Thursday, March 29, 2018

Korea's Nine Years of Darkness: Part II - the Lee Myung-bak Years

[Series Index]

A.            Sundown

In 2007, Republic of Korea was concluding a decade of liberal administrations: first one led by Kim Dae-jung, the second one by Roh Moo-hyun. And by early 2007, Roh Moo-hyun’s low approval ratings made it fairly clear that he would not have a liberal successor.

Lee Myung-bak and Roh Moo-hyun

Roh Moo-hyun’s 2002 election itself was a small miracle. Prominent liberal politician Yu Si-min once said being a liberal in Korea was like playing soccer in a field tilted against you. Liberals were fewer in number and split into a number of factions that were barely holding together. Roh managed to overcome the structural deficit through a combination of personal charisma and the perfect storm of events, which included: conservatives trotting out the old and wooden Lee Hoi-chang as the candidate one more time; liberals instituting the primary elections system for the first time, allowing the underdog Roh to dramatically overtake the more established Lee In-je; the sudden uptick of anti-American sentiment due to the Yangju Highway Incident, and so on.

But five years later, Roh’s unlikely triumph was a distant memory. Roh’s flair for the dramatic, which served him so well during the campaign, came to be perceived as childish, petulant and unpresidential—which tired out the general electorate. Much of Roh’s liberal base also abandoned him. He was elected as a brash progressive, but governed as a center-left, pro-U.S. president. Although George W. Bush’s Iraq war repulsed the Korean public (as it did most people around the world,) Roh dutifully sent Korean troops to Iraq. Roh also negotiated for a number of free trade agreements, including one with the United States, which did not please the anti-American faction among Korea’s liberals. From them, Roh would earn the charges of “neoliberalism” and “making a right turn after putting on the left turn signal.”

Lee Myung-bak, the presidential candidate of the conservative Grand National Party, appeared to be the antithesis of Roh: a pragmatic, worldly figure with a steady hand. The most favorable version of Lee’s life story was a rags-to-riches one, paralleling Korea’s rise from the ashes. In 1965, the 24-year-old Lee Myung-bak entered Hyundai Construction as an entry level clerk. At age 48, Lee was the president of Hyundai Construction. Lee entered politics in 1992 as National Assemblyman, and became the mayor of Seoul in 2002. Even his most ardent detractors generally agree that Lee Myung-bak was a fine mayor, as he spearheaded the urban renewal project that revived the decrepit city center into the lively Cheonggyecheon stream. His nickname was “the bulldozer,” someone who gets stuff done.

(More after the jump.)

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The alarming part was the extent to which people bought into this rosy narrative, when Lee Myung-bak’s faults were equally glaring. It was obvious to everyone that Lee was a venal, corrupt figure. Korea’s construction business in the 1970s was the most corrupt thing imaginable. Rising to the top of that business means being the most corrupt and venal person. Lee Myung-bak cut corners on his projects, bribed the regulators, used dirty tricks to bust the labor unions. Early in his political career, his election to the National Assembly was revoked because he poured in money from his slush fund and spent more than the election laws allowed. Yet none of it even made a dent on Lee’s political career.

Shortly before the presidential election, however, it appeared that Lee Myung-bak’s dirty past might have finally caught up to him. The issue was a pump-and-dump scheme involving an asset management company called BBK Capital Partners. BBK had a subsidiary called Optional Ventures. In 2001, the share prices of Optional Ventures suddenly quadrupled, attracting a number of small investors in the process. Then just as suddenly, the shares took a nosedive to KRW 150 per share, essentially becoming worthless. When the prosecutors began their investigation, they soon found Optional Ventures was a husk of a company, as all of its money raised from the stock market  (approximately US $35 million) went to BBK, which then was distributed to BBK’s investors—some of whose identities were known, and some were not.

There were constant whispers that Lee Myung-bak was one of BBK’s secret investors—allegation which, in November 2007, very much appeared to be true. A contract emerged from BBK’s former officer showing Lee Myung-bak holding a major stake in BBK. Lee indignantly claimed that the contract was a forgery. But three days before the presidential election, a video emerged that had Lee Myung-bak dead to rights. In a talk given in 2000, Lee is clearly seen saying “This January, having established an investment management company called BBK ...” Liberals focused all their firepower on this clear admission, while conservatives engaged in the most cynical defense. In a quote that would go viral, spokeswoman for Lee tried to argue that Lee Myung-bak’s statement “had no subject.” (Years late, the spokeswoman—National Assemblywoman Na Gyeong-won—all but admitted she had lied.)

