Sunday, April 01, 2018

Korea's Nine Years of Darkness: Part III - the Election of Park Geun-hye

[Series Index]

A.            Into the Night

Having disposed of Roh Moo-hyun, Lee Myung-bak began implementing in late 2009 the crown jewel of his presidential campaign promises: the Four Rivers Project. Lee Myung-bak, after all, used to be the head of a construction company. Initially, he wanted a “Grand Canal” that would have traversed the whole Korea via waterway—a ridiculous project which would have included (among other insane things) drilling a giant water tunnel through the mountain range in the middle of South Korea to connect two separate rivers. The Grand Canal project became one of the targets of the 2008 candlelight protests, and the Lee administration backed off it, proffering instead the scaled-down version in the Four Rivers Project.

Green algae bloom in Nakdong river. After the Four Rivers Project,
the river would spend up to half a year as a thick green slush. (source)

Even as a scaled-down one, the Four Rivers Project was the largest infrastructure project in Korean history—which is saying something in a country whose entire infrastructure had to be rebuilt from scratch after the Korean War. Costing an eye-popping US $20 billion, the project called for dozens of new dams, dredging riverbeds and beautifying the surrounding areas. The entire project was extremely unnecessary; in fact, in certain areas, the newly constructed dams affirmatively damaged the environment, turning huge stretches of river into a slow-moving green slush that reeked with rotting, dead fish that could no longer breathe in the water.

Other forms of corporate welfare prospered as well. Under Lee Myung-bak, Korea’s largest corporations were encouraged to “liberalize the labor market” through mass layoffs and outsourcing. Labor unions, the reliable redoubt of liberal politics in Korea, fought tooth and nail. The most notable fight was at Ssangyong Motors in the summer of 2009. The Ssangyong Motors, an underperforming auto maker in Korea, conducted a mass layoff of more than 2,600 workers, or nearly 40 percent of its workforce. To stave off the mass layoff, the labor union initially offered a compromise, then began a strike inside the factory. The management cut off food, water and medical supply to the factory and sprayed tear gas from helicopters. Then the police, mixed in with hired goons, broke the strike with rubber bullets and tasers. The fight was so violent that, according to a volunteer psychiatrist for the union, 93 percent of the union members suffered from PTSD.

Riot police breaks up the strike at Ssangyong Motors. (source)

Having physically broken the strike, Ssangyong management offered a final “compromise”— 48 percent of the workers who were set to lose their jobs would be on "unpaid leave" rather than complete dismissal, and no charges against the workers would be filed. The management broke these promises the moment the strike was over, as the police arrested 96 laborers. Nobody who was put on "unpaid leave" would regain his job. Those who managed to keep the job worked murderous hours, as they had to handle the work that was left behind by nearly half of the factory's manpower. A wave of suicides followed the end of the strike, as dozens of labor leaders and their families, suffering from bodily injuries and PTSD, took their lives one by one.

[Here is a post I wrote in 2013 about the suicides at Ssangyong Motors. Check out my concluding paragraph: “as a Korean American, I would like to urge Americans to take a close look at what happened in Korea for the last 15 years, because that is what will happen in America for the next 10 years. The social devastation of the 1997 financial crisis reaches far beyond the elevated suicide rate. In Korea, it has caused the middle class squeeze, ever-higher pressure for education (as it is seen as the only way to improve the worth of human capital,) higher rate of violent crime and more dysfunctional political culture.” How’s that for a prediction?]

(More after the jump.)

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The public could plainly see what the Lee administration was doing. The Four Rivers Project was an enormous corporate welfare project that transferred tax money to construction companies. Ssangyong Motors was a killing field in which the management’s violence was above the law while the labor was allowed to be violent only to their own lives. 

And they . . . did not care. From the latter half of 2009 to late 2010, Lee Myung-bak’s approval rating floated around the respectable range of mid- to high 40s. It probably helped that North Korea attacked twice in 2010, sinking a South Korean navy ship and shelling a northerly island. But even when it became known to public in mid-2010 that the Prime Minister’s office was running a wide-scale surveillance on civilians, most people simply shrugged and moved on. For liberals, the most stinging betrayal was from the Koreans in their 40s and 50s. The generation that bravely fought the dictatorship 20 years ago in their youth was now mostly middle managers and business owners. To protect their retirement portfolio, they cynically looked away as the Korean democracy they built was backsliding.

