|Candlelight protests from November 2016|
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.
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