I was shocked by this piece of news, and I still have a hard time getting my head around why it wasn't bigger news worldwide. Can you explain?
You might think a country that deposed a president who took directions from a shaman’s daughter has seen just about everything there is to see. But as the new administration is digging through the confidential files of the conservative Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak administrations, the scandal that is emerging may be much more jaw-dropping.
|Inside Korea's National Assembly|
As long as South Korea existed, its politics had a division of the right-wing and the left-wing. By the early 2000s, however, the right-wing in South Korea seemed like old news, in a literal sense. Much of its subscribers were old people whose memories of the Korean War, communist terror and desperate hunger dominated their political decisions. As they did not grow up with democracy, they worshiped South Korea’s military dictators—foremost of whom was Park Chung-hee, who ruled for nearly two decades from the 1960s to 70s—as they would a king. In this sense, they could not possibly called “conservatives,” since the term, in its strictest interpretation, presumes a liberal democratic system. “Fascists” would be the more apt description. Korea’s right-wing was contemptuous of democracy, and favored dictatorship. They favored jailing “communists,” a catch-all stand-in term for any political dissident.
But in the 21st century, the right-wing seemed like an old news. Twenty years after the peaceful democratization of 1987, it seemed that liberal democracy was the settled practice in Korea. Although the right-wing still wielded considerable force, they were aging and would fade away—or so Korea’s liberals thought. The liberals were riding high from the two consecutive terms of liberal presidents, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, from 1997 to 2007. Of course, conservatism would continue to exist, but it would exist in a form that is more common in the advanced democracies: along the lines of the philosophical difference in terms of the proper role of the government, arguing over the proper size of the government, the appropriate level of taxation, regulation of corporations and redistributive policies, and so on. Even when the conservative Lee Myung-bak won the presidency in 2007, the liberals’ expectations for democratic governance continued.
It’s fair to say that Korea’s liberals were totally unprepared for what awaited them.
(More after the jump.)
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|Seoul, the most wired city in the world|
One cannot understand today’s Korea without understanding the internet. Until the 21st century, Korea was a middling, anonymous country. When placed among the numerous names of the world’s countries, Korea was a blank: not rich enough to command attention, not poor enough to arouse sympathy. Even the most seminal event in modern Korean history—the Korean War—is considered the “forgotten war.” Internet is what propelled Korea into the forefront of the world in the 21st century. Having seen the potential of high-speed internet earlier than just about any other world leader, Kim Dae-jung embarked on a massive project to equip the whole Korea with fiber optic cables during his term. This is perhaps the most underrated achievement of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning president. The result is the Korea of today: world leader in smartphone technology, cities constructed as a technological marvel, a major generator of the popular culture optimized for the digital age.
So it shouldn’t be surprising the new breed of Korea’s young right-wing rose through the internet. What was surprising was just how retro these young right-wingers were.
The “new right wing” traces its origin to the website called DC Inside. Established in 1999, it was originally a message board to discuss the latest trend in digital cameras. (The site’s name means “digital camera inside.” It had a now-forgotten sister site called “Notebook Inside” that discussed laptops.) Soon, however, DC Inside organically grew into something else entirely. Reflecting its origin as a digital camera site, DC Inside had numerous “Galleries”—a themed message board in which people gathered to talk and, more frequently, engage in the earliest form of internet message board flamewar seen by the humankind. Particularly insane were the DC Baseball Gallery and the DC Comedy Gallery, where gladiatorial fights opened nightly to attract the amused onlookers.
The influence of DC Inside on Korea’s internet scene in the early part of the 2000s cannot possibly be overstated. DC Inside was the birthplace of every internet trend and meme. From the fires of the vulgar keyboard wars, a comedic gem would emerge. Such gem of a meme would spread into other major Korean websites, and eventually made their ways to newspapers and television. You might recognize this type of site—it’s Reddit, with Galleries being Subreddits. Reddit was once described as the “dark, unruly id of the internet,” but DC Inside was the OG of that description, as DC Inside is at least six years older than Reddit. (Note: Remember how I keep saying Korean politics is a five-year preview of US politics? Keep this in mind.)