B.            Moonlight

Lee Myung-bak’s support did erode in the third year of his presidency, particularly as the Korean economy began to feel the fallout of the 2008 global financial crisis. The Democratic Party would win drip-drip victories in the elections. In 2010, the liberals took the slight majority in the Local Elections (which elects governors and mayors,) including at the conservative Gyeongsangnam-do.

The beginning of the end for Lee Myung-bak administration came in 2011. Defeated in the mainstream arenas of politics such as the National Assembly and television, liberals found new battlegrounds:  the local government and the internet. Noted liberal pundit Kim Eo-jun, whose commentary straddled between legitimate criticisms and wild conspiracy theories, began his most successful endeavor in April 2011: a podcast called “I’m a Cheat” [나는 꼼수다]. Ostensibly, each episode—which was anywhere between 30 minutes to three-plus hours—was a dedication to Lee Myung-bak, who was always referred to as “His Excellency.” After discussing the latest discovery of Lee Myung-bak’s corruption, Kim and his co-hosts would throw their catchphrase: “But of course, His Excellency would never do that.” At one point, “I’m a Cheat”—a political podcast whose only market was South Korea—was the most played podcast in the world.

The cast of the "I'm a Cheat" Podcast.
From left, Ju Jin-u, Kim Eo-jun, Kim Yong-min and Jeong Bong-ju.

Meanwhile, local politics provided the political issue that made the first meaningful crack on Lee Myung-bak: free school lunches. The liberal governors, mayors and school district superintendents began free school lunch programs in mid-2000s, which pressured other localities to do the same. Against the anti-welfare conservative administration, the liberals managed to locate the issue of "feeding children," the most sympathetic possible argument in favor of social safety net.

Soon, the issue would inflame the greatest prize of all localities: the Metropolitan Government of Seoul, the home for nearly 20 percent of all South Koreans, led by conservative mayor Oh Se-hoon. Seoul’s city council, which leaned liberal, passed a city ordinance mandating free school lunches in late 2010. For the 2011 city budget, the city council eliminated all the money earmarked for city beautification projects (Oh Se-hoon’s attempt to emulate Lee Myung-bak’s Cheonggyecheon stream) and allocated the money toward free school lunches. Enraged, Mayor Oh called for a city-wide referendum on the issue of free school lunches, pledging he would resign from his post if he lost. In the special referendum election that absolutely no one compelled him to call, Oh Se-hoon lost—scoring perhaps the greatest own goal in South Korean political history. In October 2011, liberal Park Won-sun would win the special election to fill Oh’s post. (Park is still the mayor of Seoul today as of 2018, after having won two re-elections.)

By the end of 2011, Korea’s liberals were in a hopeful mood. Lee Myung-bak’s approval rating crashed again to the low 20 percent range. Liberals mocked Lee Myung-bak as “the patron saint of democracy,” as his offensive presence allowed them to win small elections repeatedly. There was only one year left in Lee Myung-bak’s tenure; daybreak seemed near.

C.            Midnight

2012 was supposed to be an opportune year. South Korea’s presidential term is five years with no re-election allowed, while the legislature’s term is four years—which means the presidential election and the National Assembly election could occur in the same year only once in 20 years. And 2012 was that year: the Assembly election in April, then the presidential election in December. For liberals, the game plan was straightforward. Ride the wave for the legislative victory, take away Lee Myung-bak’s majority in the National Assembly and push into a lame duck status, then take back the presidency.

With Lee’s popularity in the gutters, liberal victory seemed assured. New liberal contenders seemed to emerge every day. Ahn Cheol-su, a tech entrepreneur, was enjoying significant popularity as a refreshing outsider. Young people flocked to the United Progressive Party (UPP), supposedly the more liberal alternative to the mainstream Democratic Party with more aggressive demands for social welfare programs and greater hostility to large corporations. With greater leverage, UPP demanded the Democratic Party to not run candidates in certain districts to unify the opposition, which the Democratic Party grudgingly acquiesced.

