“I work for a Government I despise for ends I think criminal.”
– John Maynard Keynes
On 20 January of this year, the day Barack Obama was inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States, there was a serious incident in Seoul at a housing complex in Yongsan. The area was due for redevelopment, some apartments and houses were to be completely torn down, and the government was evicting and relocating residents, many against their will. Negotiations in other areas had broken down and a group of residents in Yongsan – angry that the compensation they were being offered by the government was less than adequate – refused to yield and barricaded themselves inside a housing complex. On that morning, after a mere 25 hours of protest, police and SWAT teams raided the building before dawn, while the residents fought back with Molotov cocktails. It ended in tragedy: a fire erupted in the building, resulting in six casualties, a police officer among the dead.
In the following weeks, huge demonstrations were held in the city, angry protesters and sympathisers gathered by the thousands, mourning the loss of lives and demanding that the chief of the Yongsan Police Station be held accountable for the tragedy. This was the man who on that January morning, had ordered what was widely perceived as a hasty and irresponsibly dangerous raid. He was hand picked by the Korean president Lee Myung Bak himself to be the next commissioner general of the National Police Agency. There is a lot more to be said about the details of the Yongsan incident, with evidence (video footage, police audio recordings, eye witness reports) suggesting police misconduct on various levels, from the unauthorised employment of third party contractors to do some of the dirty work on the police’s behalf, to the alleged burning of tires in the building which may have caused or intensified the fire which led to the deaths. Despite these alarming indications, an initial investigation by the prosecutor’s office cleared the police of any wrongdoing. Predictably, neither the public nor the opposition parties in parliament are buying this, and vehement calls for further investigations have been made.
It is a sad fact that this incident is but the latest manifestation of a much deeper problem , one that is fundamentally unsettling and profoundly ugly. To put it bluntly, the tragedy at Yongsan and the ensuing revolt are prime examples of the consequences of abuse of executive power at the highest levels of office – a trauma which has plagued Korea since the military dictatorship of Park Chung Hee back in the 1970s and which haunts the national psyche to this day. When current Korean president Lee Myung Bak from the conservative Grand National Party was sworn into office less than a year ago, he was greeted by a public disappointed with the previous ten year liberal rule under which the nation had underperformed economically. Now, Lee’s approval ratings are hovering at around 28%, at one point sinking as low as 17%, – numbers which cry the tears and screams of disillusionment and anger. But what else could you expect from a president who goes by the nickname “the Bulldozer”, who likes to govern from the top, passing laws and issuing executive orders in an authoritarian manner that may have been appropriate in the business world of Hyundai Construction (of which he was once CEO) but that does not resonate with today’s zeitgeist of democracy and civil liberty? From the unilateral decision to resume American beef imports in the hope of facilitating the proposed U.S.-Korean Free Trade Agreement, to controversial cabinet appointments and hand-picked placements in institutions of power which valued loyalty over merit (remember the police chief?); from indications of interfering with the press to cast himself and his policies in a more favourable light, to the authorisation of excessive police force which triggered official protests from Amnesty International – even at this juvenile stage of his presidency, with each passing day it is becoming clearer that Lee Myung Bak’s legacy won’t be pretty. Granted, his transgressions hardly reach the severity of former dictator Park Chung Hee’s crimes against humanity but the Yongsan incident serves as yet another reminder of the blood stained struggle for democratisation in this country. We have come a long way since, no doubt, but the all too familiar pattern is horribly alive today: the government decides, the people protest, the government fights the people, the people protest even more – this vicious cycle has seen a sinister rebirth in modern Korea.
Yesterday, on my way to visit my grandmother and other relatives, I passed through central Seoul where riot police were gathered in various strategic locations by the hundreds, if not thousands, in anticipation of further demonstrations. One commanding officer, when he saw that I was taking pictures of the amassed police, ran towards me, shaking his hand, motioning me to stop. But before I did, I caught a good glimpse of these nameless government agents, looked the individuals in the eye. Most of these police officers were men in their early twenties, many of them were bespectacled, their faces young, delicate even. As they waited in the cold, some sitting on their helmets, others standing in formation, I realised this: these young men, they were just ordinary guys like you and me – in another place at another time, you would brush shoulders with them in the subway, sit next to them in the library, laugh with them in the cinema. It was the disturbingly perverted system that demanded their presence at this location on this day. Instead of being sent to serve with the regular armed forces (like all Korean men who reach 20), they had been drafted – at random – and trained to serve as riot police. These were not regular cops, they did not patrol the streets at night, they did not solve any crimes, their sole purpose was to subdue and arrest unruly protesters at demonstrations. And a chill went through my bones when I tried to understand what these boys must have been going through: it is one thing to serve under the nation’s flag, be it in times of peace or in war, but to be asked to bring down the baton on your fellow citizens – citizens who are fighting the good fight for justice – is something else altogether.
In early February, a few days after I arrived in Seoul, a sensational event grabbed the headlines of every newspaper and was the top story in the evening news for days on end. Police had finally caught the perpetrator of a series of grisly murders, the victims (seven at the time, an eighth body was discovered later) were all women who had been brutally raped and strangled to death. The killer, who was identified and caught CSI-style, turned out to be a well-to-do man in his forties, married with children. His neighbours knew him as a hard working and loving father. The portrait of this handsome family man who pulled up at bus stops and offered to give pretty women a ride in his expensive sedan shocked the nation. The women who accepted his offer were never to return. As news flashes kept trickling in almost by the hour, the other big story at the time – massive demonstrations in Seoul protesting the Yongsan incident – was sidetracked. Coincidence this was not. For as it turned out later, somebody in a position of power had ordered the ongoing police investigation to gradually release details of the serial killer case to the media piecemeal, precisely in order to pull the public’s attention away from the demonstrations against the government. An e-mail was later leaked that showed the order came from way up, from one of the president’s own. Public outrage and demands from the opposition party forced the president’s spokesperson to concede that this was an isolated incident, carried out by a member of his staff acting alone and without the president’s authorisation or knowledge. Now how likely is that?
The election of President Barack Obama by the American people has brought hope to many in the U.S. and beyond. Hope which comes to the world at a time when it couldn’t be needed more. While great things are happening in the States, Korea’s own president symbolises anything but hope – on the contrary: Lee Myung Bak has knowingly, repeatedly and unrepentantly abused the public trust and the power granted to him by the people in ways that are devious and despicable. I can’t help but think that the public was enticed by Lee’s promises of a strong and prosperous Korea, seduced by sweet sounding rhetoric into climbing on board the shiny limousine that offered to give a free ride. Where the road leads from here is anyone’s guess, but it’s been a bumpy ride so far. As I am writing this, I can hear the sounds from the TV in the background which is switched to the state owned public channel KBS. It’s late at night and the channel is preparing to terminate broadcasting for the day by finally blurting, as always, the national anthem and displaying scenes of the Korean landscape: beautiful vistas of lakes and mountains, ancient Buddhist temples and rushing streams. After a couple of minutes it’s over, and when I walk over to the TV, the broadcast has ended, the tranquil imagery replaced by unintelligible noise and violent static. Look carefully, for that is the most accurate picture of the current state of affairs you will see today.