Unification News for June 1999

Loyalty, Filial Piety in Changing Times

President Kim Dae Jung
June, 1999

President Kim Dae-jung of Korea gave this speech at a recent meeting with Confucian leaders.

The idea of serving the king loyally and respecting and supporting parents is the highest virtue in Confucian ethics and a valuable asset of Asian society. We should not abandon or neglect these virtues that are not found in Western society.

However, we cannot expect young people today to follow such ideas blindly. An idea or ideology however good, comes alive only when it is accepted and when it is reinterpreted and revised to fit changing times. Only then can an idea develop and enrich society. If this does not happen, the idea or ideology becomes outdated and finally fades gradually from consciousness.

In the past, the idea of royalty and filial piety was a one-way relationship that demanded that subjects be loyal to the king even when he was not worthy of loyalty, and that children be dutiful to their parents even when they were not worthy of respect. Such one-sided standards, however, cannot be the basis for morality in a democratic society based on the dignity of the individual and on a social contract. The old idea of loyalty and filial piety should be replaced today with the idea that the government, the people, parents and children must all fill their proper roles. Only when the principle of mutuality is accepted can the idea of loyalty and filial piety be viable and be regarded today as a virtue.

What then is the object of loyalty today? Now that kings no longer reign, the concept of the nation might take their place. But if the nation becomes the object of loyalty, there is a possibility that it can breed something like Hitler's Nazism or Japan's militarism.

Today, the object of loyalty should be none other than the people. According to the Constitution, sovereignty rests with the people. Hence, the object of loyalty cannot be anything but the people: my wife, my husband, my neighbor. Otherwise, the idea of loyalty is meaningless. When I think of the person sitting in front of me as my king, I cannot ignore him; I can only offer him my service.

In the past, sovereignty rested with one person, the king, who ruled the country by himself. Now, however, the majority has sovereign power; they are the masters. That is why we cannot but realize democracy, if we maintain loyalty.

The 20th century was an age of struggle for the realization of democracy. A countless number of people around the world were bloodied and sacrificed themselves in the fight for democracy, but still democracy has not been realized as it should be. However, democracy will become universal in the 21st century. It began in the 20th century but was not completed; it will be realized in every comer of the world, including in the hinterlands of Africa, in the 21st century.

Next, let us think about filial piety. it is a lofty value - children caring for their parents in return for their birth and rearing. In this way, the old and the weak are cared for and can enjoy happiness in their twilight years. Filial piety is thus an important virtue that has been stressed throughout the ages.

But as I said earlier, filial piety in the past called for children to fill their proper roles. In other words, filial piety was one-sided and unconditional. They were expected to take care of their parents even if they were not worthy parents. But now, parents have to also fill their proper role. Of course, I don't mean that children are excused from caring for their parents just because the parents did not fulfill their role as parents. I mean the time is gone when the obligation to show filial piety required blind submission and sacrifice on the part of children. The practice of true filial piety is possible only when the relationship between parents and children is based on mutual respect an understanding.

In particular, we must never praise or urge a young widow not to marry again but to sacrifice the rest of her life by continuing to serve her parents-in-law, or a young daughter to sacrifice herself by becoming a prostitute in order to support her parents and help educate her brothers and sisters. These are not the ways to practice filial piety. However praiseworthy the intention, these are inhumane and undemocratic. There is nothing of value in them for our society to pursue.

In the agricultural age of the past, large families worked on farms and children supported their parents. But it is now an age of nuclear families. While parents remain in rural areas, their children live separately where they can find work. Consequently, it is practically impossible to practice filial piety as it was in the past. Therefore, now both children and the government have to take care of the elderly. We can take care of the elderly properly when individual filial piety is combined with governmental and societal filial piety. To do that, the government should take the initiative and protect the elderly and help stabilize their living conditions. In other words, we have to put into practice something we might call "national filial piety," and "societal filial piety."

"Societal filial piety" embraces individual filial piety. For, everyone, including adult children, pay taxes. The government, which levies taxes, takes care of the elderly for them. The government must continue to strengthen support for the welfare of the elderly. When we develop a stable system of support for the elderly by paying them living expenses, we will be able to say that our society is one where "national filial piety" and "societal filial piety" are practiced.

When everyone serves their neighbors loyally and when "societal filial piety," led by the government, is practiced fully, we will be able to say that our society is genuinely democratic. When the idea of serving the king loyally and practicing filial piety is interpreted anew and reapplied, we will be able to safeguard individual human rights and democracy properly in this age of globalism. This is the only way to strengthen our shaky ethical and moral standards.

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