Thursday, June 12, 2008

All Quiet on the Eastern Front

Things seem kind of quiet in Korea today, if you ignore the truckers' strike, and both the English Korea Herald and Korea Times did their best. The government has announced plans to "freeze or minimize hikes in public utility and transportation charges" to take some pressure off low-income Koreans. Former Korean President Kim Dae-Jung, a conservative dissident who spent many years in prison and was nearly assassinated by the Park Cheong-hee dictatorship, endorsed the candlelight vigils in a speech today (?). Kim hailed the current protests as "the practice of direct democracy" comparable to that in "Athens 2,000 years ago."

Well, not quite -- it was more like 2,500 years ago, and the protests aren't really direct democracy: they aren't binding on the government. But it's the thought that counts, and for someone of Kim's stature to endorse the vigil puts paid to the "anti-American" and "outraged radicals" smears that Lee Myeong-bak's apologists have been throwing around. In a mostly pretty decent history of the vigils in today's Korea Herald ("Deja vu? Candlelight vigils in 2002 and present"), Henry Shinn points out:
Today's candlelight vigils are not as overtly anti-American [as those of 2002], but they are definitely anti-Lee Myung-bak.

Yes, the issue that sparked the outcry was U.S. beef. And yes, there are some radical protesters who harbor anti-American sentiments. Anti-American sentiment may grow depending on how the situation unfolds, but it does not reflect of the vast majority of protesters so far.

An interesting irony in the beef outrage is apparent through recent polling that shows the majority of the protesters still support the KORUS FTA and the benefits it may bring. Koreans on the streets may arguably be confused or conflicted, but to say everyone bearing a lit candle is anti-American would be inaccurate.

However, if one listens to the chants of the protesters and the signs posted all over Seoul, it is apparent the overriding anger of the populace has been squarely pointed at Lee, not at the United States.
Shinn quotes Lee's predecessor Noh Mu-hyeon saying last week that "the march to Cheong Wa Dae was a meaningless act and that, 'Even if the beef deal was wrong ... it is still wrong to push for the removal of the (Lee) administration. It's unconstitutional and undemocratic.'" Well, maybe. But was the attempted march to the Blue House meaningless? I don't think so, if only because the police resorted to violence to stop it. It also made explicit that it was Lee, not his cabinet, his ministers, or his secretaries, whom the protesters held accountable.
Shinn also seems a bit too eager for "ideological clashes" as the "progressive leaning" demonstrators "witness counter-protests by conservative groups who are saying 'enough is enough.'" Conflict, ideological and otherwise, is just part of the democratic process; apparently it makes Shinn (like many American journalists) nervous. And there's a certain punitive relish in that "enough is enough." Couldn't the stance of the candlelight vigils be boiled down to the same slogan? Why it is only the Right who get to clean house?

One of today's editorials sternly orders the nation "Back to work".

Now that those who have grievances have vented their anger, they are urged to stay away from the streets. They can afford to go back to work, wait and see what action the administration takes. Moreover, a prolonged protest will do more harm than good to the nation and to them eventually, if not immediately.
Okay, I can figure out that it is the editoralist and the Korean right generally that are 'urging' those who have grievances to stay away from the streets. But are the protesters staying away from work? The vigils took place at night, when even the famously overworked Koreans have some free time. One can work for Samsung or LG and for democracy too. And a vast number of Koreans simply watched the vigils online. The vague threat of "more harm than good ... to them eventually, if not immediately" may have in mind problems like US Wall Street's latest attempt to bring Korea to heel, but I can't help thinking that the writer has something more immediate in mind, however vaguely. Still, after having read the Herald's editorials on and off for over eight years now, I must say that their writers are as out of touch with reality as the editors of the Wall Street Journal.