When times are bad, people tend to become amateur historians. We search for a point in history that resembles the present and ponder its consequences in order to foresee where we are going, although we know history does not always repeat itself.
Because people in power today talk much about “revolution,” I checked my mental archive to find when we last had a revolution. Korea had two “revolutions” in a little more than a year in the 1960s -- a student revolution in April 1960 and a military revolution in May 1961.
The bloody uprising of college students in Seoul, which left about 200 young students dead under police fire, brought down the Rhee Syngman regime after 12 years of its tight grip on power. The longtime opposition Democratic Party formed a government, but while the new ruling force was quickly weakened by internal strife, demonstrations by various interest groups put the nation into serious confusion; protesters even seized the National Assembly. Then there was a military takeover.
Former President Park Geun-hye celebrated her election on the night of Dec. 19, 2012, on a makeshift stage at Gwanghwamun Square. A little less than four years on from that glorious night, people gathered at the same place with candles in hand to denounce her misrule, as the plaza has become a Korean mecca for public protest.
Police statistics have revealed that 2,563 demonstrations took place in the Gwanghwamun area in 2017, showing an increase of 43 percent from the previous year. In the first nine months of this year, there were 1,769 protest rallies in the Jongno Ward, which includes Gwanghwamun Square and Cheong Wa Dae, disrupting traffic in the busiest part of the city.
These numbers refer only to those rallies that were duly reported to the Jongno Police Station as required by law, and do not include numerous small-scale ones.
Labor unions, especially the radical Minju Nochong or Korea Confederation of Trade Unions, are the most frequent occupants of Korea’s main public square. Troubled motorists and passengers in city buses and taxis are put to seemingly endless delays while the KCTU, Jeon Gyojo (Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union) and progressive party members wield flags and shout slogans. Many of those stuck in traffic suspect that police are generous to them because they are the backbone of support for the present Moon Jae-in government.
The Republic of Korea in 2018 is a paradise for demonstrators just as it was in 1960-61. Police have decided not to try to scatter demonstrating crowds unless they fully block streets for more than 30 minutes, whether at daytime or nighttime. Police officers have to pay for the medical costs of demonstrators who suffer injuries in clashes with police and successfully file damage suits against the state.
Today, autumnal skies are clear and high and chrysanthemum fragrance is everywhere in the parks, apartment gardens and office flower pots. Hills are burning with red foliage. But a thick gloom overcasts the nation.
If I would name Korea’s seven maladies, they are an economy in doldrums, youth in despair of the future, law enforcement that lacks impartiality, a complacent Cheong Wa Dae, a political opposition in tatters, the military devoid of fangs and claws and, most noticeably, the disorderliness in Gwanghwamun.
President Moon in his budget address to the National Assembly warned of the arrival of an extended period of low growth, but he confidently observed that the world still admired Korea’s economic achievements to date.
The problem with our president, elected with 41 percent support, is his determination to translate his campaign pledges into reality, neglecting a correct calculation of how many votes were cast for him because of the promises he made and how many from disappointment in the previous rotten conservative rule.
Out of sheer audacity, Moon announced the plan to make the Saemangeum tideland on the West Coast a huge bed of solar energy panels to replace nuclear power plants in compliance with an item in his platform drafted by aides on environmental issues. Already his reversal of the decision to scrap the construction of the Kori-5 and 6 reactors has caused losses of 100 billion won ($90 million) in tax money and the closure of Gori-1 and Wolseong-1 reactors will lead to substantial rises in public utility charges and darker air from the use of fossil fuel.
If the 13 million people who had voted for Moon in the snap election in May 2016 were asked whether they supported him because of his energy denuclearization platform, how many of them would say yes? It is never too late to review the entire anti-atomic energy policy now that so many negative effects from it have been exposed, ranging from industrial and technological losses to worsening air pollution.
Last week, we saw the new Supreme Court under Chief Justice Kim Myung-soo manifest its choice of liberal course in judgment when the entire 13-justice panel retracted an earlier ruling and handed down a final “not guilty” verdict for a conscientious objector. Now, any young man who claims to believe in the “Thou shalt not kill” commandment in his deep conscience shall be allowed an exemption from conscription if he is ready to serve twice the ordinary 18 months as an unarmed guard in a public institute.
In another court news, a district court judge issued an arrest warrant for the former deputy chief of the Court Administration Office accused of meddling in trials. It was a major step forward in the current prosecution drive, actually the Cheong Wa Dae campaign, to condemn former chief justice Yang Seung-tae for allegedly colluding with Park Geun-hye’s Cheong Wa Dae for judiciary support of her conservative administration.
Informal lists will now have to be made and circulated among lawyers, classifying individual judges by their ideological traits.
Korea’s new ruling force is waging war against what are branded as past wrongs, showing a great penchant for incarcerating likely suspects and searching individual properties. While chants for various political, social and cultural causes are ringing in Gwanghwamun Square, counterclaims have begun to gather force, adding to the confusion.
I object to calling the events around the ouster of Park Geun-hye a revolution, but admit that what we see at Gwanghwamun nowadays could qualify as the trash left behind from a revolution. History shows unpleasant records about how such trash has been cleared and who did the job, when we opened the chapter of the 1960s.
By Kim Myong-sik
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. – Ed.