Thursday, December 20, 2012

How Park Geun-hye can Revitalize Korea's Politics

So Park Geun-hye, if the news tells it right, just won the Korean presidency, and we get five years of her in the iron throne.

I wrote earlier about my misgivings about her being held up as a female role-model actually being good for Korean women, because in her (an unmarried woman) the career/family dichotomy remains dichotomized, but now the I-Think-Women-Have-Come-Far-Enough-Thanks Koreans get to say "Look! We've got a female president! What more do you want?"

I also have misgivings about her being the daughter of a dictator... so I'm going to try to keep this short, but the context matters to the point I want to make in the title.

Her father was Park Chung-hee, perhaps the most polarizing personality in Korea. You've heard the story by now: he set the table for Korea's spectacular economic growth in the 80s and 90s by investing heavily in infrastructure and heavy industry in the 60s and 70s. While sure, he (like all the presidents in Korea so far) was corrupt... but unlike other presidents, he attached his favors to activities that fit with his long-term plans. He controlled the foreign aid money that came into Korea, by controlling the banks, meaning that he could give favorable terms to companies that cooperated with his master plan, when they applied for business loans.

Through this, the industries and business leaders Park hand-picked became mega-rich, but they also set up businesses and industries that helped Korea become wealthy.

To accomplish this, Park and his business leader buddies did a lot of union busting and suppression of workers' rights, in order to reap the benefits (nationally and personally) of a cheap labor force.

To make it easier to keep the little man as little as possible, Park is well known for using torture, kidnapping, and... let's call it... suspicious deaths of key people (a euphemism as sharp as calling sex slaves comfort women).

His legacy now is mixed: for those along the Seoul Busan Highway (where most of the industrialization took place) he's the genius whose long vision led to Korea's success today. For those whose parents and uncles and aunts were kidnapped from their homes and had their fingernails pulled out, he's kinda beastly.

and in a lot of ways, this election was, in part, a referendum on Park Chung-hee's legacy: if Ahn Cheol-su didn't do his tease act, it would have been the main narrative of the election... and perhaps the reason Ahn held on for so long was specifically so that the issues the Left wanted to bring to the table would get some play.

So that's the background.

Now, two things you may not know:
1. Park Chunghee was not a beastly military goon for his entire presidency. He was at the beginning, after the takeover, when he kept the elected president in office for a while as a puppet until he resigned in frustration. (that'd be Yun Bo-seon). But then, in the 60s, he ran for president and managed to win three elections in order to stay in power. He won elections in 1963 (by a hair) and 1967 (by a lot)... and maybe those elections were rigged, but they weren't as rigged as Rhee Syngman's, whose opponents had a way of dying. (see here... one of his other opponents was later executed under Korea's national security law). Park had three elections where the other guy might have won, and the last one (1971, where he barely beat Kim Dae-jung) was what pushed him around the corner and led to the "Yushin" era, when he declared a national emergency, suspended the constitution and basically concentrated all power to himself, and his enemies and threats started mysteriously disappearing.

2. The economic growth that came through Park Chunghee's efforts nearly didn't happen. After securing foreign funds with the (very unpopular) normalization treaty with Japan (the 1965 one that Japan points to as absolving their responsibility for war crimes) and by sending troops to Vietnam (earning aid from the US), Park saw the US pull out of Vietnam completely... well, if US pulls out of Vietnam when it's no longer politically useful, what's to stop US from pulling out of Korea? The next step in that logic is, "Korea'd better have a self-sustaining industrial background and military before that" -- so he invested in six heavy industries: shipbuilding, industrial machinery, automotive, heavy chemicals (oil refineries etc.), electronics, and steel, (also known as the six most necessary ingredients for developing your own military). But after investing SO FRIGGIN' MUCH in these industries, the world economy slowed down in the late 70s, and suddenly heavy industry was a bad place to have sunk your nation's entire wealth! To stir up capital, Park sent construction crews abroad, to build things in the middle-east (those oil rich OPEC countries that were undermining the other industries he'd invested in), and this barely kept Korea afloat until the economic boom of the Reagan-era 80s, when that heavy industry infrastructure suddenly led to MASSIVE economic growth for Korea when Chun Doo Hwan presided over the payoff of Park's investment.

This is more my opinion than clear fact, but here's a third thing about Park Chung-hee's legacy: being assassinated and followed by Chun Doo-hwan did more good for his legacy than anyone can account for.


Well... when you're assassinated, when you die mid-stride, your legacy gets a bump from what we might call "dead rockstar syndrome" -- if Axl Rose had died one week after releasing "Use Your Illusion I and II," we'd rank him with Kurt Cobain, instead of being sad about his "Fat Recluse" phase. Ditto if Michael Jackson had died in 1988. If Jimi Hendrix were still alive, the amazing things he did in 1968-70 would be diluted by those two albums in the 80s when he experimented with synthesizers, his religious phase in the early 90s, and his Grammy sweeping 2011 duet album with Taylor Swift. Park Chung-hee died... so he never had to spend time in jail, never saw the humiliation Korea's other ex-presidents suffered when later presidents jailed them to make themselves look cleaner, never had his corruption publicly revealed by whistleblowers or whatnot during a trial.

