New Day Dawning

The general election here in Korea has come and gone, and the results are being characterized as a democratic victory for the left, the first one since, well, ever. As is usually the case when people resort to such sledgehammer thud-dullard simpletongue™ words as ‘left’ and ‘right’ or ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’, though, that’s a simplification that does as much to obscure as it does to illuminate. The Uri (‘Our’) Party has won a clear majority, and as the presumptive representative of the young, the disenfranchized and the reform-minded, it may represent the first significant shift in the political landscape in Korea since the initial stumbling steps towards real democracy 16 years ago. It gives me some hope for the future.
The final numbers of parliamentary seats, of 299 total, are :

  • Uri Party:152
  • GNP (Grand National Party) :121
  • MDP (Millenium Democratic Party):9
  • DLP (Democratic Labor Party):10
  • Others:7

The Uri Party, formed in November 2003 by a band of breakaway MDP legislators after months of the kind of factional infighting that has paralyzed Korean politics since there was such a thing, is the party Noh Moo Hyun said he would join, and for which he publically expressed his support a couple of months back. This infraction of election laws — public servants and elected officials are (somewhat inexplicably) barred from expressing support for a political party — led, along with charges of corruption from the mind-bogglingly corrupt GNP, who held a majority in the assembly, to his impeachment last month. A ruling on that impeachment by the Constitutional court is still pending, but the disgust felt by the vast majority of the population at the hypocrisy of the impeachment, made clear in pre-election polls, has been hammered home by yesterday’s election results. Few outside the oligarchy took kindly to the Lord of the Flies stink of the impeachment, and most who are not locked in to that corporate-sponsored network of bribery and kickbacks — sometimes hyperbolically referred to as the Korean Disease — had any interest in seeing it rewarded.
But the story is deeper, I think, than mere political bullsh-ttery. It’s a story of young against old, of modernity against tradition, of the emergence of a wired netizenry and an unwired elite, and most of all, of a culture rooted in a neo-Confucian world-view that is simply not acceptable to a majority of the population that understands that the strict vertical hierarchy of such a world-view serves only the old, the male, and the wealthy, while rightly cherishing the elements of the ideology (made the state ideology more than 500 years ago, during the Choseon Dynasty) that support the fading communitarian underpinnings of the Korean spirit. Korea is widely held to be the most orthodox Confucian nation in the world, and for good reason.
In an essay on Confucianism and Korean communitarianism, Professor Park Hyo-chong writes :

In Korea, there is no concept such as the self or “ego”, which is radically disassociated from mutual relations or social context. If one could identify the concept of the self, it would turn out to be the “encumbered self”. Korean communitarianism tends to provide individuals with a strong sense of a place, identity and a role in a community, whether it is a political order or the family. This is a core meaning of the thesis that relations rather than persons matter. Individuals cannot be defined in their solitude but in their relations with others. A person is said to belong to some particular category of social roles or family roles.
As suggested earlier, the roles of ruler or subject, father or son, husband or wife, among others are thought to be of prime importance. The priority of relations over persons has been characteristic of Confucian culture of which Korea is a part. This is in contradistinction to Western liberalism which emphasizes the value of individual uniqueness, which is but the “unencumbered one”.

What Professor Park does not mention, perhaps because it militates against his thesis (or merely because it’s tangential to it) is that this definition of self in terms of relationships with others has a dark side as well. In today’s urbanized Korea, if there is no readily identifiable relationship between one person and another, that other is summarily ignored, or merely disregarded as a sort of speed bump in the road of daily life. Not to say that Koreans won’t struggle mightily to establish some sort of relationship, no matter how tenuous, if they wish to interact with you (the seemingly overpersonal questions about age, marital status, religion and so on that so annoy newly arrived foreigners are examples of this in action) — they do, and will. But if there is no reason to do so, the default mode of interaction with strangers often seems to be brusqueness to the point of derision. Rude by the standards of an overly-sensitive Canadian like myself, but not so much impolite as simply a way of managing one’s way through life while buried in a complex, dense web of relationships, relationships through which one defines oneself.
This dependance on a web of relationships and the tendency to simply ignore those with whom there is no first-order relationship through blood or money or alma mater creates an ever-thicker wall between the haves and the have-nots. This is one of the things that has helped empty the countryside of young people, as they seek both fortune and contacts in Seoul, and has made a good part of an entire generation of young adults simply give up if they did not gain acceptance to one of the ‘good schools’. It actually is about who you know here, in a very real and destiny-defining sense.
But this is far from the worst of what Confucian values have wrought, despite the communitarian benefits they have sown.
For those not entirely hip to the Confucian two-step, I wrote a little bullet-point summary of some of the underlying human taxonomy it requires in an old piece on linguistic relativism.
Confucius focused on the need to maintain social order though willing or unwilling submission to the five primary relationships (although of course there is much, much more to the system of thought) :
1) Ruler and subject
2) Parent and child (teacher and student)
3) Husband and wife
4) Older and younger person
5) Friend and friend
All of these relationships are explicity hierarchical, excepting, significantly perhaps, the last.
The implication is clear, I should think, and for anyone with any knowledge or experience of the differences between the old and new guard in Korea, it should be easy to divine the pattern : man over woman, old over young, teacher over student, ruler over subject.
It is this structuring of duty and fealty, of dominance and willing submission, that underpins a great deal of day-to-day life in Korea, and, I believe, has been one of the guiding forces in the evolution of Korean politics, just as it has been in all things here. It’s a force that is fading, or more accurately, being transformed, but it still has deep and mostly unquestioned influence in the relationships between Korean people in both the personal and the public spheres.
The one constant in Korea, as the cliché goes, is change, though. One of the alarm bells that anyone who was paying attention might cite was a UNICEF poll back in 2001, that showed that among Asian 17 nations surveyed, Korean young people had the lowest levels of respect for their elders.