DC Inside always was a cesspool, but even there, some truly deranged minds distinguished themselves with their over-the-top cessiness. Many of them gravitated toward DC Inside’s Comedy Gallery, then in 2010, separated themselves into their own message board site. There, they collected the most fucked up jokes, photoshopped images and gifs, and voted to choose the “best” material of the day. Thus, the site was known as the “Depository of the Daily Bests,” or Ilgan Best Jeojangso [일간베스트 저장소]. Over time, this site came to be known as the acronym of the first syllable of the first two words: Il-be.
For Korea’s young right wing, Ilbe was the demented internet version of the Viennese salon. At the first encounter, Ilbe would appear to be little more than a collection of destructive attitudes. The core of such destructive attitudes was self-loathing, in which Ilbe users wallowed and reveled. In their own telling, Ilbe users were aware of their own ugliness—the awareness which gave them a position of moral superiority in a twisted way, because everyone else who didn’t own up to his ugliness was a hypocrite. With this distorted moral license, Ilbe users engaged in a constant, nihilistic quest to create the most offensive contents possible, which in their minds would expose the hypocrisy of the rest of the Korean society. Violent misogyny, homophobia and racism were Ilbe’s mainstays.
It was only a short time before Ilbe as a whole began taking on a discernible political stance as they sketched out their identity based on self-loathing nihilism. After all, all politics is identity politics. As they hunted for the sacred cows of Korean politics, they latched onto the most sacred one: Korea’s democracy. For the nihilistic youth who wanted to destroy the legacy of their father’s generation, there was no better target. Rejection of democracy was perhaps Ilbe’s only clearly stated political goal: the “downvote” button on Ilbe’s site was called “democratize.” This made Ilbe’s politics take on a curiously retro character—curious because while Ilbe’s political gaze looked backwards to pre-democracy Korea, it did not look at the same direction as Korea’s older right wings. The hero of Korea’s older right wing was Park Chung-hee, the authoritarian who (in their minds) defended South Korea from the communists in North Korea and delivered the country from desperate poverty. But the hero of Ilbe was Chun Doo-hwan, the authoritarian who succeeded Park Chung-hee—because Chun is most prominently remembered as the one who massacred hundreds of democratization activists in Gwangju in 1980. For Ilbe users, the ability to kill the liberals was more important than the authoritarian economic development.
Recall that Korea is the world’s first wired society. Korea had cyberbullying and doxxing before the rest of the world even knew what cyberbullying and doxxing were. Korea had the world’s largest social network service long before Facebook entered Mark Zuckerberg’s imagination. So it shouldn’t surprise you that Korea had the world’s first alt-right, long before there was such a word “alt-right,” because it is impossible to conceive of alt-right without the internet. Ilbe users were the world’s first alt-right, in that it foretold central characteristics of all the alt-right movements that would come. To put it diplomatically, they were disaffected young men who, disillusioned by the establishment politics, sought refuge in the idealized version of the past. To put it more straightforwardly, they were fuckheads who indulged in their worst tendencies online, to create a type of politics that is little more than a tool for nihilistically causing pain.
And boy, did Ilbe cause pain. In the decade of conservative rule began in 2007, Ilbe gained enough strength to be one of Korea’s largest websites by 2012. Ilbe became a social phenomenon, the fountainhead of noxious ideas from which Korea’s conservative politicians gathered their talking points and spread their own. When the Sewol ferry sank in 2014 and created the greatest political crisis that Park Geun-hye faced (at least until the Choi Soon-sil scandal broke,) Ilbe took the forefront of the unbelievable task of making the parents who lost their children in the sunken ship as greedy money grabbers. In the most disgusting political theater I have ever seen in my lifetime, hundreds of Ilbe members gathered at the City Hall Square, where the parents of the Sewol ferry children were engaged in a hunger strike, to start a “gluttony strike”: eating fried chicken and pizza to taunt the parents who had been starving for days. Ilbe’s negative influence peaked toward the end of 2014, when an Ilbe user bombed—bombed!—a leftist Korean American speaker, injuring three members of the audience.
