Archive for the ‘Let’s Get Political’ Category

Korea’s Kony: Protests vs. Posters

In Let's Get Political on March 16, 2012 at 12:53 am

Recently we have all been inundated with Kony this and Uganda that, at each others’ throats and judging up the wazoo.  But one thing can’t be denied….we now know who Kony is.  Whether you’re pro ‘Cover the Night’ or anti meddling, the dialogue is open and that’s what fuels progress.  However what it has got me asking is, what about Korea?  Could such a social movement ever be possible in today’s society? Does anyone want to cover something about anything anymore?

Let’s back it up a bit and take glimpse at Korea’s protesting past.  It’s safe to say that Korea is not only no stranger to protesting, but historical protests are also a matter of national pride.  The March 1st Movement of 1919 was the beginning of the first large scale uprisings against the Japanese occupation.  Approximately 2,000,000 Koreans took part in over 1,500 protests spanning over the course of a month.  Passionate and bloody, the day is still remembered with pride and honored with a public holiday.

Fast forward to 1960 where a corrupt dictatorship under Syngman Rhee has pushed its people to breaking point. Students begin to raise angry voices and march in the April 19 protests, only to be ruthlessly fired upon by police killing over 100 people.  Sacrifices paid off however, and Rhee forcibly resigned from power on April 26.

For more on April 19, 1960 read Gusts of Popular Feeling’s post here.

One of the most brutal and pivotal protests was the Gwangju Uprising of May 18, 1980.  Another movement against another dictator, Chun Doo Hwan, this bloody clash of civilians against government lasted through until May 27, when it was again ruthlessly crushed by the military.  Pictures documenting this movement are not for the faint of heart, and although they were defeated, the uprising was instrumental in shaping Korea’s budding democracy.

Image Source

But that was then, and this is now.  Korean society is modernized, industrialized, and has not only caught up to the developed world, but is also fast becoming one of its leaders.  Citizens no longer need to fight power hungry dictators for basic human rights, nor fear for their safety from an iron fisted military.  But that doesn’t stop people taking to the streets with fire in their bellies….albeit at a certain hour, at a certain place and with certain approval.  Korea’s society has evolved, but its method of protesting has not.

It’s the 21st century and Korean protesters are getting desperate.  Angry and shouty protests are a dime a dozen, and they are so commonplace that nobody really pays attention anymore.  They have lost their shock value, and passers by barely give a glance to their cause.  And so we enter an age of the extreme, where activists and protesters will do anything and everything, and are even willing to cause bodily harm just to get noticed.

For a history of Korean protests this is also a good read.

Of course nobody could forget the 2004 American FTA protest season.  It caught international media attention when more than 10,000 people collectively tore up an American flag and were dispersed with water cannons.  But in recent years much more frightening protests have shocked and disturbed.  Examples include, but are  not limited to, a man covering himself in bees to protest Dokdo, men publicly cutting off their fingers in protest of the Yasukuni shrine, a live pig being ripped apart in Incheon (with conflicting reports of motives), and a mass demonstration of masked prostitutes against government legislation.  For a good look at some of these, and more, with some eyebrow raising photos check here.

Flag burning is illegal in Korea….therefore next best option is to eat it.

So what about Kony?  In a country that relies on social media more than face to face interaction in almost every industry, where is Korea’s Kony?  It’s on twitter.  And only on twitter.  The ‘twittersphere’ is an entire sub-society where people don’t even need to know what each other look like, and participating in a cause is at the click of a button.  The Korean youth are vocal about their dissatisfaction with the government, society, and life in general, but it is limited to a cyworld post, a facebook status or a retweet.  There is a distinct disconnect between knowing about a problem and actually doing something to change it.

Take Kim Yeo Jin for example, a famous actress who has been dubbed a ‘social-tainer’ and the ‘Goddess of the Twittersphere’.  Her activism against politicians and policies has attracted a lot of attention, and from people in power much of it negative, but it’s mostly on the internet.  Whilst she predominantly conducts a ‘twitter campaign’ for her causes, she did get out and join protesters and was subsequently arrested.  The blow by blow of which was live-tweeted for her army of internet activists.  You can read her story here, and be sure to count how many times twitter is mentioned.

But twitter is only effective up to a point.  There still lacks a happy medium between violent angry protest and passive netizen malcontent.  A Korean labor media activist put it best when she said “We separate action and daily life…go to a rally, then home.  We have to integrate struggle into our daily lives.” (Source)  Today’s Korean youth are either too preoccupied with their own problems to commit to action, too disillusioned about whether or not it will have any effect, or else too tired from working 90 hour weeks.

