Same old protests?My first encounters with Koreans back in the early 1970s at Waseda University are vivid in my memory. They were remarkable in their robust attitudes, very outgoing compared to their Japanese counterparts. At the same time, we foreign students quickly learned to take great care when talking with our Korean classmates. If we even unintentionally made a slight about Korea by just a nuance, our Korean friends would suddenly seem ready to fight us right then and there.
Quite understandably, those young Koreans were thin-skinned. There they were, in Tokyo, a capital of then Asia’s strongest economic powerhouse and center of a functioning democracy. There was a lot of nationalist pride at stake when interacting with non-Koreans overseas. Even we young Westerners were sympathetic with our defensive Korean friends.
Today, young Koreans are very much like young people from other developed nations. Should they encounter some foreigner who makes a stupid remark about their country, they often let it slide and shuck if off as an example of the other person’s ignorance. The reasons for this transformation in Korean attitudes are obvious.
Modern-day Korea is an economic powerhouse that many other countries admire. In fact, it is the only U.S. Peace Corps recipient country to have developed its own Peace Corps-like organization, Koica. And, of course, there is the “Miracle on the Han” that encapsulates much that the Koreans are quite right in taking nationalist pride.
Though not as readily recognized, there is the political development that is as equally impressive as Korea’s remarkable economic growth. In much less than a century, in spite of war and other traumas, Korea has moved from being a feudal kingdom, being colonized by Japan, to becoming an authoritarian independent nation. Following the Korean War, the country both suffered and benefited from a fascist period that ended in a relatively bloodless revolution that ushered in arguably Asia’s most successful democracy.
Today, Koreans hold their heads high. National pride has been well placed in the twin towers of economic and political development that make Korea the envy of prior “third-world country” peers.
That is, until a few weeks back. While the economic tower is facing some economic storms, it is holding up better than many other nations. However, a challenge has suddenly appeared that is shaking Korea’s political tower of pride.
The Choi Soon-sil revelations suggest an unusual form of corruption that defies traditional amorality. Rather than money going directly into one’s own or relatives’ pockets, apparently Ms. Choi and her deceased father may have had — and continue to have — a Rasputin-like control over a vulnerable woman, once traumatized by the twin assassinations of her parents.
Not to go into the affair’s details, we have seen many demonstrators in the streets. So far, we have witnessed largely common citizens profoundly upset by this development. Recently, I have heard comments from foreign “old Korea hands” something similar to the following: “Well, you know how things are in Korea. It just takes a couple good rumors over the internet and the masses are out on the streets. We should not allow ourselves to be sucked into this crazy mass hysteria. After all, in a proper democracy, one is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.”
Perhaps because it is a relatively small intimate society, rumors in Korea tend to be surprisingly accurate. Furthermore, Koreans still do not have adequate confidence in their civil institutions to deal with major misbehavior by the ruling class. The Korean sense of social justice is what we are now witnessing on the internet, in the local mass media and in the streets.
Consequently, I find it all a bit rich listening to my foreign friends take all of this in via the critical perspective of a well-educated, civilized Westerner. I’m not justifying what is happening here. Nor should I criticize Koreans for not applying proper Western notions of due process in every situation.
Of course, there are laws and judicial due process in effect here. But how those processes are actually applied is often different than what many foreigners may imagine. Incidental to all of this, I have several Western friends married to Koreans in Seoul and around Asia. One thing we now have in common is wives nightly yelling at our television sets. Why so?
Many Koreans find disturbing these unanticipated fractures in one of the twin towers of Korean pride. We understand that half of Korea is being run by a cult of sorts north of the DMZ. But here in modern South Korea, we are discovering similar influences at work at the highest levels of government with tentacles reaching out to esteemed business and academic institutions.
One can wonder what else is soon to be revealed that may strike horror in Korea’s national pride. As such, current civil disturbances are based on profound problems within Korean society that most people had no idea existed. The results of these demonstrations could prove to be as remarkable as those citizens’ demands that led to the past military government in June 1987 allowing major political reform to take place.
*The author is a long-term resident of Korea and author of two books on doing business, including “Doing Business in Korea: An Expanded Guide.”