With all the confusion and misreporting of the ongoing situation in South Korea these days, allow me to offer a commentary. After all, that is where I live. I hope to help readers sort out what is going on and better form opinions on the topic.
I feel that I have something worthwhile to contribute to the discussion of the Park Geun-Hye scandal and the protests going on in Seoul this weekend. I have been working and living in South Korea for around 9.5 years. During that time, I have stayed active as an advocate and adviser to fellow foreign teachers, and been in touch with the labour and peace movements, often going to meetings and participating in street demonstrations. I have thus stayed informed of national politics, labour movement activities and peace issues. With that credential, in addition to my history as a progressive activist based in Canada at an earlier time and connected to the international anti-imperialist movement since then, I want to offer a commentary on the current mass actions in Seoul.
There are many points to consider, which reflect the usual contradictions and competing interests of this modern tiger society and shifts taking place nationally and internationally. I have singled out 10 factors here. It helps to consider the interests and momentum of (1)the organized labour movements, (2) the break-ups and regrouping among conservative and liberal democratic political factions, (3)the policies and positions of the Park Geun-Hye regime, (4)US-South Korea relations, (5)South Korea-Japan relations, (6)the influence of developments in the US, (7)the South Korean economy, (8) rumours, (9)the media in South Korea, and (10)the overall situation of global instability and fear whose causes are manifold: terrorism, militarization, rivalry, economic turmoil, disillusionment with many of the arrangements and institutions of global monopoly capitalism such as the European Union and banking.
(1)Reports on the mass actions taking place in downtown Seoul this weekend have largely failed to report that it is labour day weekend (Nov. 13) and that the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions had already been engaging in an accelerated mobilization since mid-October leading up to a big demo on Saturday the 13th. The mobilization was nation-wide and many actions happened in several cities around the country. There have even been partial work stoppages. As an element of this mobilization, labour leaders were calling for the ousting of Park Geun- Hye before the scandal broke out. This year's mobilization follows the militant one of last year, after which Park Geun-Hye was strongly criticized for massive repression against union organizers by raiding their offices, using water canons, and taking legal action to imprison the President of the KCTU. A man recently died due to injuries sustained in a water canon attack of November, 2015. The KCTU was sentenced to 8 years in prison for leading the organization of the demonstrations at that time. Many factions of the democracy movement have been supporting the defense of the labour unions, rule of law and parliamentary democracy since late 2015.
(2)Because of an economic downturn, labour issues (including increasing use of irregular labour as well as the right to organize) concerns about democratic rule, militarization, and relations with the US and Japan have lead to growing dissatisfaction with the current Senuri Party government lead by President Park Geun-Hye. More recent events have fed the lingering concerns such as those surrounding the Sewol ship disaster, free trade agreements with the West, and tug-of-wars with the US. The dissatisfaction was expressed in the national election of the House of Representatives last April, when the Senuri Party lost many seats to the point where it lost majority rule. This political upset has broken up alliances and support within the Senuri Party and without. It has created space for new political developments and encouraged both radical progressives and right-wingers to take steps. No doubt that there is a power struggle surging within the Senuri, and the right and center-right in general.
(3)Park-Geun-Hye's policies have been questioned. The Korean people are afraid of an outbreak of war and always doubting the relations with the US, so the missile defense agreement and the installation of THAAD, the cooperation with Japan, plus the controversy over the US' demand that South Korea increase its share of paying for the participation of the US military at bases in South Korea (already at 40% of the US costs) have caused the public to worry. There is also disappointment with the back-pedaling on agreements with North Korea and set-backs in steps towards reunification. Meanwhile, the gap between rich and poor is growing and the availability of full-time work decreasing, but the voting public cannot see policies to address the crisis. Though a small national pension as well as a small childcare subsidy has been instituted, around half of the countries aged in this period of an aging population live in extreme poverty. Though South Korea is known for investment in higher education and a high rate of post-secondary participation, and the government since Lee Myung Bak initiated a clean-up and regularization of higher education, fewer graduates are finding full-time work suitable to their qualifications. In addition, the society is tired of corruption, and the few small steps taken by the current government are not enough for them. The fact that President Park and many of her associates are related or involved in Samsung, a conglomerate wracked by episodes of corruption year after year, does not help them.
