Sunday, April 22, 2018

Korea's Nine Years of Darkness: Part V - The Turning Point

I.  Early Resistance 

From the start, Park Geun-hye was not merely unpopular with South Korea’s liberals. Rather, her election was offensive. Regardless of Park’s fairly legitimate achievements as the conservative party leader, it was clear that most of her appeal derived from her dictator father Park Chung-hee. To Korea's liberals who cut their teeth in politics by fighting against the dictators, the fact that the voters would voluntarily elect as the politician who openly peddled dictatorship nostalgia was repulsive. With the spy agency scandal hobbling the early part of her presidency, Korea’s liberals resisted Park Geun-hye from the very beginning. 

With no warrant, the riot police destroys the glass door of the Kyunghyang Shinmun office,
in an attempt to arrest the striking KORAIL labor union leaders. (source

The first flare-up was in December 2013, when the labor union for KORAIL—the company that runs Korea’s railway system—began a general strike opposing the government’s proposal that would have led to privatizing the rail business. The Park Geun-hye government declared the strike illegal, and obtained the arrest warrant for the labor leaders. More than 4,000 riot police were marshaled to break the strike. With only the arrest warrants (and not a search warrant,) the riot police destroyed the doors of the building that housed the headquarters of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, Korea’s leading labor union. 

The building also housed Kyunghyang Shinmun, a leading liberal newspaper, but that did not matter to the police. In a scene reminiscent of the darkest days of South Korea’s dictatorship, the riot police trashed the offices of a liberal newspaper en route to arresting the labor union leaders (who managed to escape.) In a clear violation of Korea’s labor laws, KORIAL placed all employees who participated in the strike—more than 6,000 workers—on an indefinite administrative leave, effectively firing them. The raid of the proudly militant KCTU sparked a series of strikes and protests, with each demonstration drawing up to 100,000, that lasted until February 2014. 

(More after the jump.)

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On December 10, 2013, Korea University student Ju Hyeon-u wrote an open letter to his fellow students on a large poster paper, and posted it on a message board on campus, following the traditions of the student activists for democracy during the 1970s and 80s. Ju’s open letter, titled “Are you all well?” [안녕들하십니까], began by noting the mass layoff in KORAIL and other labor disputes. Then Ju exhorted: 

“I simply want to ask: are you all well? Are you all living without much trouble? Is it ok to look away because it’s not your problem? I ask, are you hiding behind self-justification, telling yourself ‘I don’t care about politics’? If you are not well, you would not be able to help yourself but scream whatever it is that afflicts you. So I want to ask, one last time: are you all well?” 

"Are You All Well?" open letter by Ju Hyeon-u,
posted at Korea University (source)

Ju’s open letter became an instant classic, inspiring other similar open letters. At first it was all the colleges in Seoul, then colleges around the entire country, then high schools, work places and city councils. In the world’s first wired society, it was this classic form of communication—an open letter, written with a marker on a poster board—that became more viral than anything else. 

Political openings appeared to emerge as well. As discussed in the last part, Park Geun-hye administration had to deal with the spy agency’s election meddling scandal from the very beginning. Park’s bumbling response to the Sewol ferry disaster, followed by her appalling attempt to paint the parents who lost their children in the sunken ferry as her enemy, further hurt her approval rating. 

Yet Korea’s liberal political liberals failed to capitalize on the tailwind generated from the “Are you all well?” campaign or Park administration’s missteps. At first, there seemed to be a ray of hope in March 2014, when the former presidential candidate Ahn Cheol-su decided to put behind him the bitter memories of Moon Jae-in pushing him out in the 2012 presidential race and join the Democratic Party, which was to be renamed as New Politics Alliance for Democracy. But when it came time for elections, NPAD disappointed yet again: in the local elections held in June 2014, NPAD essentially fought Park Geun-hye’s Saenuri Party to a draw. 

Meanwhile, Park Geun-hye administration continued to put legal and illegal pressure on Korea’s liberals. In August 2013, the administration arrested Lee Seok-gi, Assembly Member for the United Progressive Party, for plotting insurrection (!) against the Republic of Korea, by planning attacks against telephone relay stations and a petroleum reserve. Yet the prosecution’s evidence was the thinnest: by the time the case was appealed to the Supreme Court, the prosecution all but admitted that the evidence for a supposed attack plan against a telephone relay station was no more than the record of internet search checking the share price for Korea Telecom. Although the trial court initially sentenced Lee to 12 years in prison for plotting insurrection, on appeal Lee was only convicted of the crime of possessing North Korean books and movies. 

