

He says he parks the ambulance far away to deter people from the fear of MERS that’s associated with ambulances these days. Such people fighting against the spread of MERS at the forefront are at stark contrast to the politicians whose empty words and promises see no actions.

I saw young college students lining up to write words of encouragement to medical personnel fighting against MERS on a public bulletin at a university medical center. I believe this is the genuine look and strength of Korea, and it made me trust that MERS will soon disappear from our territory.

Constitution by citizens

The United States is surely a novel country. It is a country where many races intermingle, filled with cities that have conflicts between black and white people, a nation notorious for its enormous number of lawsuits where 40 percent of the world’s attorneys live in service for 4 percent of the world’s population. The U.S. is often called a “melting pot” or “mixed salad bowl” to describe a country that is filled with immigrants from countries all over the world.

However, such a nation is also home to about half of the Nobel Prizes ever awarded. It has a most innovative entrepreneurial engine, with the most number of patents for inventions. It is the world’s most powerful defense and economic powerhouse, with a low level of political and economic corruption. It is the country that nurtured five of the world’s 10 best universities. Moreover, the U.S. has one of the safest drinking tap water supplies, and a widespread culture of charity and respect for others.

Then how did such a seemingly disorderly nation become the most sought-after country with thousands of people lining up for a chance to become immigrants there? Systems and institutions are the answers.

Most of the Koreans in America come to the U.S. for the sake of education. The systems in the U.S. permit new arrivals to live comfortably with hard work alone and enable its citizens to live an honest life without discrimination of occupations, strictly enforce the rule of law, and do things the right way all the way to the end. What is the engine that allows this country to move in such order and cohesion? The Constitution of the United States serves as this engine.

The U.S. Constitution was born on July 2, 1788, 12 years after the Declaration of Independence. Its contents shocked the world because the Constitution was declared after years of struggle and war. In those days, monarchy ruled most of the countries in the world, and Korea, called Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910) then, too was in transition from (King Yeongjo to the Joseon kings of the latter era). The U.S. Constitution declared that citizens will choose their “king” every four years, the members of the assembly will also be chosen by the people to make laws, and the role of the “king” is to enact the laws rather than directly rule the country.

It was a system the world had never seen before. The norm of the era was an absolute rule by the king whose word became the law, and kingship was passed down to his/her offspring hereditarily. To a world where the concept of election was entirely foreign, the U.S. Constitution provided an immense shock. Oppositions were also present in the U.S. at the time, some favoring the bringing of a king from the Russian royal family.

Democratic principles that respect human rights and acknowledge citizens as the main actors of the country are the foundations for the U.S. Constitution. Absolute monarchy ceased to exist in the world today, while most countries have adopted a similar political system.

Moreover, communism of the former USSR collapsed, and China has gradually been adopting elements of the U.S. institution. North Korea is the only country that has resisted the change, resulting in a tragic downturn into a poverty-stricken country where millions of people perished in famine. The U.S.’s democratic political system, based on a solid Constitution, is the mystery that developed America into the strongest nation in the world.

The first Amendment of the U.S. Constitution declares freedom of expression as the most fundamental citizen right, and it is the same in the Korean Constitution. For both countries, representatives’ remarks delivered in the assembly are given immunity, thus they have complete freedom of speech.

The only exception is any remark that insults or disparages certain individuals. To my ears, demanding the President “to go and study the Constitution” can only be interpreted as an unspeakable insult to the head of state. Such state of mind drives demonstrators to protest in front of Cheong Wa Dae and demand the President’s resignation. I am reminded of an old saying, “The water of the downstream is clean only when the water of the upper stream is clean.”