Saturday, June 7, 2008

Students and Grannies and Monks -- Oh, My!

The Korean police have been playing rough again, trying to disperse some of the crowds that are settled in for a 72-hour marathon vigil to complete their month of protests against President Lee Myeong-bak’s trade policies. (Photo, again, from OhMyNews.) This seems stupid to me. The vigils are going to end in a day or two – why would the police want to make more trouble for themselves?

Thursday evening, says an editorial in the Korea Herald, titled “Protests or Anarchy?”,

former members of Army counter-intelligence units and other "conservative" groups occupied Seoul Plaza before the hordes of demonstrators arrived. The "ex-HID" men are holding 72-hour memorial services for their "fallen comrades sacrificed in the performance of patriotic missions," on the lawn in front of City Hall, while groups supporting the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement and "law and order" movements are chanting their slogans nearby. But the anti-Lee Myung-bak crowd virtually surrounded the plaza and overwhelmed the opposing group due to their great number and thunderous loudspeaker chants. Tens of thousands of policemen in heavy riot-control gear just looked on.

Even this overtly propagandistic writer doesn’t claim that “the anti-Lee Myung-bak crowd” attacked, overtly interfered with, or threatened the pro-FTA and “law and order” groups, let alone the ex-Army men. It seems they simply outnumbered them. That can be an uncomfortable position in which to find oneself, as I know from experience, but it’s not a danger to democracy. Despite the editorialist’s prattling about “democracy”, it seems he doesn’t understand what the word means. Judging by the last sentence of that paragraph, the writer wishes the police had attacked the “anti-Lee Myung-bak crowd” right then and there, just for having turned out in numbers. Usually, policemen in riot gear “just look on” while right-wing thugs are attacking peaceful demonstrators, and it’s that scenario the writer seeks to invoke.

The editorialist claims to be concerned that the public has turned against Lee’s administration so quickly, within a few months after it came to power. The writers I’ve read who take this tack conveniently forget the failed impeachment proceedings brought by Korean rightists against Lee’s prececessor, Noh Mu-hyeon. All my Korean friends were furious at having to defend Noh, who had disappointed them seriously after he took office, but they knew that the right-wingers were worse. If memory serves, the Herald didn’t wring its hands over the unfairness of that affair. The situation reminded me a lot of the impeachment of Bill Clinton, another case of an attempted coup on trumped-up charges by right-wing politicians and corporate media.

As far as I can tell from my Korean friends and the English-language Korean news I’ve read, Koreans were tired of the malfeasance of Lee’s predecessors: they didn’t so much vote for Lee and his policies as against the other guys. The fact that Americans have more experience with democracy than Koreans hasn’t kept us from making the same mistake many times. So the editorialist blames the protests for swaying, even misleading decent people. It doesn’t occur to him that these huge demonstrations might be an expression of the Korean public’s will, which is what they seem to be.

Nor did it occur to the three young Korean writers for English OhMyNews, all of whom criticize the protesters for disobedience and disrespect to elders; they also forget that a good many Korean elders have joined the vigils. These young writers are showing disrespect to their peers as well as their elders when they accuse them of being sheep led by anarchists. One even seems to equate today’s protests with the mass popular movement that overthrew Cheon Doo-hwan’s dictatorship in 1987; I think her analogy backfires – does she wish she still lived under a military regime? Still, one can find the same phenomenon in the US, with young conservatives joining older ones in denouncing those who fail to obey slavishly their elected officials.

The good citizens are in despair [concludes the Herald’s editorialist]. They ask themselves if 21 years is still not enough to create a stable democracy here. Many people are just praying that the anniversary of the June 10, 1987 pro-democracy movement next week will remind everyone of the precious thing they struggled to achieve throughout the dark 80s. It was definitely not this chaos.

Again, which “good citizens” does he have in mind? Presumably he means the upper levels of Lee’s administration, and the corporate interests on both sides of the Pacific who may not get their way now. The protesters are also good citizens, trying to use peaceful means to turn around an administration that most Koreans do not support. In general, reactionary regimes depend on the passivity of most citizens to push their destructive policies: that gave Korea its economic crisis, the US and Britain the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Democracy in 1987 was achieved on the streets, not by waiting passively until the next election came along (which would have meant “never”), so it is not clear that the heirs of the earlier movement object to this year’s vigils – indeed, many are participating in them. Besides, as the editorialist also complains, voters showed their lack of support for the ruling party in last week’s by-elections.

As for “this chaos,” it’s a lie. The country is not in chaos. I’ve been all over Seoul in the past two weeks, and life is mostly going on as usual. The editorialist, like other remaining Lee Myeong-bak’s supporters (Lee’s approval ratings are down to 20 percent, near those of his buddy Bush), is simply trembling at the power of free speech and the peaceful assembly of citizens.