“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. Continue reading