Regardless, in December 2014, the Park Geun-hye administration convinced Korea’s Constitutional Court to disband the UPP for “violating the basic orders of democracy” based Lee’s conviction. When the cable TV news channel JTBC hosted a UPP spokeswoman to make a case that the court decided incorrectly, Korea Communications Commission fined JTBC and censured the producers of the program.

But truth was, even without the Park administration’s extraordinary step of disbanding a political party, Korea’s liberals were doing a fine job on their own of self-destruction. The NPAD spent nearly the whole 2015 feuding within itself. Moon Jae-in won the intra-party election held in February 2015 to become the head of the party. Yet Moon’s promise of “the party that wins” quickly became an embarrassment, as NPAD was demolished in the special elections held in April 2015 to fill the National Assembly seats vacated by the disbanded UPP. Although UPP’s districts theoretically were heavily left-leaning, the conservative Saenuri Party took three out of the four. 

Broadly speaking, Korea’s liberal camp is an alliance of two factions: relatively young urbanites who were socioeconomically liberal, and the denizens of the southwestern Jeollabuk-do and Jeollanam-do provinces who suffered quasi-ethnic discrimination during the dictatorship era, as each dictator hailed form the southeastern Gyeongsangbuk-do province. Much like the U.S. Democratic Party’s alliance between socially liberal whites and the discriminated African Americans, Korea’s liberal alliance was a delicate liaison that required much work to maintain, even in the best of times. Moon Jae-in represented the urbanite faction, as did his former boss Roh Moo-hyun. As both Roh and Moon were from the Busan area in the southeast, the southwestern faction always quietly suspected that neither Roh nor Moon had the best interest of the southwest in their hearts. 

NPAD’s drubbing grew this suspicion into a full-blown revolt. To placate the southwestern faction, Moon launched a special committee to suggest reform proposals for the party, and even offered to put himself through a no-confidence vote. But Moon’s patch-up job failed, as NPAD took another beating in the special elections held in October 2015. The next month, Ahn Cheol-su—having established himself as one of the leaders of the southwestern faction—loudly left the NPAD. A stream of liberal Assembly Members followed Ahn, to establish the People’s Party. With the “alliance” portion of the name NPAD now a misnomer, the main liberal party led by Moon Jae-in changed its name back to the Democratic Party. 

With the National Assembly elections looming in 2016, Korea’s liberal politicians were split into two squabbling parties, all the while Park Geun-hye’s “concrete floor” of approval rating remained intact at around 40 percent. The liberals could hardly think of a more despair-inducing scenery. They began genuinely wondering if the liberal parties could salvage even one-third of the National Assembly—a terrifying possibility, as the two-thirds majority of the National Assembly may authorize a constitutional amendment. In late 2015, the reprise of Park Chung-hee’s Yushin Constitution, which made Park Geun-hye’s father the lifetime president, was emerging as a distinct possibility. 

II.  Turning

Paris, France is an unlikely place to provide a turning point for South Korean politics, but that's how history often works. In November 2015, a series of terrorist attacks in Paris—much of it concentrated at the Bataclan Theater—killed 130 people, in the deadliest attack since World War II. Seizing on the Paris attack, Park Geun-hye introduced the Terrorism Prevention Act, which would authorize the National Intelligence Service (the same august spy agency that interfered in the 2012 presidential election) to conduct broad surveillance against the public. 

The proposed Terrorism Prevention Act would have been the beginning of the end for the Korean democracy. Even without the law, the NIS was already conducting surveillance on civilians, interfering with elections and running misinformation campaigns against liberal politicians and celebrities. The Terrorism Prevention Act would have made all those activities legal by allowing the NIS to designate terrorism suspect, on its own and without any oversight. 

