Lincoln and August 15th
Liberation Day, Aug. 15, stirs complex emotions for Koreans. It marks the hopeful end of Japanese colonial rule in 1945.
That hopeful moment, however, gave way to intense political infighting as the United States and the Soviet Union jockeyed for hegemony over the Korean Peninsula. By 1948, the protracted power game led to the establishment of two Korean states. The two states fought a terrible war from 1950-53, and have remained adversaries ever since.
Abraham Lincoln knew nothing of Korea, but his words offer much wisdom for Korea's bittersweet liberation. Lincoln's life story has become myth and he towers over all other American presidents. Some historians rank him as one of the greatest leaders of all time. What made Lincoln so great and why is relevant to Korea now?
The keys to his greatness are empathy and leadership. At the end of his second inaugural address in 1865, he reached out to the South as it was nearing defeat: ``With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan ― to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations."
He showed great empathy with those on both sides that had suffered in the Civil War, offering to forgive the South and bring it back into the nation.
During the war, Lincoln frequently visited battle sites to thank the soldiers. His opposition to slavery was based on empathy for the slave as he expressed in 1858: ``As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy."
Yet he was also a strong leader with firm beliefs. Between his election in November 1860 and his inauguration in March 1861, the South had succeeded and formed the Confederate States of America. Much of the federal bureaucracy and the military were in disarray. Many in the North were content to let the South succeed, but Lincoln believed that the Union must remain whole and that a war to achieve that goal was just. Lincoln focused his efforts entirely on the goal of winning the war and reuniting the nation so that, as he put it in the Gettysburg Address, ``Government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth."
Compared to the opportunistic, poll-addicted politicians of today, Lincoln towers yet higher. His empathy was genuine, his beliefs firm. He was a leader, not a consumable image or ideology.
His empathy and leadership are specifically what Korea will need to complete the hope of August 15th. In his first inaugural address as war clouds gathered Lincoln stated, ``We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection." To unite and become one, Koreans will need to develop bonds of affection that go deeper than the ideological notion of a single race.
Bringing two states that had once been one together requires monumental leadership. Lincoln's firm beliefs came from his powerful vision of democracy and equal opportunity. This vision was rooted in a deep understanding of the democratic thought and republican government. To bring the two Koreas together will require a vision for the unified nation and the leadership to turn that vision into reality.
At present, the vision thing, as it is often called, is highly problematic in Korea. North Korea has clear vision of what unified nation should look like, but it assumes conquest of the South. South Korea, meanwhile, has an amorphous vision that focuses on crises management upon collapse of the North.
The irony in the vision thing is that North Korea's certitude mirrors Lincoln's. The contents of the vision, however, have caused great suffering among the people and have turned it into a pariah in the world community. Lincoln's democratic vision, by contrast, has become almost universal.
South Korea has adopted it, but have not always put it into practice. After winning re-election in 1864, Lincoln said, ``We cannot have free government without free elections, and if the rebellion could force us to forego, or postpone a national election, it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us." All food for thought on yet another complex Liberation Day.
The writer is a professor at the Department of Korean Language Education at Seoul National University. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.