Saturday, March 24, 2018

Korea's Nine Years of Darkness: Part I - Introduction

Candlelight protests from November 2016
(source)
Until about a year ago, the Republic of Korea went through nine years of darkness. In late 2007, and then again in late 2012, Korea elected as presidents the worst versions of themselves: first one was a venal and corrupt businessman, the second one daughter of a murderous dictator. It was nine years of steady erosion of civil liberties and staggering corruption, nine years that genuinely put the future of Korean democracy in doubt—until March 10, 2017, when the Constitutional Court removed Park Geun-hye from presidency following an impeachment vote. For the next several posts, I will tell the story of how these nine years went. 

I tell this story with my home, the United States, in mind. I offer this story as a counsel, a story that is at once inspirational and cautionary. I want to make sure my fellow Americans understand that, although this moment may be a unique one in their lives, it is not unique in the history of democracy. Others have experienced similar moments, in similar circumstances, earlier than Americans have. 

This counsel, I think, is particularly necessary because most Americans have no real experience of living in an unfree society. They have no idea how it feels to live each day in an authoritarian dictatorship. All they have is a paranoid fantasy they saw in the movies, like the cartoonish description of Hitler’s Third Reich. Typical Americans’ imagination of unfreedom does not go much further beyond the SS knocking down your door to snatch your loved ones to a concentration camp. 

But for most people, the day-to-day living in an unfree society does not feel all that different from living in a free society. You wake up in the morning, tend to your spouse and children, have your meals and go to work or school. Even during Hitler’s Third Reich, most Germans did not have their doors knocked by SS. More typical was a life like one lived by Brunhilde Pomsel, secretary of Joseph Goebbels: simply living her life and doing her job, even though the job was typing up Nazi propaganda. 

Instead, what you do have in an unfree society is a vague sense of unspoken boundary around you. Don’t criticize the president. Don’t join labor unions. Don’t say anything good about that foreign country we are supposed to hate. It is only after you cross that boundary do you realize how unfree your society is. For saying the wrong thing, you would lose your job. Your family would be targeted for harassment. The government may detain you indefinitely, and no one will care. A bigot may kill you, and your death will remain uninvestigated and unpunished. 

The mark of an unfree society is the manner in which that boundary gets smaller and smaller. Every day, the list of the people you shouldn’t talk to, the meetings you shouldn’t attend, the topics you shouldn’t broach in public grows a little longer. This is what the Korean people have endured from February 2008 to March 2017, and this is what is happening in America today. 

Fortunately, this is a story with a happy ending. On March 10, 2017, the Constitutional Court removed Park Geun-hye from presidency following an impeachment vote, ending 3,302 days of conservative rule. A massive series of peaceful protests, which drew an average of a million participants 13 weeks in a row, made this result possible. But it is not a story with a steady progress, with each day in the 3,302 days of Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administration being better than the day before. It is a story with many false dawns, dashed hopes, and petty internecine squabbles. It is a story with hundreds of government-caused deaths, the ugliest displays of human cruelty, and long stretches of deep, dark despair. 

By telling the story of Korea, I want my fellow Americans who love freedom and democracy to recognize the historical moment in which they stand, and anticipate what may be coming next. I firmly believe that better days are ahead, but I want my friends to understand the progress will not be a linear one. By looking at the experience of those who traveled down this path before, our journey hopefully will be made faster. 

(This is Part I of a six-part series.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

12 comments:

  1. "This counsel, I think, is particularly necessary because most Americans have no real experience of living in an unfree society. They have no idea how it feels to live each day in an authoritarian dictatorship. All they have a paranoid fantasy they saw in the movies, like the cartoonish description of Hitler’s Third Reich. Typical Americans’ imagination of unfreedom does not go much further beyond the SS knocking down your door to snatch your loved ones to a concentration camp."

    I agree with this and the rest of it 100%. It's always frustrating when I meet someone who says: "oh, well, life under dictatorship wasn't so bad." What this usually means is "it wasn't so bad for me; I got used to it, adapted to it." The truth is, given enough time any population could get used to a dictatorship and learn to look the other way. Even if a regime takes 100,000 political prisoners in a country of 10 million, that's only 1% of the population.

    The case against authoritarianism is always somewhat ideological; it comes from a certain consideration of how life should be. It is never borne from self-interest, since it is always within one's self-interest to lay low. Like you say, those bad things will not happen to most people, and that quote about how "then the Nazis came for me" doesn't apply to 99% of the population. My point isn't that we should just accept dictatorships, but that opposition to them is necessarily a little abstract, and also a conscious decision. Being honest about this is important for the health of liberal democracy.

    I look forward to the rest of the series, as I know essentially nothing about what you plan to write about but am immensely interested.

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  2. So so.. looking forward to this.

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  3. The downfall of the previous conservative administrations and the sweeping changes that came with the candlelight protests were definitely good things, however I think we are far from being out of the woods as far as the threat facing South Korea freedoms. In fact under the Moon administration this threat is actually far more serious, and the reason is his push to start a "peace process" with North Korea.