With liberals being the minority position in the National Assembly, defeat on the Terrorism Prevention Act seemed all but certain. Rather than bowing out meekly, the Democratic Party Assembly Members decided to go down swinging by employing the newly introduced parliamentary tactic: the filibuster. In 2011, expecting they would lose the subsequent National Assembly election, the conservative party pre-emptively installed the filibuster to prepare for their time as the minority party. But because Park Geun-hye led the party to an unexpected victory in 2012, the filibuster provision went unused. Against the Terrorism Prevention Act, the Democratic Party decided to dust off and deploy the ultimate parliamentary weapon. 

National Assemblywoman Eun Su-mi of the Democratic Party,
delivering filibuster speech that lasted ten hours and 18 minutes. (source)

The filibuster lasted nine days, or 192 hours and 17 minutes. Thirty-eight liberal National Assembly Members—29 from the Democratic Party, four from the People’s Party, four from the Justice Party and one independent—rose up one by one to speak against the legislation. The highlight of the filibuster was Assembly Member Eun Su-mi, who appeared third in line to speak for ten hours and 18 minutes. Overcoming the conservatives' boorish heckling, the tiny, bespectacled Eun spoke at length about the torture that she received as a democracy activist. After days of being beaten and having her head pushed into water at what is now the NIS, Eun Su-mi suffered through pneumonia and tuberculosis, and had to remove more than 20 inches of her small intestine. The filibuster concluded with Lee Jong-geol of the Democratic Party, who set the record by speaking for 12 hours and 31 minutes. 

In the short term, the filibuster failed. After nine days, the Democratic Party stopped the filibuster, and the majority Saenuri Party passed the Terrorism Prevention Act, albeit with the most noxious provisions removed. But for those nine days, the Korean public were glued to the television for the unfolding political drama. The gallery for the National Assembly was packed; the National Assembly TV, Korea’s equivalent of C-SPAN, had record ratings. The public opinion on the Anti-Terrorism Act shifted by more than 10 percent, going from 46.1 percent in favor to 48.9 percent against in just a few days. For the first time in years, Korea’s liberal leaders made a positive impression on the country by fighting in a way that moved the hearts of the people. 

III.  Pride, Then Fall 

The filibuster should have been the blinking red light for the conservatives, a warning sign that they may be in trouble with the National Assembly election just two months away. Yet looking ahead the presidential election in 2017, the Saenuri Party made the same mistake that every group in power eventually makes: an intramural squabble. 

Like a mirror image of the two factions in the liberal camp, Korea’s conservative camp is also made up of two factions: wealthy corporate executives and old, rural people with dictatorship nostalgia. Lee Myung-bak, the former CEO of Hyundai, was the leader of the first faction, while Park Geun-hye was the leader of the latter. In early 2016, the leader of the Saenuri Party was Kim Mu-seong, who led the corporate faction. (Kim is the guy whose arrogantly smooth no-look pass of his luggage on his way out of the airport went viral.) The Korean public all but assumed that Kim would be the next president of the Republic; but once again, they underestimated Park Geun-hye’s venality. 

Unlike the US, Korea’s political parties do not run a strict primary for each district in the National Assembly. Each party is free to set up its own system of slating candidates for the elections. The major parties usually offer a combination of a primary election and a “single recommendation” to determine the candidates. Although this determination is a fractious process every election, the 2016 Assembly elections slate for the Saenuri Party was particularly fishy: it had far too many pro-Park Geun-hye faction cronies receiving single recommendations, while many of Kim Mu-seong’s entourage had to suffer through the primary election. Park’s faction went so far as to push two of Kim’s most heavyweight colleagues—Yu Seung-min and Lee Jae-o—from seeking re-election in their districts, which caused Yu to leave the party in late March. 

Kim Mu-seong, looking forlorn in Busan. (source)

Kim could see the writing on the wall: Park Geun-hye was trying to push him out and install one of her favored cronies as the next presidential candidate. Rather than taking this sitting down, Kim Mu-seong pulled one of the most ridiculous stunts in Korea’s democratic history: he refused to give his approval to his party’s slate of candidates, putting the Saenuri Party at the risk of not being able to put any lawful candidate for the National Assembly. After he declared his refusal, Kim left Seoul to his hometown in Busan, where he staged a series of emo photo ops to display his agony. Because of this extraordinary rebellion, Park Geun-hye compromised to let Yu Seung-min and Lee Jae-o run again. 

