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.