Tuesday, June 17, 2008


Koreans Must Evolve with their Democracy

Note: blogging when you don't have a computer of your own that's hooked up to the Internet is hard. Hopefully that situation will change soon, though.

The office of The Korea Herald is next to city hall in Seoul. On most nights it's around 6 p.m. that I usually leave work, which is about the time the protestors usually start to arrive and the riot police have already begun gearing up. Many alleyways will be blocked, and the roads will be too congested for many cars and buses to pass through.

At its peak, some sources say the number of protestors who were showing up on any given night may have been as few as 100,000 or as many as 700,000. I never stuck around to count, because I knew the number, however big, was enough to put individuals of foreign appearance at risk.

Ostensibly, the group is against current president Lee Myung-bak and the importation of unsafe beef, rather than ant-American, per se. However, certain signs that I noticed in the crowd with a caricature of Lee standing in front of a stars-and-stripes adorned eagle (neither drawn in a flattering manner) hardly put me at ease.

President Lee came into office this spring on a platform of economic development and bolstering U.S.-Korean relations. Part of his plan for doing both of those things was to see to it that a free trade agreement with the United States was approved. Among the stipulations of that particular deal was to lift all trade barriers against beef made in America.

My brother-in-law — who supports trade with America, but is against the beef deal and despises Lee — occasionally joins the protests. On the first night he joined, I saw him leave with a sign stating “MB quit, and I go home.” I can correct the sign’s grammar, but his limited English fluency makes it hard to further discuss its content.

Last year, former President Roh Moo-hyun (whom my brother-in-law respects) was the one who actually negotiated this deal with the U.S. The FTA agreement was on of the things Lee campaigned on, winning nearly 50 percent of the vote, more than 22 points above his nearest competitor in the race. Most people might see this as a strong endorsement of the new president's platform.

"Most people," however, don't live in Korea, and don't understand the attitudes that the Korean people have toward their government.

Maybe the most endearing characteristic of the Korean people is their passion, be it for family, for country, or for education. Their devotion to family leads them to sacrifice their comfort so that their children can have better lives. Their dedication to their country has allowed Korea to survive as a sovereign nation despite the presence of much bigger, more well-known neighbors.

Their zeal for education has also lead them to commit many admirable deeds, including the widespread hiring of American liberal arts majors who can hardly even work for free in their home countries.

Now and then, though, their passion goes beyond the stage of impressive to the point of being downright frightening.

Ever since the days when before World War II, when their peninsula was occupied by the Japanese, the people of Korea have taken to the streets to demonstrate their disapproval of the government. Thousands of those who protested against the occupiers from Japan ended up dead, and tens of thousands more in jail, but their actions gave hope to the people and have been commemorated ever since.

Starting in the 1960s President Park Chung-hee was determined to make South Korea an economic powerhouse, even if it meant rigging elections to keep him in power indefinitely, silencing all voices of dissent, and allowing industries to keep their workers on the job at all hours of the day and in miserable conditions.

Then, in 1970, a tailor named Jeon Tae-il set both himself and a copy of the national labor code on fire in downtown Seoul. Until he succumbed to the flames, Jeon repeatedly chanted "We are not machines! Enforce the labor code!" His death lead to further protests throughout the decade, and the government's ruthless reaction to those protests eventually lead to Park's assassination in 1979.

Since the late 1980s South Korea has been a veritable economic power and they have enjoyed the relatively free and fair elections. In 1987, it elected its first civilian president, and last year Lee became its first businessman to be head of state.

However, though the government seemingly has evolved, the people's perspectives toward it have not. In 2002, two schoolgirls were killed by a U.S. military vehicle and then found not guilty of wrongdoing by an American military court.

The people took to the same streets they are demonstrating in now, demanding that the soldiers piloting the vehicle be brought to trial in a Korean court and demanding that the agreement between their government and the American military be renegotiated. They believed that their country was being bullied by a distant, stronger nation and that their government was too ineffectual to do anything about it.

The fact that the accident had been just that — an accident — and had taken place on a road with very limited visibility was less important than this nationalistic narrative.

In 2003, during negotiations of the World Trade Organization in Cancun, farmer and activist Lee Kyung-hae stabbed himself to death after unveiling a banner reading "The WTO kills farmers."

In 2006, an assailant attacked Park Geun-hye, daughter of the totalitarian former president and a current parliament member. Park, who leans to the right but is well within her country’s democratic mainstream, needed 60 stitches after he slashed her face with a knife.

Then, last year, as the so-called KORUS free trade agreement was being negotiated, Heo Se-Wook, a taxi driver in his mid-50s, set himself on fire in protest. He was extinguished by police on the scene, but later died of infection.

As of this writing, protestors are still crowing the streets of Seoul at night, though their numbers are starting to ebb and they have begun to move on to other issues. Having been thrashed in both the most-recent presidential and parliamentary elections, the liberal United Democratic Party refuses to join the current legislative session in protest of the beef deal. Every day that they sit out the business of government in the hopes of making themselves politically relevant is another day that the nation’s current strike of truck drivers and shippers goes unaddressed.

Different sources still debate whether 30-month-old beef from America is truly unsafe. That President Lee has made mistakes, particularly in his arrogant approach to the issue, is almost universally acknowledged.

But the time has come for the Korean people to understand that this is not how democracies function. Protests against the Japanese and the Park government were justified because they had not a voice in how those governments made decisions. Lee, on the other hand, won a free and fair election.

For protestors who clog the streets calling for the resignation of the president — who hasn’t even had time to adapt to the reins of government — and resort to violence against themselves and politicians may give future leaders the impression that democracy was a failed concept here. For UDP members to manipulate such behavior at this time is beyond irresponsible; it is shameful.

I have grown to love Korea more with each passing month that I’ve been here. However, I think that if democracy is to succeed here, it will be up to the people to change not just their government, but how they react to it.

this article seems to strike at the heart of an issue that I wasn't even awaire of. I am both shamed by my ignorance and extreamely proud of you my friend for you insight and ability to share this knowledge with others and impart its importance. I see it as relevant here in the US as well, where we piss and moan about our issues impotently and refuse to think it through and take appropriate actions that will change things. This leaves us with not supporting our own country, it's leaders, and our fighting men, and still not doing anything constructive but only meaningless or detrimental acts. I am glad I read this and may you continue to battle ignorance for it is one of the fiercest of opponents. I will pray for you, Korea, and the US as well. It may only be a drop in the dry well but I still thank you and appreciate your efforts.
Interesting article, but there's one thing I think you have wrong.

I have walked through the demos several times and never experienced the slightest aggression (I am a westerner). I think your fear on that is misplaced.
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