The most remarkable moment in President Moon Jae-in’s visit to Pyongyang was his speech before 15 thousand North Korean citizens gathered in the massive May Day Stadium. The enthusiasm that radiated from this massive crowd was startling in its intensity and President Moon himself was visibly affected. Every word Moon uttered was highlighted and animated by the cheers of the audience, coming together, as Kim Il-sung once spoke, as if they were “one body.” You would never get that sort of a crowd, or anywhere near that sort of enthusiasm in South Korea for anything other than a concert by BTS or Big Bang.
You could see just how seductive for President Moon that level of enthusiasm in Pyongyang was, especially as the politics practiced in Seoul has degenerated into the empty ritual of bowing before those with power and money to receive their blessings or PR sessions in which one takes selfies with voters so as to demonstrate how accessible you are.
The power of the political crowd in North Korea cannot be simply dismissed as the product of an authoritarian regime. For all the showmanship and coercion that may go into putting together one of those mass rallies, with their perfectly coordinated dance routines, they also exude a palpable energy that is not a show, but rather a result of actual engagement in a political event.
But such a politics of engagement of people has withered away in South Korea. The candlelight protests have come and gone and now the progressive government severely restricts what you can protest about in downtown Seoul.
Part of the problem with politics in the South is a result of a hyper-commercialism and fetishistic approach to human experience. Every aspect of life is presented as some sort of a service offered for pay. In addition, the emergence in Korea of a superannuated society means that we find a large part of the political process dominated by the aged and the vast majority of youth alienated from the political process, and few with a strong desire to participate.
The progressive movement has lost much of the fervor that animated the democracy movement of the 1980s, or even the Roh Moo-hyun administration of the early 2000s. Especially notable is the collapse of the progressive political debate into a narrow range of symbolic issues. There is no end to the discussion of the “comfort women” sexually abused by the Japanese during the Pacific War, but little interest in the abuse of foreign women by Korean men today. The radical concentration of wealth that is tearing Korea apart is rarely subject to careful analysis, or the systematic corruption that has reduced politics to an empty ritual.
Many of the leaders in progressive politics are lost in the memories of the “democracy movement” of the 1980s and not engaged in the real problems of working-class youth in Korea today. Many of them have become quite well off and are more concerned about getting their kids into good colleges (or their grandchildren) and not about a more equitable society.
I was recently invited to book signing hosted by important progressive political activists and I was shocked to discover that I, at 53, was the youngest person in the room. For hours, the allosauruses and the dimetrodons who assembled there waxed poetic about the student struggles where they met in the 70s and 80s. Then they sang their songs. They talked about democracy and were critical of conservative politicians, but there was not a word about the nightmare world faced by ordinary youth as they struggle to survive the degradation of contemporary education.
One thing is sure, the young Koreans who are on the front lines in a decaying economic system, caught between the rapaciousness of cram schools “hakwon” and the haughty indifference of the corporations that are supposed to hire them, did know about that event and if by mistake the aged progressives present had invited them, I do not see how could have derived any benefit from it. The discussion about the “Candlelight Revolution” was far detached from the harsh reality that most working Koreans face.
I was invited to an event at a progressive bookstore recently and I found it completely empty of customers. The books on display were excellent and the owner was most thoughtful, but there seemed to be an unbridgeable gap between the space created by older intellectuals and the world of ordinary people struggling to find direction in a confused society. I am sure that many of my students could have benefitted immensely from the books there, not to mention many living in a state of spiritual despair at convenience stores or coffee shops, but they know nothing of the existence of such stores and would find it rather alien to the world they to which they are accustomed—even if the truths in those books would be of tremendous value to them.
I have there are many progressive organizations run by educated and prosperous people with good intentions who feel no need or desire to try and reach those who are drowning among youth.
I joined four progressive NGOs during the eleven years that I have lived in Korea, but I quit all of them because I felt that there was no culture of participation. I was expected to pay my monthly fee and was invited to a yearly party, but there was no change for me to attend events and no way for me to actively help. I made proposals to three of those NGOs that I hold an event for internationals to learn about their needs and concerns. Although I would have only needed to be given a room and have the NGO put up a posting for the event, I was refused.
One major problem is that progressive NGOs are less and less interested in membership. Of course, members who make monthly payments are important, but increasingly NGOs look for funding to wealthy individuals with progressive proclivities, to corporate-funded foundations and to government projects. The primary job of the administrator becomes locking down such sources of funding, not addressing the needs of working-class people. In a sense, the well-off donor is the customer they must service. You do not ask youth for their import any more than Greenpeace asks the polar bear for advice on their policy.
