In South Korea, the future works

Georgie Anne Geyer

September 23, 1991|By Georgie Anne Geyer

Seoul, South Korea -- WHEN COMMUNISM was at its militant heights in the 1920s, Lincoln Steffens went to Russia and wrote euphorically the famous words, "I have seen the future, and it works." Robert LaFollette corrected him; the Wisconsin politician looked at America and said, "No, the future is here."

Today, we might say of a collapsing communist empire, "We have seen the future, and it is the past." And here in little South Korea, ignored and vilified by the world for years, it is today clear that, yes, "the future is here."

This is a quietly jubilant week, and a strange one, for South Korea. After 42 years of being the shunned child of the United Nations, it was finally taken into the U.N. as its 161st member on Sept. 17. South Koreans "celebrated" by doing what they do best: working all day with sobriety and purposeful diligence.

But not far behind the headlines, scenes of astonishment bewilder the traditional geopolitical thinker. The very day that South Korea, North Korea, the three Baltic states and two South Pacific nations were duly being recorded as new members of the United Nations in New York, Russian diplomats were in Seoul pestering the South Koreans for the $3 billion in aid the Korean government has promised them.

Ironically, once-despised South Korea, considered historically by Japan and China as a subservient nation, has become a uniquely prosperous state. It has the highest-paid work force in Asia, an evolving democracy, gleaming cities, and huge multinationals such as Hyundai, which plans soon to be one of 10 global automakers.

The week was the result of a lively discussion in the government of President Roh Tae Woo over whether to join the United Nations. The decision was made not only for national ego but also for larger geopolitical reasons.

"We do feel a sense of deliverance," Lee Dong Bok, special adviser to the prime minister and the South's version of Henry Kissinger, explained to me on the eve of the U.N. membership, "but there is also another aspect. Until last May, the North Koreans were resolutely against the idea of two Koreas in the U.N. We fought for years to overcome their objections.

"However, some things to us were more important than anything else. The resolution of the Korean problem was all because of North Korea's obsession with the false concept of one Korea.' There is no question there are two states. So we must start with two parties accepting each other as sovereign states.

"If we become separately members of the U.N., we deprive North Korea of the legitimacy of those arguments. So, now, this is a momentous change."

In short, South Korea -- the country formed by the United Nations in 1948 and saved by a U.N. army from the North Korean invasion of 1950 -- is now eager to use that same body to work gradually toward the eventual reunification of the long-torn peninsula.

As a matter of fact, the reason Seoul has come to represent "the" pTC example in Asia of the final outcome of the fight between authoritarian democracy and communism has been precisely those factors of gradualism and evolution.

North Korea, under the iron hand and mind-control of its "dear leader," dictator Kim Il Sung, represents the communist "mobilization society" way to development. "The future" was to spring out spontaneously, from some magical will of the masses, which turned out to be really only a euphemism for the ruthless control of everybody from the top.

For a long time, South Korea, with its stern military-run governments, its oppressive Korean CIA and its monopolistic capitalist enterprises, was a sad and unattractive place to many. U.S. troops defended it, along with a tough Korean military establishment; and American liberals and critics hated it as representative of everything that was wrong with America.

But the secret of the dialectics of those years has now revealed itself. The North still has the same communist leadership and the same grand and unworkable ideas that bear no resemblance to human nature. But the South, with the elected Roh behaving like a democratic president, is rapidly evolving toward a genuinely workable democratic country. There is almost no fear now of military takeover, and the South Koreans argue about Roh's politics, not his survival.

It has been a rocky road for South Korea, a road of evolution, of part-solutions along the way to a decent human existence based upon the truths of human nature. Ironically, it today is the land of grand accomplishments and of great expectations.

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