The potshot posse

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The potshot posse


Noh Jeong-tae
The writer is a philosopher and author. 
“An amateur president fueling a crisis without foreseeing a Russian invasion.” A Korean media outlet put that headline on a short story about Ukraine’s president on February 24. You can agree or not. But if the justice minister of South Korea tweeted that article, that’s a different issue, as it ridicules the president of a foreign country. It was the Blue House’s hurried reversal of its earlier pledge not to join the U.S.-led sanctions on Russia that fueled public distrust in the government.

Park Beom-gye, the justice minister, was not alone in mocking Ukraine. Hong Hyun-ik, chancellor of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy (KDNA), attributed the Ukraine crisis to “foolishness” of the country, adding the invasion was a “collaboration between American and Russian politicians for political calculations.” Such radical comments are pouring out from officials of the Moon Jae-in administration or other pro-government figures. Chun Woo-yong, a pro-government professor of history, even made derogatory remarks on Twitter about the Ukrainian people who elected an “ignorant and incompetent comedian” as president. If you elect such a person as your leader, they usually pay you back with “disasters,” he said.

It is easy to laugh at a country invaded by its mighty neighbor if that’s your idea of humor. You could make fun of a comedian-turned-president with no political experience. But it’s another thing altogether if high-ranking officials or intellectuals publicly sneer at the Ukrainian president.

Such condescending attitudes primarily have their roots in a disregard for developing countries or disrespect for entertainers among the liberal forces in Korea.

Ukraine became an independent country after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The barely 30-year-old nation is in a poor state as it had hard times and wasn’t able to stabilize its new economic and political systems. According to Transparency International, Ukraine is the second most corrupt country after Russia. But Russia is a strong military power backed by enormous oil and gas reserves. Ukraine is not.

Such a country can hardly gain political and economic stability. Politically, it is divided between pro-West and pro-Russian groups. Its economy is controlled by an entrenched oligarchy like Russia’s. Former president Petro Poroshenko still owns the largest chocolate company in Eastern Europe. A businessman-turned-president does not necessarily lead his country to corruption. But he can, and that’s what happened in Ukraine. Its people were sick and tired of chronic corruption whoever took power.

Ukrainian politics has been influenced by Russia, but the country started to turn to the West after the 2013 Euromaidan protest against the corrupt government. Then, Russia forcefully annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 followed by a proxy war based on the organization, recruitment and assistance to rebel forces in the Donbas region. In that sense, the war actually has been going on for eight years.

Volodymyr Zelensky’s election as president must be comprehended in that context. A former actor and director, he enjoyed wide popularity in his role as a high-school teacher in “Servant of People,” a political satire, since 2015. The comedy television series gave an awakening to the Ukrainians suffering stifling political realities.

Korea’s liberals and intellectuals appear to wonder how a comedian could be elected president. Couldn’t the Ukrainians distinguish between a comedy and reality? Liberals in Korea — largely a group of former student activists — still think their opinions mean something. But reality is not that simple. Ukraine’s problem is not only escaping from Russia’s threats but about a new future they must create after ending three decades of corruption and collusion.

In the 2019 presidential election, Zelensky got the most votes in the first round of voting and defeated former president Poroshenko by a landslide (73.19 percent). Ukrainians can tell the difference between a sitcom and reality. They voted for Zelensky out of desperation to cut the deep-rooted connections between politicians and entrepreneurs. 
Justice Minister Park Beom-gye, left, and Chancellor of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy Hong Hyun-ik. [KIM YOUNG-OK] 

Zelensky is from the elite with a master’s degree in law. Except for the fact that comedy was his profession, his victory in the 2019 election was not strange. A similar episode happened in France. A political novice working for an investment company suddenly appeared on the political stage, became the president, and transformed a political party supporting him into a majority party in the legislature. This was a result of the public’s desire to shake the political foundation in a fundamental way.

The situation of Ukraine is unstable. In 2013, about 220,00 Ukrainians lived in neighboring Poland, but the number surged to over 1.2 million — with most of them being high income earners with high educational backgrounds. If such a trend continues, it will be difficult for pro-Western forces in Ukraine to reform their motherland.

No doubt the Zelensky government showed many weaknesses. A New York Times’ report about domination of major government posts by broadcast people close to him helped consolidate his image as a corrupt leader. But the Ukrainian people voted for him because he was an outsider. Zelensky proposed one bill after another to regulate the mighty oligarchy, something no previous administration has ever done. That’s what the Ukrainians wanted. Just because they chose an outsider, you cannot criticize or ridicule them.

Shortly after Korea’s liberation in 1945, a British journalist sarcastically said, “Expecting democracy to flower in Korea is like expecting a rose to bloom in a garbage can.” His comment still reverberates in Korea. How can you sneer at the Ukrainians as a foreigner did at us seven decades ago?

The mocking language Justice Minister Park and Professor Chun used is no different. They brazenly demonstrated their haughtiness toward a head of state just because he came from the outside. Worse, they attempt to take the high ground on foreign affairs without trying to grasp the background of the country.

I hope the Ukrainian people understand that not all Koreans think like these men. I hope better Koreans will help the struggling Ukrainians get their freedom and rights as a sovereign state as soon as possible. 
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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