Sunday, 1 June 2008

Bumped into a Blockade today.

In my last post, I wrote, "Hundreds, maybe thousands of North Koreans die weekly in death camps or of starvation, and South Koreans save their outrage for American beef imports???" but it's a little more complex than that.

So as far as I can tell, the SeoulPodcast is pretty sure that the mad cow/US Beef/FTA thing is just a bunch of public panic over lies; they frame it in terms of nationalism and leftist manipulators bending facts for a bunch of credulous schlubs.

If you want to give the Korean people a little more credit than that, Gord Sellar gives a really thoughtful look at the way the public approaches a political issue, framing it as the sign of a still-developing democracy -- that's really worth a read. People are taking part in democracy here, which is interesting, even though they're doing it based on wrong premises. The one thing missing in this issue is informed discussion of issues . . . but the fact there's discussion this time, is actually a step forward, sez Gord.

President Lee Myungbak has gummed this situation about as badly as he could (which could also be applied to pretty much his entire first half-year in office): he recoursed to "Because I'm President, that's why"-type rhetoric, leaning on presidential authority in a kind of arrogant way, rather than by leaning heavily on facts, science, and dry information. This gives his opposition a chance to turn this into a suppression of dissent issue, rather than a mere safety/science issue. It's no longer a question even of mad cow beef or the FTA, but of how Korea's leader is going to lead the country, because the president pitted his authority against the protesters, arresting them and threatening legal action against the people spreading disinformation, instead of using dispassionate science, and overwhelming the hearsay with plain facts, while keeping his leadership style out of the discussion. Instead of facts vs. myths, it's now public emotion vs. presidential authority -- it's disappointing than neither side has turned to information, but that's not what it's about anymore, I think, to most of the people still holding candles.

Frankly, the whole thing's been beaten into the ground on the English language K-blogosphere (probably even more on the Korean one, but I can't read Korean well enough to get my finger on that pulse), but this whole thing has gotten bigger than American beef, the Free Trade Agreement, or even nationalism, I think.

I was on my way back home from a Salsa Dancing lesson in Hongdae (dang, that was fun. . . next time I really need to drag Girlfriendoseyo along), when the taxi just couldn't go any farther, right next to Gyungbok Palace.

This is why:

For whatever else it's worth, I had to walk fifteen minutes out of my way to circle around the scads of protesters holding candles and (interestingly) singing songs and shouting chants I last heard at a Korean soccer game (singing the Arirang and doing the Dae-Han-Min-Guk chant), along with other slogans.

Walking through a crowd of people protesting something at least tangentially (via the FTA) anti-American is a bit nerve-racking, because I look like an American, and you know, it only takes one angry drunk to shout, "There's one! Let's GET HIM!" and I wouldn't have a chance to defend myself. If it were a protest about China or Japan, I'd've gotten a bit closer, to take pictures with my crappy cameraphone, but for now, what a mess. I got home alright by doing my low-profile walk (stare at the pavement, make no eye-contact with people, but when no-one's approaching, glance around and check for people giving me hairy eyeballs). Things are off the handle here, ladies and gentlemen. It's a bit wild and woolly in the downtown these days.

I don't know where it's heading, but this thing is snowballing, this issue has way more legs than it ought to, and I'm not sure what to make of it.

Yellow dust: dust from China's Gobi Desert, spiked on Friday. It was pretty awful, and the facemask actually worked. Y'all Canadians from CleanWaterFreshAirtopia can't even imagine this.


gordsellar said...

Thanks for the link and thoughts, I'm glad they're being read by someone else who's experiencing the same (protest) climate and not being dismissed.

Have you found you're getting weird looks? I haven't turned up at any demos lately -- too busy, and a little put off -- but at the ones I went to, most everyone was friendly and nice. One lady even came up to me and said, "You know what these protests are about?" I told her, "Sure!" She laughed, said she just wanted to make sure, and shook my hand before wandering off into the crowd.

The only people who gave me funny looks, actually, were the riot cops I tried to photograph when they were sitting on their shields, waiting to be called in at any moment.

But I haven't been to the recent protests, and I wouldn't be surprised if things are being pushed more and more over the top. That's the Korean way, in some ways -- extreme over the top is when you know something has truly "arrived."

And yeah, this dust, man. Damn but it's worse every year, and this year is the worst I've seen.

chiam said...

Dude, if you want to get closer and take pictures with your camera phone. Go right ahead. The crowd is not going to jump you. I have been to two of the protests and go real close for most of the night. No one gave me a hard time and 90% of the people were happy to have me take their picture. You have nothing to fear. If you looked like Lee Myung-bak, id say run like hell, but in this case, you are safe.

Roboseyo said...

Yeah, you've got me to rights, Chiam, and Gord, you touched on it: I think I WAS jumping at shadows. This isn't 2002, and the protest, especially now, is more about LMB than anything Kor/US.

Generally I DO get out my ten foot pole when it comes to these kinds of things, and it's not that my crappy camera would probably catch anything pulitzer-worthy, and I DEFINITELY felt less safe during the Beijing Olympic Torch Relay by City Hall. . . but there you go.

Maybe I'll wait till I get a better camera, though. I'm this close to deciding to actually do it.

Anonymous said...

Ahaha I love your face mask pic Robbie, really brings out your blue eyes :D
Antaya S :)