“The Government of the Republic of Korea heartily welcomes you to this land and wishes you enjoy every hour of your trip. As you would already perceive, we are under continuous threats from the hostile forces which are deployed along the DMZ line only some 50 kilometers away from our capital city of Seoul. This fact requires us of keeping constant vigilance particularly against possible air-raid.”
(Civil Defense Guide for Foreign Tourists)
On a cold day this last November Colonel Schreuders returned to the spot where Chinese troops wiped out many of his men one early morning in 1951. Schreuders belonged to the Dutch battalion defending a bridge in Hoengsong, a small town about eighty miles from Seoul. The battle, forgotten by almost everybody but the survivors, cost seventeen lives, and the town was destroyed. Hoengsong is now a prosperous-looking place with supermarkets, cinemas, and fashion boutiques. The memorial to the Dutch commander who was killed by a hand grenade minutes after his guard shouted, “The Chinks are coming, look out!” lies in a playground. The colonel tried to find familiar landmarks with his old army map. He found none, apart from the lone steeple of an old church, which had been pulled down only days before he arrived. A South Korean veteran of the Dutch battalion made the motions of firing an imaginary gun. “I shot a lot of enemies here,” he said to the colonel, who did not appear to remember the man. A priest rang the bell in the steeple. A few children played with a plastic machine gun in the playground. A US Army tank battalion rolled through the town for regular maneuvers, and helicopters made dives for the river bank.
The colonel made a short speech, platitudinous but oddly moving, because it obviously meant so much to him. He told the town dignitaries how happy he was to see how well South Koreans had used “the freedom we all fought for.” I wondered what was going through the minds of the Koreans in the room. I thought of some of the statistics I had jotted down in my notebook that week: half a million North Korean soldiers just across the border; nearly 40,000 American troops in South Korea; 6.5 million US dollars worth of tear gas used by South Korean riot police against students during the last nine months.
Some twelve hundred students were arrested that week after a fierce battle with the police at Konkuk University in Seoul. Many of them had shouted North Korean propaganda slogans and claimed that the Korean War had been a national struggle for reunification crushed by Yankee imperialists. They set fire to effigies of Nakasone and Reagan. Many students expressed sympathy for the demonstrators’ feelings if not always for their most extreme aims. Tear gas hung in the air of virtually every campus in Seoul.
I was driven back to Seoul by the Korean veteran who shot many enemies. He was an animated man who spoke fluent Malay—not a good sign for a Korean of his age, for it probably meant he served as a camp guard in Malaya or Indonesia under the Japanese. I did not press the point. He expressed a great disgust for Americans. “They are very stupid people,” he said. “They should have won the Korean War. They had nuclear arms but were too soft to use them.” He clenched his fist and banged the steering wheel as he spoke. He declared that Americans could not fight because they were afraid of dying and because they ate candy. “They are soft, soft, soft!” he said and spat out the window. He then shifted to more familiar ground: how Korea had a superior culture to Japan; how the Japanese had tried to rob Koreans of their unique and superior culture; and how during bad times he had often asked God why he had to be born as a Korean. He expressed an even greater disgust for his ancestors than for Americans. “I hate my ancestors. They did nothing but fight among themselves and let the big powers take over our country.”
It is something one hears a lot in South Korea, this complex and sometimes explosive mixture of shame and chauvinism. The one, of course, stokes the flames of the other. There is a Korean word for pandering to foreign powers: “sadae chuui.” And Koreans are forever accusing one another of it. These accusations are not without reason, for Koreans have a long history of using outside powers to fight opponents at home. In the seventh century the Korean peninsula was unified for the first time, when the kingdom of Silla defeated the kingdoms of Koguryo and Paekche with the help of Chinese troops. (According to a history book published in North Korea, this treacherous act “cost the progress of Korean history very dearly”—Silla was in the south, Koguryo in the north.1 ) In the late nineteenth century Chinese and Japanese soldiers helped the Korean government put down a major popular rebellion.
The line between “pandering to” and depending on foreign powers simply to survive is of course a thin one, given Korea’s precarious geographical position between three major powers—China, Russia, and Japan. For much of its history the survival of a unified Korean state depended on the patronage of one power—China. By the same token, shifts in the power balance around the Korean peninsula led to divisions inside the country. In the late nineteenth century there were pro-Russian factions in Korea, pro-Japanese factions, and pro-Chinese factions, all accusing each other of selling out.
