A democracy in violence
Former President Kim Young-sam has passed away, and his absence reminds us of the meaning of democracy in Korea. From the May 16 coup in 1961 to the June protests for democracy in 1987, Korea accomplished condensed growth in 26 years. Korea achieved modernization, industrialization and democratization, an unprecedented triumph in the history of the world. And it was achieved not only in a short period of time but also from poor circumstances. Korea overcame the threat of North Korea and made economic development possible without resources and capital.
The history of humanity has been a struggle towards equality. Buddha was born in India 500 years before Jesus. About a century later, Socrates was born in Greece. They taught people that men were equal in front of the truth. Jesus taught that the rich and the powerful are equal before God. About 1,800 years later, Napoleon Bonaparte came along, defending the French Revolution with swords and cannons establishing the Napoleonic Code. He ensured that all citizens were equal before the law. When Napoleon died in 1821, Lincoln was 12. He wanted to make sure all men were equal regardless of their color.
The Korean Peninsula is a small area on Earth. Korea’s modern history is also a small chapter in the history of humanity. But we, too, made noble struggles for equality. When Korea was liberated in 1945, visionaries established a country where citizens were equal before the Constitution. While Syngman Rhee ended up a dictator, he believed in American liberal democracy. Park Chung Hee wanted to ensure people were equal. He restricted personal liberty for his own cause. He had a different priority in liberty and freedom.
Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung stood up against Park. They pursued Western democracy that allows greater freedom and equality for all citizens. The authoritarian regimes oppressed them, and they fought back. Until democratization in 1987, they were never shaken. Kim Young-sam was kicked off the National Assembly and went on a 23-day hunger strike. Kim Dae-jung was abducted abroad and shipped back to Korea. He was put under house arrest and then jailed.
Korea’s democracy is a collaboration of leaders and citizens. For an underdeveloped country to attain democracy, it needs two things. The first is a middle class and healthy civil society. The other is the trigger to bring changes at a critical moment. Park Chung Hee led economic development, and workers had to sacrifice and get low wages. Thanks to them, the middle class was created, and they were the first-generation contributors. Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung led the struggle for democracy with solid conviction. They had many followers, and people went out on the streets to rally. Thanks to them, the flame of democracy was ignited, and they were the second-generation contributors.
Koreans enjoy democracy and freedom today from blood, sweat and tears. We can do anything as long as we abide by the laws. We can establish a political party, run for a National Assembly seat and engage in civil group activities. We can start a company, form a union and challenge a duty-free business. When we get angry, we can go to the National Intelligence Service or criticize the female president in front of the Blue House. We can make movies and write books freely.
But this precious liberal democracy is in crisis because of violence. Anyone can protest in Korea within the boundaries of the law. But some protestors challenge the law and police.
During the Roh Moo-hyun administration, protestors tried to destroy the statue of Douglas MacArthur, and a young policeman’s face was scarred by a bamboo stick. During the Lee Myung-bak administration, protestors rallying against U.S. beef imports hit a policeman with a brick. During the Park Geun-hye administration, protestors used steel ladders, slingshots and steel pipes.
What’s more fearful is the denial of violence. Many political leaders and opinion makers turn a blind eye to violence. They oppose violence yet condemn police for suppressing violence. Their attitude is hypocritical and unrealistic. What can the police do about violence? They use water cannons against pipes and slingshots. When protestors swing pipes, should the police aim the water cannons away from them? Will they ask the police not to clash when their own houses are under attack?
Violence is the biggest enemy threatening a democratic society. Violence dissolves law and order. When the law collapses, the most vulnerable people will suffer first. Workers and average citizens will lose. Violent protest is not liberal democracy but dissolving democracy. But some people sit by and watch the situation, even defending it. They advocate the democratic spirits of Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung, but keep silent on violence. That’s a betrayal of the two Kims.
JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 25, Page 31
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Jin