   Image Source

However there is hope.  A small artist driven organization known as One-Man-Demonstration.com (which incidentally is not an actual web address) provides a service for those with a cause, but don’t want to do the protesting themselves.  One person is not a group protest, so no need for government permission, the performer creates a visual protest in a public place.   For example, an Occupy Wall Street sympathy protest entailed one man outside the US Embassy with an American dollar bill with a hole where the president’s face should be.  Not exactly occupying anything, and not exactly stopping the presses, but it’s something different.

Will large numbers of Koreans be papering the city with posters on April 20th? My conclusion…..probably not.  But I eagerly await to be proven wrong.


The Other Kim’s: The Unknowns of the Kim Jong Il Dynasty

In Let's Get Political on January 9, 2012 at 1:14 am

One would have to be living under a rather over-sized rock to have escaped the news of Kim Jong Il’s recent passing.  The international news media has been awash with the unsettling footage of wailing and hysteria at the foot of his image, not to mention whatever we can find on his successor Kim Jong Un.  It’s compelling stuff.  No other country on Earth can provoke as much intrigue and mystery, and the more we learn the more more our jaws drop with disbelief.  All eyes are on the Korea’s, and world headlines show a range of concern, skepticism and of course doom and gloom.  But it’s business as usual here in the South, and for better or worse, the northern neighbors are down on the list of newsworthy items.

I wondered for some time what kind of post would be appropriate to mark this historical event. Maybe a profile on Kim Jong Un, or perhaps cover the ridiculousness that was the state funeral.  Instead I have decided to educate myself on the other personalities in the Kim Dynasty.  And, as expected, I was delightfully entertained as I bobbed and weaved through rumor and disputed fact.  So in the spirit of lists and best-of’s I present my own who’s who of the North Korean first family.  Of course, get your grains of  salt out and at the ready, as for all we know the following could be completely false.   I hope not.

                                Kim Kyung Hui

Information about the Kim family beyond Kim Il Sung (Kim Jong Il’s late father) is limited and largely unverified, so we shall begin with Kim Jong Il’s siblings.  Kim Kyung Hui is Kim Jong Il’s only full sister.  She was born in 1946, and was reportedly in  Jong Il’s inner circle of trust, holding high position in the Worker’s Party.  She’s small in stature and doesn’t have much in the way of a smile, but here’s why I like her.  She owns the first ever hamburger franchise in Pyongyang.  In a bizarre off-the-books venture which has its profits routed through banks in China, Kim Kyung Hui is vending out good old fashioned burgers to those who can afford them.  Samtaesung (a name referencing the three generals) sells burgers and North Korean beer, but not actually calling them hamburgers due to their association with evil American culture.  They are called ‘minced meat and bread’, and are reportedly wildly popular.  One customer was  quoted as saying  “The third time you eat a hamburger, you really get to appreciate it. By the time you’ve had your fifth, you’re already addicted to the taste.” (full article here).  You can buy your ‘non-american’ burger with two American dollars, which will go straight into the pockets of Kim Jong Il’s entrepreneurial sister.

                                    Jang Sung Taek

This is the guy everyone is talking about as the man to watch.  He’s Kim Kyung Hui’s husband, and he is said to be the man behind the wheel and he has been for some time.  It’s been suggested he has been the defacto leadership while Kim Jong Il struggled with health problems, and he seems happy to do the heavy lifting out of the limelight.  Also born in 1946, he was at one time thought to be groomed for the top job, but in 2004 the North declared that not to be the case.  Recently promoted to four star general, he has appeared on state television in his military uniform for the first time, suggesting he’s a big wig in the army now.  He and his wife did have a daughter, Jang Kun Sung, who like so many other members of the family, lived in Paris and attended an international school.  In 2006 she refused an order to return to Pyongyang and she subsequently commit suicide after her parents disapproval of her boyfriend.

            Kim Jong Chul

Moving on to the offspring of Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Chul is the middle son and the only full brother to Kim Jong Un.  He too was rumored to be in the running to be Kim Jong Il’s successor, but it became apparent that his personality traits weren’t in line with the Hermit Kingdom’s needs.  He has been described as being too feminine and unmanly, a former chef describing him as “No good because he is like a little girl.’   He has even been accused of having a hormone imbalance, which is not exactly fearless leader material.  Kim Jong Chul also attended an international school in Switzerland and is known to enjoy playing guitar.  On February 14th 2011 he was spotted spending obscene amounts of money on a woman at an Eric Clapton concert in Singapore.  If there’s one thing to be said about the Kim dynasty, they sure do like to be entertained.  And incidentally, he’s a dead ringer for Kim Jong Un.