Today, North Korea calls the South a toadying puppet of the United States. In the late 1940s leftists accused rightists of having been Japanese collaborators during the colonial period. North Korea claimed to be the legitimate heir of Korean destiny by pointing to the Beloved Leader Kim Il Sung, a former anti-Japanese guerrilla fighter. The South, whose government, army, and police force were indeed full of former Japanese collaborators, said Kim Il Sung owed his exalted position to his mentors in the Soviet Union. Critics of President Park Chung Hee used to delight in using the Japanese name—Matsumoto—which he adopted as an officer in the Japanese Imperial Army. People who dislike the most prominent opposition leader, Kim Dae Jung, were especially appalled when he turned up in Seoul last year shielded by American congressmen and reporters, ostensibly to avoid the same fate as “Ninoy” Aquino.
Kim himself put the sadae chuui syndrome rather well in one of his letters from prison:
How can we avoid the sin of those who led this nation to destruction when the Yi dynasty was losing to the Japanese aggressors or the sin of our ancestors who lent cowardly cooperation by simply looking on? Let us remind ourselves that liberation from Japanese colonialism was not attained by our own strength and that there were many pro-Japanese elements at that time. After liberation, did our national spirit stand on solid ground, cleansing itself of pro-Japanese elements and pushing the patriots to the fore? The sin of this kind of betrayal of the legitimacy of our nation has since become the karma that suppresses all the regions of this country. It has made empty slogans of conscience, justice, and patriotism and has made the country a playground for those who would use any means to attain their ends, those motivated by devilish and selfish intents. How can we escape punishment for these sins? We should gladly accept it.
This is typical of the tone of Kim’s prison letters, which are not very well written, and rather clumsily translated—Chinese and Japanese names, incidentally, are often mispelled: Who is the famous Japanese novelist Majima Yukio? But the Prison Writings are fascinating nonetheless, for the light they throw on Kim’s very Korean mind. Kim is a devout Catholic. Again and again in his prison letters he compares his plight to that of Jesus Christ. He sees himself as much more than just a politician; he is the true patriot bearing the cross put on his shoulders by treacherous toadies; which should make him the only legitimate leader of his country.
Because of the deep division running through the Korean peninsula, legitimacy is a particularly acute problem. Both halves of the divided Korean peninsula wish to be recognized as the true, legitimate Korea. South Korea has the added problem that since 1945 it has been divided internally. Left-wing opposition could only be contained by President Syngman Rhee in the 1950s and, later, by Park Chung Hee, by resorting to the kind of military authoritarianism imposed before by the Japanese. Rhee legitimized his rule by strong anti-Japanese and anti-communist rhetoric. Park, who took power in a military coup in 1961, tried to justify his regime by holding presidential elections in 1971, in which he barely managed to beat Kim Dae Jung. But the main justification was his goal of fast economic modernization. His success gave him a large degree of legitimacy in the eyes of his countrymen, who, by and large, were willing to sacrifice political freedoms for order and prosperity. But the same success made his political style seem outdated. It no longer fitted a more complex and sophisticated society with a rising middle class. Park’s response to the growing opposition, which erupted in sometimes violent street demonstrations, was harsher repression instead of compromise. It is commonly believed that this was one of the reasons that Kim Jae Kyu, then head of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA), assassinated Park in October 1979. Kim favored a more conciliatory approach to oppositionists. And indeed during the first few months after Park’s death there was sufficient optimism for people to speak of a “Seoul Spring.”
