Saturday, June 13, 2009

Is Autocracy Imperiled in Korea?

I saw bits of this video clip last night on a TV in the restaurant/bar my friends and I had gone to. I couldn't understand the newscasters' commentary, of course, but what was going on was clear enough. I could reasonably guess that it had happened on June 10, when 100,000 people had gathered in Seoul to celebrate the 22th anniversary of the June 10 Democracy Movement, which toppled the dictatorship that had ruled South Korea since 1945. I knew that the rally was going to happen despite the efforts of President Lee Myung-bak's administration to stop it; I'd seen police gathering around Seoul Plaza on Wednesday afternoon. The same TV showed us former President Kim Dae-jung criticizing President Lee, and encouraging the Korean people to reclaim their democracy. (Kim is not just an armchair critic: he's an almost lifelong dissident who put his life on the line against the Park dictatorship of the 1960s and 1970s. He was jailed for long periods, kidnapped by the Korean secret police, and would have been killed by them if the US hadn't intervened. [Bad form, boys, mustn't be too obviously repressive.] He won the Nobel Peace Prize, and became the first dissident to be elected President of the newly democratic Republic. He's also a devout Catholic and strong anti-Communist.) Kim had endorsed last summer's candlelight vigils, too. Of course conservatives attacked him, in terms that will be familiar from American political controversy.

Besides, I knew that I could find out what was going on once I got home. The news is always there on the English-language sites of various Korean newspapers. It took only a couple of minutes to track down the video clip.

There's no doubt what's happening here: the police aren't just accidentally bumping people with their shields, they're deliberately hitting them in the head and neck to knock them down. As you can see, it works very well, and it looks like a move that has been practiced. The people are running, not fighting back. If any of the protestors were armed, the police ignored them in favor of unarmed people.

President Lee issued a statement on June 10, charging that "ideologies that prioritize violence and group self-interest were perverting democracy." Exhibiting the charming lack of self-awareness that often characterizes politicians, Lee evidently didn't realize that he was describing his own government much better than he was describing the protestors. The Korean National Police Agency initially denied allegations that their men had used excessive force, but then,
when the video sources were revealed it said the culprits within its ranks would be punished.

A spokesman said hitting an individual with armor is a violation of police regulations and that the use of sticks had not been authorized.
Given the familiar pattern of damage control, I think we may doubt that the use of such force had not been authorized. It may take time for the truth to emerge, of course.

Then I found this op-ed column at the Korea Times. It's an impressive performance in its way. John Huer, the writer, argues that the problem in Korea is not too little democracy, it's too much democracy. He evidently hopes for another military coup like the one that ended a brief period of respite from dictatorship in 1960-61.
Let's recall those days. By April 1960, the [Seungman] Rhee government and his Liberal Party collapsed under student protests that raged across the country. After the collapse, the hitherto-opposition group, the Democratic (Minju) Party took power. But internally weakened by factionalism and beholden to the students for their ascendancy, the Democrats were not strong enough to maintain law and order in Korea ...

The nation was so chaotic and disorderly, politically, economically and culturally, that when the military finally took over the government in May 1961, many people in Korea felt the writing had been on the wall the whole time and welcomed the coup.
The student protests weren't all that brought down Rhee's government: his own corruption and lack of concern for the people he was ruling contributed materially to his downfall. In those days, the South was desperately poor, lagging behind the Communist North. I'm not an expert on Korean history, but I think that in listing the factors that ended the democratic interlude, Mr. Huer is overlooking US distaste for democracy in the South. This was not the first time that a democratically elected government would be left to fall by the United States, which then supported the new repressive regime with a lot more enthusiasm.

I also wonder about the "many people [who] welcomed the coup." I have no doubt that many did, mainly those who'd been comfortable under the dictatorship and profited from it. No change in a society is ever welcomed by everyone, including the success of the 1987 Democracy Movement, and those who preferred the old order will not stop working to turn back the clock.

My skepticism about Mr. Huer is supported by his characterization of the 2008 candlelight protests against US beef imports.
The famed mad-cow protests had nothing to do with democracy. Neither against government tyranny (as the government had not been set up yet), nor against real health hazards (as there was no scientific proof of any kind available), the mad-cow candlelight protests, which once physically threatened the Blue House, proved to be sheer emotional outbursts and extreme mass paranoia. Thoughtful observers might say that the current Lee government was so crippled then, mentally and systematically, from this trauma that it has actually never recovered into a fully functioning government. As a belated reaction to the threat to its own survival, and under pressure from the electorate to toughen up, the Lee administration finally began to show some measure of face-saving, by bringing charges against those disorderly destructions and civil disorders.
Lee's government had indeed been set up when the candlelight vigils began, and there was already an Internet petition attacking him that had gained a million signatures for his autocratic style -- as a former CEO, he viewed citizens as employees, to be ordered around rather than served -- and his programs, which included unpopular projects like building a canal across the Korean peninsula (a windfall for land speculators), and privatizing healthcare and the water supply. There was already evidence of corruption in his administration. As for US beef imports, it's true that there was no clear evidence of danger from them; but the US refused to meet safety standards that other beef producers, such as Australia, had not objected to, and a massive recall of hamburger in the US at the time confirmed that our safety procedures were laxer than they should be. As for scientific evidence, I wrote last summer, "
Would you trust a Bush official’s claims about what is scientific and what isn’t?" As for the allegation that Lee began to "toughen up" only "finally," "under pressure from the electorate", the police violence began early on during the vigils, with beatings and water cannons. "The electorate" must refer to corporate elites and US business interests, since Lee was and remained unpopular among most Korean citizens.
Lee, quite different from Roh,[*] is a timid political soul with little or no charisma and can command neither the ability nor personality to rally the country around him. His government drifts and floats, reacting to one crisis after another, but without energy or creativity. And his ruling party is merely squandering its majority in the National Assembly amid factionalism and a lack of direction.

