If we are interested in progress, and not simply in feeling self-righteous, we must look beyond the central players in the recent scandal in the Blue House which has brought down President Park Geun-hye. We need to ask ourselves what was it in the political culture of Korea that allowed a tiny group of people to control national policy and to do so for capricious reasons.
We must recognize that the situation would not have gotten so out of control if educated and influential Koreans had not been so passive when they saw the worst mismanagement of Korean government in recent history. I did not know the name Choi Soon-sil, but I had heard from many people in government and in business about the secretive manner in which policy was handled in the Blue House and the complete lack of accountability. It was no secret that critical decisions were being made without the advice of any experts on a regular basis.
But almost without exception, the best and the brightest of Korea felt that they had no particular responsibility to demand accountability or to help their fellow citizens who did not have access to privileged information to understand the nature of a political crisis that went on for years.
One thing that I can say definitively: in my many conversations with influential figures I heard the names of people and I heard speculation about who would be appointed to this or that position, but I never heard anyone asking “What is best for the Korean people.”
The problem lies in the political culture, and not in particular individuals, or particular policies.
Let us face the truth: the greatest threat to the Republic of Korea today is not North Korea, nor the economic slowdown, nor the actions of individual politicians. The greatest threat is the spread of decadence in the culture. We have a culture wherein individuals feel little concern for the future of the nation and they indulge thoughtlessly in food, in drink, in sexual pleasures, in vacations and sports. The purpose of life has become short-term satisfaction and sacrifice has disappeared as a value. This is classic decadence.
Tragically, in a misconceived effort to create market demand in Korea, we have unleashed the primitive forces in human nature and held them up as a model for our youth, instead of the rationality, self-control and mindfulness that traditional Korea demanded. One need only look at the television for a few minutes to see the grotesque cultural decadence that threatens Korea. Just watch the endless scenes of Koreans stuffing their faces with food in thoughtless indulgence or witness advertisements that feature women clad in a manner that would have been banned as pornography twenty years ago. Such strategies may sell some products, but they create a moral decadence that undermines governance at every level. Policy has ceased to be about the national welfare, security or values, and degenerated into mere opportunities for financial enrichment and amassing power.
One cause of the decline in Korea’s culture is the loss of a sense of shame. In traditional society, certain actions were simply considered to be shameful and wrong, such as the abandonment of an aged parent. The moral imperative was internalized. As the expression goes, “The gentleman should be cautious even when he is alone.”
But over the last century Koreans increasingly have come to view such a stress on ethics to be restrictive and oppressive, to see such behavior as an archaic relic that contrasts poorly with a modern life of instant gratification. But the loss of a sense of shame allows people to feel that if they take care of their children, and fulfill their assigned duties at work, they are acting in a moral manner. That is to say, there is no need to think further about the ethical significance of the actions taken by those around them.
Another factor has been the diminishing awareness of causality, the relationship between actions, in this age of digital representations and constantly shifting images that surround us. We can no longer see clearly the relationship between what we do on a daily basis and what is transpiring in the world around us. More often than not we think there is no relationship.
We drink coffee from throw-away cups — even when sitting at a café — without the slightest clue of how the use of that paper and plastic impacts the environment. We treat the people who serve us at the café in a flippant and disrespectful manner without any concept of how our attitude towards them degrades the culture of our country.
We need to return to the best of the Korean Confucian tradition and recognize above all that every act that we make is ultimately a moral act. Whether reading a book, eating a meal or talking to a friend, all of our actions can have a positive impact on society.
Only by regaining control over the moral significance of our lives can we start to create a healthy political culture. We cannot alter human nature, but we can create pressure on politicians by reestablishing a culture in which high ethical behavior is expected in every aspect of life.