Chun Doo Hwan, who took power in a military coup in 1980, was hardly the kind of man of whom to expect political tolerance or compromise, more in tune with Korea’s increasing complexity. Chun had been a paratrooper and head of the powerful Defense Security Command. In 1980 he was made head of the KCIA, from which he purged his potential and real rivals for alleged corruption. As was the case during an earlier “Seoul Spring,” in 1960, after student demonstrators had toppled Syngman Rhee, more political freedom led to more demonstrations, fighting among opposition leaders, more violence in the streets, in short, just the kind of social disorder military leaders itch to put right. When Kim Young Sam, the leader of the opposition party, opposed Kim Dae Jung’s candidacy for president, their respective followers fought each other like gangsters. Kim Dae Jung finally tried to rally radical students behind his cause. This was the background to the violent uprising of May 1980 in Kwangju, the main city of southern Cholla Province, where Kim had—still has—most of his political support. The revolt was crushed by Chun Doo Hwan’s troops. The government claims that fewer than two hundred people died; Kim’s supporters speak of up to two thousand. Three months later Chun became president, and on September 17 Kim was sentenced to death for sedition and leading an antistate organization. The sentence still stands.
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.
As so often in Korea—or, indeed, Japan—extremism seems to be more emotional than rational. When asked what the intellectual basis of the protest movement was, whether there was some philosophy, ideology, even faith, propagated by charismatic mentors, Korean counterparts of Marcuse or Angela Davis, people gave vague answers. Some mentioned economic “dependency theory,” others mentioned articles by purged Korean professors who had studied in the US. Radio Pyongyang broadcasts are apparently copied. But the most pervasive influence appears to come from Japan: Marxist texts, often written by Japanese intellectuals in the early 1930s, and handbooks compiled by the Japanese student movement in the 1960s offering instruction on how to build barricades and what to say under police interrogation. It is yet another example of borrowing foreign ideas—secondhand at that—to oppose the government at home.
But the ideas, though of foreign origin, may come to mean something rather different once they are transplanted in Korean soil. Students refuse to compromise on principles of democracy, for that would sully the moral purity which legitimized their role as the conscience of the nation. Just how they define those principles is less clear than their almost talismanic adherence to the word itself: “democracy.” The government claims to believe in democracy too, but the official concept of the word is often as vague and as uncompromising as that of the students: anybody who speaks out against the government is quickly regarded as “undemocratic,” if not “communist.”
Kim Dae Jung talks about democracy constantly, but one searches his prison letters in vain for a definition beyond moral platitudes: “Democracy is government by the people….It is the politics in which the people grow.” In fact, everything in Kim’s writings points to a very Korean concept of politics. The right to rule belongs to the man of virtue: his legitimacy, his Mandate of Heaven, so to speak, lies in his benevolence. Kim calls this democracy, but it has little to do with the Western concept of the term, which implies sharing power, compromise, and legal checks and balances. It is nice to think of him as an American-style democrat, but it is also dangerously naive.4 For his kind of democracy, however benevolent in intention, quickly veers into authoritarianism when it is opposed by those regarded as less virtuous, or indeed if it is opposed at all.
One suspects that the current debate between the NKDP and the ruling DJP over the desirability of direct presidential elections versus parliamentary elections is less about democratic principles than a matter of pure politics. Kim, a gifted and charismatic campaigner, would benefit from presidential elections; the government feels safer with a parliament it can at least partly control. It is difficult to tell what the majority of Korean voters wants. A petition campaign for direct presidential elections was cracked down on in February 1986 by a nervous government before it could show anything conclusive (only two hundred signatures had been collected). Both Kim Young Sam and Kim Dae Jung were put under house arrest.
“I hate America,” said one campus activist. Why? “Because America stops democracy in Korea.” Why does America want to do that? “I don’t know.” One is frequently told—by Kim Dae Jung, among others—that only with democracy in South Korea can the Korean peninsula be reunified. A variation of this is that true democracy can only come once reunification is achieved. This is presumably what the man who hates America means: with reunification the Americans can go home and democracy will no longer be stopped.
According to the American scholar Gregory Henderson,5 Korean student protest, based upon purist interpretations of foreign ideas, goes back to the fifteenth century. Students at the National Academy, sons of the administrative elite, regarded Buddhism, with its emphasis on religious merit, as hopelessly outdated, and favored Confucianism as a state ideology stressing public morals. They supported “the extreme Confucianist reforms of the young official Cho Kwang-jo, and when he fell in the purge of 1519, they ‘forced their way through the gates of the palace compound and carried to the very door of the king’s residence their lamentations and protestations that the accused was innocent.”‘6
It would be dangerous historicism simply to substitute “democracy” for neo-Confucianism, and Kim Dae Jung for Cho Kwang-jo, but the principle of student protest is similar: in the fifteenth century (Henderson writes) “students played active political roles in supporting ‘justice,’ often in terms of the theory and dogma of a political system artificially adopted from a ‘superior’ nation.”