Video in which Lee Myung-bak discussing BBK

Yet just like Trump’s “grab’em by the pussy” video, this video ultimately did nothing. The Korean public breezed right past it as if to say, so what—businessmen are not supposed to be squeaky clean anyway. We tried electing a moralistic speechmaker, and look how far that’s gotten us. “Corrupt” is just another way of saying “practical”; the man is not called a “bulldozer” because he obeyed all the traffic rules. Plus, Lee Myung-bak is rich already; why would he try to steal from the government?

Thusly the sun went down on Korea’s ten years of liberal rule, with barely a whimper. The BBK scandal barely did anything to salvage the uninspiring campaign run by Chung Dong-young of the United New Democratic Party, who lost the election to Lee by record-setting 22 percent. The only reason the victory margin for Lee Myung-bak was not bigger was because Lee Hoi-chang decided to run for the third time as an independent, and managed to siphon off 15% of the total votes.

B.            The Refracting Lights

In February 2008, Lee Myung-bak took office with a fanfare, with a solid 52 percent approval rating to start his five-year term. In the National Assembly election held in April, Lee’s Grand National Party took the legislative majority in a walk. But that was the end of his honeymoon period. On May 5, 2008, the governments of the United States and the Republic of Korea jointly announced that Korea would further open its market for U.S. beef. Then, all hell broke loose.

Koreans’ underlying concerns against the importation of U.S. beef were legitimate enough. The United States was just a few years removed from the epidemic of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), more commonly known as the mad cow disease. In the mid-2000s, the fear inspired by BSE—whose human version of the disease is known to eat away at one’s brain—was at least as severe as the fear Americans have of an Ebola epidemic today. Although the actual terms of the negotiations were reasonably calculated to prevent the spread of BSE, the optics of the deal was obviously bad: it looked as if the Korean government sold out public health while volunteering to be dumping grounds for the diseased U.S. beef.

Farmers’ organizations which stood to lose from the free trade agreement, and anti-American leftists who hated the idea of trading with the United States, began organizing a candlelight protest against the U.S. beef imports. Initially, the organizers of the candlelight protest expected several hundred to attend—but a crowd of 10,000 appeared on the first candlelight protest in May 2008. Although the candlelight protest began as a farming group demonstration, most of the attendees were young voters who opposed the Lee administration. Same number of people gathered again the very next day, setting up an impromptu open mic for people to speak their minds about the U.S. beef negotiations. Similar sized crowd kept appearing, three to four days apart, for the entire month.

Candlelight Protests, May 2008

Lee Myung-bak administration could have resolved this movement before it grew any further—except Lee’s communication skills were not the reason why he earned the nickname “bulldozer.” The initial response from the administration was tone-deaf: addressing the concerns over the mad cow disease, an official from the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs said U.S. beef was like a “blowfish”—a wildly toxic fish that can be eaten after taking out the poisonous organs. Korea’s media and the public jeered, noting that in Korea, sushi chefs needed a license to process a blowfish.

As the candlelight protests continued, the Lee administration responded with hostility. On May 24, the police used the water cannon to disperse the crowd. Between May 24 and 27, the police arrested approximately 200 protesters. This further enraged the Korean public. At the time, it was a little more than only 20 years ago that Korea’s dictators used the riot police to crack down on the democratization protesters—and the newly installed conservative administration, the ideological heir of the former dictators, was already resorting to authoritarian tactics against peaceful demonstrations. By the end of May, the candlelight protest was no longer about U.S. beef; it was about the Lee administration.

The crowd became larger each gathering. On June 6, the candlelight protest attracted as many as 200,000. On June 10, the anniversary of the June Struggle that brought democracy to Korea, the candlelight protest in Seoul had 700,000 attendees. Violence inched up, although it never quite boiled over into a full-scale riot. (The worst of it was flipping over police buses and beating up some of the police.) But fearing the possibility of greater violence, the police set up a metal wall made up of stacked shipping containers to fence in the protesters. (The protesters hung a mocking banner on the containers that said: “Seoul's New Landmark: the Myung-bak Fortress.”) Lee Myung-bak’s approval rating crashed to 21 percent. On a special local election held on June 4 (which filled the empty seats of mayors and city councilmembers,) the United Democratic Party cleaned up, taking 23 out of 52 seats compared to the Grand National Party’s measly 9 out of 52.

