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Korea: Shame & Chauvinism

President Chun is in many ways an admirable manager of the economy, but has come up with little to justify his rule beyond perpetuating Park’s regimental authoritarianism. In 1981 he rescinded the martial law that went into effect with Park’s assassination. In 1982 and 1983 there was a series of finance and banking scandals. He had rising opposition from the New Korea Democratic party (NKDP) in 1985. His government imposed harsh sentences on the leaders of the student (and union) demonstrations of May 1985. The press is either under direct government control—TV and radio—or intimidated into exercising self-censorship—all newspapers. Consequently few people believe anything that appears in the Korean press and, as always under such conditions, news is disseminated through a vibrant rumor mill. One is sometimes told that the Korean press was freer during most years of Japanese colonial rule.

Another reminder of the Japanese era is the strong control over daily life by the police, covert or not. Telephones are often tapped. Labor organizers, prominent student and church activists, indeed anyone who poses a threat to the government is liable to be pushed out of a job, arrested, and sometimes tortured.2 Beatings at police stations appear to be fairly routine, usually to extract confessions, or—a very Confucian note, this—expressions of sincere repentance.

Although the government is quick to brand any antigovernment figure a communist, most opposition is hardly revolutionary. It springs not from poverty, but rather from wealth. As Kim Dae Jung puts it, “we are like adults forced to wear children’s clothes.” The general election results in 1985 were an accurate indication where most of the political discontent lay: the New Korea Democratic party, hastily organized just forty days before the voting, won sixty-seven seats in the 276-seat National Assembly, or 29.4 percent of the national vote—and that with both the party’s leaders, Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam, under house arrest. The ruling Democratic Justice party (DJP) won 35.3 percent. The telling thing is, however, that the NKDP defeated the ruling party in most of the big cities, homes of the rising and prosperous middle class. The party is now led by Lee Min Woo, a less charismatic figure than either of the Kims, who now act as advisers. But the Kims still dominate the party.

The traditional way for an East Asian government to claim legitimacy is to have a clear national goal. Park had such a goal. That goal is no longer enough. Chun has a goal too, a rather symbolic one: the Olympic Games.


See You in Seoul in 1988” is one of the most common slogans in Korea today. In 1988 Seoul hosts the Olympic Games and Chun promises to step down as president. The Asian Games held this year served as a warm-up for things to come. “The Asian Games,” said Chun, revealing all the traditional insecurities, “have shown that we are vigorously surging ahead in the world after having shaken off age-old poverty and stagnation…. It was a national festival that enhanced the self-dignity and pride of the Korean people.” Far more than sports was involved in the games: it put Seoul ahead of Pyongyang in the contest for national legitimacy and South Korea won more medals than Japan. This autumn an account in The Journal of Cultural Information, a free paper handed out in South Korean tourist hotels, conveyed the almost hysterical mood of the event: “Triumphant results of the Korean atheletes created the ecstacy [sic] among the public and promoted national prestige at home and abroad. Japan’s crumbling sports empire was shaken.” An exhibition was set up next to the new National Museum (the old Japanese capitol building) ceaselessly replaying videotapes of the Korean triumphs, often against a backdrop of the national flag. It reminded me of the obsessive repetition of the February revolution on Philippine TV.

The extraordinary opening ceremony in November featured martial arts, paratroopers falling from the sky, thousands of school children doing rhythmic gymnastics, and fifteen thousand dancers “in an explosion of color and sound featuring 5000 years of Korean heritage” (The Journal of Cultural Information). A writer from mainland China, Li Yu, made a shrewd comment in a South Korean paper: “This grand ceremony was not a festival of Korean culture, but a symbol of the efforts of the Korean people to resist foreign invasions.”

In an article published in the International Review of Mission, a Presbyterian minister called Park Hyung-Kyu wrote, “The history of the Korean people may be looked at from two aspects: the self-identity of the Korean people and liberation from the ideological, political and economic domination of foreign powers.” The problem is that the quest for identity so often drives Koreans into the embrace of foreign ideologies.

The most conspicuous sight in Korean towns at night is the large number of neon-lit crosses on top of churches, chapels, and cathedrals. It is telling that Korean Christianity began in the eighteenth century as a scholarly exercise by Korean students in Peking who wished to acquire Western learning, and ended as a kind of talismanic vehicle for political change. The town where Kim Dae Jung grew up, a port called Mokpo on the south coast, is said to be 60 percent Catholic. Mokpo lies in Cholla Province, Kim’s political bailiwick, an area with a long history of opposition to the central power in Seoul. Christianity did well in Korea since the late eighteenth century precisely because it offered an alternative to the rigid Confucianism—itself originally a borrowed ideology—of the governing class. Catholicism appealed first to scholars deprived of official ranks and thus of political power and then to the poor. Christianity, through the work of foreign missionaries, became the main vehicle for modern education, medicine, liberal politics, and nationalism. A proper grammatical system for Hangul, Korea’s phonetic script, was first worked out when the Bible was translated.