After the UNICEF findings created such a stir — 20 percent of young Koreans surveyed said they had no respect for their elders, compared with 2 percent on average for the other East Asian nations — the daily Joong Ang Ilbo newspaper weighed in with its own poll. The findings were somewhat more hopeful, but 49 percent still said there were few elders they respected, blaming changing social values, out-of-touch adults and their corrupt ways.
“Who is there to respect?” asks Kim Young Soo, a 27-year-old restaurant worker. “The president? Politicians? Lawyers? Teachers? Parents? They’re all hypocrites. They preach Confucian values but turn around and have extramarital affairs with young women that undercut the family.”

When the mostly old, mostly male politicians and teachers are unfailingly corrupt and obviously unworthy of respect or fealty, and when the very foundation ethos of the cultural history that they cling to demands that that respect be paid, things start to fracture.
Beatings of students by teachers, like this one captured on a camera phone recently, are not the exception, and only go part of the way to an explanation of the disgust and anger most young people and many of their elders feel with the state of things. Although it’s little discussed in English, for example, it is standard procedure for public school teachers to accept bribes and gifts from parents in order to ‘do a better job’, or pay special attention to their children. Arbitrary exercise of power, corruption, and disregard for rule of law are everywhere.
And young people today, thanks to penetration of broadband internet into upwrds of 80% of households in Korea, know that that’s not the way it needs to be. They’re angry that the moneyed elite, all of whom, with very few exceptions, graduated from one of the Top 5 universities in Seoul, have developed an insular network that locks out anyone from the wrong class, or the wrong province. They’re angry at the university entrance examination system, which theoretically offers a level playing field, but like the continuation of the old yang-ban government service exams that created a small de facto nobility and a vast population of peasants and outright slaves during the Choseon Dynasty that it is, they realize that the game is rigged against them. They know that if they don’t jump through the hoops presented to them by an archaic and entirely anachronistic education system, in which they can only excel by putting in 18 hours days throughout their entire public school careers, greased by the liberal application of their parents’ money, they have little to no opportunity to rise to the top. They know that anything can be bought, and everything is, and they’re sick of it.
Then, last year, when a man who had not attended university, who came from a peasant background, who spoke plainly, whose background was as a human rights lawyer (and to rise to that level, he had to repeatedly retake his qualifying examinations), when this most unlikely of people to actually be put forward as a candidate for president of Korea, when this totally unexpected watermelon seed suddenly squirted out of the scrum — well the young and the disenfranchized elders voted for him in droves. For better or worse, he represented the truly revolutionary idea that you might not need to be part of the oligarchy to succeed.
And when, after being blocked and bullied at every opportunity by the bought-and-paid-for money men who held the majority of the seats in the assembly, after wobbling from crisis to crisis, he was impeached in what was clearly a power grab, ostensibly for the kind of corruption of which it was abundantly clear so many the impeachers were equally guilty, the outrage went ballistic.
All countries are well-stocked with corrupt politicians, of course. Korea may be cursed with an overabundance of them, but ordinary people, especially the young, are clearly not willing to bow down for them much longer, as the watch the scions of the tiny overclass ride blithely past so much abject poverty, safe behind the tinted glass of their Chairman sedans.
It is entirely possible the Uri Party will end up being as mired in corruption as the others, and equally possible that the chaebols like LG, Samsung, Daewoo and Hyundai that own the country and its politicians outright will buy up the new power brokers in short order as well. It is likely that the bickering and internecine backstabbing that has been the hallmark of Korean politics since they were occupied by the Japanese (and further back than that, of course) will cancel any forward momentum. The young, who, while idealistic, are also fatter, lazier, more selfish and less driven than their parents and grandparents, may continue to think of the evil bastards up in Pyongyang with a misguided, romanticized fondness right up until bombs start to fall.
Will it mean that the education system will be reformed? Probably not. Will it limit the power of the oligarchic chaebols and their rentboys in the assembly? Doubtful. Will it bring about greater rule of law, and more respect for individual rights? I’m not going to hold my breath. Will it break the strangehold on money, power and the future of the latter-day Gangnam yangban? Hell, no.
On the other hand, this deliberate break from a rule by corrupt corporate whores, this disgust with a perpetuation of the status quo that weakens Korea and its people in every measure but the monetary, this understanding of the power of democracy a decade and a half after the country became democratic in name if not nature — perhaps this means a new day is dawning. It’s the first real step in the right direction of this magnitude that I’ve seen in 8 years here, and it will, I hope, mean that the transformation of this society, massive and rapid as it has been, has only begun.
Now let’s just hope as more pegs are knocked out from under the rotten superstructure that there are people with the energy and ideas to build on the traditions, the drive, and the indomitable spirit that has brought Korea to where it is today.
And that Kim Jong Il doesn’t get any bright ideas.