|Ilbe members engaging in "gluttony strike" in front of the hunger-striking parents|
of the children who perished in the Sewol ferry sinking (source)
Ilbe put Korea’s liberals completely at a loss. Never in their wildest imagination could they conceive that Korea’s youths would so actively reject democracy itself. Liberals—what else?—wrote a number of books and articles, trying to process what is happening. Some blamed themselves: Park Ga-bun, in his book “Ilbe’s Ideology” [일베의 사상], claimed Ilbe’s hostility to democracy resulted from the failed promises of democratization and the civic movements. Others tried to re-affirm their liberal values, such as freedom of speech. Law professors like Park Kyung-shin of Korea University and Hong Sung-soo of Sookmyung University offered pieties about how even Ilbe members had the right for free speech.
As it turns out, Korea’s liberals were even less prepared for Ilbe than they thought they were, because they simply lacked the imagination to fathom the lengths that Korea’s right-wing would go to destroy them.
Park Geun-hye administration was a lame duck almost from the beginning. Just days before the 2012 presidential election, an agent for the National Intelligence Service—South Korea’s spy agency—was discovered in a small room in Seoul, adding internet comments that criticized liberal politicians. It was big news that came too late in the election cycle; eight days later, Park Geun-hye squeaked past Moon Jae-in to become the sixth president of the Republic of Korea in the democratic era. The Park administration spent its first year fending off charges of a rigged election. After a year of investigation, the facts revealed by the end of 2013 was enough to shock the conscience. Since 2009, in the middle of the Lee Myung-bak presidency, the NIS ran a “Psychological Warfare” division whose sole task was to attack South Korean liberals. The 70 or so agents in the Psychological Warfare division were professional internet trolls. They wrote posts on major websites, and upvoted or downvoted posts. They spammed comments until every major news story comment board was filled with their comments. They fired out more than 1.2 million fake tweets. All of these were about Korean politics, praising conservatives and attacking liberals. All of these were in foul, vulgar language—the screen name for one of the NIS agents, for example, was “Decapitate Lefties” [좌익효수].
Four years later the Park Geun-hye administration fell, through an utterly irrational scandal involving a shaman’s daughter. The incoming Moon Jae-in administration re-opened the NIS investigation—whose findings are so staggering that it defied belief.
The government actively created contents to damage the liberals. The NIS consulted psychologists to create the most damaging and humiliating photoshopped images of liberal politicians and activists. The most prominent example was the photoshopped mixture of Roh Moo-hyun’s funerary photo with a koala, designed to derisively undermine the last president’s dignity without quite stepping over the line. The Blue House also fed narratives: when the parents of the children who died in the Sewol ferry began their hunger strike, the internal Blue House memo said “take out Moon Jae-in, claim he is assisting suicide, politics of death.”
|The "Noala," one of the photoshopped |
images the NIS engineered
in order to deride the late Roh Moo-hyun
Other damage to liberals was more direct. The Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations blacklisted liberal-leaning celebrities, making sure they could not appear on television. The NIS even had a timetable; an internal memo titled “Expanding the expulsion of left-leaning talents from MBC,” several celebrities such as outspoken rock stars like Yun Do-hyeon and Shin Hae-chul were specifically named, with the date on which they were to be taken off the air. The government also threatened advertisers, making sure that these celebrities could not appear on their commercials. The NIS also directed a GamerGate-style attacks against liberal celebrities, using its troll army to spread false rumors about drug use.
The government also created Korea’s right-wing media. Not assisted, not subsidized, created it out of thin air. In 2009, the Lee Myung-bak administration tapped Byeon Hee-jae, a pathetic gadfly whose only claim to fame until that point was being called “a gadfly no one ever heard of” by a prominent liberal commentator, to start an online publication called Media Watch. The NIS under the Lee administration paid the seed money for Byeon to start his website. Then the Lee administration pressured corporations to buy advertisements on Byeon’s site, and also ordered government workers to sign up for Media Watch’s paid subscription. Park Geun-hye administration, for its part, pressured Naver—Korea’s analogue of Google—to bury the bad news stories from search results.