The feeling that Korea is inferior because it does not match up to the abstract ideals acquired through foreign learning is made worse by the officially encouraged practice of constantly comparing South Korea to the most advanced countries of the world, in particular with Japan and the United States. This is combined with an equally official antidote: a continuous campaign to be patriotic, to be proud of the unique Korean culture, the rather doubtful five thousand years of history, the unique Korean spirit, the best and most difficult language in the world, and so on and so forth. This is hammered home in the newspapers, where earnest students win official approval by expressing such sentiments as this:
Now is the time to see the renaissance of our own spirit among college students who have blindly sought Western styles for a long time. Should a thought like mine occur in every student’s mind, we could succeed in achieving the spirit of our ancestors. When these traditional values once again take form, the development of our nation will be realized.
Roughly the same message is propagated through institutions like the Academy of Korean Studies, set up, in the words of President Chun, to “focus its educational activity on suggesting the sense of national value which all persons should maintain as advanced citizens.” It is celebrated in folk custom contests, held in baseball stadiums, where people dressed as farmers or fishermen, transported in fake fishing boats on wheels, perform folk dances en masse. One such folk dance, the Sodongpae, was traditionally performed by young boys. It is now practiced by a group of old men, the only ones who remember how to do it.
The traditional spirit is promoted in an artificial folk village outside Seoul, where men and women in traditional costumes apply themselves to traditional crafts and stage traditional wedding parades and perform traditional dances. Much of this folk revivalism was initiated by President Park Chung Hee for political reasons. He liked to foster the “particular ethics of the Korean people who have never quite separated the idea of the individual and the state.” It was his way of defining Korean democracy.
Some people get so carried away with folkishness that it dominates their daily lives. This is not necessarily inspired by the government; it goes deeper than that. A sophisticated magazine editor in Seoul pointed his steel chopstick at a bowl of fish on the table of a traditional Korean restaurant. The bowl was not Korean enough for him: it was influenced by the Japanese style. The editor explained how he grew up in a small village in the 1940s. He worshiped modern Japanese houses with electric lights. He was ashamed of thatched Korean roofs. His schoolteacher, playing Western songs taught by the Japanese on a brand new organ, seemed like a deity. He was ashamed of hearing his family sing Korean songs. But when he grew up he saw the error he had made. And “as a form of repentence for my shame, I revived folk songs and I edit a magazine which is truly Korean, with Korean subjects written in a Korean style.” He lives in a Korean house, with nothing but Korean furniture, where he eats Korean food and drinks Korean tea in the old Korean manner. I cannot read his magazine, so I asked a student what she thought of it. She said it was “not sincere.”
The official Korean spirit can hardly be convincing to the tens of thousands of students sitting in coffee shops flipping through Japanese fashion magazines, discussing American films. The gap between their intellectual ideals and the spiritual straitjacket of government propaganda is too painfully obvious. They can read Nietzsche and Tolstoy, but not an independent newspaper they can trust. Official exhortations, gold medals, and folk dances are inadequate to mask the gulf between rising expectations and reality. How to define and channel those expectations? How to bridge the gap? A Confucian education system stressing rote learning of “correct” facts makes students singularly ill-equipped to deal with the dilemma. The facts disseminated by the government as the correct line are so widely disbelieved that students look to the opposite extreme.
In their zeal for purity, students can be as Confucian as government bureaucrats: something is either absolutely correct or absolutely false. If one decides that the government is the purveyor of falsehood, then the opposite must be true, hence the North Korean slogans. Hence the student who says, in all seriousness, “We have tried capitalism, why can’t we try communism, so we know what it is like?” Moderate professors, who do not like the present regime any more than their students do, complain that they can no longer reason with the radical students. Pure emotion has indeed taken over. One professor put it like this: “I am often asked by my students whether violence is justified. If I say no, they think I am being paid by the government. If I say yes, I lose my job. What can I do? Talk about Jesus?”