After being a member of PSPD People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy 참여연대 for five years, I quit because they never invited me to any events and had no interest in my suggestions, especially my numerous requests that we reach out to multicultural families. Four months ago, I received a call from PSPD asking me why I had ceased to be a member. I explained my reasons, but I also said that if I could meet one of their administrators to discuss how I could be more involved, I would be happy to rejoin. I never heard back.
Memberships in progressive NGOs offered almost nothing for me. If I were working in a convenience store, I would have zero incentive to join such an organization.
So what about the conservatives in Korea? Unfortunately, the fossilization process is even more advanced in their case. There are periodic conservative protests in the Gwanghwamun Plaza in which largely elderly groups hold up Korean, American and Israeli flags (somehow they cannot bring themselves to hold up Japanese flags despite the policy push among conservative politicians for close military cooperation with Japan).
The themes are anti-communism, Christianity, support for Donald Trump, the defense of President Park and the glorification of the Korean developmental model of the 1960s and 1970s.
Elderly wearing a badge with a photograph of President Park Chung-hee are quite common at the demonstrations. Although I think that Park’s decision to increase Korea’s dependency on international trade, to belittle agriculture and to import fossil fuels on a massive scale was a tremendous mistake, I can still understand how Park’s relentless drive for economic growth and his commitment to public education can be seen as a success.
What is mysterious to me is that these elderly people associate Park, the man who was active in the socialist Labor Party, who made economic self-reliance his key goal, with the current conservative parties. Park would never have supported the grotesque economic policies promoted by current conservatives who promote reliance on imported food and other vital supplies and allow foreign investment banks to meddle directly in the Korean economy. They are happy to sell off domestic infrastructure to predatory creatures like Macquarie Group. Park would never have permitted the Act on Public-Private Partnerships in Infrastructure Act (PPI Act) or have allowed the mom and pop stores that were the backbone of the Korean economy to be put out of business.
Today’s conservatives are wedded to destructive neo-liberal economic policies that destroy Korea’s traditions and think nothing of reducing women to sexual objects in advertising, to promoting casinos, or to the promotion of plastic surgery.
But the crown jewel of the geriatric ward of conservative politics in Korea is the U.S.-Korea alliance. The relationship has been complex, a combination of missionaries who worked tirelessly for the poor, or Peace Corps volunteers, with ruthless military men who crushed the democratic process in the days before the Korean War.
The aged protesters do not seem to have much understanding of what US policy actually is, or real suggestions for what the relationship could be. Rather, the United States has become a trope, a domestic symbol for a more stable and predictable past of rapid development.
The attitude of these conservatives toward the United States recalls most vividly the manner in which Koreans perceived the Ming Dynasty, the previous great cultural and economic power that served as an elder brother. The Ming Dynasty, after all, came to Korea’s rescue when it was invaded by the Japanese Shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi between 1592 and 1598. Deep bonds were formed through that series of campaigns that cemented the relationship between the two nations.
The Ming Dynasty became the source of political and cultural authority for most intellectuals in Korea at that time. But the Ming Dynasty was already on its way down in an accelerating spiral of political, moral and institutional decline that reached a peak at the start of the 17th century. Although the cultural cachet of the Ming political culture remained strong in Korea, the dynasty itself was torn apart by domestic rebellions, and then fragmented and collapsed as a political unit in 1644.
The vast majority of Korean intellectuals at the time, and for some 300 years after, remained faithful to the cultural authority of the Ming Dynasty, taking pride in the fact that they upheld its institutions in Korea even after the Manchus had established the Qing Dynasty and thereby lost, in the eyes of Korean conservatives, the mandate of heaven (天命). Koreans refused to see the signs of decay in the late Ming Dynasty and the authority of the Ming lingered on long after it had ceased to exist. There are Confucian academies in Korea today that continue to employ the reign name of the last Ming emperor Chongzhen (1627-1644).
The attitude of the conservative activists seemed rather similar and I wondered whether a deep loyalty to the United States might linger on far after that country ceased to play a meaningful role in the region. Conservatives want to hold on to a relationship with the United States that benefitted them, but which has already vanished. They are not demanding that the Moon administration face the realities it wishes to avoid, but rather withdrawing into their own myths about the past in the face of an American president who speaks about “falling in love” with the leader of North Korea.
The domination of the progressive and conservative discourse by the elderly, and its limitation to a narrow range of topics, has been crippling for South Korea in terms of its ability to make good use of the opening up to North Korea. There are plenty of creative young people who could come up with and implement, any number of projects with North Korea, but they are essentially left on the sidelines, and increasingly must struggle to feed themselves. North Korea has plenty of problems, but the primary challenge is the ability of those in the South to imagine new possibilities for the future of the Korean Peninsula.