Just about everyone has assumed that the ideological divisions between North and South Korea are so great that any discussion of political ideology or governance will be so divisive that it must be studiously avoided. Instead, it is assumed, the focus must fall on neutral issues like trade and investment.
This is a terribly outdated assumption. Trade and investment are not neutral issues and there is plenty of evidence that North Koreans at all levels are disillusioned with the legacy of Kim Il-sung and are skeptical about the high-growth models of China and Vietnam that are so commonly promoted.
South Koreans have become aware of the severe limitations and risks of the export-oriented high-growth, consumption-focused economic system that has driven the country for the last 50 years. Many people on both sides of the DMZ are struggling to formulate an alternative.
Let us think outside the box. Perhaps a serious discussion between scholars and high-ranking officials from North and South about fundamental issues of political philosophy and political economy could be a creative and inspiring moment of tremendous historical significance, rather than the source of ideological conflict?
Do you recall how Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in walked together at the opening of the Inter-Korean Summit while rows of military troops dressed in yellow uniforms of the Joseon Dynasty stood at attention in the background?
That scene was not an accident, and the troops were not mere decoration. Rather that moment suggested that harkening back to common past traditions could serve as a means to move beyond ideological codes that might encourage division.
One obstacle to cooperation between North and South is the connotation of terms and concepts. In this respect we should see returning to the past not as a reactionary withdrawal from contemporary society, but rather as a creative solution that offers the opportunity to solve ideological issues.
For example, the ideological term “freedom” (jayu 자유) commonly employed in South Korea is difficult to reconcile with the term “communist” (gongsan 공산) used in the North. In one culture the competitiveness of the individual is assumed to be essential for success and in the other society the cooperation of the group is held up as the ultimate value. Yet if we employ the traditional Korean term “universal benefit” (Hong-ik 홍익) we can create a space for creativity wherein we establish a social commons that is not limited by the narrow ideological divides of the last 60 years.
Similarly, the National Assembly (gukhoe 국회) in the South is functionally difficult to reconcile with the Workers’ Party of Korea (Joseon Rodongdang 조선로동당) in the North.
The two institutions operate in accord with fundamentally different assumptions. Rather than trying to push one side or the other out of the way, we can consider together the merits of the State Council (Uijeongbu 의정부) of the Joseon Dynasty, and find ways to reinterpret that extremely durable institution (which lasted 500 years) so it can serve as a blueprint for future as we try to address the challenges of the 21st century.
Such a creative review of the best of Korea’s past is akin to the inspiring project undertaken in the United States in the 18th century to reinterpret ancient Greek concepts of governance to make them relevant to the modern age. That process in the U.S., best represented by the constitutional convention of 1787, set the stage for a new universal conception of democracy that inspired generations of activities for accountable politics around the world.
That project was successful because that handful of participants held a deep moral commitment to finding in the best practices of the past hints as to what fundamental innovation in government could be.
But the efforts of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson in drafting the U.S. Constitution build on an earlier such effort: the European Renaissance of the 15th and 16th centuries.
Renaissance thinkers in Italy and France turned to the best of ancient Greece and Rome and creatively reinterpreted what they found there as a means of injecting vitality into a moribund civilization. They found transformative power in past culture that pushed toward new horizons. Looking back was not nostalgia for them, but rather an opportunity for innovation.
Similar examples of cultural renaissance can be found in the Korean tradition as well.
The concept of political reform bantered around today in Korean politics is extremely narrow and draws almost exclusively on the limited sampling of Korean politics between 1960 and the present day.
Most Koreans seem unaware that the process of reform and modernization started with the reforms of King Jongjo in the late 18th century (or before) and that it has been carried on in different formats ever since.
Sadly, Koreans often buy into the myth established during the Japanese colonial occupation that Korea was hopelessly backward until Western-style economic and institutional reforms were undertaken in the 20th century.
By taking such a limited sample of Korea’s political evolution, we underestimate the potential for creative responses to institutional and economic challenges to be found in the past. This problem is equally true in North Korea and in South Korea.
What to do?
We should establish a group of scholars and artists, writers and thinkers from North and South Korea to explore the full range of Korea’s institutional history, habits, values and technologies from each dynasty and to make innovative proposals as to how those treasures from the past can be readily be adapted to meet the demands of our modern society.
That process offers an opportunity for the rediscovery of Korean philosophy, art, literature, architecture and culture that will offer frustrated Koreans, North and South, new potential and a new common language based in a common past.
This inter-Korean project must not be limited to scholars, but should include government officials, politicians, artists, philosophers, businessmen and NGO activists who have the vision and the integrity to uncover the full potential of Korea’s past from multiple perspectives.
Having Southerners and Northerners together in that group will give us more opportunities to find common ground and to explore Korea’s potential.
The Korean tradition is not monolithic, but rather has tremendous diversity in each dynasty whether Gojoseon, Baekjae, Silla and Gogyryeo, or Palhae, Goryo, and Joseon.
Here are a few of the main topics that this inter-Korean committee on Korea’s tradition can explore together through a series of focused meetings. At its best, the committee could serve as a means of finding common ground, of launching a cultural renaissance.
How were central and local governments run in each dynasty, and what was the relationship in each dynasty between central and local governments? What solutions did each dynasty come up for avoiding conflicts of interest and corruption, for assuring a meritocracy in administration, for recruiting capable and ethical people into government and retaining them?