A female student wrote in her English-language school newspaper:
In reality it is a really difficult task for us to keep and cultivate truth and purity deep in our heart. The distance between the real and the ideal worlds puts ourselves in embarrassment. Modern mechanized civilization urges us to be skeptical about the significance of our existence. Hypocrisy and corruption in our inner world lay us in exasperation and discouragement.
It is the kind of exasperation that leads to neurotic forms of rebellion. The tension between shame and chauvinism explodes in Molotov cocktails and extremist fantasies. It is one way of salvaging self-esteem. The government’s response, according to a senior Education Ministry official, will be
more moral and anticommunist education for students attending elementary and secondary schools…. This intensified anticommunist education will help students acquire correct knowledge and information about North Korean communism.
The psychological underside of sadae chuui is an emotion Koreans like to claim as uniquely theirs, called han. One Korean professor described it as “a deep awareness of the contradictions in a situation and of the unjust treatment meted out to the people or a person by the powerful. And this feeling of han is not just a one-time psychological response to a situation but is an accumulation of such feelings and experiences.”
The main focus of han is of course Japan. It is easy to see why. Many historical sites in Korea, especially Buddhist temples, have a conspicuous sign telling the visitor how soldiers of Hideyoshi’s invasion army destroyed the original building in 1592. The results of the second wave of Japanese domination of Korea, which began in the last decade of the nineteenth century and was consolidated by formal annexation in 1910, are even more apparent. Japanese colonialism in Korea was a mixture of brutal military rule and a mission civilatrice, of callous exploitation and remarkably efficient economic modernization. Of these elements it was the civilizing mission that hurt the Koreans most. Being forced to adopt Japanese names, bow to the emperor, worship at Shinto shrines, learn Japanese, they rightly saw as assaults on the Korean cultural identity. Centuries of learning to be more civilized than the Japanese by being “purer” adherents of the culture of the Chinese metropole were undone.
Most painful of all was the fact that much of the Korean elite was recruited by the Japanese rulers and, within strict limits, benefited from Japanese modernization. This aspect of the past is being deleted from the national memory: there is little mention in South Korean textbooks of the extensive pro-Japanese movement, the Ilchinhoe, in the first decade of this century, described by Gregory Henderson as “Korea’s first successful political party.” Instead there are many pages emphasizing “National Suffering.” When a Japanese brings up the subject of Korean ambivalence and collaboration, as the former education minister Fujio did recently in a rather crude manner, it is met with outrage in South Korea. Fujio had to resign. Japanese education left such a mark on educated Koreans now in their fifties and sixties that hating the Japanese seems also to mean hating part of themselves. To wipe out the national shame young South Koreans must oppose their fathers and grandfathers, who compromised their purity.
A schoolmaster of about sixty kindly offered to help as my interpreter in Kwangju. We spoke in Japanese. I am always a little embarrassed to have to communicate with Koreans in Japanese; it is like using Russian to get around in Poland. But he did not seem to mind. He told me how he had been dragged off to Japan in 1941 to work in a factory in Nagoya. Koreans were treated like animals, he said. When the factory was bombed by the Americans, Japanese got clothes and rice rations, while Koreans were left to fend for themselves. He ended up in a camp, where he was half starved and regularly beaten by bullying guards. There were tears in his eyes as he told his story, but after a moment of silence he cheered up and asked about a Japanese film star popular during the war. He had loved her films. Was she still alive? And what about Hasegawa Kazuo or Iriye Takako or Yamaguchi Yoshiko? It was somewhat as if a Jewish former inmate of a German camp had asked after Emil Jannings or Zarah Leander. He complained about the price of subscribing to Japanese periodicals these days. He loved Japanese literature, which he preferred to Korean books. He apologized profusely, to me, a European, for his rusty Japanese.
Koreans try to hide or blot out the Japanese past in a number of symbolic ways. The old Japanese capitol building, built in the shape of the first of two Chinese characters that we translate as “Japan,” was erected by the Japanese right in front of the royal palace in Seoul. After the Japanese left, an old Korean gate was put up in front of the capitol, to obscure it from the public view. After much debate whether the capitol should be pulled down it was decided to turn it into the National Museum instead. This seemed sensible until the latest controversy: one of the murals in the building depicts an old Japanese legend. It will have to be deleted somehow, just as a number of handsome cherry-blossom trees had to be uprooted recently from a palace garden when it became known that they were planted by the Japanese.
