United We Stand, Divided We Fall
By Joonsung Kim
In late July, the Korean government announced a “de facto cessation of MERS” as no additional cases of the virus had been reported for 48 straight days. With some distance, we should now look beyond the obvious problems the situation revealed—the Korean government’s incompetence and the ill-prepared health care infrastructure—and consider an equally concerning problem that lay uncovered:regionalism. This social sickness not only worsened the MERS outbreak, but has also remained a chronic cause of sociopolitical strife here.
Regionalism has existed on the peninsula since the North-South States Period (698~926 CE), when Balhae and Unified Silla existed. When Silla dominated the Korean peninsula, the people of Goguryeo and Baekjae fought against the Silla governance, started revival movements, and criticized discriminatory policies enacted by Gyeongju, the capital of Silla. This historical background has influenced the modern-day discriminatory regionalism that exists between the Gyeongsang (pre-Silla circle) and the Jeolla (pre-Baekjae circle) regions.
In current politics, the ruling Saenuri Party and the main opposition party, the New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD), pursueconservative and liberal agendas, respectively. However, setting aside political ideology, the majority of the current ruling Saenuri Party members hail from the Gyeongsang region while NPAD consists mainly of Jeolla people. Thus, during the general election, most votes for the Saenuri Party come from Gyeongsang while most votes for NPAD come from Jeolla. This scenario played out in the previous presidential election, when the majority of votes for Moon Jae-in, a candidate for the Democratic United Party (NPAD’s predecessor) came from Jeolla and the majority of voters from other provinces, including the Gyeongsang region, voted for Park Geun-hye, a Saenuri candidate and the current president. Regional loyalty comes first in politics.
Yet such regionalism has not only affected politics. The problem also gave birth to a new term: “MERS Regionalism.” On June 3, as MERS claimed its third life and infections began to spike, the Ministry of Health and Welfare sent an official document to the North Chungcheong Province about using the public institute located in Chungju for quarantine. However, the province and the city of Chungju fiercely opposed the decision and blocked the entrance of the institute with ambulances and fumigator trucks. Something similar occurred when the Incheon Metropolitan City government publicly declared, “We won’t receive any MERS patients from other areas.” Since Incheon didn’t have any MERS patients in the area, the people of Incheon feared the possibility of infection, which prompted the government’s denial of medical treatment to patients from other areas. Such phenomenon can separate of communities, focus political power to a certain area, create victim mentality, and intensify epidemics.
Though the government has declared Korea free of MERS, our society remains ill. We must treat this social sickness that divides communities, deranges politics and threatens the health of Korean people. Politicians should not provoke citizens by using regionalism to gain support and the central government should cooperate with local governments and vice versa. Individually, it is essential that citizens treat each other equitably and discard supremacist regional views. To advance our country, we should abandon regionalism.
The writer is a high school freshman.