|Protest in Seoul for Park Geun-hye's resignation, Nov. 5, 2016. Estimated 100,000 participated in the protest.|
I have been very wrong on so many things about the 2016 U.S. presidential election. But one of the few things I was right about was: Korean politics tend to foreshadow U.S. politics.
Korean politics has been making worldwide headline in the last few days because of the insane scandal that a psychic has been practically controlling its president. (I did my part to contribute to those headlines.) But Korean politics was not always this way. Just nine years ago—or two presidents ago, Korea’s president was a progressive Roh Moo-hyun, an articulate, charismatic president who rose from modest background based on legal education, not unlike our current president. And just like Republicans did against Barack Obama, Korea’s conservatives seized on the fact that Roh was from modest background to delegitimize him nearly as soon as he took office. After Roh, Koreans elected two conservative presidents who might as well be Donald Trump Part I and Donald Trump Part II. First it was Lee Myung-bak, whose main qualification was that he was a former CEO of Hyundai. Then it was Park Geun-hye, whose main qualification was that she was the daughter of the former dictator Park Chung-hee. There was no question that nostalgia played a huge role in electing both presidents. By electing two symbols of Korea’s fast-growing economy of the 1960s and 70s, Korea’s conservatives were trying to make Korea great again.
I have seen the future, where the population was so beholden to nostalgia that they not only set aside democratic norms, but also overlooked the obvious incompetence of the candidates who would become the president. This was true of Lee Myung-bak, who ruthlessly controlled the media and harassed the journalists that were critical to him. But this was—and is—even truer of Park Geun-hye, who inherited all the flaws of her father and none of his strengths. As a presidential candidate, Park roundly lost all three of her televised debate against her opponent Moon Jae-in, a National Assemblyman and former chief of staff for Roh Moo-hyun. She could hardly articulate her own thoughts in words and obsessively relied on her pocket notebook for rehearsed talking points prepared by her father’s former cronies. No matter—she was elected anyway. Same with Trump, following Obama. The flaws were obvious, but he was elected anyway. So here we are.
I have seen the future. So allow me to share what lies in the days ahead.
(More after the jump.)
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First of all, I wish the next administration well. I really do, because I have seen the terrible cost when the chief executive is corrupt and incompetent. But based on what I have seen, I learned not to hope that the person who becomes the president will be somehow different from the person who was the candidate. After Park was elected, many Koreans—even those who opposed her—projected their hopes on her, despite all the previous indications to the contrary. Perhaps she will be more committed to democracy than her father. Perhaps she may be able to dialogue with North Korea based on her strong conservative support. Perhaps she is sharper than she lets on based on her words. None of these projections came true. We knew who Park Geun-hye was before she became the president. She remained being the same person, and governed accordingly. Likewise, we know what kind of person Donald Trump is. I won’t bother repeating what we all know. I will only say that he, too, can be expected to govern in a way that a person like him will govern.
This means that many things done by our government will stop making sense. There will be less transparency in the government, which makes its actions more difficult to understand. Less transparency breeds incompetence. In Korea, the government that ably handled the worst oil spill in Korean history and the worldwide SARS epidemic suddenly bumbled around as the ferry Sewol sank with 300 school children and MERS claimed dozens of lives. In the context of the United States, this may mean going from the response to Hurricane Sandy to the response to Hurricane Katrina.
The many promises that Donald Trump made will not be kept. Not even the promises he made to his most ardent supporters. This is because presidents cannot change the external conditions of the world that constrain their action. During her campaign, Park Geun-hye promised a universal $200 a month pension for the elderly, her most dedicated supporters, without raising taxes. The opposition during the campaign repeatedly pointed out that such a policy could not happen without a massive tax increase. Sure enough, after she was elected, Park broke both of her promises: she raised taxes, and only modestly increased the elderly pension that previously existed. You can take a wild guess as to how she handled the promises that she made to the constituents that disfavored her. Likewise, the external conditions that face the Trump administration will not change. Global trade can be cut back somehow, but can never be reduced enough to bring those jobs back to America. You can deport thousands, but not 11 million.