(4)US-South Korea relations have been making more of the citizenry of South Korea nervous. Their regard for the US is always ambivalent, anyway. Though they generally have liked President Obama, they are proudly nationalistic and patriotic, and do not like too strong an influence or involvement of the US. Reverberations since the banking crisis of 2008 when Koreans experienced losses owing to the mutual investment in each other's economies, South Korea has been forced to consider building regional economic relations including relations with North Korea and China. At this time, the US is seen to be losing its strength and its leading role in the world slipping, which begs questions about reliance on the US as a major economic and military partner. The US' military activities in other parts of the world are also questioned, raising doubts about the US-SK military alliance at home.
(5)When President Park accepted the feeble apology of Japan's Prime Minister Abe for the treatment of the so-called "comfort women," and her own response was seen as feeble, many South Koreans felt disappointed. They are also wary of Japan's new military direction. As victims of the imperial Japan of the past, I wonder how they feel about military collaboration with Japan and Japanese overseas military deployment. Probably, they do not feel assured. Although many Koreas like Japanese culture and economic relations with Japan, I am sure that a military alliance is another matter.
(6)Elements to do with the US elections are influencing South Korea, in my opinion. Generally, US President-elect Trump is viewed unfavorably. He is a wild card who may be in a position to implement militarization and military aggression further. South Koreans are telling me how nervous they are about him and what he might do. They do not want war. Further to that, it could be that the anti-Trump protests have resonated with Koreans and inspired more participation in the anti-Park-Geun-Hye protests. On the other hand, of course, the extreme right may be quite encouraged by Trumps' political success and feeling less restrained about speaking their minds publicly and jumping at chances to secure the reins of control in Korea and elsewhere.
(7)Structural instability and changes worldwide inevitably reach South Korea, and South Koreans, who were feeling quite secure up until about 5 years ago, do not like this uncertainty. Unemployment is rising, as is poverty. Prices of food, housing, household goods and services have been climbing. Bankruptcies or business turnovers have been increasing, the most shocking case being the global container shipping giant, Hanjin. Hyundai heavy industries and auto manufacturing have been struggling to maintain output levels. As students and their families raise doubts about the education system and the potential to get the expected results in terms of jobs and quality of life, tuition feels have been rising around the country to the point where many are dropping out or deciding not to enroll. Given that inclination and the declining portion of the youth sector of the population, enrollments have been markedly subsiding. Economic uncertainty always causes political uncertainty.
(8)The rumours about Park are flying these days. The left propaganda as well as that of the right have been known to make up stories and engage in name-calling whenever opportunities to injure their opponents arise. It is no wonder, The news media being unreliable, and social media being prone to abuse, all kinds of misinformation and speculation are flying around. The Korean public is susceptible to rumours. This is an expected tendency in a society largely more driven by tradition and sentiment than rational thinking. Looking at the papers of many of my students, I have read many dubious comments about the Park Geun-Hye scandal erroneous claims such as one saying that her confident, Choi Sung-Sil is the daughter of Park's assassin, or another speculating that her IQ level must be extremely low because she has been taking advice from a religious fanatic. Of course, this is vicious heresay. I have heard speculation that President Park may be involved in a lesbian relationship, which is still mostly frowned upon in this country. Men in the right and left may resent a woman in a position as leader, although, in the past, their were reasons to support Park because of her family connection, her work for conservative politics and the advantages of influencing female voters. Now the resentment can voice itself, and misogyny and homophobia rage.
(9)The media is largely very conservative and press freedom is very much suppressed in South Korea. Therefore, little investigative reportage or critical editorializing is done. Speaking your mind and criticizing a President or giving any kind of indication that you might like unions or something about North Korea can get you thrown in jail quickly. If the press is saying negative things about President Park now, it is because factions among the establishment who influence and control the media, like rivaling clans and conglomerates, deliberately want to smash her support and send her packing. It is thus no doubt happy to engage in a campaign against her and spread nasty rumours. I find it highly suspicious that this scandal is being spread now, particularly because it seems that the insiders in the establishment and around Park probably have done similar things like embezzlement and misuse of government funds, and with regards to dubious relations with women, and because it seems that Park's relationship with Choi Sung-shil was probably no secret to them. It is a deliberate campaign to have her dumped on the part of all camps, left, center and right.
(10)The global situation is not looking good and it is inspiring fear and uncertainty everywhere. Things are getting chaotic. The norms of diplomacy, fair business and parliamentary democracy are breaking down. Right-wing fanaticism and terror are rising and wreaking havoc. Tensions and conflicts are accentuating. South Korea is just as affected as other countries.