                             Kim Jong Nam

Speaking of being entertained, Kim Jong Nam is probably the highest profile son of the late Kim Jong Il.  In 2001, Kim Jong Nam was caught entering Japan on a forged Dominican Republic  passport with a name that can be translated as ‘Fat Bear’,  in order to visit Disneyland.  He was also very much in the running to be the next leader, until his embarrassing mistake made him into an international joke.  Since that time Kim Jong Nam and his family have been living in seclusion in Macau, and whether or not he is disappointed his younger brother got the job and not him remains to be seen.  The Tokyo Disneyland incident is not one that will be forgotten soon.

                     Kim Han Sol

Lastly we finish with the youngest member of the Kim dynasty, Kim Han Sol.  He is the son of Kim Jong Nam, and the most open and accessible of all the family members.  Studying at the University of Bosnia Herzegovina, Kim Jong Nam is an active member on social networking sites such as twitter and facebook, even posting videos on Youtube and speaking out against the state of his nation.  He seems like the most in-touch of all the members of his family, and in time I’m sure that will not bode well for him.

So Kim Jong Un wins out for the big job for reasons both obvious and hidden.  There’s still so much we don’t know and may never know.  But getting to know the other players in the Kim dynasty might help create a bigger picture of the reclusive regime.

What’s Mine is Mine

In Let's Get Political on August 4, 2011 at 7:41 pm

It is a well known fact, if not selectively ignored, that the Korean War is not over.  There still remains a great big heavily fortified line at the 38th parallel to remind us of that.  As such, it may be unsurprising that from time to time (to time), there are territorial disputes over whose bits of land are whose.   However, South Korea doesn’t just spend its political energies defending its land from the tempestuous North.  Seoul has been locked in a bitter battle with Tokyo over a collection of islets between Korea and Japan.  With no end in sight.

‘Dokdo’ to Peninsula-ites, ‘Takashima’ if you’re Japanese, and the ‘Liancourt Rocks’ to the rest of us politically correct fence sitters.  These are the many names to describe two rather small islets and 35 even smaller rocks in the seas between Japan and Korea.  So fierce is the territorial claim from both countries, that neither can even agree on what to call the waters surrounding them, whether it be ‘Sea of Japan’ or the ‘East Sea’.  Maps and text books on both sides purport their respective claims, and passionate and sometimes disturbing protests are regularly staged to garner international attention.  To say that it’s a touchy subject would be understating at best.

The islets themselves are no Hawaii by any means, both being roughly 20 acres in size and boasting a less than hospitable habitat.  Currently they host a lighthouse, two water desalination plants, a helicopter pad, a post box, a staircase, a police barracks, and a large Korean flag visible by air.  The only two permanent residents on the islet are a 68 year old octopus fisherman Kim Seong Do and his wife.  Hardly big enough to start a war over.  So what’s all the fuss?  Some say fish, some say natural gas found in deep under the sea, some say traditional territory, some say spite.  However it would be naive to think it’s exclusively one or the other.  It’s not just a fight for rocks, energy and fresh seafood.  Nor is it really about who’s right and who’s wrong.  There are far deeper emotions at play.

(Above: Kim Seong Do and wife Kim Shin Yeol. Only permanent residents of Dokdo)

Often when asked about Korea’s past, words like North Korea, Korean War, Kim Jong Il, and nuclear threat spring to mind. But what these more modern challenges overshadow, was the equally violent annexation by Japan at the turn of the century.  Characterized by its brazen attempts at cultural eradication, Japan occupied the Korean peninsula from 1910-1945.  That’s 35 years of brutal imperialist policies including torture and cultural oppression.  Whilst relations between the two countries have vastly improved, resentment still simmers and atrocities remembered.  But we’ll save those details for another story.

So consider for a moment, the timeline of the past century.  1910-1945 was the Japanese campaign to erase Korean identity and incorporate the peninsula into the Japanese empire.  A brief five year interval followed when Koreans attempted to rebuild themselves, only to be torn brother from brother in the Korean War from 1950 to 1953.  And here we are, almost 60 years later, and somehow South Korea has pulled itself together to form a new nation in century of unprecedented global change.  Many in the outside world are none the wiser to the past century of struggle, suffering and sacrifice.  So after 100 years of invasion, division and land grabs, the reluctance to let anything go now is understandable.

