As we greet the New Year, 2013 carries a special meaning for all of us because it will mark a turning point in our history: whether to make a great leap forward or become a second-class nation. After experiencing a remarkable period of industrialization and democratization since its humble foundation 65 years ago, Korea is at a crossroads.
After making such momentous strides in previous decades, the country faces stronger regional and generational divisions due to deepening economic and social polarization, a weakened growth engine due to alarmingly low birthrates, a rapidly aging population, and a yawning gap between large and small companies. As the recent presidential election results vividly demonstrate, we cannot expect a brighter future unless politicians, the new government and citizens resolve a wide array of daunting tasks ahead.
The Korean Peninsula is also at the center of change. The post-war power axis centered on the U.S. and Europe is fast tilting toward Asia. The U.S. has not yet recovered from the global financial crisis, and Europe, still mired in fiscal distress, does not yet seem ready to return to the center of the world economy. With Korea, China and Japan still boasting of their relatively robust economies amid an unprecedented global recession, Asia’s new emerging economies like Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand have embarked on their respective journeys to grow beyond the ranks of emerging nations.
The arrival of a fully fledged Asian era can present both crises and opportunities. While Korea runs the risk of being sidelined by China, it can also turn this into an opportunity for sustained prosperity if we can first address our internal conflicts to capitalize on external challenges. We must decide whether to stand tall in Asia or crumble.
Opportunities come to those who are well prepared. The most urgent job now is to cement the nation’s political and social integration as division and confrontation will only lead to a bigger crisis. The first step toward this goal is ensuring that President-elect Park Geun-hye makes balanced appointments across the board. If the new administration stops short of overcoming deep-rooted cronyism and favoritism, it will only aggravate long-burning schisms. Park must scrap the bad practice even if it means making arbitrary interventions in appointing high-ranking government officials.
Another step for national unification is effective communication with, and sympathy for, those who voted against her in the last presidential election. She must extend her hands to all.