Banner mocking Lee Myung-bak's container wall
The protests dwindled after June, however. It was fairly clear from the beginning that the mad cow disease issue was overblown, particularly by the left-leaning media that was stretching the truth trying to criticize the Lee Myung-bak administration. The protesters themselves could not agree what the end game ought to be; only a few truly wanted to bring down Lee Myung-bak administration just four months into his tenure. There was a persistent minority of rabble-rousers who were inciting violence, which turned off the larger Korean public. In the end, the 2008 candlelight protests were a false dawn, a brief spasm that did not lead to more.
But the 2008 candlelight protests did leave a lasting mark on the Korean society. Korea is the world’s first wired society, having adopted widespread high-speed internet by late 1990s—earlier than any other country in the world. The candlelight protests morphed Korea’s internet into what the rest of the world acquired only recently: a Hobbesian battlefield for politics, a war of all against all. The 2008 protests was the moment when politics became the secular religion in Korea, such that no part of the society—sports, entertainment, arts—was outside of politics. With this, Korea came to be at the forefront of the trend that would define the 21st century politics around the world, in which people segregated themselves into numerous virtual echo chambers and began developing their own versions of reality.

The 2008 protests also left a lasting mark on the Lee Myung-bak administration. Perhaps without the candlelight protests, the Lee administration may have gone the way Lee Myung-bak’s career as Seoul mayor went: lots of infrastructure projects and abundant corruption attendant to those projects, but overall a decently functioning government otherwise. But the candlelight protests humiliated the Lee administration to a point that the president had to issue a statement of apology on June 19. Lee Myung-bak would come away determined that he would not suffer through something like this again.

C.            Darkness

Even before the candlelight protests, Lee Myung-bak administration sought to control the media. Because Korea had been a dictatorship until recently, there technically remained a legal basis for the government to appoint the heads of the major networks, including KBS, MBC and YTN. Lee Myung-bak administration aggressively used this power, essentially pushing the media regulation to the authoritarian times.

Liberal-leaning comedienne Kim Mi-hwa appears to the police station after
KBS filed a criminal complaint against her for stating KBS had blacklisted her.
She could prove to be correct. c. 2010 (source)

At the government-owned KBS, several members of the board who were known to be liberals lost their position. One board member who was a college professor was fired from his college when he refused to resign.  At MBC, which played a large role in the candlelight protests because of its investigative report about the mad cow disease, journalists were arrested on the charges of defamation. One by one—first the chief executive, then high ranking middle managers—the TV stations’ major news posts were filled with cronies of the Lee administration, who eliminated investigative news programs and fired liberal-leaning journalists.

In addition to flipping the existing TV stations, Lee Myung-bak administration flooded the field with more conservative content. In February 2009, Lee’s Grand National Party passed the amended Media Act such that newspapers may operate cable TV stations. Because Korea’s largest newspapers were (and are) conservative, this effectively meant inundating Korea’s TV environment with talk radio-level conservative news shows.

Other attempts were even more sinister. The National Intelligence Service, Korea’s spy agency, ran a taskforce that “managed” left-leaning celebrities—essentially, blacklisting them. As the Lee administration solidified its hold over the TV stations, it became increasingly more difficult to see certain celebrities on television. Authors whose works were supposed to be turned into television dramas suddenly lost their contracts. Outspoken college professors would lose their posts. Office of the Prime Minister (equivalent to U.S. Vice President) ran an intelligence unit that spied not only on liberal politicians, but also on conservative politicians who belonged to a faction different from Lee Myung-bak’s. The Prime Minister’s spies would follow the politicians and their staff, pry into their bank accounts, and question people with whom they spoke—just like the dictatorship times.

Roh Moo-hyun giving bicycle ride to his grandchildren in his village.

The Lee administration also went after what they considered the source of their ills: Roh Moo-hyun. After his presidency ended, Roh had been enjoying a renaissance of popularity, particularly in comparison to Lee. Roh Moo-hyun’s straightforward, down-to-earth personality, which was a liability throughout his presidency, suited him well as an ex-president. Photos of him giving bicycle rides to his grandchildren would go viral. Hundreds of people visited the Bongha village each day, trying to catch a glimpse of the ex-president.

Lee Myung-bak’s first gambit was about the maintenance of the Blue House documents created during Roh’s presidency, a controversy that was as bullshit as Hillary Clinton’s home email server. As Roh Moo-hyun vacated the Blue House and moved back to his old home, he took an electronic copy of the presidential documents created during his administration to write a memoir—technically, a violation of the law on archiving. Starting in July 2008, shortly after the Candlelight Protests peaked, the Lee Myung-bak administration and Korea’s conservatives began attacking Roh on this point, hysterically claiming that Roh or his staff may leak sensitive confidential documents.