But no matter how hard Koreans try to blot it out, Japan keeps on rearing its head. Modern Seoul looks more like Tokyo every day. Not only are the police force, the military, and the bureaucracy modeled after the prewar Japanese system, but Japanese modernity is to be seen everywhere. Magazine and newspaper layouts follow the Japanese pattern. Even the various forms of “Westernization” are often filtered through Japan: the coffee shops, fashion, popular music, TV shows, baseball. The only two habits that are recognizably American in Korea are the chewing of gum and the regretable use of mayonnaise on salads—and even that may have come from Japan. There can be few peoples in the world so influenced by a country they profess to hate so much. The Japanese have a large cultural center in Seoul. Many Koreans make use of its facilities. But it must be guarded day and night, lest feelings of han get out of control.
The sense of historical victimhood, the constant undercurrent of resentment, quickly leads to neurotic xenophobia. There is a book widely read by students, written by Paek Ki Won, entitled (literally translated) “Theory of the Racial Anti-Japanese Struggle.” It is, as the title implies, mostly an anti-Japanese diatribe. But in the chapter on reunification of the Korean peninsula the discussion becomes antiforeign in a much wider sense. The chapter is addressed to the author’s mother, who was separated from him during the Korean War.
Mother, why did we have to suffer for so long? We went out to buy a pair of football boots and never saw each other again. Why did this happen? Our simple love has been smashed. Mother, who is our common enemy? It is those damned foreigners!… When the unified life of our country is cut in two, our race will cease to exist. Our race can no longer contribute to the development of world history. On the contrary, our country will be like a nail stuck into the flow of history. Mother, who will be happiest about this and use it to their advantage? Those damned foreigners!
During a campus riot at Korea University in Seoul I asked a student whether he spoke English. “This is Korea, you must speak Korean!” he screamed and stomped off. Some of his friends were more forthcoming. They explained why they thought reunification was not just desirable but inevitable: The Vietnamese did it, so why can’t we? I pointed out the sad plight of southern Vietnamese today. “That won’t happen to us. We are strong people.” How can the two economic and political systems be reconciled? “Nationalism!”
These students were not voicing sympathy for communism. They did not even seem especially radical. But they were tired of government propaganda and tired of having foreign troops running all over their country, defending them against people to whom they still feel emotionally tied. This may be naive, and such feelings may not yet be shared by the majority of South Koreans. But there is a problem here which cannot be solved simply by “restoring democracy” under Kim Dae Jung. Kim looks every foreign reporter in the eye and says how much he likes America. He expresses his worries about the students and claims that only he can do something about their growing anti-Americanism. Some of his followers in Kwangju, where a student uprising was violently crushed in 1980 by Korean troops backed, the students claim, by the US Eighth Army command, made the threat more emphatic: If the US does not help us topple this government and restore democracy, we will end up like South Vietnam.
A more liberal civilian government would certainly be better. It would give people more political responsibility and thus more of a stake in national affairs. People who actually profess to like the present regime are hard to find. Most want to see the soldiers return to their barracks. But a Philippine-style People Power revolt is unlikely. If there is one thing the middle class fears more than military crackdowns it is disorder. This would not only pose a security risk vis-à-vis the North, but it would interfere with business, which is making people better off all the time. One cannot wish the threat from North Korea away, or the formidable political force of the military. No civilian government could survive without military backing, which makes a takeover by Kim Dae Jung virtually impossible. Expansion of freedom is more likely to result from compromise than from confrontation, Kim’s usual tactic.
Kim provides good copy for journalists eager to meet a democratic hero battling an evil dictatorship, but he is resented by many opposition figures who say that by dominating his party behind the scenes he stands in the way of younger leaders with a better chance of forming a workable government. This is why the respected Catholic primate, Cardinal Kim, has asked him to let go of his ambitions. Kim Dong Gil, an influential history professor jailed by President Park for demanding the restoration of free speech and press, said both Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam should get out of the way and go fishing.