Second: the ugly parts of his dictatorship got smoothed over, because he was immediately followed by someone who was even worse. If M. Night Shyamalan had retired after The Happening, we'd all still be howling about what a bad movie it was. Instead, he went us one worse, and made The Last Airbender, and it was SO bad that all our The Happening jokes were no longer relevant. Chun Doo hwan managed the difficult accomplishment of making Park Chung-hee look like the GOOD strongman, which gave people the ability to gloss over that part of his legacy, and made it way easier to get nostalgic about him.

You don't see Chun Doo-hwan's kids in politics, do you?

So... all of that is in play, when you look at where Park Geun-hye came from.

Now, to wrap this up, I have one prediction, and one suggestion, which, as mentioned above, could revitalize Korea's politics...

The prediction is gross.
Opposition rhetoric during this presidency could be... has the potential to be... and therefore probably WILL be the shrillest, harshest, most polarizing, and most infantile, we've heard in Korean politics so far. Because every single time President Park introduces a policy the left doesn't like, they're going to play the dictator card, tell her how much she resembles her father... and that name calling will further polarize an already polarized political scene.

All the young people who were excited about Ahn Chul-soo's promise for a new kind of politics that doesn't involve brinksmanship and name-calling will get further jaded, and the broken system will get more broken. And even if you didn't like Park Chunghee... it'll be bloody annoying to hear the left jibjab about how the apple doesn't fall far from the tree... Park Geunhye at least should get a chance to show her own colors.

But here's the suggestion... Park Geun-hye could do something that would not only nip all those ad hominems in the bud, but completely change Korean civil society, meanwhile also showing that she is not simply riding her father's legacy, but that she'll be a new kind of leader appropriate for modern Korea. By doing two things:

1. Severing government ties to Korea's mass media. The fact that the government owns large stakes in most of Korea's major media entities is ridiculous... especially because the previous president actually had been interfering in the way government-owned media are run. Canada manages to keep the CBC run by government funds, without conflict of interest accusations coming out every month. BBC is generally seen as above reproach in that regard. These government run institutions are allowed to criticize their governments. And that's healthy.

2. And this is the biggie:
Striking the National Security Law from the books... or severely and specifically limiting it. The National Security Law has been the law that every president has used to stifle their critics or opponents. It's a vaguely worded catch-all law that allows a president to pretty much arrest or harass anyone who is doing something they don't like. It's been around since the cold war (1948)... when maybe vaguely worded catch-alls were needed, and "anti-state acts" could have meant a lot of things... but when retweeting a pro-north Korea tweet got somebody arrested? When an unemployed blogger gets called in by the national police? That's just ridiculous. Either a group of lawyers from both sides needs to get in there and add enough specific language that the National Security Law only catches North Korean spies... or it needs to be abolished entirely. Amnesty International and international human rights groups have been encouraging Korea to abolish the National Security Law for years, and the (mis)use of the National Security Law is one of the reasons that during Lee Myung-bak's presidency, South Korea went from "Free" to "Mostly free" on international press freedom indexes. (more at Amnesty International)

If Park Geun-hye does these two things, especially early in her presidency, she'll cut the umbilical cord, so to speak, from her father. She'll clearly distance herself from the kinds of behaviors that have plagued the Korean right for a long time, and open space for a healthier, less polarized civil society to develop more strongly in Korea. She'll also pull the rug from her opposition, so that the "dictator card" is unplayable, because she'll be able to toss back at them, "I abolished those laws, and removed the president's influence on the media. What are you talking about, I resemble my father? Take another look." She'd have the space to create her own legacy.

It'd be a genius move. Absolute genius.

Maybe the amount of name-calling in the national assembly would finally decrease... which might give more hope to those disenchanted voters who wanted Ahn Chul-soo to run for president. Maybe Korea's civil society would get a little less screechy, and we'd be able to have a conversation about issues without somebody calling someone else a dictator sympathiser or a communist. Maybe.

Too bad it won't happen.


Roboseyo said...

Your concern about the opposition rhetoric exactly coincides with mine -- which is even more depressing to me than the fact that PGH won.

Roboseyo said...

It'll show the very worst side of the left. Which is too bad.

Roboseyo said...

I agree with pretty much everything here. I find it so odd though, that back home I am rather left-leaning, but here, much more right-leaning. Your final points about what PGH needs to to do, are spot on! That would make things so, so much better. I would love to see her pull that off.

Roboseyo said...