Then the Lee administration found something more substantive. Also starting in July 2008, the National Tax Service began an audit of Taekwang Co., a shoe manufacturer whose president Park Yeon-cha was known to have close ties with the Roh administration. Allegedly, Park broadly bribed members of the Roh Moo-hyun administration to get the publicly-run Nonghyup Bank to acquire a securities trading company in which Park held a major stake. By late 2008, Roh Moo-hyun’s older brother was arrested for bribery charges. One by one, Roh’s political allies and family members—including his wife and daughter, who also received the bribes—were summoned for investigation, then arrested. Roh Moo-hyun himself was summoned for questioning in April 2009, allegedly for receiving US $6 million in bribes.

On May 23, 2009, Roh Moo-hyun went out for an early morning hike to the Owl Rock, a tall hill near his residence, as was his usual habit. A single Secret Service bodyguard attended him. At the peak, Roh asked the bodyguard if he had a cigarette. The bodyguard did not; he asked if he should go get one. Roh said, no need. He looked over the edge of the Owl Rock, and remarked casually: “there, someone’s walking.”

Then he jumped off the 80-feet tall rock to his death. He was 62 years old. At his computer was a document containing his characteristically economical last words: “Too many people went through too much pain because of me. The pain that lies ahead is inestimable. My remaining life can only be a burden to others.  . . .  Do not be sorry. Do not blame anyone. This is destiny.”

[Here's a post I wrote shortly after Roh Moo-hyun's passing]

Reasonable minds can disagree as to how sorry one must feel for Roh Moo-hyun. It is an established fact that Roh’s wife, daughter and brother received bribes. It also appears likely that Roh was at least aware of such bribery—which is a crime in and of itself under Korean law. But there is also no doubt that the investigation against Roh’s family kicked into gear only after the candlelight protests, nor is there any doubt that the investigation struck at the heart of Korea’s liberal politics. For all his faults, Roh Moo-hyun was the emotional core of Korea’s liberal politics: a charismatic, down-to-earth leader who rose above the tilted field that systematically favored conservatives. The bribery investigation drained all political life out of Roh, then ultimately took away his physical life.

All this, just two years into Lee Myung-bak's rule. For Korea’s liberals, the worst was yet to come.

(Part III will be posted on Sunday, April 1.)

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  1. A couple of (hopefully quick) questions.

    First, I'm probably missing something obvious here, but why would you assume that the margin of loss would be worse without Lee Hoi-chang? Both LHC and Chung come from the liberal side, so unless more than half of LHC's supporters stayed home or crossed sides it seems the magin should have shrunk if LHC had not run. (Probably not all LHC supporters would have voted for Chung, but if they had the margin would have shrunk to 7%.)

    Second, obviously the Lee Myung-bak's administration obviously handled the mad cow protests all wrong. But what should they have done differently? IOW, what would a competent and caring administration have done to resolve the May 2008 protests before they grew any further?

    1. 1. LHC is not a liberal. He was the conservative presidential candidate twice in a row (and lost twice.)

      2. Farmers were adamantly against the FTA to begin with, because they had the most to lose. LMB admin could have assigned a special liaison for the farmers' group to keep offering them alternatives to prepare for the market opening. That's one of the several ways.

  2. Saying the beef protests were about beef is like saying people at a tea party is there to drink tea. It was merely a title, and people joined them for all sorts of reasons. And LMB certainly gave out plenty to complain about in a very short amount of time. People wanted to protest, and since the 'beef' protests happened to be the biggest protest going on at the time, they just jumped on the bandwagan. Otherwise such a relatively 'minor' issue wouldn't have blown out to such a grand scale.

    There was already a widespread discontent among progressive-leaning people against the LMB administration, who was aggressively pressing a 'corporate fascist' agenda right off the bat. You can't discuss the events leading up to the beef protests without mentioning ‘강부자 정권 ('Government of rich Gangnam residents' ; a coined word to show the general nature of LMB administration)' - pretty much all of his policies - e.g. reducing corporate taxes (and raising indirect taxes in return), raising exchange rates, all sorts of tricks to stimulate real estate prices, etc... were consistently about benefitting the rich, and this was when polarization of wealth was already one of the biggest concerns of society. And of course, he was pushing all of these things in style - authoritarian style. His desire to control the media was blatant even before he was elected president (he was a Chaebol CEO after all, and Chaebols has always wielded a huge influence over the Korean press), he repetitively displayed contempt against political negotiations as a waste of time (an attitude which will become the biggest source of public resentment regarding the beef negotiations), and heck, the very first thing he did after his election was changing the title of president-elect to 당선인(當選人) from 당선자(當選者), for a ridiculous reason that '者' has a disparaging meaning in the dictionary (where in everyday usage it just means 'person'.)