The conservative government also subsidized right-wing civic groups, using them as extra-governmental political weapons. Lee and Park administrations paid veterans groups, who in turn paid to carry in busloads of old people from the countryside to stage massive political demonstrations in Seoul. (These included the “counter protestors” to the Candlelight Protests that brought down the Park Geun-hye administration.) Again, the government simply told these civic groups what to do. Following the government’s direction, these civic groups petitioned to keep out former president Kim Dae-jung from the National Cemetery upon his death, and engaged in a letter-writing campaign to Norway to somehow cancel Kim Dae-jung’s Nobel Peace Prize.
Taken together, it was not simply that the conservative government added some trolling firepower Korea’s right wing with fake comments and tweets. Rather, the conservative government was the entire game. The conservative government created political storylines, fed them to the right-wing media that the government itself created, used the right-wing civic groups to repeat them—until they became the mainstream opinion. The dissident voices were harassed, defamed, fired, and silenced, through pressures applied to media and search engine sites.
From start to finish, the conservative government managed the entire process that created a political narrative. And the biggest beneficiary, of course, was Ilbe, Korea’s most heavily trafficked right-wing website. Ilbe was the testing tube that the NIS used to see what humiliating meme would work the best to attack the liberals. Ilbe was the never-ending wellspring of right-wing troll army, who swarmed the left-leaning celebrities the NIS directed them to attack. Ilbe was where right-wing storylines were amplified, giving clicks to right-wing media and serving as a meeting ground for right-wing groups. For all of its vile, outrageous actions, Ilbe was shielded from consequences—the Park Geun-hye administration gave the Ilbe bomber a suspended sentence while deporting the Korean American speaker.
A gardener does not bear a fruit; the tree does. But the manner in which the gardener fertilizes the grounds, prunes the branches and pollinates flowers, determines the type and quality of the fruit that the tree bears. Even without the conservative government, Korea may have developed an alt right; but the type and quality of that alt right would have been different. Without the efforts by the Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations to nurture it with money, and mainstreamize its voices, Korea's alt-right certainly would have been smaller, its vileness less pronounced and more firmly rejected by the rest of the Korean society. It was the conservative administrations that raised Ilbe, to harvest the most toxic fruit. Korea’s alt-right, the first alt-right of the world, was a government start-up.
|The Candlelight Protest, a series of peaceful protests held 17 weeks in a row |
with an average of a million-plus in attendance, brought about Park Geun-hye's impeachment
Fortunately, there is a happy ending to this. Park Geun-hye administration is no more, brought down by months of peaceful protests that eventually led to her impeachment and removal. The new liberal administration headed by Moon Jae-in is riding high, rarely dipping below 70 percent approval rating five months into its rule. Korea’s conservative parties are in shambles, split into several parties and scrambling to find the core from which to begin their rebuilding process. The investigation into the numerous violations of the democratic rule is fully under way. Many of the former administration officials are headed to prison. Park Geun-hye is already imprisoned, and she is highly likely to stay there for an extended period of time. Lee Myung-bak may well end up in prison in the near future also. Ilbe is also significantly weakened from its peak in 2014. By 2015, a few years before the end of the conservative administrations, being associated with Ilbe came to mean a social death in Korea. A newly hired KBS reporter nearly lost his job when it was revealed that he was an Ilbe member.
Unfortunately in my adopted home, the alt right is hitting its peak. They gathered in Charlottesville and murdered Heather Heyer. One of its leaders is in the White House, signing off policies against Muslims and immigrants. Another one of its leaders, freshly ousted from the White House, returned to his media lair to further its narrative. And by the way, Russia has been feeding them materials, amplifying their storylines by targeted Facebook ads, and provided support to create the Trump presidency.
But all of this ends eventually. I know it looks bleak; in the decade of Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administration, it looked bleak for Korea’s liberals also. The question is of the timing. The actions we take today can make that end point come sooner or later. Korea’s liberals made their share of mistakes, and I see the U.S. liberals making the same kind of mistakes. If we are able to learn from the mistakes Korean liberals had already made, the better days will become that much closer.
