[Observer]Street demonstration and democracy

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[Observer]Street demonstration and democracy

The eyes of a curious world are trained on Korea these days which is not necessarily a good thing.

Twice last week I was asked, “What’s going on in Korea Is it about beef? Will the government fall?”`

I explained that it all began several weeks ago with the belief that Koreans have a genetic propensity to contract mad-cow disease if they are forced to eat American beef.

If I say it with a straight enough face, I can sometimes fool some Americans into believing it.

“How awful,” they exclaim. “How many cases have there been?”

“None. It isn’t true. But some unscrupulous souls frightened schoolchildren into believing it, and the children began a series of tearful candlelit demonstrations.”

“But if it isn’t true, why are they still demonstrating?”

Ah, that is the question, isn’t it From this side of the Pacific, it seems that the demonstrations have waned in focus as they have increased in magnitude. One reads that the people are fed up with their three-month-old government, that they are tired of being pushed around by America, that Korean pride has been hurt.

I suspect that many Koreans don’t really know why they are demonstrating, but they know that they are dissatisfied.

People everywhere go a little crazy now and then. In my own city of Baltimore, the umbrage industry swung into action last month over news that a prestigious university was deliberately spreading human waste in the neighborhoods of poor people. Civil rights groups launched protests. Members of Congress threatened to hold hearings.

And it turned out that the news was . . . true-ish. Johns Hopkins University had developed yes, from treated waste an organic compound that would react with lead commonly found in the soil in run-down urban areas. So instead of poisoning poor children, the university was making their play areas safer. But venting righteous indignation is so much fun.

Koreans know this. Street action is a consistent medium of the national discourse. Remember the “stolen” gold medal in the Winter Olympics of 2002 Or remember the legions of women placing their ovaries at the disposal of the cloning charlatan Hwang Woo.suk in 2006?

Sometimes the outpouring is joyous. As a presenter at a seminar about Korea last month, I wore my “Be the Reds” T-shirt and waved my Korean flag as I did along with half a million Koreans at City Hall Plaza during the 2002 World Cup.

At that seminar, another presenter showed footage of other mass Korean demonstrations - Gwangju in 1980 and the democracy rallies of 1987. No one would call these events mass foolishness; they were deeply serious and tragic in the case of Gwangju.

To compare Gwangju with the mad-cow follies is to recall Karl Marx’s observation that history repeats itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”

Denied meaningful political participation during the long years of authoritarian rule, citizens had no way to make themselves heard except by direct action. So they took to the streets, and won their democracy.

Yet the mystique of protest lives on. Many Koreans have not yet learned to trust democratic processes. Back to the streets, in the name of democracy!

And so rice farmers set tractors afire. Labor unions shut down factories. Children fantasize about ghastly bovine deaths. And standing ominously by are massed phalanxes of grim riot police equipped with sticks and shields.

Even in that citadel of democratic representation, the National Assembly, we get, from time to time, scenes of fistfights and feminine hair-pulling.

It makes for great television. Many Koreans have complained to me that foreign television only shows Koreans rioting. Well of course, I reply; rioting is much more fun to watch than negotiating.

But if Korea’s authoritarian history has schooled it in the virtues of unyielding intransigence, I think there is a second ? paradoxical ? current in the protest culture. That is the fond Korean belief in national unity.

“We are all Koreans!” Koreans proudly tell foreigners. Or, “We are one blood.”

Evidently, this is supposed to mean that all Koreans think alike. My students in Korea unanimously insisted that reunification with North Korea is the deepest yearning of all Koreans. Many Korean journalists used to tell me that their job as journalists was to uphold the Korean national viewpoint and to expose foreign viewpoints to criticism.

If Koreans imagine themselves as of unanimous mind, then disagreement is logically impossible, and dissent where it exists must be a betrayal of the united Korean will. I never heard a Korean express it that way, but I believe that such feelings exist at some level, and that these feelings help to explain why Koreans are so hard on each other.

Because, of course, being human, Koreans disagree with each other all the time. On unification, for example, Korean government policy for the past 10 years ? and apparently still in the Lee Myung-bak administration ? has been to postpone it for at least a generation.

On trade, the government and most business professionals believe that Korea prospers from engagement with the world. Farmers, the teachers’ union and others passionately disagree.

Of all romantic illusions, the Korean “one blood” fantasy must be the most lovely, and the most fatuous. I am not talking about genetics. Koreans may indeed be more closely related as a nation than Chinese or Germans ? certainly more so than Americans. But family feuds are a staple of Korean literature ? for example, Yom Sang-seop’s novel “Three Generations,” about the tensions of traditionalism, idealism and modernism.

What was the Three Kingdoms period a couple of thousand years ago but a running feud between Koreans of the north (Goguryeo), southeast (Silla) and southwest (Baekje)? What was the Gwangju massacre but a government license to the dominant southeast (Yeongnam) to oppress the southwest (Honam)? The unity of all Koreans is a charming myth, and at times a source of national strength. But in the current instance it may be holding the nation back.

Koreans are like most people, fractious and divided. The sooner Koreans accept their divisions, the sooner they will accept the democratic institutions that can bridge their differences.

*The writer is a former editor of the JoongAng Daily.

by Harold Piper
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