Sunday, December 11, 2016

thoughts on the Korean upheaval

First John Glenn dies, then President Park Geun-hye gets impeached. These are sad-but-exciting times, especially here in Korea, where the mood has lightened from one of grumbling gloom to ever-so-slightly-cautious optimism. As John Lee points out, the impeachment process has only just begun. President Noh Mu-hyeon had also been impeached, but he ended up being cleared. The same is at least conceivable for Park, whose impeachment will take several months to conclude.

In talking with one of my KMA students yesterday during a break, I learned her theory that the reason why these massive weekly demonstrations have been so peaceful may be because the abiding sentiment isn't so much rage as it is sadness. I can't say whether her theory holds water, but given that Park's lack of leadership during the Sewol ferry tragedy is one of the issues fueling the current animus toward her, I can see how sadness might be playing a role in the crowd's emotional state. Corruption and tragedy are a sobering mix.

My student also had another, darker theory: what if Park and her confidante Choi Soon-shil are really the tip of the iceberg? What if there are other powers at work behind the scenes—powers that are even greater and more malevolent? This sounded as if we were wandering into conspiracy-theory territory, but given how weird the current story is, maybe it's not implausible to think that there may be puppet masters behind the puppet masters, as if South Korea were living a "The Cabin in the Woods" scenario.

Finally, my student expressed sadness because, as a woman, she'd had high hopes for President Park, who was revolutionary as the first female president in East Asia. Park has turned out to be a poor, incompetent leader as well as a massive disappointment, and my student felt the president had done much to sully the "woman" brand with her ineptitude and links to corruption.

The demonstrators are still on the march this weekend. They feel their job isn't done, and now the focus is turning, more and more, to persuading President Park simply to resign. Personally, I think this is what Park should have had the good grace to do in the first place. Instead, she passed the buck to the National Assembly, telling her assemblymen that it was up to them to decide her fate. This was a not-so-subtle middle finger to all those who want to see Park out of power now. Even the impeachment can be seen as a sort of delay in Park's eventual departure from the Blue House—not a deliberate stalling tactic, exactly, but still a process that will take months, ticking away the clock until Park leaves office at the beginning of 2018. Park may be counting on complicated legal procedure to carry her across the finish line of her presidency, if for no other reason than to be able to say she served a full term without suffering the disgrace of having been ousted.

Granted, I'm psychologizing—a naughty behavior that I normally condemn in others. I can't read Park's mind; I can only make deductions about her mental and emotional state based on her actions. But I don't think my reading is implausible: if Park indeed had the option of stepping down from office, simply and directly, but instead chose this more difficult path, then I think she could be accused of still trying to cling to power. If I'm right, then this clashes with the seemingly apologetic nature of the speeches she's given to the public since this whole sordid scandal began. That insight, in turn, has implications for the game Park is playing.

Not that I want to concentrate on Park any longer. As far as I'm concerned, she's of decreasing relevance, and I think the Korean people are looking forward to some major changes. Much commentary has focused on the idea that we now live in an era in which deep-rooted corruption is finally being exposed* and, one would hope, excised. Some Western commentators are linking this Korean movement to a global trend toward populism—the same trend that swept Donald Trump into office. Whether that's actually true in Korea's case is still a matter of debate: Koreans have gone through tragedy and upheaval before and learned nothing from the experience. It would take a lot to convince me that Park's imminent ouster indicates a fundamental shift in the national psyche.

In the meantime, though, South Korean citizens have every right to be proud of the way they showed the true power of people-driven, democratic movements. Weeks of nonviolent protests have led to what we're witnessing now. This stands in contrast to the childish tantrums thrown by liberal America in the wake of Donald Trump's election—the riots, the arson, the looting, and the street beatings. And while I might have utterly botched my predictions about the US presidential election, I was spot-on about the post-election chaos, but that was only because the rioting was, sadly, easy to predict. Korea has experienced no equivalent unrest thus far, no significant violence of any kind. This is how civilized people enact democracy; it's an example that American crybabies ought to follow. My worry, though, is what will happen if justice isn't served to Park in a timely manner, or if the president somehow manages to wriggle free and escape justice.

*In truth, it's been exposed before, and it will be again later. This sort of thing moves in peristaltic cycles of major change.

No comments: