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Hither and Yon

Koreans are free to vent bottled-up fury on the southern side of the DMZ

Special to WorldTribune.com
By Donald Kirk, EastAsiaIntel.com
SEOUL — Freedom will ring on the streets of Seoul Saturday, when demonstrators denounce the government for numerous transgressions beginning with the scheme to impose state-edited, state-published school textbooks in place of those by independent scholars.
People by now are so accustomed to the sounds of protests reverberating around the center of the capital that many will be tempted to ignore the shouting and move on. However, this one may be a little too big to dismiss if the last such outpouring, in mid-November, is any guide.
It would be easy to say that noisy demonstrations in Seoul are expressions of the rawest, most visible forms of democracy, but you have to wonder if these confrontations between protesters and police are all that justifiable or healthy. The police have had to resort to firing tear gas, as in the days when protesters were battling the distinctly undemocratic regimes of Park Chung-Hee and his successor, Chun Doo-Hwan. Too bad Park’s daughter, President Park Geun-Hye, finds herself echoing the firm resolve of her father as she vows to crack down hard if the protesters charge the rows of police buses and cops in their Darth Vader body armor holding the line in the heart of the city.
In the old days, that is, during the era of dictatorial rule by the first President Park and President Chun, it was easy for foreign journalists to breathe fire into stories on the iniquities of these leaders and all they represented. How could the U.S., having fought through the Korean War and then remained closely allied to the powers-that-be in Seoul, countenance such infractions of democratic governance?
There was a self-righteous air to our reporting on the mayhem as though we were crusading on behalf of the forces of good versus evil. Well, maybe we were, but of course we knew nothing about the social and regional divisions that had a lot to do with the protests, and we were consumed by our clear sense of right versus wrong.
Nowadays either the lines between right and wrong are more blurred or else those covering these events aren’t so self-assured. In the final couple years of recent Korean presidents, we’ve heard severe criticism of all of them and their policies. Corruption and incompetence have been dominant themes as we evaluated the performances of the six who’ve been elected to single five-year terms as prescribed by the “democracy constitution” promulgated after huge demonstrations swept downtown Seoul in mid-1987.
The current President Park is accused of being out of touch with popular sentiment. How could it be otherwise since her mother was assassinated in 1974 by a bullet intended for her father ― and then her father was shot and killed by his intelligence chief? Living with memories of these terrible tragedies, she’s had to rely on the emotional support and political advice of a narrow conservative elite far removed from daily trials and tribulations of mere mortals.
Park may have gotten some bad advice when she said her government would publish its own textbooks for impressionable middle and high school teen-agers rather than go on haggling with obstreperous professors obsessed with their own views of Korean history. Certainly she looks favorably on the 18 years and five months that her father held sway after seizing power from a democratically elected president in 1961 She is confident, if her father had dictatorial tendencies, he still takes credit for having spurred on Korea’s rise as an economic power.
The forces at the forefront of protest are not too interested in a nuanced view of history. Their sloganeering, their banners, their statements give the impression that some would like nothing better than to impose their own non-democratic order. Marches devolve into battles between extremes ― the rightist forces of establishment rule versus radical foes for which North Korean propaganda and ideology are an inspiration, a blessing, not a curse.
Quite often, looking back over the history of protest in recent years, resentment of the U.S. alliance and American influence has fueled the more violent outbursts. The killing of two 13-year-old schoolgirls, run over by a 48-ton U.S. army armored vehicle on a road north of Seoul in 2002, sparked nightly outpourings by tens of thousands for months. In 2008, demonstrators took to the streets in equal numbers, sure that the import of U.S. beef would spread “mad cow disease” to an unsuspecting populace.
The issue this time around is quite different. Besides textbooks, the powerful Korean Confederation of Trade Unions is angered by labor law reforms. The fear is that companies could easily dismiss workers at a time when millions are struggling to find or hold jobs.
Modern Korean history has often been a contest between extremes. The result has been repression and bloodshed. It’s not likely that demonstrations over textbooks ― or labor reform ― will result in such stark tragedy, but no one forgets the legacy of suffering. Nor do we hear people venerating the freedom with which people can rally for one cause or another.
Donald Kirk has been watching protests in Seoul since the first Park presidency. He’s at kirkdon4343@gmail.com.
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