Yes, as usual I agree with you Roboseyo. If she would do those two things, she would basically remove the biggest complaints against her party. However, I highly doubt that they will happen. From what I've seen, I am basically in line with most of her standpoints. In many respects she's more libral than a lot of Democrats in the States... but I don't know if making a comparison with the states is a good idea.. Korea needs to be looked at from it's own context.

Roboseyo said...

I'm with you there, Lorne. I wish I could take something from one party, something from another, and create my own Frankenparty... but I have issues with both the left and the right in Korea.

THanks for the praise... share this post around if you really think they're good ideas.

Roboseyo said...

Very good. Best thing I have seen from you.

Roboseyo said...

Roboseyo offers great analysis and history, but let's look at the downside.

1) Naturally, Park getting rid of the National Security Law and government control of the media would lead to a tremendous backlash from the people who voted for her. Those supporters could honestly say that she had double-crossed them because she never stressed (or even mentioned?) those policies during the campaign or during any of her time in the National Assembly. It could, temporarily, get rid of the "dictator's daughter" label, but it seems she would lose a lot more with former supporters coming up with their own labels for her.

2) Robert K mentioned in a different message Nixon's "Silent
Majority" speech. In this case, Roboseyo is suggesting the "only Nixon could go to China" approach. I don't deny it can be useful, but let's remember that Nixon was still hated by Democrats despite a host of policies and new government programs that Democrats said they loved--they still hated the dancer although he was dancing to their tune.

3) Significantly--Is Park in favor of the things Roboseyo is suggesting? If she is, then, okay, she should do it. But why should she support policies she doesn't really support in order to try to appease people who won't be appeased until she resigns (in disgrace), is behind bars or worse?

4) Based on what I do know, Koreans tend to be skeptical of everything politicians do, even the ones they support. So Park's strategy would be seen exactly for what Roboseyo is suggesting--a political ploy to undercut arguments from opponents but not a policy she really supported. Some thoughtful progressives may praise her, but I suspect that the attack dogs would still be barking at her 24/7.

5) Now, let's say she does pull the rug from under her opponents with the strategy. Then the first time there is a (real or perceived) threat to national security, her supporters (many of them then perhaps former) would start beating her up. If she backtracks even a little--then she'd be a dictator again to her leftist opponents who would be saying she never meant it or had found a "secret" way to still enforce those laws all along, and probably that she had even cooked up the threat just so she could roll back the national security laws.

6) In conclusion, this is another example of the NayaCasey Theory of Politics: "If you want something done politically, vote for the candidate you disagree with." That's because so many politicians do exactly what Roboseyo is suggesting. They try to do something to appease opponents, with the result being that they don't get new support, their hard-core opponents concede nothing (yeah, it's about time you did something sensible, but you are still a criminal), they upset supporters who can justifiably say the politician lied to them, and they end up implementing policies they don't really agree with.

Roboseyo said...

Why would it cause a tremendous backlash from her voters? They want her to improve the economy, and probably couldn't be arsed one way or another about the media or national security thing, as long as the Team Spirit Exercises go on. Any conservative with a reasonable amount of sense ought to recognize that 1. the cold war's over and the capitalists won 2. the era of dictators controlling the media is also over, and the incestuous relationship between the media and the government ain't healthy, and 3. every time a tweet causes an arrest, the Saenuri party loses credibility in the media saturated world of today.

Of course she wouldn't campaign on those platforms -- social welfare and economy are the things voters actually vote on. Those two quirks of Korean government and media are artifacts from a different era.

And no, removing the National Security Law wouldn't be doable without putting SOMETHING in its place... other countries have treason and sedition laws too, you know...but the NSL as it is now is a clumsy, bloody axe in a world that's LONG outgrown the McCarthyist hysteria that prevailed when it was first implemented. There are ways to keep tabs on teh reds without arresting bloggers.

Given that Korean presidents only get one term anyway, why does she need to pander to her support base anyway? That's not going to be the way she carves out a legacy for herself. Doing the same thing and expecting different results is the definition of insanity. Why not reach across the aisle with a gesture of good faith to the other side, thereby stealing the moral high ground from Ahn Chulsoo, in terms of the way politics is done in Korea? Maybe... maybe... it'd lead to a different way of doing politics than name-calling. It'd be worth a try. She has nothing to lose, because she can't get re-elected, and every Korean president ends their term with 20% approval ratings anyway, no matter what they do or don't do, so... why the hell not?

Roboseyo said...

I enjoyed your commentary here. You make great points. I'm somewhat of a newbie to the Korean politics field, but I enjoyed watching the pre-election news and now post-election news.

Also, "Jimi Hendrix were still alive, the amazing things he did in 1968-70
would be diluted by those two albums in the 80s when he experimented
with synthesizers, his religious phase in the early 90s, and his Grammy
sweeping 2011 duet album with Taylor Swift." You're pretty funny!