In the new Korean identity that is being formed in the South daily, there remains echoes of mistrust towards the Japanese.  Politically the two countries are allies, and culturally the gap is bridged through shared interest in the music and entertainment industries.  Appreciation for Japanese exports and culture exist in the new generation, and certainly old wounds have, to an extent healed.  But a scar remains.   And just like all scars, if you keep picking at it, expect it to never fully disappear.

So every now and again ‘Dokdo’ will make headlines as both sides come up with new ways to keep the issue on the citizen agenda.  It’s a reminder that neither Japanese nor Koreans will forget their shared past.  It’s safe to say the “It’s mine,’ ‘No, it’s mine'” debate will wage for time to come.

My Kingdom For a Game

In Let's Get Political on July 5, 2011 at 11:46 pm

My Korean friend took one look at me intensely scrolling from page to page on my brand new smart phone and said, “You’re one of us now.”

It’s true.  Countless times I have passively gazed at strangers in cafes, friends and couples, totally absorbed in their respective gadgets often oblivious to company.  Being of that cusp generation that lived through high school and part of college without mobile technology, I found myself clinging to the belief in gadgets as the destruction of sociability.  So much so that I protested on many a date, claiming Twitter was our third wheel.  But that was before I got my own.

Korea is the most connected country in the world, with the highest speed Broadband DSL connection, and a population as reliant on internet as Australians on air-conditioning.  Nay, more so.

So imagine my astonishment, when scrolling through Android Market on my shiny new Galaxy S II Amoled screened beauty (I threw that in, though actually I have no idea what Amoled means), only to find something missing.

“Games:  No matching content in Android Market”

No games? In Korea?  Are you serious? I concluded it must be a fault of the handset.  No possible way could the country world famous for internet gamers not have access to mobile games.  Turns out, the impossible is bafflingly possible.

Despite, or perhaps in spite of, being the world leader of the internet, Korea is also the leader on internet regulation.  Almost all content is monitored and thus censored, pushing the limits of free speech to their bendable and breakable.  But here’s the trick; whilst free speech is a guaranteed democratic right, there is also an out clause which states “neither speech nor the press may violate the honour or rights of other persons nor undermine public morals or social ethics”.  What is quantifying ‘public morals’ or ‘social ethics’ is up to the big guys.  Basically, you have free speech…until you don’t.

Current president Lee Myung Bak has developed crackdown policies on political content, shutting down social networking sites, blogs and other web content which may be pro North Korea.  In January of this year, a South Korean man was arrested for praising North Korea in a steady stream of tweets for almost a year.  But if that wasn’t scary enough, in November 2010 a woman was sentenced to 2 years prison for possessing an MP3 file of instrumental music with pro-North Korean titles.  No lyrics.  Just titles.   Debate can wage as to whether political censorship is a necessary evil, based on the fact that the war is not over.  But politics aside, what about my games?

The Korean government estimates that approximately 2 million citizens are addicted to the internet, so much so that it affects their ability to function.  As such, the regulatory board has been introducing all sorts civil liberty defying policies, such as shutting down game sites during early morning hours.  Not only that, after a string of suicides of famous actresses brought on by the influence of ‘Netizens’, anonymity is all but impossible.  A citizen number is required before posting any public content, and it’s also required to enter sites with content deemed by the government to be regulatory worthy. Internet content is thoroughly tracked, rated and controlled.   In short, Big Brother is watching you.

I can’t download games because the Korean regulatory board cannot evaluate and screen every game available from Android Market.  There’s just too many.  Google simply threw its hands in the air and said, “Well, I guess you can just go without”.  Apple had a similar reaction, eventually pulling its games applications from iTunes after facing constant regulatory hurdles.  But it doesn’t stop there, as Google Korea and YouTube also block anyone uploading videos with their settings from Korea.  Nevermind the fact that the Korean government has their own YouTube channel.

It’s not all doom and gloom.  Iphone users can create US accounts and gain access to all the Angry Bird-like applications they’ve ever wanted, just as I can third party install my own mind-dulling amusements.  But before you think about downloading any pro-Kim Jong Il violin concertos, make sure you’re safely off the Peninsula.