Facing the challenge of keeping the promises he made and failing at doing so, Trump will—as Lee Myung-bak did—attempt to distract his supporters by persecuting his political opponents. Lee hounded his predecessor Roh Moo-hyun based on a tendentious corruption charge until he drove Roh into committing suicide. Park Geun-hye continued the trend by suing to forcibly disband the Unified Progressive Party, claiming that the UPP was a shill for North Korea. More significantly, the winner’s vengeance will not be limited to those at the top. Those who were the most vulnerable will be even more exposed. This is the point that truly breaks my heart the most, because this truly is the ultimate cost of authoritarianism. In some cases, the state kills the dissenters directly, as Park Geun-hye administration did earlier this year when it aimed a water cannon to a protestor’s head and killed him. More frequently, the state will simply stand by and let the private violence take place. Just two years ago in Korea, a young right-winger threw a bomb during a speech given by a leftist Korean American activist, a political terrorism of the kind that Korea has not seen in decades. Park Geun-hye administration gave suspended sentence to the bomb-thrower, and deported the activist for engaging in subversive speech. We have already seen how Trump and his supporters treat dissenters. Expect more of that, more widespread. Considering that U.S. is a more violent society than Korea, I truly fear for the safety of those who are the most exposed—racial minorities, religious minorities, immigrants (which includes me and my family.) When violence is inflicted upon them, upon us, don’t expect the public authorities to act very quickly, or act at all. The laws will not necessarily go away, but they will bend as much as they can to stop the progress of those in the disfavored class of people.
Finally, opposition politics will be very painful to watch. There will be much infighting and factional tension, because one of the first human instincts after suffering a devastating loss to blame your own teammates. Some will argue doubling down the core liberal values, while others will argue for reaching across the aisle. The former will call the latter sellouts; the latter will call the former dumb hippies. The infighting will become so nasty and tiresome that many who would otherwise sympathize with the opposition will tune out politics altogether. The progressive infighting in Korea came to a point where the main opposition party split into two. As a result, even as Park Geun-hye is going through what may be the political scandal of the century, there is a real chance that the opposition parties may not take advantage of the damage that she has caused to her party and Korea’s conservatives. At this moment, the Democratic Party’s future does not appear much better.
* * *
Now, for the hopeful part.
Korea’s democracy is only 30 years old. It is in a standoff with nuclear North Korea. And for the last four years, it had a feeble-minded, incompetent president who was being controlled by a fucking psychic, who freely browsed state secret and extorted tens of millions of dollars by threatening to sack the CEOs of privately held companies.
Yet Korea endured. Seoul is still vibrant, Korean cars and electronics continue to sell, and Korea still held free and fair elections. It truly breaks my heart that the following may not apply to those in the margins, or those who bravely stood up to the authoritarianism of Korea’s past two administrations. But for most Korean people, life went on as it did before, albeit under an oppressive cloud of consternation. Just as much as a president cannot single-handedly wish away the external conditions, a president cannot single-handedly disrupt everyone’s life. The best he could do is to redraw the marginal line, and let everyone outside of it fall away. That is a terrible, terrible thing, but not the same thing as the end of the Republic.
A bad administration does cause severe, lasting damage, and the people who voted in the bad administration will tolerate those damages—but only up to a point. At some point, the civil society does kick in. There does come a point where everything unravels for an incompetent, corrupt administration, if only because the power of the plain truth becomes undeniable. Do not despair that Trump’s supporters do not care about the truth; the same used to be said about Park Geun-hye’s supporters, who supposedly formed a “concrete floor” of approval ratings. After the scandal with Choi Soon-sil was revealed, Park’s approval rating hit 5 percent, the lowest in Korean democratic history. Never underestimate the people’s ability to act when the right facts are in front of them. Then oh—you will see a wave of resistance like the kind you have never seen before.
This is a thin hope, I know. For those in the margins, for those who are unlucky, this is not much of anything. But this is what lies ahead. Expect darkness that will get darker, until the daylight finally breaks through. Until then, protect each other from the worst individual consequences, while acting together against the worst societal consequences. Pray, and be hopeful that this, too, shall end. Better days are ahead, even though it may not seem like it now.
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