The self-defeating paternalism of the South Korean government

One might expect the Park Geun-hye administration to be especially sensitive to any move that could leave it open to the charge of authoritarianism. Considering the president’s background as the daughter of a former dictator, it has every reason to be. Yet, in less than a year in office, the administration has repeatedly come across as tone deaf in its cultivation of its public image.

Consider the response of the Ministry of Education to the so-called “How are you?” social movement currently under way. The phenomenon began earlier this month when a student at Korea University invited his fellow students to get engaged in social issues by asking “How are you?” in a poster. His message called attention to the ongoing rail strike, transmission tower controversy in Miryang and election interference scandal. Countless students at schools and universities across the country soon began replaying with their own posters, raising issues ranging from the privatization of healthcare to the fierce pressures of the education system.

Apparently feeling threatened by the protest sentiment, the Education Ministry sent out a notice to provincial education offices expressing its concern. The ministry warned that the posters contained biased arguments and risked upsetting the academic atmosphere. While not expressly calling for a ban, it asked schools to help students concentrate on their studies.

It shouldn’t take a public relations expert to recognize how this must look to large sections of the public already concerned that Park harbors authoritarian tendencies. For little benefit, the government has effectively portrayed itself as hostile to dissenting opinions. Never mind that there may be legitimate reasons to restrict student activism in an academic setting, at least at pre-university level. Instead of deferring to individual schools’ discretion, the government intervened unnecessarily to become the very bogeyman the movement likely imagines it to be.

The police response to the ongoing KORAIL strike has similarly been a gift to those who see a dictatorial nightmare waiting in the wings. In executing arrest warrants for a number of union leaders, some 5,000 police on Sunday raided the headquarters of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, using tear gas to subdue union members obstructing their entry. In the height of farce, the police were unable to arrest a single one of the union leaders in question as they had earlier fled the building. The bungled raid has earned the Korean authorities the condemnation of Amnesty International, transmitting a story likely to be of little international interest to a much wider audience.

The police, prosecution and courts, of course, are supposed to operate independently of the government. The head of the National Police Agency accordingly denied the operation had been ordered from higher up. But he did admit Cheong Wae Dae had been notified prior to the raid in accordance with “usual protocol.” This, coupled with the president’s silence on controversy over the legality of the raid, gives the unmistakable impression of tacit government endorsement. The KCTU, unsurprisingly, has accused the government of directing the raid to suppress its activities.

Whether justified or not, none of this heavy handedness makes political or practical sense. It shouldn’t take 5,000 police officers and rounds of tear gas to arrest a handful of union leaders, if, indeed, their detention is even necessary. And an even cursory look at the “How are you?” movement suggests that it is too unclear about its targets and aims to be a credible political threat. The original poster, for instance, claimed rail workers had been fired simply for opposing the privatization of the rail network. Whether through naiveté or deceit, it neglected to mention the workers had only been suspended and had been so sanctioned for failing to appear for work, rather than simply voicng an opinion.

Why, then, is the government so easily intimidated? And how can it be so blind to how its aggressive posturing looks?

The indications are that it hasn’t the slightest trust in the public. Writing on the subject of cultural promotion last year, former Seoul correspondent for the Financial Times Christian Oliver encapsulated the official mindset by noting that “Seoul’s government is notorious for its lack of faith in its own people, who are even forbidden to read North Korean websites.”

Despite what many liberals might like to believe, this is not a characteristic specific to Park or even conservative administrations. Former liberal President Roh Moo-hyun famously sued four conservative newspapers for libel – an almost unthinkable maneuver for the leader of any respectable democracy.

The inescapable conclusion to the dispassionate observer is that South Korean democracy remains fundamentally paternalistic and immature. The irony is that the clumsy meddling of Korean officialdom achieves just the opposite of its aims. The more it picks at the scab of popular dissent, the more inflamed it becomes. In pushing its agenda, the government could do nothing better than leaving the dissenters alone. But that isn’t something that comes easily to an institution built on interfering where it is not wanted.


[The Diplomat] What does South Korea’s export of tear gas say about its role in global affairs?

Shipments of the agent to Bahrain reveal the country’s uncertainty in its role as a middle power.

By John Power and Philip Iglauer

South Korean consumer products aren’t hard to find in Bahrain, one of the fastest-growing markets in the Persian Gulf for conglomerate Samsung Electronics. But more than two years into anti-government protests in the Gulf state, it is South Korean tear gas – rather than smartphones or flat-screen TVs – that is attracting international scrutiny for its role in an unfinished chapter of the Arab Spring.

Since October, human rights activists have been urging Seoul to block a local firm’s planned shipment of tear gas to the country, which has been using the agent in huge quantities to quell Shia Muslim discontent with the minority Sunni royal family.