How was transparency encouraged and factionalism discouraged? What were the limits of government authority in each dynasty and what mechanisms were developed to avoid the abuse of power or the concentration of wealth?
Unification, diplomacy and security
Although South Koreans are obsessed with looking at the German model every time they think about unification, there are multiple examples of unification of the Korean Peninsula in the past (Silla and Goryo are the most obvious) that offer hints as what we should do, or not do, to achieve effective long-term integration and to build new institutions.
Similarly, each dynasty has a diverse history of diplomatic and security policy that can be of infinite value to Koreans as they chart their new course. The diplomatic genius Choi Chiwon of the Silla Dynasty and the military genius Yi Sunshin of the Joseon dynasty have much to teach us. All we need is to translate their words into a new context and act on them.
To what degree was the government of each dynasty able to regulate the long-term development of the economy and in what respects was a market economy employed in each dynasty successfully?
How was the field of “economics” defined in each dynasty and what potential do those previous approaches to economics offer for us today, perhaps as a third way beyond heavy-handed socialism and reckless consumption-driven markets? How were long-term economic projects conceived of, debated and implemented in previous dynasties? What worked and what did not work?
Because the current Korean governments (North and South) have largely lost the capacity for long-planning and for long-term implementation of policy, there is a desperate need to find new models.
The committee can also explore how each dynasty offers variations on communal approaches to economics that move beyond the obsession with competition. We can find in those traditional approaches models for how we can revitalize our economy by making it about people, not stocks, bonds and derivatives.
What economic reforms were carried out by each dynasty, and what factors made them successful, or unsuccessful? How did each dynasty address the dangerous trends of social inequality and conspicuous consumption?
Sustainability is the looming crisis for the Korean Peninsula that neither North nor South has been able to address. We should ask ourselves how did each dynasty encourage frugality, the protection of the environment and an ethically and culturally rich, but modest and sustainable culture for its citizens?
What were some of the effective agricultural policies to encourage sustainable farming and how might they be relevant today as the South struggles to rediscover its sustainable economy?
How was recycling encouraged, durable products manufactured and the production of garbage that does not decompose avoided? How can those habits and values be reintroduced?
The organic farming and irrigation policies of previous dynasties can be of immense value to us. North and South Korea need to undo the terrible damage done to the soil and the rivers by thoughtless development that ignored the wisdom of the past.
Restoring traditional farming, with the benefit of modern scientific insights, is the fastest way to establish a carbon-neutral age. We can learn from past ages how to promote local farming and create sustainable communities that offer new jobs in agriculture. We can stop mixing human feces with pure water and flushing it into the ocean and rather use that feces for natural fertilizer as we once did, thus escaping from dependency on imported artificial fertilizers. The North can find powerful approaches for restoring its soil and replanting its forests.
Such a revival of the Korean tradition of sustainability is the fastest way to escape from dependency on petroleum in agriculture and to end our dangerous dependency on imported food. Each dynasty offers slightly different models for sustainable city planning, architecture and infrastructure that will be invaluable.
Perhaps this committee can put together a book describing the best practices of traditional Korean communities similar to Azby Brown‘s book on “Japanese traditional sustainable practices, Just Enough: Lessons in Living Green from Traditional Japan.”
Korea has a rich tradition of education and scholarship, in the form of academies (seowon) and government schools (hyanggyo) that dates back thousands of years. The academies of the past can offer us new models for education. The stress on the long-term relationship between teachers and students in traditional education offers us a new path forward.
The commitment to ethics and to social responsibility in traditional education could be a means of moving beyond the commercialized education system in the South and the inflexible education system in the North.
The investigation of past examples of government, economics and human relations as a means of coming up with creative new approaches to contemporary problems lies at the heart of traditional Confucian teaching and offers us new possibilities for a more relevant approach to education today.
Although Confucian education was oriented towards men, we can transform that tradition and make women central to the project. Also Confucian, Daoist and Buddhist approaches to teaching can move us away from an obsessive focus on competitiveness and towards a new culture of cooperation.
Although it would be a mistake to insist that the values held up by past Koreans are always better, one need look no further than high suicide rates, widespread depression and the lack of motivation to see that there are profound problems within the family today that eat away at Korea’s vitality.
The move away from the traditional focus on family relations, and away from a true concern for others, has deeply wounded our society. This problem is equally true in the North as in the South. A review of family habits and values in the Confucian, Buddhist and Daoist traditions can offer us models on how to establish closer ties between family members and encourage cooperation and mutual support.
Spiritual life and meaningful experience
We can learn much from Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism about how to make our experience of life deeper and more meaningful. We must ask ourselves, how we can find inner peace and move beyond a shallow and barren culture of consumption? That Korean spiritual tradition is far more important to Korea’s future than all the Starbucks and IKEA in the world.
Korea’s traditions of communion with nature (pungsu 풍수), awareness of and respect for one’s ancestors (hyodo 효도), mindful practice from Buddhism and the combination of ethical and spiritual engagement from Zhu Xi Confucianism, offer desperately needed alternatives to our vapid modern society.
Above all, such an embrace of past philosophical traditions can free us from the stone tied around the modern Korean’s neck: obsession with visible signs of material affluence. Korea’s traditional culture emphasizes an essential truth: those aspects of our lives that have the greatest value, integrity, compassion, and respect, are those that are invisible and immeasurable.
The Korean of the past could sit contently in a humble room because the material aspects of his or her situation were not the most critical.