Asia today is a continent on the rise. India and China are the two most populous nations on the planet with over one-third of the global population. Two of the world’s top three economies are in Asia, and the economies of most other Asian nations are growing.
Korea, the country of my birth, has become a model for nations in the developing world. With its unprecedented growth, South Korea has transformed itself in just half a century from a poor agricultural backwater to a developed and prosperous high-tech economy with growing global influence.
This trend is evidence that the centre of global power and influence is shifting from the Atlantic sphere to the sphere of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Yet the pursuit of economic growth alone is not sufficient to secure hopes for peace and prosperity in the 21st century. Progress must be guided by a vision for the future that calls forth the nobler qualities of the human character.
Such a vision can be found in spiritual principles that lie at the heart of Asia’s great and ancient civilisations. To build for the future we must look to our past. My home country of Korea provides a striking example of this insight.
A Korea unified on the foundation of its own ancient principles will bring to an end the last remnant of the Cold War in Asia.
For most of the first half of the 20th century, Korean people suffered greatly under Japanese colonial occupation, during which their culture was systematically suppressed. In 1945, at the end of World War II, Korea won its independence, but was immediately divided by the force of Cold War geopolitics that was outside the control of the Korean people. As a result, the Korean people today remain thwarted from fulfilling their potential and their destiny, since North and South are almost totally cut off from each other. A people with a shared heritage of more than 5,000 years have been forcibly separated. The divided Korea that has resulted is a threat to the peace and security of the whole Asian region and indeed the world.
To finally resolve this conflict, the two Koreas must ultimately be reunified. The critically important question is how to successfully achieve that goal. Through the Global Peace Foundation, the international NGO that I established, we have been pioneering a groundbreaking approach to Korean unification with regional and global implications.
In my book, The Korean Dream: A Vision for a United Korea, I shift the focus away from technical questions of process to clarifying the end goal of unification. I ask what type of new nation should Koreans aspire to establish, and what shared vision and enduring principles should guide them towards it.
The roots of this vision are to be found embedded deep in Korea’s 5,000-year history, expressed in a principle that can be traced to the very origins of Korea. It is called Hongik Ingan, which means “living for the greater benefit of all humanity,” and has become part of the people’s spiritual DNA. Considered together with related ancient principles, it proclaims the ideal of a society that raises ethical citizens motivated to live and act for the greater good of all people, not just those of their own nation.
This vision is remarkable by the standards of any time, but particularly as the product of an ancient Asian civilisation. It proclaimed high principles and ideals when most societies focused only on their own survival, relying on leadership based on power rather than principle, and often exploiting other groups for their own benefit.
The principle of Hongik Ingan has always been a moral touchstone for Koreans, especially at times of crisis throughout their history. It is the foundation for fundamental ideas of human rights and freedoms in Korean society that resonate closely with modern ideas of human rights such as are expressed in the US Declaration of Independence or the UN Declaration of Human Rights.
Yet Hongik Ingan predates these Declarations by millennia and developed quite independently of modern western political thought. Furthermore, it is a vision not just for the Korean people, but that looks outward beyond the nation for the inspiration and the good of all humanity. In Hongik Ingan, Asians can find a principle that supports human rights and freedoms and comes from an ancient civilisation at the very heart of Asia.
A Korea unified on the foundation of its own ancient principles will finally leave behind its colonial past and bring to an end the last remnant of the Cold War in Asia. This can be a model and inspiration for the whole of Asia, rooted in Asia’s own rich past and ancient principles—such as the ethic of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam revered in India—and free of any colonial legacy.
It is full of possibilities to stimulate new approaches among the nations of Asia that move beyond the confines of Cold War constructs, and is ripe with potential to unleash a new Asian peace dynamic. Thus, Asia will come to stand upon its own foundation and, with hope and bold confidence, build a strong future that will “bring benefit to all humanity.”
Dr Hyun Jin Preston Moon is Founder and Chairman, Global Peace Foundation.