Moon Jae-in (left) and Ahn Cheol-su. (source)

It did not go according to plan. All the polls leading up to the National Assembly election, including the exit polls, were significantly off. The conservatives held onto the majority with 152 out of 300 seats, more than the greatest possible number of seats it was projected to win. Park Geun-hye, the leader of the renamed Saenuri Party, solidified her reputation as “the Queen of Elections.” The Democratic Party gained modestly, but without the plurality, it could not drive the political narrative as it wished. Rather than being the fresh new liberal hope, the UPP was a collection of Jill Stein-like hucksters who could only win elections by eating into the Democratic Party’s seats.

The liberals did not win because they failed to inspire. Assuming Lee Myung-bak’s unpopularity would automatically translate into their victory, the various liberal camps were too busy splitting the pot they did not even win yet. Rather than carrying the wave forward, Korea’s liberals had the shenanigans that went into dividing the spoils would blow up in their face. Only a month after the National Assembly election, it was revealed that two of the UPP National Assembly members engaged in a massive voter fraud at the primary stage, allowing some of the party members to vote multiple times. The UPP, a collection of frauds, lacked the ability to self-discipline. The UPP meeting to expel the offending Assembly members (which would have stripped them of the election win) disintegrated into an ugly, physical brawl. When the party was unable to expel the offenders, a number of UPP National Assembly members simply quit the party. This, rather than Lee Myung-bak’s corruption and assault on civil liberties, became the dominant political drama in the fall of 2012.

The same pattern would re-surface in the months leading up to the presidential election in December. As everyone expected, Park Geun-hye easily cleared the Saenuri Party primaries and began uniting the conservatives. The liberals, however, were split. The Democratic Party produced Moon Jae-in, at the time a relative unknown whose only political experience came from serving as Roh Moo-hyun’s chief of staff. Ahn Cheol-su also joined the fray as an independent, gaining significant popularity. The shameless UPP also produced a presidential candidate. UPP’s candidate Lee Jeong-hee would be remembered only for calling Park Geun-hye’s father a collaborator for Imperial Japan, calling Park Chung-hee by his Japanese name Takagi Masao: an insult of an unimaginable scale that surely played a part in driving up the conservative turnout. (Lee would then drop out three days before the election.)

On the conservative side, Park Geun-hye was successfully distancing herself from Lee Myung-bak. It helped that she was already considered to belong to a conservative faction separate from Lee Myung-bak’s, as she had run against Lee in the presidential primary in 2007. To further distinguish herself from Lee Myung-bak, she put forth a narrative of her biography as a dedicated public servant. Unlike Lee who came from the dirty corporate world, Park Geun-hye was an elegant daughter of a former president. (Never mind the fact that the former president was dictator Park Chung-hee—Korea’s conservatives love their dictators.) Her public life was so dedicated to leading the conservative party, to a point that she never even married.

Park Geun-hye reads a statement apologizing for her father's rule. (source)

Park Geun-hye also showed surprising pragmatism and flexibility as a politician. Seizing on the free school lunch issue that dominated the politics news for more than a year, Park Geun-hye called for a dramatically expanded welfare state, which conveniently included big increase for the pension for the elderly who reliably voted for her based on the memories of Park Chung-hee. (Spoiler: she would not keep her promise.) When the liberals tried to attack her for leaning into her dictator father’s legacy, Park Geun-hye issued an apology for her father’s coup d’etat and murders.

No equivalent development happened for the liberals. There was no appreciation of biography, no discussion of policies, and not for the lack of materials. Both Moon Jae-in and Ahn Chul-soo had compelling personal history. Moon was a son of North Korean refugees, a former special forces paratrooper who spent his life serving the needy as an attorney before entering politics. Ahn was a doctor-turned-software engineer who developed a path-breaking antivirus program Ahnlab. (Don’t laugh, Korean readers—it really was path-breaking when it first came out, before Ahnlab became more of a government contractor than a software company.) Moon and Ahn also represented a meaningful debate within the liberal camp: should Korea’s liberals try to make their progressive stance clearer (as Moon did,) or should they try to triangulate and move toward the center (as Ahn did)?

All of these narratives were subsumed under overriding concern for the liberals: will Moon and Ahn consolidate their candidacy to avoid splitting the votes? Instead of running an inspiring campaign, the camps for Moon Jae-in and Ahn Chul-soo engaged in an ugly horse trade. In early November—a month and a half before the election—the two candidates agreed in principle to unify their candidacies. Then they spent nearly three weeks trying to come up with the rules on how to select the unified candidate. With each candidate obviously preferring the method that would lead to their candidacy, the negotiations broke down multiple times. Finally, on November 23, with less than a month left until the election, Ahn Chul-soo rage-quit his candidacy. Although Ahn said he endorsed Moon, he did not do much to help Moon’s campaign.

