Monday, July 7, 2008

Candle Girl Marches On

(Another photo from OhMyNews.)

Today's Korea Herald actually has a reasonably good analysis piece on the current political situation, by one Rudiger Frank, a European academic who's also an adjunct instructor at Korea University. (That is the elite institution of higher education in South Korea, which all the ambitious high school kids lose sleep trying to get into.) Headed "U.S. beef and good governance in Korea," it doesn't really say anything remarkably insightful (try "Such extraordinary events [as the candlelight vigils] are rarely mono-causal"), but Frank does seem to grasp political realities better than most of the Herald's writers. His conclusions are a bit weak:

The conservative camp has not yet arrived in the 21st century, but it certainly should because a functioning and vibrant democracy needs full and active participation by all political forces. The demonstrations have shown that Korea's political system, especially the legislature, needs further improvement. The NGOs are so strong because the parliament is so weak. The reaction by the President and his team has shown that the conservative camp needs to find new ways to formulate and advance its political goals, which not only refers to beef but to other issues as well, including North Korea policy and economic development. These doubtlessly are huge tasks, but if we consider the enormous progress of Korea in the past decades, it is fair to be optimistic.

There has been a reason why the conservatives have won the presidential election in 2007, and this reason is still there. If the process of its internal development can be concluded quickly enough, the conservative camp will have a long future in government despite the current events.

Fair enough, but Frank excludes historical factors, talking about "conservative" and "liberal" forces as if they existed outside of time. Of course the "conservatives," whose roots are among Koreans who collaborated with the Japanese during the colonial period (1910-1945) and who were favored by the Americans after liberation through the Rhee and Park dictatorships, "will have a long future in government"; the question is whether they have anything constructive to offer the country beyond reactive Red-baiting and nostalgia for dictatorship. (A single-minded pursuit of one's own wealth and political power is not what I mean by "constructive.") South Korean "liberals," like American ones, are a more complicated mix of people, but they're hardly the crazed radicals of the right's imagination, more's the pity. The Korean opposition to Lee Myung-bak includes people like former President Kim Dae-jung, a genuinely conservative Catholic who came close to martyrdom for his nonviolent opposition to the Park Chung-hee dictatorship. It's worth remembering people like Kim when you hear today's protests called "illegal" and "violent": a repressive state considers all opposition violent, and it will pass laws to prevent it.

"Eventually," Frank allows, "the demonstrations will stop because the masses will get bored; however, dissatisfaction will remain in the hearts of Korean citizens and they will be ready to go out again as soon as the next opportunity arises. A submerged conflict is not a resolved conflict." True enough, but you'd never guess from Frank's discussion how long the current dissatisfaction has been simmering. The policies Lee wants to implement now are those which were forced on Korea in the 1990s, first by international corporate pressure and then by the International Monetary Fund. Since both "conservative" and "liberal" Korean politicians were strong-armed into accepting those policies, the current mass opposition to them should probably not be seen as directed solely at President Lee; nor can that opposition be resolved simply in terms of "liberal" versus "conservative," given Korean and international realities. There's more meaningful analysis in this short piece from Hankyoreh than in all of Frank's ahistorical blather; yet Frank is, as I suggested, an improvement over most of what finds its way into the corporate Korean media.

"A few half-hearted public apologies in the form of a short monologue, the firing of a few scapegoats, and attempts at blocking demonstrations through the use of containers and riot police are hardly the expression of a smart PR effort," Frank says. Ah: a smart PR effort. A PR effort, trying to spin the image without changing the substance, is part of the problem, and Professor Frank can't seem to see much farther than "the negative international image that Korea has gathered in the past weeks." Maybe that's all that foreign politicians and other elites can see or respond to, but if so, all the more reason to be skeptical of everything they say. Korean activists are not going to be fooled so easily; nor should anyone else be.