[Viewpoint] Putting political chaos into context

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[Viewpoint] Putting political chaos into context

This week we have been reading preposterous claims by politicians opposed to the Korea-U.S. FTA and how people uncritically believe them. It is too easy to conclude that many Koreans are gullible. But of course, things are rarely so simple.

Looking at the mass media, one would naturally conclude we are witnessing yet another struggle between the conservatives and the progressives. But it just ain’t necessarily so. The so-called progressives have very narrow, nationalistic - even thinly disguised racist - elements within their ideologies, often dressed up as minjokjui, an ideology that is purported to be some kind of leftist nationalism.

When looked at critically, minjokjui often comes across as being almost neo-Nazism. One could conclude that all political parties are ultimately made up of conservative nationalists. But that, too, is likely to miss the big picture.

The big picture is the establishment versus everyone else. Like elsewhere, this struggle goes back through the millennia, but in order to put some kind of reins on this phenomenon, let’s go back just one millennium and recall how Korea’s southwestern Baekje Kingdom was the first of the contending Three Kingdoms to fall under the unifying military force of Silla. The absorbed Baekje region, now largely referred to as Jeolla, became Korea’s postbellum Dixie, if we are to use an American analogy.

This Korean Dixie still seethes with resentment at how the Seoul establishment has consistently discriminated against the former kingdom’s residents until modern times. While there have been strong, regional prejudices afoot, it ultimately comes down to the Seoul-relocated Silla families rewarding their home region in southeast Korea at the expense of their old adversaries.

And this pattern of discrimination and resentment has continued to the present day. Seoul and southeastern parts of Korea have supported the establishment as primarily represented by the Grand National Party and its direct predecessor parties. At the same time, the old Baekje parts of Korea have fiercely supported the Democratic Party and the Democratic Labor Party and their predecessors.

As a result, all of this has been oversimplified as being long-standing regionalism. But again, it’s not simply that.

Recent interviews of young Koreans in their 20s and early 30s suggest that the fierce regionalism of the past has been supplanted by equally fierce generational resentment. In other words, it is all coming down to a populist revolt against the established order of Korean society - no matter what part of Korea one may be affiliated with.

Looking at opposition to the FTA within this context, the anti-treaty illogical arguments almost make sense - if not in a literal fashion. Rather, the general public views the FTA as being closely aligned with the establishment’s interests. For many people, there is less need to analyze anti-FTA propaganda than to justify taking a stand against Korea’s governing class.

While free trade over the long haul should benefit the majority of society, very few Koreans can articulate how they will personally benefit from the treaty’s ratification.

Conversely, many Koreans can see how opposing the FTA can damage the Grand National Party and the national establishment that the GNP represents.

During the past four years, in many Koreans’ eyes, the GNP has largely mismanaged its stewardship in running the country.

The younger the voters the stronger the feeling is that they have been gypped out of a prosperous future by the older, established power holders. For many Koreans, this past month’s Seoul mayoral election and next April’s legislature elections provide opportunities for payback. In between, the FTA provides a vehicle by which to attack the establishment - even if it may mean a case of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.

Having been out of power for a decade, one would have thought the GNP may have learned its lesson to rule less cynically. But it has not. Perhaps it could not. The past four years reminds me of the parable of the frog and the scorpion. It goes like this:

A scorpion once needed to cross a river, but since it could not swim, the scorpion approached a frog to give it a lift to the other side. The frog refused on the grounds that a scorpion’s sting would be fatal, and the frog didn’t want to take the risk. The scorpion pleaded with the frog’s sense of reason. “Why would I sting you? We would both drown!” So with some reluctance, the frog agreed and the scorpion hopped on to the frog’s back. Midway across the river, the scorpion stung the frog. The frog cried out, “Why did you sting me? Now we will both die!” The scorpion replied, “I’m sorry, but it was my nature to do so.”

Like the scorpion, the GNP could not resist its old behavior. Now, the scorpion’s venom has caused opposition to the FTA.

While we can blame the craven cynicism of the opposition politicians in leveraging anti-establishment sentiment against the FTA, we need to also hold the smug establishment equally accountable for the current predicament.

Society is paying a penalty for its failure to provide adequate employment opportunities to large numbers of highly educated young people who are adept at Internet communication. The sacrificial lamb could well be the FTA.

It is tempting to discount the treaty’s opponents because of their nonsensical claims. But we would do better to understand why so many people are putting aside reason and long-term self-interest. Frustration and anger can cause otherwise right-thinking people to take ridiculous actions.

*The writer is president of Soft Landing Consulting in Seoul.

By Tom Coyner
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