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.

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9 thoughts on “The self-defeating paternalism of the South Korean government

  1. I hosted a radio show at government-run EBS for six months. The way they handled their audience was like teachers dealing with kindergartners. Scripts were written as if talking to children. We couldn’t say anything remotely controversial for fear of offending the audience’s delicate sensibilities (things like suggesting ramen isn’t healthy). One show that aired at noon even had a segment where people who were shy about public speaking would call in and sing something to the tune of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” ADULTS!!

  2. I think you over simplify the situation. To characterize the whole situation into the typical westerner condescending remarks reflect more on the writer than the subject he is claiming to understand. In fact there is a large population of the public that is easily swayed. And there are deep seeded resentment and emotions at play that to an outsider would be hard to figure out to what degree in what aspects. With all of the difficulties (language and culture and historical perspectives) involved between a foreigner and a Korean to communicate in depth, only someone who is completely fluent in both languages will have any hope of deciphering enough to write a piece where you can make proper judgement of a large part of the country and its people in any significance.

    • In what way do I oversimplify the situation, and which of my remarks would you classify as “typical westerner condescending remarks”?

      “In fact there is a large population of the public that is easily swayed. And there are deep seeded resentment and emotions at play that to an outsider would be hard to figure out to what degree in what aspects.”

      Swayed by what? What resentment? It is not clear what argument you are making. Would you care to expand?

      Your stipulation that one must be fluent in their host country’s language to be capable of any informed comment is an exceedingly high bar that would exclude most academics and writers. While lacking fluency is clearly a huge hurdle in understanding another country, it is foolish to completely write off any opinion that doesn’t come from the mouth of a Korean or “Koreanized” foreigner, especially when it deals with undisputed facts (though, I am not aware that you have any knowledge of my language ability).

      A logical argument can be constructed from facts, whatever the writer’s native tongue. While I would not claim to be an expert on Korean society, I have worked as a journalist here for more than three years, writing on countless topics. It is literally my job to try and understand and write about Korea. My piece references factual, undisputed events. Do you challenge any of these? Do you think Korean politics are not authoritarian?

      You have not made an argument yourself, as far as I am aware.

      • This is such a big topic it would require too much time commitment to have a full discussion. But being swayed has several facets. Let’s first distinguish the divide between the older generation who despises the North bitterly (due to emotional wounds that have scarred their hearts permanently) and thus have total contempt for the democratic party and of labor. Anything they say or do is automatically thought of as idiotic and bad for the country’s future. Then on the opposite side the younger generation who think the older generation don’t get it and think they are behind the times and despise the authoritarian conservatism of the past. With this back drop you have what the right seeing the union workers as being extremely lazy and inefficient and bad for the future of the country. Older generation is less concerned with the hardships of labor (because they believe it was the hard working sacrificing hardship that created the Korean success and should continue to be) as they are with keeping the business machine producing profits because they see that Korea is skating on thin ice. Anything to deflate the tire will halt the machine as China and Japan and rest of the world are lurking to squash the Korea miracle. Then the labor and union party seeing the haves getting more and they are getting less. They want fairness and rightfully so but those on the right will not budge on their stance. Park did what she did because her constituents (who gave her the victory) support her heavy handed approach to unions and labor. You suggest the government to leave the rule making to schools but from the side of government the schools can and would interpret the actions of government in the liberal way that you do. It is perfectly logical to step in to sway the tide in their favor. Whether such actions will backfire or not we cannot know. Your arguments are only from the labor liberal point of view and does not fully shed light on why the right does what they do. For you to summarize the entire complicated sharply divided sides as being paternalistic and immature on one side is a laughable argument. What you fail to understand is that Korean system is actually quite mature. When the winning sides get to make significant influences but then at the next election their position can be taken away by fair voting and fair media reporting is the mark of a mature democracy. Would you like to discuss how the American media stacks up against the Korean media on which offers lesser biased reporting? Of course the ideal situation is that the two sides are able to make compromises and minimize waste but would you like to take a look at some of so called highly developed nations on how well they can make compromises? And in fact even though the two sides are deeply divided other than the very different approach to North Korea the two sides spent most of their campaign rhetoric on how the government will spend money to give people what they want. Very complicated indeed and foolish to try to generalize. Your sweeping condescending characterization of Korean government and in reality the society is arrogant and naive.

      • “For you to summarize the entire complicated sharply divided sides as being paternalistic and immature on one side is a laughable argument.”

        I specifically said that this paternalism was NOT the preserve one of side. To repeat:

        “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.”

        You are misreading what I wrote.

        Your comments about the western media and western governments are besides the point, and suggest you take offence at criticism of a country you are connected to by heritage. I don’t intend to cause offence, but my argument was not about the U.S. or any other country. It was about Korea.

        I also quite deliberately never took a position on the merits of the strike. There is not a single sentence above that supports or denigrates the aims of the workers, so to accuse me of taking labour’s side is to ignore what I wrote. My piece was not about liberal or conservative arguments, it was about how the government — continuing in the vein of past governments — is feeding into its critics’ perceptions that it is authoritarian. That’s all. You say the government, for instance, was right to promote its view about the posters. Fair enough, that’s your view, but you are missing the point. Such a move is a mild form of paternalism, whether you think it is justified or not, and one which, in my opinion, hurts rather than helps the government.

        If you think that is arrogant to say so be it. But I would ask you if you think a foreigner, and more specifically a foreign journalist who was invited to write an op-ed, is ever entitled to express a view on anything to do with Korea?

      • In fact I would argue because your audience is the English speaking audience and rather than reporting a complete picture to the best of your ability you want to come up with a sensationalized title that marginalizes Korea which will grab their attention and will get readership cause that is your real goal. Then you go on to cherry pick instances that tries to support your headline. It is quite trivial and says a lot about the English media in Korea.

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