“I know […] that the way of human beings is not in their control, that mortals as they walk cannot direct their steps.”
– The Bible, Jeremiah 10, v. 23
A few days ago, I visited the National Assembly Building with my father. This is the place where all the high ranking politburo apparatchiks of Korea convene to pretend to pass laws while secretly scheming their power games. An old friend of my father’s happened to be the chairman of some very high parliament bureau of something very very important. As chance would have it, this influential and well-known politician – let’s call him Chairman Kim – was the first Korean politician to have his picture taken with Barack Obama – Senator Obama, that is – way back in 2004. For normal folks, it was apparently next to impossible to arrange a meeting with Chairman Kim. But not for my father, who had his cell phone number. As I said, they were old friends.
The reason we were here was not to talk about the weather and the beauty of the Swiss Alps (although we talked about that, too), but because another acquaintance of my father’s – let’s call him Professor Lee – was running for office and hoped to be elected to a newly created position within parliament that dealt with internal matters of expert ratification of special amendments to legislative procedures (or something in that vein). He had run a successful campaign and was one of the three remaining candidates still in consideration for the post. Chairman Kim and Professor Lee had never met, and my father had offered to introduce the two gentlemen to one other. Shake hands, exchange business cards, give the other guy a good stare, that kind of thing. Professor Lee was eager to meet Chairman Kim, who in turn had offered to put in a good word to the House Speaker for Professor Lee, in the hopes of improving his chances for nomination to the post. That’s networking for you.
Having nothing better to do, I accompanied my father and Professor Lee. Once we arrived at the National Assembly Building, we located the main entrance for visiting folk and passed through security and metal detectors and after explaining the reason for our visit to the receptionist, received badges in exchange for our identity cards. Chairman Kim’s office was located on the fifth floor. The three of us took an elevator, which was guarded by men in suits with poker faces. They were so busy maintaining their stiff expressions that they didn’t even bother to check our badges. As we got out and made our way down the hallway, our foot steps echoed sharply on the linoleum floor of the unusually broad corridor while we passed overstaffed offices manned by several gentlemen in suits and ties being officially official. Good thing I was dressed accordingly, had I shown up in my usual jeans and hooded jacket, these people would have probably excommunicated me from the premises. We reached our goal and were greeted by the secretary and shown to the waiting room. The waiting room also functioned as an office for Chairman Kim’s aides, four of which were furiously working away in their whimsical cubicles while we sat on the sofas in the middle of the room. The coffee table was overflowing with broadsheets and hefty magazines dealing with current affairs and the air in the room smelt busy and overworked. Being the only guests, we waited a couple of minutes while everyone around us was most certainly not waiting for anything other than finishing time. And then the door to the Chairman’s office opened, and out walked four guys in dark suites who bid their formal goodbyes while the Chairman himself bowed first to them and then to us, beckoning us inside. My father introduced the Professor and me to him and we shook hands.
Chairman Kim’s office – which he had to himself – was shockingly enormous, it was at least three times the size of the tiny antechamber that the four aides shared. Bookcases lined the walls, and about ten sets of bulging obese sofa chairs occupied the center of the room, separated by heavy muscular wooden tables with glass surfaces. Each piece of furniture probably weighed at least half a ton. Bright green wall-to-wall carpeting covered the floor. Chairman Kim’s sturdy desk was at the the far end, a shiny gold plated Korean flag post dutifully keeping watch over everything. The interior design of this room was tasteless and tacky, seething with bombast. But this was the kind of office that all public officials in Korea were more or less entitled to once they had reached a certain rank, and although Chairman Kim likely had little say in how his room should be decorated, he had most certainly reached that rank. The ridiculous furniture served to remind you, lest you forget.
I sank into the ocean that was my seat and we had just about started the salutatory exchange of pleasantries when the secretary walked in with four cups of steaming green tea on a silver tray. After handing us a cup each, she promptly exited the room. Assuming this was the usual ritual for guests, Chairman Kim must have been drinking a lot of tea. Professor Lee and Chairman Kim immediately talked business. During the course of the conversation, it became increasingly clear that despite all appearances and indications to the contrary, even the mighty Chairman’s sphere of influence had its limits. The direct authority concerning the position of interest was in the hands of another man – namely, the House Speaker, who was an important figure in the ruling conservative Grand National Party. Chairman Kim was a member of the left-leaning Democratic Party, the principal opposing force in the Korean government. And although his opinion carried some weight in parliament, the matter at hand was not an issue in which he had much say. It went further: in all likelihood, the person to fill the position that Professor Lee was seeking had already been decided in advance by high ranking members of the Grand National Party, behind closed doors. In fact, the public nomination and vetting and whatever it was that had been announced probably amounted to little more than a charade. This whole affair had been an inside job from the very beginning, everything had been prearranged. Neither Chairman Kim nor Professor Lee were oblivious to this fact, yet they went through the motions and played by the rules like everyone else. It was an open secret that there was little else they could do, for the rules were made by those higher up in the political food chain than any of them.
As our conversation touched other subjects, the issue of my impending military enrollment arose. My father inquired if there was anything that could be done, considering how I had lived for such a long time overseas and that my Korean language skills were accordingly lacking. Chairman Kim reached to press a button on the side of his desk. Three seconds later, his secretary came in. The Chairman asked her to call in one of his aides. Four seconds later, said aide appeared. The Chairman explained the basic situation and told the aide to check the procedures regarding military conscription for so and so case. The aide bowed and exited the room. As we continued our conversation, a different aide knocked shortly afterward and came to whisper something into Chairman Kim’s ear. The Chairman listened attentively and then barked some orders to the aide, who bowed and promptly made himself scarce. Meanwhile, the first aide came back into the room and declared that the matter was difficult, as Korean law did not explicitly provision for cases such as my own. The Chairman then told the aide to contact the Department of Military Manpower and Resources Management (or whatever it is called) and directly ask the people there about it. I did not get my hopes up too high, however. It turned out that the military conscription issue is grounded not only in law but in the Korean constitution itself. There was practically no such thing as an exception – cases like mine did not, legally speaking, exist. It seemed to me that the answer to my situation had also been prearranged.
Meanwhile, an hour had passed already and it was time for us to leave. Chairman Kim was on a tight schedule (as always), the participants of his next meeting were already waiting outside. We bowed and bid the Chairman farewell, he promised to get back to me concerning the military issue. As we walked down the hallway from the office, I wasn’t sure what to make of what I had witnessed that day. We got on the elevator and on our way down, the doors opened on the fourth floor but nobody got in. In the few seconds while the door was open, we could see outside and into the hallway. It didn’t look much different from the floor above save for one strikingly visible exception: the place was lined with glass showcases displaying models of warships, fighter jets and tanks, all of them meticulously detailed and lovingly arranged. It could not have been more obvious what this floor housed: the Department of Defence. “Oh, wrong floor”, remarked Professor Lee and pressed the ‘close door’ button, abruptly ending what seemed to be a glimpse of my probable future. We rode the lift down in silence.