On April 13, 2016, the Republic of Korea voted on the National Assembly members for the next four years. On this day, Korea’s conservative began the long free fall. They are still falling today. 

The exit polls were brutal enough: Saenuri would likely lose the majority, while the two liberal parties—Democratic Party and the People’s Party—would likely combine for the majority. The actual results were even more crushing for the conservatives: out of the 300 seats, the Democratic Party won 123 seats, becoming the largest party in the Assembly. Even Park Geun-hye’s hometown of Daegu produced a Democratic Assemblyman. The brand-new People’s Party strongly carried their regional base, winning 38 seats mostly based on the southwest. With the progressive Justice Party winning six seats, Korea’s liberal block collectively won 167 seats, a decisive majority. Saenuri grazed the lower range of the exit polls, winning 122 seats. 

It would be wrong to conclude from this result that both conservatives and liberals messed up, but conservatives messed up more badly. Rather, liberals won by turning into a positive all the events that appeared to be a negative. Ironically, Park Geun-hye’s disbandment of UPP ended up insulating the remaining liberal parties from the conservatives’ favorite rhetorical weapon: the slander that the liberals were all communists. With the far-left party gone and its members forced out of politics, there were no more reasonable grounds to claim the liberals were communist. (To be sure, there are plenty of Koreans who unreasonably conclude all liberals are communist—but still, there are enough people who could be persuaded.) 

Although the liberals split into two parties, each party ended up doing improving its position by focusing on its strength. Ahn Cheol-su left the Democratic Party complaining Moon Jae-in had too much power, a charge with more than a little truth. But with that power, Moon did much to remove the dead wood within his party and recruited a number of fresh faces—which included several heavyweight conservatives who served in the Park Geun-hye administration but were disillusioned by Park. The result was the newly energized, more professional Democratic Party that encompassed a broader ideological range. Meanwhile, the People’s Party gave a meaningful alternative to the disaffected voters in the southwest, who were tired of voting for the Democratic Party but could not bring themselves to vote conservative. 

With the National Assembly victory at hand, the liberal spirit was finally on the upswing. But even for the most hopeful, no one in Korea was prepared for how spectacularly Park Geun-hye administration would self-immolate.

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  1. "On this day, Korea’s began the long free fall. They are still falling today."

    I assume you meant to type "Korea's conservatives". Really like this series, can't wait for part 6!

  2. "On April 13, 2016, the Republic of Korea voted on the National Assembly members for the next four years. On this day, Korea’s began the long free fall. They are still falling today."

    I think you forgot a word here.

  3. Anyway, I want to add to your excellent summary that the liberal victory in 2016 was just completely out of left field. Before the election, the media was projecting 180+ seats out of 300 for the Saenuri, and even the most conservative estimates had them over majority.

    To quote Sisa-in, a liberal news magazine, 2016's election "broke our minds because we couldn't figure out why we won" while 2012 was vice versa. It felt like as if the Patriots lost in an upset to the Browns, and not even a close upset but an outright destruction.

    Because of the break in the opposition from Ahn's antics since 2015 (ok being a bit biased here), there was an overall sense of misery and doom and gloom for the liberals. Some on the internet (Mostly DCInside, who has a very pessimistic political stance, a bit different from Ilbe's since 2014ish onwards) meme-ified the phrase "킹찍탈" short for "킹무성 찍고 탈조선" meaning "Vote for Kim (Moo Sung) and exit Hell-Joseon" - a phrase that signified just how angry and hopeless the youth felt and how hopeless the situation was for the opposition. It seemed that the Saenuri would turn into a Korean version of the LDP

    And then, on April 13th, somehow the script flipped. The Democratic Party just swept Seoul Metro area, and still won a number of seats in the Southeast, turning it into a swing state.
    Without the Saenuri losing majority and the Dems becoming the no. 1 party in the Nat'l Assembly, I don't think we'd get to impeachment.

  4. As James mentioned, I was expecting more description of Hell-Joseon(헬조선) sentiment. The despair and hopelessness liberals felt prior to 2016 election was beyond anyone's imagination.

    Yes, there were visceral rejection and protests against Park's presidency, but repeated failure and untrustworthy opposition (prior to the filibuster, that is), effectively caused absolute hopelessness. Koreans were humans too. They had feelings, and persistent approval rating of 40% was prelude to another era of darkness.