    There's a reason the most popular song at the protests was “Constitution Article 1 : Korea is a Democratic Republic”. People joined the beef protests largely because they were concerned about the direction LMB was heading into - he was seen as an authoritarian figure leading the country towards a libertarian paradise - or in other words, corporate fascism.

  3. No mention at all of the absurd pseudo-scientific BS about madcow disease either cynically or ignorantly foisted on the public by media and left-wing politicians? I'm no fan of LMB and I agree that the optics of the U.S. beef deal were bad...but let's call out rabid yellow journalism for what it is. And that stuff played a big role in stoking the protests.

    1. Sorry for writing quite a late reply, but since this is part of an ongoing series, I'll put it down anyway since I think it's a relevant point.

      Before I start, I'll state that I agree the reporting was quite overblown, but that was in part because the related protests were getting larger, which again, was already growing big for many different reasons other than beef. So IMO I think both you and I are right: the growing protests was one of the reasons the reportings were becoming more sensational, which in turn contributed to the growth of the protests (again, along with other reasons.)

      Now to my main point. It's easy to claim them as pseudo science in hindsight, but a lot of the questions raised at the time were legitimate enough to justify further investigation and reviewing the negotiation terms. Just because you managed to drive home safely without incident doesn't mean drunk driving isn't a problem. And LMB's way of putting business profits above everything else is a great example of political drunk driving.
      His political drunk driving even wasn't one without incidents, too; in fact it had aplenty. For example the four rivers project which turned into an environmental disaster and money wasting pit, his relaxing of safety regulations and monitering which later becomes the cause of many horrible accidents and deaths (most notably the sinking of Sewol), his reduction of 'upper class' taxes such as corporate and real estate which decreased the budget for welfare (and even then a bulk of this shrunken budget went into the pockets of greedy building contractors like his 'four river' cronies) and widened the gap between the rich and poor... the list can go on and on. Seeing these tendencies, which started even before he officially sworn in, is it really that strange people were skeptical when he claimed the beef was perfectly safe? Maybe they were, maybe they weren't; but honestly I don't think he really cared.

      And since you mentioned the protests were a result of yellow journalism. Korean media is notoriously sensational all the time, the right much more so than the left I must add since they can get away with it a lot easier being allies with the power elite. The thing is, protests of this scale simply don't blow up over a singular peripheral issue like this. Honestly, if the beef negotiations happened under RMH do you think the protests would have grown this big? Even the anti-Korea US FTA or anti-iraq war protests, which was a much bigger deal back then and under even greater media controversy, were nowhere near as big as this one. Countless issues sensationalized by the media had come and gone over the years, but none of them had an effect like this. By your logic there should have been a lot of massive anti-MJI protests since the conservative media was sensationalizing every single possible flaw he may or may not even have for 5 ****ing years.

    2. (continued)

      The 'beef protests being about beef' perspective is in fact a political frame stemming from both the left and right, with different motivations. Even the conservative newspapers at the time correctly recognized that the protests were really about LMB in general, and not just beef. For example Chosun Ilbo called it '대선불복 시위' which means the protesters were out there because they disagreed with the very election of LMB itself - which OC, is a gross and malicious exaggeration. And the majority of the protesters were of the 'yuppie' sort - a politically conscious group of young urbanites with good education, not the types that get easily swayed by 'fake news' (relatively speaking OC). The problem is, the constant pounding from the conservative media who kept painting the protesters as 'commies (which is pretty much a political death sentence in Korea)' made the protesters very defensive, so they ostensibly took an official stance that "we're here just to protest against meat, we're not the lawless 'election deniers' or 'commies' as the conservatives are claiming us to be." This kind of stance caused a wide variety of disagreement among the protesters and the protests eventually faded off.
      For the internet right-wing, however, this 'protest just for beef' stance became a new political target to undermine the significance of the protests. They didn't want the underlying anti-authoritarian, pro-welfare, anti-privileged sentiments widely present among the protesters gain traction so they focused their firepower on making this stance the official 'internet history'. It also had the side effect of making the protesters appear as irrational and easily riled people. But in reality, what the protests really were about was showing off "people power" against the wannabe dictator as if "let's show that authoritarian a-hole what happens when you dare cross the people's will". I've personally been at the protests and know many others who did as well, and few were there mainly for the 'beef'.

  4. Thank you for the follow-up.


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