A poet once said that “April is the cruelest month” and April of 2014 turned out to be just that. The whole nation has been in a state of mourning ever since that tragic day when the MV Sewol capsized while carrying 476 people. This incident shook the very core of our society as we witnessed the ferry sink right before our eyes. The sinking of the MV Sewol is the end result of the culmination of structural problems embedded in our society along with our obsession with rapid development.
Korea underwent rapid economic development as an underdeveloped country in the 19th century and as a colony exerting every effort to catch up with developed and advanced countries from around the world. Currently, the national objective is to reach a per capita GDP of $40,000 making money the most important value system in Korea. Mammonism can be said to be one of the causes of this tragedy as money is revered over all other values in our society including personal responsibility, religion, and human life.
Now is the time for our country to consider what is truly important and valuable in our society. Modern states and societies of the Western world have shown continued growth based upon their own cultures and traditions. Therefore, they are seeking new ways to eliminate problems, conflicts, and contradictions arising from the process of modernization.
However, in the process of rapid modernization, we have ignored these historical and cultural traditions and have merely accepted the guise of modern states and societies of the West. Our beautiful and fine traditions and customs wrongfully labeled as barbaric have been overthrown and replaced with modern values which emphasize money, and in the process have ignored our own history and culture. In an age of intense competition, we as a society are so concerned with outer appearance that it is no wonder we find ourselves at a dead end when it comes to dealing with crises.
This is not to say that money and efficiency are absolutely abominable. These are merely tools and ways that help us live our lives, but they cannot be our ultimate goal in life. The goal is not to build a modernized and advanced nation on the surface; rather it should be to build a modern nation and society where the quality of life holds significant meaning. However, we have transformed into a society which values the end result rather than the process, leaving us feeling trapped and helpless in the face of these kinds of crises and tragedies.
It is time for us to take a step back to reflect on our past deeds. What is the ultimate goal that we want to achieve? Historically speaking, our ultimate goal has been to uphold the principle of “Hongikingan” that is, the “humanitarian spirit”. In other words, it is important to do good in the world. At this point, there are two questions that come to mind. The first question is, “How do we define what it is to be a human being?” The second question is, “What can we do to make the world a better place?”
Our ancestors have long upheld the belief of “Innaecheon” — humans as heaven. That is, humans are the measure of finality; they are the value system. Doing good in the world can be universally achieved as the life of the average person is considered to be the standard for our world. Money, market, and efficiency exist as a means for human life, and in that sense they have great significance and value if utilized in a way that help us achieve happiness by enabling us to make the world a better place. The month of April was truly a sad and cruel month making us once again reflect on the true nature of life and death.
Translated by Julia Kim