The order, revealed in a tender document released by U.K.-based advocacy group Bahrain Watch, calls for the shipment of 1.6 million canisters of tear gas to a country of just 1.3 million people. South Korea’s connection to the unrest goes back to 2011,when the Shia majority took to the streets in their thousands to demand a greater say in government. In that and the following year alone, two Korean firms, Daekwang Chemical and CNO Tech, exported more than 1.5 million canisters to the country, according to the advocacy group. The group believes Daekwang is the sole supplier of the latest order, an assertion the firm declined to confirm to The Diplomat.

Korea’s role is controversial because of what Bahrain Watch founding member Bill Marczak, calls the “unprecedented misuse” of the agent by the Bahraini authorities.

“The police don’t fire it at violent demonstrations; they mostly fire it in villages at night time. And the rationale behind this is to punish people who are in areas that support the protest,” Marczak said.

Physicians for Human Rights, a New York-based non-profit, has blamed such tactics for 39 deaths in the country. The Bahraini government has insisted its use of tear gas has been in accordance with international norms.

The use of South Korean tear gas on Bahraini streets is one of countless examples of the growing global presence of a country that in several decades transformed itself into a wealthy democracy out of the devastation of the Korean War.

(It also eerily parallels a period of Korea’s own recent history: PHR similarly condemned the Seoul government’s “unprecedented” use of tear gas against civilians in 1987.)

Long self-deprecatingly described as a “shrimp among whales” for its proximity to Japan, China and Russia, South Korea has been eager in recent years to exert a greater influence in international affairs.

Asia’s fourth-largest economy became the first non-G7 country to host the G20 summit in 2010, a milestone proclaimed by then President Lee Myung-bak as a sign the country had “moved to the center of the world.” Last year, Korea became the host of the Global Green Growth Institute, the fruit of efforts to position itself as a leader in renewable energy and the first international body to be headquartered in the country. Seoul hosted the Nuclear Security Summit the same March. Then, this year, the country took a seat as a non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council for the second time. Upon South Korea’s selection months previously, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs hailed the opportunity to take a “leading part in the U.N.’s efforts for world peace and security.”

But activists like Marczak see a contradiction between Korea’s desire to be a respected and influential member of the international community and any potential contribution to oppression elsewhere.

“It is not just Bahrain, it is this pattern of being the world’s supplier of tear gas in some sense,” said Marczak, who noted that tear gas used in suppressing protests in Turkey earlier this year was also revealed to have come from Korea. “Whenever there is a protest, Korea is there – just buy tear gas. And I definitively think it is not a good image to have associated with (the country).”

At least some Korean officials appear concerned about the risk of negative perceptions abroad. An official from the Defense Acquisition Program Administration, the body that has to approve the shipment, told The Diplomat on Monday (Dec. 16th) that loss of life in Bahrain would have to be taken into consideration in its decision, as well as international arms protocol and South Korea’s relations with the country.

DAPA spokesman Baek Youn-hyeong said that there was a “low probability” that permission would be granted for the export but that no decision had been made.

“If more loss of life results after South Korea exports tear gas to Bahrain, even though tear gas is not a lethal weapons system, would that hurt South Korea’s image in the international community? That would certainly hurt. That is why there is a low probability. But we have not made that decision at this time,” he said.

He said there was no timeline for when a conclusion would be reached.

Image Credit: REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

Image Credit: REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

For now, the export remains in the balance, with the impact on Korea’s image as yet unclear. Generally, though, the art of managing its national image abroad remains underdeveloped in Korea, according to Byung Jong Lee, a professor at Sookmyung Women’s University and expert on nation branding.

“This realization, this need of Korea, is a relatively new concept. For a long (time), Korea didn’t care too much about its outside reputation. We were too busy building our economy and our own economic system,” said Lee. “But now, gradually, Korea is realizing the importance of this and learning from its experiences. In that regard, I don’t think that at the moment Korea is doing enough to achieve this, but in the near future (it will), Korea is a fast learner. In the near future, Korea will be able to meet international expectations.”

Korea’s role in global affairs should be considered in terms beyond just nation branding, according to Carl Joergen Saxer, a political science professor at Hanyang University in Seoul. He said Korea’s foreign policy itself is in its relative infancy.

“Korea is rather new to being a middle power and Korean foreign policy has never really had a moral or ethical kind of element to it. It is just in the last few years that the whole idea about potential blowback, for instance, has arisen in Korea,” said Saxer.

“And in particular in what regards to what Korean corporations either sell or do overseas, it is only in recent years again – and mostly driven by what Korean companies have been doing in low labor-cost countries like China, for instance, where there has been a lot of controversy with how they have acted there. So it is only in the last few years that the realization that how Korean acts overseas, be that in a private or in a government function, has consequences, potentially.”

Saxer added that Korea’s stance on the Bahrain issue should also be seen in the context of its business interests in the region.

“If it starts having consequences for the reputation of Korea, then the Korean government will also start noticing. But you’ve got to realize that Korea… has a strong interest in having good relations with the Middle East because a lot of Korean constructions companies have very big orders in the Middle East. But that good relationship has of course focused on state to state relations, meaning the South Korean government is mostly concerned about its relationship to the Bahrain government and of course it is the Bahrain government that buys the tear gas canisters in question.”