Anxiety about social disorder is such in South Korea that even under a purely civilian government freedoms would be limited. While practice of torture is obviously intolerable in any civilized state, one should point out that even the Japanese police are wont to beat prisoners to get confessions or apologies. This unpleasant aspect of Confucian authoritarianism is not likely to disappear soon from either society. But at least a civilian government could tolerate a freer press and generally create a less regimental atmosphere. Would this automatically curb extremism and anti-Americanism, as the two Kims say? Only up to a point. Trade disputes will continue to feed an anti-American mood, often encouraged by the government itself. When South Korea finally allowed a 1 percent quota of American cigarettes on the domestic market, there were huge nationalist demonstrations against this move. And there remains the fundamental problem of the dependence of a sophisticated people on foreigners to defend them against a country with which they wish ultimately to be united. Even Kim agrees that a high degree of vigilance is necessary toward the North at the same time that any discussions of reunification take place. Are Olympic medals, anti-communist leagues, and folk dance contests enough to satisfy nationalist aspirations? One would think not.
As for extremism, a potentially dangerous situation is made worse by the growth of an intellectual Lumpenproletariat. There are too many universities, producing too many graduates who cannot be absorbed by the economy. This year 154,000 graduates and 50,000 repeaters will be looking for jobs. An estimated 39 percent will find one (a figure compiled by the Financial Aid Section of Chonnam University in Kwangju). Among the unemployed are many former campus radicals, kicked out of their universities for not attending lectures or barred from suitable jobs because of their political records. These people no longer have much stake in defending a system from which they feel isolated. They go underground or work in factories, where they try to organize antigovernment activities among their fellow workers. For them rebellion is no longer a matter of youthful purity or ritualistic posturing, it is a way of life.
What about Kim Dae Jung’s rebellion? Is that still a way of life, or has it been reduced, after years in prison, house arrest, and exile, to publicizing his cause? He has promised not to stand as candidate if the government accepts direct presidential elections, but few people take his promise at face value. The last time I saw him, in November 1986, he was on his way to a forty-eight-hour sitin demonstrating at the office of the Council for Promotion of Democracy. The strike was a protest against the forced disbanding of a dissident organization called the People’s Movement for Democracy and Unification.
The sit-in consisted of several dozen men in blue suits, wearing Japanese-style headbands emblazoned with battle slogans as an expression of their resolve to fight for democracy. They gave speeches and sang songs. Kim’s attendance would have done the government little harm.
Nonetheless, his car was stopped by three police cars in the center of Seoul. Kim declared that he would rather face jail than be forced to go back home. American and Japanese TV crews arrived on the scene, as did several opposition members of parliament who linked arms and looked fiercely into the cameras. Local TV crews were chased away as “government toadies.” The members of Kim’s entourage, tough men in suits, sat down around the car and shouted at the policemen. Traffic in one of the busiest intersections in Seoul was completely paralyzed. At least three hundred riot policemen turned up in armored vans. For three hours nobody moved except the camera crews. Office workers peered at the scene from their ultramodern buildings.
Then the police decided enough was enough and one by one Kim’s supporters were dragged into the police vans, kicking and screaming about freedom and democracy. Kim decided that enough was enough too, made the V-sign to the cameras, and was escorted home. Had he made a small dent in the wall of steely authoritarianism? Or was it yet another turn in the continuing cycle of confrontation-met-with-overkill that makes Korean politics so exasperating? Perhaps both, but I could not help suspecting that the latter possibility was the stronger one. For South Korea to reach political maturity, somebody must break this cycle. That person seems unlikely to be Kim Dae Jung.
January 29, 1987
Quoted by Aidan Foster-Carter in the Far Eastern Economic Review (October 2, 1986). ↩
See Amnesty International’s report, South Korea, Violations of Human Rights, Amnesty International Publications (1986). ↩
See the Far Eastern Economic Review (July 10, 1986), p. 40. ↩
For an example of one who sees Kim in precisely this light, see James North’s article in the November 3, 1986 issue of The New Republic. ↩
Korea: The Politics of the Vortex by Gregory Henderson (Harvard University Press, 1968). ↩
Henderson quotes from Edward W. Wagner, “The Literati Purges,” an unpublished dissertation (Harvard University, 1960). ↩