    This process is still in its early stages, and we are already seeing examples of how South Korean freedoms are being threatened. When North Korean delegations visited the South in the run up to the Olympics, anti-North Korean protesters were blocked from getting anywhere near where the delegation was travelling (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/02/25/controversial-north-korean-general-met-protests-ahead-olympics/). And, Moon has also sought to prevent South Korean NGOs from launching anti-North Korean propaganda leaflets into the North (http://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_northkorea/805639.html).

    When South Korean freedom is restricted as part of this process it is a far more serious thing because, not only is the freedom lost, it is actually ceded to Kim Jungeun. This kind of slow erosion of South Korean freedom and subjugation to Pyeongyang's will is what Kim is looking to achieve, and with a willing pawn like Moon leading the South he is closer than ever to getting what he wants. Some of the darkness in South Korea may have been removed, but a much greater darkness looms to the North.

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    1. Don't be ridiculous. We can begin discussing if Moon Jae-in's administration is suppressing freedom when it starts using the spy agency and the military to run domestic surveillance programs on civilians.

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    2. Honestly, I hope you are right and my fears about how this could go down under Moon are ridiculous, but he’s already showing his willingness to bend over backwards to appeal to Kim Jungeun and this worries me.

      Here’s where I see this going.

      In the past, the North has called for something to the effect of halting ‘slanderous rhetoric and criticism between the two countries’ and it’s likely they would try to include something like this in the steps to be taken in improving inter-Korean relations this time around too. This seems innocuous enough, and besides its North Korea thats always spewing the ‘sea of fire’ threats and calling other world leaders ‘whores’ and ‘monkeys’, right?

      The problem is, to North Korea, slanderous rhetoric and criticism includes any mention of its human rights record or criticism of Kim Jungeun and his regime, no matter how warranted. And importantly, for North Korea, discontinuing their threats and criticisms can be accomplished by simply closing a spigot on their state-controlled media. South Korea, on the other hand, is a free society with NGOs, North Korean refugee groups, and media entities who speak out, and rightly so, about North Korean atrocities.

      So what will Moon do when he has to make a decision to reject or accept a proposal like this? Will he reject it citing the right to free speech in South Korea, or accept it, which would require suppressing the freedom of these South Korean groups to speak out against the North? Given the propensities Moon has shown thus far, I get the feeling he will choose the latter.

      Maybe what I’m talking about is not so ridiculous after all. It looks like this is already starting to happen: http://news.joins.com/article/22504980#home

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    3. Oh my goodness, you just said articulated exactly my fears too! I thought I was the only one feeling this (with Moon truly going out of his way to appease Kim). Just take the current "me too" movement for example. It started out with a leftist female prosecutor trying to oust her conservative former boss. But then she rather opened a can of worms that would lead to serious convictions among the top leftist politicians too (just take the governor of Chungcheong for instance). Now we don’t see too many “me too” movements anymore, I wonder why. I think it’s problematic when Koreans adopt a ‘mob mentality’ and just follow whatever is socially acceptable, without critically thinking about the problems of both parties. Also, please, someone’s not necessarily a fan of Park Geun Hye or MB just because they provide a provoking critique of the current Moon administration. Only time will tell who’s right, but both sides need to understand, we are not ‘exiting’ any dark eras with Moon Jae-In.

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    4. It started out with a leftist female prosecutor trying to oust her conservative former boss.

      No it didn't. It started at least a year earlier in a hashtag campaign "outing" all the sexual harassers in different sectors of Korea ("문단 내의 성폭력", for example.)

      Now we don’t see too many “me too” movements anymore, I wonder why.

      There have been many more "me too" moments since the revelation of An Hee-jeong. You're just not watching the news.

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    5. To the commenter above, thanks for the show of support for my point of view, but I think you’ve taken it too far.

      There is no evidence of any kind of cover up of #metoo by the government and as TK mentioned the perpetrators in these cases come from not just politics, but also academia and business. Although the main headlines have focused on other topics in recent days, this is still a very big issue in Korea.

      To be clear on where I stand on this, I dont think the Moon administration will turn out to be anywhere near as corrupt, scandalous, or downright evil as those under Park or MB. But I do think South Korean freedoms, and the security of the country for that matter, are very much at risk under Moon’s leadership because of his zeal to engage Kim Jungeun.

      Make no mistake about it, Kims goal is to unify Korea under his terms and this threat should not be underestimated.

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    6. Isn't it lovely that whenever someone brings up critical thinking, it's almost exclusively themselves who's displaying a wondrous lack of it? Moon going out of his way to please KJU? Come on, open your brain up just a little bit and you'll see who's really afraid of whom...

      I have no doubt NK is an evil regime, but evil doesn't equal irrational nor suicidal. Please use your common sense.

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    7. My fears are very rapidly becoming a reality. TK, can you see something like this and still not be concerned about Moon censoring South Korean free speech in deference to Kim Jungeun?
      http://freekorea.us/2018/04/16/liberal-s-korean-govt-blocks-filming-of-thae-yong-hos-speech-article-reporting-it-vanishes/#sthash.bkyXaspr.dpbs

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    8. Joshua Stanton peddles the craziest BS from Ilbe because he sincerely believes South Korean liberals are communists. So no.

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  4. Hell yes, I will read this with interest

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