South Korea, of course, is far from the first democracy to be criticized for its conduct abroad.

Park Sang-seek, a former foreign affairs ministry official and previously the rector of the Graduate Institute of Peace Studies at Kyung Hee University, said sometimes questionable arms trading was a simple reality worldwide.

“As you know, all countries condemn the export of military weapons to ‘rogue states, failed states, or evil states,’ but they make money by selling any kind of weapons to such countries,” said Park, while stressing that he did not have adequate knowledge of the situation in Bahrain to comment specifically on Korea’s involvement there.

“Some of them say that they do not officially sell weapons and that it is impossible to prevent private groups to engage in illegal weapons sales. As you know, many developed countries make a lot of money out of this business. Even some developing countries engage in such a business. Tear gas may not be a military weapon, but is used by many states to suppress riots or anti-government demonstrations. Intellectuals of the world are condemning such acts, but of no avail. We live in a brutal world. If you find any solution to solve the inhumane behavior of nations, please tell me.”

Secrecy and Korea’s corruption problem

The following op-ed was originally written for translation into Korean for Newsweek Korea. — John.

With another year coming to a close, the release of Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index this week presents an opportunity to reflect on the reality of corruption in South Korea. According to the Berlin-based organization’s findings, the reality is a grim one.

Korea not only failed to improve on its previous year’s ranking, but dropped one place to 46th among 177 countries. More troubling still, this year’s ranking continues a steady downward trend: the nation has seen its position fall every year since 2010, when it ranked 39th. While it is worth noting that the index specifically measures perceptions rather than hard data, it is a nevertheless respected gauge worldwide. A ranking just inside the top 50 can only be described as disappointing for a country at Korea’s advanced stage of development. Illustrating this point, Korea was outranked by a number of far less wealthy countries including, but not limited to, Botswana, Puerto Rico, Cyprus, Poland and Estonia.

When I wrote about this issue for The Korea Herald around this time last year, various experts on the issue offered their explanations for Korea’s poor faring. Kim Sung-soo, the director of Transparency International Korea, pointed to a cosy relationship between the public sector and private business that resulted in lax punishment of corruption. Park Gae-ok, an official with the Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission, meanwhile, argued that Korean society had long tolerated corruption as the price of its remarkably fast economic development. Kim Taek, a professor of police administration at Jungwon University, put blame on Korean culture itself, arguing that family and school ties created strong incentives for shady dealings.

All of these explanations no doubt have merit. But I would offer one more: the profound secrecy by which much of Korean society operates.

It is no accident that the most prominent anti-corruption organization in the world features the word “transparency” in its name. In a transparent society, the public square is freely observable to all. When an individual’s actions are likely to have implications for the public, it is expected that they and their behaviour will be scrutinized. This especially applies to people with political, economic or social power because their ability to influence society is that much greater. Transparency implies accountability because laying blame first requires knowing who is at fault. And it implies democracy because informed decision-making is impossible without relevant information. Transparency makes corruption both less likely and harder to get away with.

In Korea, a culture of secrecy severely limits the public’s ability to accurately assess the society in which they live. Stories of crime and corruption in the Korean media rarely identify any of the parties involved, instead using common surnames like “Kim” to describe suspects and law enforcement officials alike. Even convicted murders are routinely spared the indignity of having their name appear in the news. In more than three years working in Korea as a journalist, I have become resigned to the fact that members of the public and public officials alike are generally extremely reluctant to have their name appear in print, even in the most innocuous of circumstances. Added to this is an extremely harsh defamation regime that, unlike most of the developed world, treats certain speech as a criminal rather than civil offence, and shields even the reputations of the deceased.

There is a tension between the “right to privacy” and the “right to know” in every developed society, and views inevitably differ on where to draw the line. There no doubt are people who appreciate Korea’s apparent prioritization of privacy compared with other countries. But such is the lack of transparency here that the media’s function as a public watchdog is regularly rendered impotent.

I saw just one example of this when I wrote a number of stories about a fraudulent travel agent in late 2011 and earlier 2012. After initially not covering the case, in which dozens of foreigners living in Korea were scammed out of some $150,000, Korean language media eventually began following the story. Their reports, however, named neither the scam artist nor the name of his business. In other words, members of the public were given no means to protect themselves from exploitation. The news, in effect, was useless. The dearth of information was especially pertinent in this case as the fraudster had already been arrested and released, whereupon he continued his scam under a new alias. It is not unreasonable to conjecture that similar information vacuums regularly result in the avoidable victimization of innocent people.

If Korea is serious about battling corruption, it needs to bring society further into the light. Defamation law reform would lessen the risks of speaking out against unethical conduct in both the public and private sectors. Media convention could be reimagined so that the criminal and the corrupt are not given more protection than the public the media purports to represent. Perhaps more than anything, society could benefit from less secrecy in everyday life. Corruption grows best when it can’t be seen.