When the Korean people rose against the Japanese in 1919, fifteen of the thirty-three signers of the independence declaration were Protestants. Hundreds of thousands, often from rural areas, still seek their identities every Sunday in the stadiumlike churches of messianic preachers like Paul Cho, whose professed goal is to convert the Japanese, so they can be forgiven for their national sins. A Protestant political activist, now in jail, once told me that “our government has sold out to foreign domination. We can only regain national freedom and sovereignty through the gospel.”

A remarkable aspect of Kim Dae Jung’s prison letters is the way he forages through the classics of mostly Western literature in order to find moral sustenance—rather like a Confucian scholar delving into Mencius. His reading lists typically range from Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo to E.H. Carr’s What Is History? to Tolstoy’s War and Peace. “Good literary works relieve our emotions and serve as an inspiration that makes our spirit vigorous and resilient,” he writes to his family. He loves to take foreign journalists into his library, where he presents them with some uplifting motto—“Democracy is independence”—written in his own calligraphy. Koreans seem to have almost unlimited faith in learning. Seoul probably has the heaviest concentration of academies, colleges, and universities of any capital in the world. There is even a Korean Academy for Democracy. The campuses of the better schools are huge and well equipped. Lavish universities are to Seoul what palatial railway stations were to Victorian London: monuments of national progress.

The demos usually start around noon. First the students shout slogans through megaphones. Key phrases like “Reunification,” “Justice,” “Kill Chun Doo Hwan,” “Kill the Yankee Imperialists,” “Democracy,” are repeated in unison by the crowds. Then rocks and gasoline bombs are thrown at the riot police hiding behind their shields in modern samurai armor. Tear gas canisters are fired back at the students. More rocks and bombs fly through the air. Armored cars ride up to the front gate and yet more tear gas is released. The students run out of rocks and Molotov cocktails and sing revolutionary songs—often to the tune of a wartime Japanese military march. The police retreat. The demo of the day is over.

There is something almost medieval about these violent campus rituals. Both sides know the rules of battle and tend to stick to them, as if engaged in a kind of blood sport. The ceremonial atmosphere is heightened by the odd air of normality surrounding them. Students with tennis rackets under their arms pick their way through the debris of broken glass and torn posters. Sophomores holding handkerchiefs to their mouths against the tear gas go off to the volleyball courts or English classes. Professors stroll to their offices looking suitably absent-minded.

Dressed in blue denim uniforms, the young riot troops sent in to fight the students look tough and rather miserable. There is a reason for this: they are not just country boys bused in to the big city to beat up the privileged students, as is the case in some other countries with student problems, but they include a considerable number of former demonstrators, who were arrested and made to undergo military training and serve as soldiers or policemen. Treatment of demonstrators forced into the armed forces is often harsh. One of the many legacies from Japanese military rule is extreme hazing. Apart from that, students are given the worst assignments and often forced to implicate university friends in anti-government activities. In 1983, six student draftees committed suicide.3

The main point of the demos is to make a point. And the point has been made often enough for most people to stop taking note. The extreme slogans, the martial songs, the short bursts of predictable violence display a position of moral purity. I asked a student watching a demo at a Seoul university what he thought. He said he did not agree with the slogans, but admired the demonstrators’ sincerity. This kind of sincerity, untainted by political compromise, has been remarkably effective in the past. Students were responsible for the fall of Syngman Rhee in 1960. They seriously challenged President Park in 1979. Student demonstrations forced Chun to lift the ban on political assembly in 1984. The current debate on constitutional change, a topic which could not even be publicly broached in the past, was forced into the open by students. “Students are the only ones who dare to say that the emperor has no clothes,” said a professor who holds moderate views. “Without the students, we would have no opposition at all,” said another professor, who works for a government institution.

No wonder, then, that the government is always nervous about student power, especially when Kim Dae Jung threatens to use it, as he does frequently. But even Kim appears to have been left behind by the extremist tone of student demos since the violent rally in Inchon earlier this year. It has shocked many people normally sympathetic to student activism. And although extremist ideas are expressed by a minority, they make it easier for the government to drive a wedge between moderate opposition politicians and the radical demonstrators, leaving Kim somewhere in the middle, not quite knowing which way to turn. Extreme radicalism also makes it more difficult to mobilize large numbers of moderate students. Which makes it likely that future demonstrations will be smaller, but increasingly violent.

  1. 2

    See Amnesty International’s report, South Korea, Violations of Human Rights, Amnesty International Publications (1986).

  2. 3

    See the Far Eastern Economic Review (July 10, 1986), p. 40.

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