You Young Kim
Seoul International School
Level: High School
Hearing my grandfather state, “I’m forever grateful to Kim Il-sung,” baffled me. His words of gratitude to the first Supreme Leader and the Eternal President of North Korea did not match his heartbreaking tale of defecting to the South during the Korean War. Recalling his stories of hiding in the mountains and his relatives trapped in the isolated dictatorial communist state, I couldn’t fathom being grateful for a man who pushed my grandfather to make such a difficult choice when he was only a few years older than I am now.
My grandfather first spoke these words when we were watching news coverage of South Korea’s former president’s impeachment. It was also the first time I saw tears in his eyes. Pointing at the television screen, he continued, “If it weren’t for Kim Il-sung attacking South Korea, who knows what could have been of me right now? It’s all thanks to him that I’m now living in a free society. You see, this is how a country should be.” His eyes lingered on the screen now divided into two halves: the image of protesters holding up candles juxtaposed to our former president Park Geun-hye, handcuffed, being ushered into court by the police.
When he abandoned his northern home in the 1950s, could my grandfather have fathomed the influence citizens could have on the highest political powers in a democratic country? As a junior in high school, I can’t even begin to grasp the weight of the decision he had to make. It was not merely a choice between a dictatorship and a democracy, but one that would determine his future and one that came with the risk of losing his family and life. Barely twenty at the time, he was, in many ways, still a child when he made the life-altering choice. Perhaps only on the day of Park’s impeachment did he finally realize the enormity of the political decision he had made seventy years ago.
Thanks to my grandfather’s run to the South, I’ve grown up in a democracy my entire life. But it was only in the days surrounding Park’s impeachment that I realized what it means to be a part of a democracy. Leading up to the impeachment, the streets of Seoul were filled with hundreds of thousands of people across the social strata—young and old, male and female. They had all come together for a common cause, to demand the correct indictment of political corruption and the proper execution of the rule of law. Holding a candle in my hands amidst other protestors in Gwanghuamun Square, I saw faces of young students like myself, parents with their children by the side, and old couples holding hands with one hand and candles with another. I had never felt a stronger sense of belonging than I did that day. With people of my country, I was standing up for my rights—for our rights, for our country.
Such personal experiences, listening to my grandfather’s stories and witnessing the impeachment of the president, have led me to define democracy beyond the definition in my AP US History textbook. A democracy is indeed a “government by the people,” for it allows for the rule of the majority. But even more than that, it is a political system that vests in the people—all citizens regardless of gender, age, and socioeconomic background—the freedom and the right to engage actively in political and civic life; it is a political system that allows itself to respond to and be developed by the people. It is this power to shape their own lives that democracy confers upon the people, as well as its ensuing flexibility, that makes democracy important and worth protecting.
Yet, democracy is by no means perfect nor is it invincible. In fact, perhaps because of its very flexibility, it is vulnerable to flaws, and at times, even failures. The global rise of dissatisfaction with democracy and anti-democratic trends has become especially concerning recently, as exemplified in the failure of democracy in Egypt and the turn towards authoritarianism in Hungary and Poland. Moreover, even some of the most developed countries that remain deeply committed to democracy, such as the United States and Japan, suffer from persistent problems of partisan gerrymandering that creates a biased political advantage for an individual party. For example, although the US Democrats won 44 percent of the votes in this year’s midterm elections, the election boundaries drawn by the Republicans in certain states like Ohio protected the incumbents from leaving office. The very fact that the US Supreme Court ruled against outlawing gerrymandering despite the skewed election outcomes reveals the deeply ingrained problems of democracy and how the system fails to meet its goals at times.
Not only that, as a system designed to incorporate and embrace more people in ruling the state, democracy makes itself vulnerable to fake news, internal debt from pork barrel politics, and the government’s associations with special interest groups that may compromise the interests of civilians. One only needs to look at the relationship between the Park Geun-hye administration and Samsung, South Korea’s largest conglomerate, to see an example of a government’s corruption at the expense of its citizens.
Despite its flaws, however, democracy offers freedom that other political systems, such as a dictatorship or communism, do not. With the waning of democracy and the simultaneous rise of populist authoritarianism in Hungary, the country is experiencing threats to its most basic human rights. Not only is its previously independent media now state-owned, but courts are also soon to be directly overseen by the government. Academic freedom is at a risk as well; one of the country’s most renowned universities is “forced out” of Hungary for granting American-accredited degrees, and the nation’s gender studies courses are to be shut down. Situations are not much different in the largest communist country, China, where the already pervasive censorship over media and communication platforms is only strengthening. One need not mention how destitute a civilian’s life would be in a totalitarian state like North Korea.
I am both fortunate and unfortunate that my family’s history has allowed me to uniquely understand not only why it is important to live in a democracy, but also why it is essential. It is strange to think how different North and South Koreas are today, considering they were a unified country only seventy years ago, and that their split was not voluntary but coerced by the international superpowers at the time. It is even more notable that in the initial years succeeding the Korean War, the North fared better economically than the South. Despite such initial conditions, however, I believe it was the radically different political systems of the two states that eventually widened the disparities between their economic progress and standards of living.
To say that non-democratic countries limit the freedom of the people would be an understatement; they strip the citizens of their agency to act on free will. By limiting people’s access to information, the states confine them from immersing themselves in the global community, and deprive them of the opportunity to contribute to and borrow from the international wealth of knowledge. The abilities to learn and think independently are no longer guaranteed rights, but only unattainable luxuries. It may be true that other political systems may at times boast more efficient bureaucracies and economies than a democracy. It is also true that democracies have their shortcomings, as discussed above. Nonetheless, by offering uncensored education, freedom of speech, and the unbridled agency to act, democracy empowers its people to develop abilities to conjure and execute revolutionary solutions to these shortcomings. As a result, democracy is adaptable, progressive, and resilient.
In an environment in which one has unprohibited access to information and knowledge, creativity blossoms. Creativity encourages people to think uniquely and approach issues from diverse standpoints. From such creativity stems independent thinking. Creativity and independence then give birth to innovation and reform. It was the belief of the South Korean people that they could together build a better future for the country that actualized the impeachment. More than 2 million citizens came together for the peaceful but formidable revolution. The headline of The Washington Post read, “South Korea shows the world how democracy is done”—it was a win for the South Korean democracy. It was a win for democracy.
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