Even after all this, Korea’s liberals still had time. The average of the polls from late November showed Park Geun-hye leading Moon Jae-in by a sliver. Some polls even showed Moon Jae-in leading. Moon Jae-in also outperformed Park Geun-hye in all three of the televised presidential debates. Korea’s election laws prohibit publicizing poll results starting six days before the election. During this “blackout period,” hopeful whispers began that Moon Jae-in’s number has overtaken Park’s.

Then came the scandal, potentially game-changing. On the night of December 11, 2012, the police and the Democratic Party official rushed to a Seoul apartment based on an explosive tip: the National Intelligence Service, South Korea’s spy agency, was running a team dedicated to interfering in domestic politics, primarily through having its agents send out fake internet comments, upvotes and tweets. At the apartment, the solo female occupant locked the door and refused to come out. The Democratic Party officials laid siege to the apartment while attempting to secure a search warrant. When the police finally (and reluctantly) entered the apartment, the occupant was revealed to be an NIS agent Kim Ha-yeong.

Video of the seiged apartment. Through the door, the young woman 
can be heard claiming that she was not an NIS agent.

The six days from December 13 to December 19—the date NIS interference was confirmed, and the day of the election—featured one of the most shameless and ludicrous spectacles in Korea’s democratic history. (And that’s saying something.) For its part, the police and the NIS did everything it could to obstruct the investigation. The NIS issued a patently false statement that the agent had been conducting a regular, anti-North Korea psy ops. Kim Yong-pan, chief of the Seoul Metropolis Police Agency, called the investigating officer to order against seeing a search warrant. (The investigating officer Kwon Eun-hee initially complied, then defied the order and continued the investigation. For her trouble, she was fired.) It took 40 hours for the police to enter the apartment, giving the NIS agent plenty of time to destroy whatever evidence she could.

Only three days after the police seized the agent’s computers, it issued an interim report that it found “no evidence of internet comments either supporting or disparaging either Park Geun-hye or Moon Jae-in”—a meaningless statement that had no purpose other than creating a headline fodder, since three days were hardly enough time to actually analyze the NIS agent’s internet activity. In the TV debate held on December 16, Park Geun-hye had the gall to claim that the Democratic Party was violating the NIS agent’s “human rights” by “locking her up without any due process.” (Remember, the NIS agent locked herself in. And also, check out Moon Jae-in’s “WTF?” face as Park was making this ludicrous argument.)

Eventually, it was time to vote. The conventional wisdom was that the higher turnout favored liberals, as the assumption was that the voters dissatisfied with Lee Myung-bak administration needed to show in droves. At 3 p.m., the turnout was already at 60%. When the polls closed at 6 p.m., the final turnout was a very strong 75.8 percent. The liberals were cheering at the numbers. Relying on the internal polls, the Democratic Party officials truly believed they had won.

Conservatives celebrate the election victory holding up Park Chung-hee's portrait.

Then came the gut punch: all three network TV stations’ exit polls indicated Park Geun-hye was leading by around one percent. The liberals held their breath, hoping for a miracle while noting the exit polls were within the margin of error. No such thing came: Park Geun-hye led wire-to-wire, and all major news outlets called the election by 10 p.m. The final tally:  Park Geun-hye 50.1 percent, Moon Jae-in 48.9 percent.

Liberals despaired. They got the high turnout they wanted, and they still lost—to the most obvious legacy of South Korea’s dictatorship. True, Park Geun-hye did apologize for her father’s rule during the campaign, but Korea’s conservatives did not mind. They celebrated in the streets, holding up Park Chung-hee’s picture.

The darkness continued, with no end in sight.

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  1. good read.. can't wait for next.. hope there is one coming?

  2. Good post, but there is one glaring omission - the role of media. A big reason the liberals were constantly divided and bickering with each other was because the overwhelmingly negative media conditions (being largely dominated by conservative media + the few existing progressive media didn't provide much help with their utter lack of strategy and forward thinking) deprived them of any good rally points. (You did mention 'I'm a Cheat', but their influence can hardly hold a candle to the major conservative newpapers.) No matter what good point you make, without the help of media, it doesn't fly very far, even in the age of SNS. (Despite Korea's reputation as the most wired country, there's a wide generation gap where the older generation is a lot less internet savvy even than other developed countries and these people still rely heavily on traditional media outlets.) And if the media constantly amplifies your every petty flaw and turns away from every merit you have, there's not much you can do.