Specifically, I offer three suggestions:
1. Measured Assumption of Bad Faith. A common liberal mistake is to think within the liberal system. They assume that their opponents care about the rules just as much as they do. This is a mistake—in fact, this is the mistake from which all other mistakes flow. Our opponents are not approaching us in good faith. They do not care about the American democracy. They do not care about the freedom, nor do they give a shit about the Constitution. They simply want to destroy us, and they will do everything they could do actually make that happen.
Of course, our presumption of their bad faith must be measured. We cannot give ourselves into paranoia, giving primacy to the lefty version of conspiracy theorists whose sole interest is not doing justice, but supplying you with fear in exchange for your money. But our assumption of the opponent’s good faith constrains us unnecessarily, getting us into stupid debates about the Neo-Nazis in Charlottesville have the right to free speech. That question is not relevant to those who are bent on destroying us.
2. Relentless Urgency. Liberals like to think and theorize. Liberals love feeling principled by giving their opponents the room to breathe. They would feel proud of themselves by saying something like the quote commonly (and falsely) attributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Liberals need to drop that attitude. The ersatz Voltaire quote works only if both parties are engaged in the politics of good faith. When one party is acting in bad faith, the proper guidance is not the fake Voltaire quote, but the Chinese essayist Lu Xun. In Jottings under Lamplight, a collection of his essays, Lu Xun acidly wrote why, once you pushed into the water a dog that was attacking you, you must continue beating that dog:
I heard that a brave boxer never hits an enemy when he’s down, and this can indeed be held up as a model for us all. I would accede to this only on the additional condition that the opponent is a brave fighter as well, who once beaten, will either be too ashamed to return for another match or will openly come back to seek his revenge. . . . But this example does not apply to dogs, for they can hardly be counted as opponents in the same league, and no matter how loudly they bark, they cannot be expected to understand chivalry. . . . The moment you let down your guard, the dog will shake itself off, spattering water in your face, and then slink of with its tail between its legs. And its disposition will remain the same afterward. Simple folks may its immersion as a kind of baptism, after which the dog will certainly repent and never come back to bite again, but this view could hardly be more mistaken.
Liberals need to feel the urgency of this historical moment of now. This is not the time to theorize, when the cost of such theorizing is innumerable human lives—millions without drinking water in Puerto Rico, millions that could burn in a nuclear firestorm in a potential war against North Korea. Your feeling of being principled is no more than cheap entertainment in the face of such stakes. Listen to Lu Xun; don’t ever give them room to breathe.
3. Normal versus Abnormal. Right now, the U.S. liberals are locked in a bitter intramural fight about the proper direction of their party. Should the liberals move to the center in the Clintonite triangulation? Should they move further toward social democracy with the attempt to clearly mark the ideological commitment? But I can tell you that, when the change happens, it would not be because the liberals got these questions right. When liberals prevail, it would be because they set themselves up as the “normal ones,” while the opponents are set up as the abnormal ones. In Korea, when it was revealed that the president was so feeble in her mind that she would let a shaman’s daughter dictate what she might wear, the game was over.
The extreme normcore—an intentional, nearly ironic commitment toward normalcy—is what prevails in the end. Most people, both in Korea and in the U.S., are not deeply engaged with politics. Ultimately, all they want out of politics is for things to work quietly and efficiently. So be aware when you should act as an ideologue, and when you should go undercover as a regular, concerned citizen. By all means, crush all the trolls on the internet; but don’t try to crush your uncle during a Thanksgiving dinner. Instead, simply continue talking about how shitty everything is—it’s not as if there isn’t enough to talk about. (My personal favorite: this incredible article by Michael Lewis about how US nuclear weapons are being handled by idiots and could wipe out a city at any given moment.)
* * *
"No two countries are the same," a U.S. liberal might say. "So far, there is not enough evidence to indicate that U.S. politics is infected with the same level of subversive effort as Korea did." To which I might say, sure—go ahead and feel good about yourself. For my part, I am not waiting for the day when our enemies, the enemies of freedom and liberal democracy, actually carry out all the bad things they have in store for us. I am acting with urgency. You should too.
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