    This is what makes this story such a happy ending. How people gathered for change, perhaps for the last time, despite absolute hopelessness that existed among all society. I think driving force of people's persistent protest was thanks to this idea of "If we fail this time, we have no tomorrow".

    I can't wait to see your next article. Keep up the good work :)

    1. I just couldn't even watch the news from 2014-2016. Just was so pissed off that Saenuri was winning, that the opposition always was fighting itself, and that Park admin was doing ridiculous shit day after day.

  5. And re: Constitutional amendment - at the time, I didn't think they'd actually do it to be honest. What was a despair for me was korea turning into Japan - the Saenuri party becoming the Korean version of the LDP, effectively ruling as the no. 1 party for 55 years.

    For that, you won't even need a constitutional amendment. All you need to do is keep the facade of democracy and take over the press, like MB and PGH did

  6. I mean, that no-look luggage pass was really damn smooth.

  7. The funny thing about the 2016 elections was that the conservative news channels shot their own foot by going overboard with their Ahn Cheol-soo praise. This move was done in order to vilify the biggest (and most upright) progressive leader MJI (who Ahn was absolutely fuming against) and divide the liberal voters. However since the main viewers of conservative news were (gasp) conservatives, this gave them a wrong message that Ahn was some superhero on their side standing up against "Commie King" Moon. As even they could see how terrible Saenuri was by then, many decided to pick Ahn and his party (note: many Koreans, especially the old, has a bad habit of identifying political parties with their leaders which is a result of a long history of "personal cult" culture that stems from dictatorship and corrupt journalism) as alternative conservative candidates. To make things worse, the intended target of this "Ahn Cheol-soo marketing", the liberals, hardly watch conservative news so they weren't affected much.

    As a result, the incessant Ahn praise had the topsy-turvy effect of dividing the conservatives instead of liberals. Ahn's party earned around a quarter of all votes across most regions, which means the majority of their supporters were not Jeolla associates. My father for example, who is pretty much the archetypal Korean conservative (Gyeongsang region, ex-military officer, Christian, avid Chosun reader, watches conservative news channels all day), voted for Ahn's party back then and still remains a staunch Ahn supporter to this day. (The media's irrational support for Ahn can act as a great case study of the cozy relations of Korea's conservative journalism and politics.)

    So, in short, reading the election results as a "liberal victory" doesn't really tell the whole story as the conservative support base was still well and alive and voted accordingly (they still voted for what they thought was the conservative candidate, it just wasn't Saenuri.). It still was a significant result because it pretty much destroyed Park's iron grip over the conservatives and ignited heavy infighting, which opened way for all sorts of unexpected things most notably the Choi Soon-sil scandal. But if not for Choi Soon-sil, Korea's conservatives could very well still be in power today, which in many ways, they do. Things has changed a lot since then, but my point is, it's still too early to celebrate and lower our guard as there still looms a strong potential that once the liberals expose some weakness things can turn in a blink. That's why a lot of Korea's liberals now act as militant Moon supporters, it's not because they personally worship Moon but they don't want to lose their hard, and once-in-a-lifetime luckily earned democracy go down to the remnants of the past.

  8. Ah, the filibuster. One of the rare moments in Korean history where all the fundamental philosophies of Democracy was so passionately discussed in-depth by the policy makers themselves. The participants could have gone the easy route of reading books and stuff but that would have had a negative effect on public image and certainly would have been attacked as "parliament hijackers" by the conservative press. (Mind you, it's much more difficult to be a progressive politician in Korea as they are not allowed the luxury of showing even the slightest hint if immorality - otherwise they will be panned to death, and I mean literally sometimes. So you have to at least give some credit to those who choose to do become one to stand up for their beliefs.) So they went all out, poured their heart, and created probably the most productive filibuster ever - a lively discussion of everything related eg. history, social studies, statistics, philosophy, personal anecdotes, etc. that you probably would be able to create a political encyclopedia just by compiling the words spoken there. It was a great reminder that there always have been plenty of deeply respectable politicians there - it was just that the most corrupt ones were always given the spotlight by the conservative media, and the decent ones ignored or outright vilified. (edit - fixed some typos)


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