It is wholly unlike the picture that threatens democracy with repression and tyranny, as the SNU professors declare.
I don't see how anyone who's watched the Korean scene for the past couple of years can say that Lee is "a timid political soul." His reaction to last year's protests was swift and decisive, directing the police to respond to the vigils with violence, fuming that the protesters were doing Kim Jong-il's work, and acting to hunt down his critics and prosecute them; even if many of the prosecutions were thrown out of court, Lee meant to intimidate those who might criticize him publicly in the future. It seems he hasn't succeeded, if only because real repression at this stage would create an uproar that might bring down his regime immediately, but "timid" is certainly the wrong word for Lee Myung-bak. Since he can't "rally the country around him," which would entail abandoning his unpopular and regressive policies, he really has no alternative but to try to intimidate it instead.

This is why I retained my skepticism as Huer worked himself into a fine lather:
In my 15 years in Korea, the only time I have really felt threatened by repression and chaos was during the Roh era. Roh was a man of enormous charisma. The power of his words and actions was quite capable of causing powerful reactions in Korea's emotional and tribal reservoir of energy.

During the five years of his tenure, the underlying tension for chaotic eruption, incendiary for its populist and mass appeal, was quite palpable everywhere, for both Koreans and foreigners alike.

It was as if Korea under Roh was just one step away from an anti-democratic illiberal abandonment of social order and discipline. Even in death, Roh is quite capable of creating these fascist-like reactions from Koreans who would hit the streets under any pretext. Just now, Korea reminds me of the buffalo herd that is gathering into a huge mass, and its amassed energy is ready to explode in a mad stampede. All it needs is just one well-placed emotional spark to trigger it.
I have to tip my hat to a man who can create fascist-like conditions from the grave. Though I can't disprove Heur's impressions (which by definition are subjective -- if he says he felt it, then that is what he felt, but it doesn't mean he's right), I have my own impressions (ditto). I was in Korea for extended periods during Noh Mu-hyun's administration, and never had any sense of an "underlying tension for chaotic eruption." Even during the great candlelight vigils of last summer, I didn't see any chaos in the center of Seoul -- though that was just my impression. What I heard from the Noh supporters I knew was not support for his fascist-like, populist, tribal agenda, but frustration that he had backed down from his initial stance and become more conciliatory to the Korean right and to US pressure. He got onto Bush's bad side almost immediately, but gained some favor by contributing Korean troops to Bush's invasion of Iraq (very unpopular among Koreans), privatizing banks and other public institutions (also unpopular), clamping down on the labor movement (ditto), and ultimately negotiating a "free trade agreement" with the US (double ditto). All this selling out didn't save Noh from being impeached by his right-wing opponents, barely escaping removal from office, or from a politically-motivated corruption investigation, now abandoned, that hounded him to suicide. It's hard to see him as the all-powerful undead figure threatening Korean democracy from the tomb. While Jon Huer is entitled to his impressions, I think there's good reason to distrust them. In fact, it's my impression that Huer is busily insisting that black is white, up is down, and democracy is fascism, in defiance of Korean reality.

One very good piece of evidence that democracy is imperiled in Korea is Saturday's pronouncement by the Prime Minister:
Prime Minister Han Seung-soo ... reaffirmed that South Korea is a democratic country in his response to growing public criticism that the country's democracy is backpedaling under the Lee Myung-bak administration.

"Our country is not an autocratic country but a democratic nation," Yonhap News Agency reported citing Han as saying.
You could call this the "I am not a crook" strategem: when a high government official troubles himself to deny that something is the case, it probably is the case.

(* "Roh" is an alternate spelling of "Noh.")

P.S. 7 December 2009: The original copy of the video clip was removed from Youtube by the user who posted it sometime after I embedded it here. As far as I can tell, the clip above contains the same content. I suppose it is still online because it was posted from the US. The Lee administration has been trying to control what gets onto the Internet from Korea, to discourage if not suppress criticism of its policies. See the "Minerva" scandal for a notorious example, though the prosecution ultimately failed. I posted about it, with links, here, here, and here.