Serial Killer Politics

“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.

Riot Police in central Seoul

Riot police in central Seoul (I took this photo about two weeks ago).

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.

This photo was taken yesterday in central Seoul.

Police awaiting demonstrators yesterday in central Seoul.

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


The Halls of Power

“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.

View from the National Assembly Building

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. Continue reading