    If you ever played Go, you'll understand the agony of being behind. In go, it's pretty much always the losing player who spends more time, because he's desperately seeking the overturning move that doesn't seem to exist. He has to consider all sorts of options because each one of them don't seem good enough. In contrast, the winning player has a much easier time: he considers the first option that springs to mind, and if that seems to be good enough to maintain his lead (which is often the case), they stick with it.

    Similar things happened at the 2012 presidential election. Anyone who is not brainwashed by the conservative media and has some common political sense would have seen that MJI was the much better suited candidate than ACS - a guy who hasn't shown any real political history, no political bloc support (which means he'll have a very hard time executing his policies), who shows his cluelessness about economic reform by running straight up to Lee Heon-Jae (the godfather of Korean 'Mofia (a slang for the mafia-like cartel of economic bureaucrats)' as his very first economic advisor, and displays his political ignorance by promising to reduce the number of congressmen because they are 'nothing more than paycheck thieves'. But nevertheless a lot of liberals flocked to his camp - because they feared that MJI might not be good enough to win since the conservative press was vehemently knocking him down 24/7 (largely because they feared he had the strongest will for progressive reforms). It was the same pattern seen over the years time and again (including the legendary mudslinging of 1987 between YS and DJ): the conservative media concentrates all their firepower to the best candidate the progressives have, and everytime this happens people lose confidence in their initial choice and start seeking other options. A large part of the shortcomings of both RMH and KDJ administrations was due to the constant attack from the conservative media - since the latter's influence on public opinions were huge they couldn't completely ignore their often overblown criticisms which frequently resulted in inconsistent/insufficient policies (take RMH's real estate policies for example.). And this was the very same reason why conservative presidents could reign like a medieval tyrant - the dominant news stations would turn a blind eye or defend whatever they do. (For example, there's abundant evidence that Chosun Ilbo already knew about Choi Soon-sil but restrained from reporting it, until Hankyoreh finally uncovered it too and started blasting it out loud.)

  3. You can't apprehend Korean politics without understanding the 'corporate-conservative politicians-media' alliance. Even in the age of SNS, traditional news outlets still remains the dominant source of shared news and opinions, and the chance of some random guy's whistle-blowing gaining traction on Facebook is pretty slim due to the fact that there's just so many random sensational posts generated each day. If the media doesn't do their job right, the truth is unlikely to see light, corruption will reign and democracy will die.

    TK mentioned in Part 2 in this series that "people segregated themselves into numerous virtual echo chambers and began developing their own versions of reality". This phenomenon would not have been so prevalent if the media was seen as trustworthy. People are falling for all sorts of conspiracy theories because they feel they have no reputable source of truth to rally around. This is a worrying trend indeed, because subjectivism is the very essence of fascism.

    Historical fascism rose in countries where progressive discourse was systematically suppressed. Because of this, most people weren't given a chance to understand the real reason why their lives were worsening, so they poured their anger not into fixing the real problems but upon false (and easy) targets. I see similar trends rising around the world now, especially Korea (arguably we're getting better, but I still see a lot of worrying trends intensifying such as misogyny and xenophobia), USA, Japan, UK, Spain, etc... all of which are considered among the more conservative societies in the developed world.

    Sorry for the long rant, but I just had so much to say about this issue. Thanks TK for taking up this important subject and keep up the good work!

  4. I simply can't stop my tears as I read to the point "And they . . . did not care." What SK happened in 2009 is so similar to today's USA (and almost, Canada, where I live) as well in Hongkong (where I originally came from). It is sad, and I am looking forward to your next episode. Wish the world will be like what happen in South Korea, in the end.
    (And without us rising up, probably we can't: Mao Zedong is just another ruthless dictator, but he is true on one thing: Revolution, afterall, is not like inviting guests to dinner.)

  5. have been so prevalent if the media was seen as trustworthy. tigers


    cow animal
    People are falling for all sorts of conspiracy theories because they feel they have no reputable source


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