Park Geun Hye for President….Watch this space

In Let's Get Political on February 28, 2011 at 10:55 pm

Korean politics, indeed like all politics, is a funny beast.  Parties merge, defect, and undergo enough name changes that require this researcher to keep a running cheat sheet.  The current president, Lee Myung Bak of the Grand National Party (한나라당), was elected in 2007 in a landslide victory and at the time was a vastly popular choice.  Now three years into his five year term, the former Seoul mayor has largely worn out his welcome.  Popular opinion holds that he is not a man of the people, and his support comes from those with vested interests.  Despite an election being 2 years away, there is already much speculation as to those who will contend the position.

In the lead-up to the 2007 election, the GNP had another strong candidate for the leadership.  No stranger to politics or the limelight, Park Geun Hye was Lee Myung Bak’s greatest threat.  She eventually lost the nomination and had to concede defeat, but she has not bowed out of the game completely.  In fact, she now readies herself for a campaign to take the big seat in 2012.

But who is this woman who could potentially be South Korea’s first female president?  Public opinion of her tends to split violently, and she can be either adored or detested.  So far it has not been an easy case to crack as to why.  Regardless, she has been interesting to investigate.  I have come to my first conclusion that when considering Park Geun Hye and her political favor, there are two people in the room.  She carries the legacy of being the daughter of one Korea’s most influential, respected, mistrusted and some say tyrannical leaders of the past century.

Park Chung Hee became president of South Korea in 1961 following a military coup.  His ascendancy was welcomed at the time, as Korean citizens had endured a sustained period of political instability.  Park Chung Hee’s successes cannot be downplayed as he is credited to be the father of industrializing the peninsula, and Korea’s economic growth was substantial.  However his iron fisted rule sparked numerous speculations of human rights abuses and corruption.  Public sentiment for Chung Hee simmered to boiling after he violated an agreement he had signed, limiting his presidency to only 2 terms.  A spuriously lucky individual, he survived 2 assassination attempts, the second of which saw a misdirected bullet claim the life of his wife Yuk Young Soo.  The third time unlucky, Park Chung Hee was shot to death by the head of the Korean CIA, the same organization he had used to prolong his presidency.

So it would seem that being the daughter of this, one of Korea’s most famous (or infamous depending on your side of the fence) political figures could not help but shadow Park Geun Hye’s career.  Following the death of her mother, Geun Hye became the country’s First Lady at the tender age of 22.  Her life’s calling could not have held many other paths.   She herself has suffered violent attempts on her life, including one assassination attempt, and one occasion where a 50 year old man slashed her face with a box cutter.   Take a minute to consider what it must be like to have both your parents killed for political reasons, and your own life almost following a similar fate.

The wounds that Park Chung Hee inflicted and the broken promises he left in his wake have left a lasting impact.  But the progress and stability he provided at a crucial stage of Korea’s development has also not been forgotten.  Korea has a long memory.  It does not forgive quickly nor forget slowly.   Perhaps Park Geun Hye is supported for her commitment and drive for her political success.  Perhaps she is resented for the sins of her father and likewise mistrusted.  She is outwardly critical of much of the current administration’s policies, making no bones about her continued challenge to Lee Myung Bak.

Taken from Hankyoreh Geurimpan, Feb. 11, 2010__________________

President Lee Myung-bak enjoys a cup of coffee and sits on former Grand National Party Chairwoman Park Geun-hye, but becomes increasingly uneasy from the tremors beneath him and asks, “Is it another earthquake?” An earthquake measuring 3.0 on the Richter scale shook the capital region in South Korea on Feb. 9.

The source of the tremors coming from the ground, however, is not an earthquake. Park, who can barely contain her criticism says, “What should I do if someone in a house becomes a thief…?” Observers are interpreting the remark to be criticism directed at President Lee Myung-bak for his administration’s revisions to the Sejong City Development Plan.

President Lee criticized Park on Feb. 9 for her attitude regarding the revisions by saying, “If people come face to face with a thief, they should stop their fighting and work to catch them.”


Regardless of these conjectured motivations, she undoubtedly has support, and in a recent phone poll of 1,024 adults she came out on top with a 35.4% lead.  Of course, I feel less than inspired by the accuracy of phone polls, but they are still numbers.  17.5% of respondents supported her because it was ‘time for a female’ and 10.5% lent support because of her father.  Like I said, it’s still numbers.  But I will no doubt be watching this space.

The Park family bearing a striking resemblance to a Kennedy snapshot.