The crumbling myth of Korean innocence about racism

The following op-ed was originally written for translation into Korean for Newsweek Korea. The Kookmin Ilbo later quoted part of the column in a story published on Sept. 11, 2014 .

Foreigners living in Korea are prone to forget just how much of a bubble they live in. What exercises Americans, Canadians and Brits away from home may be of little or no interest to Koreans.

So it’s been with a recent skit on the hugely popular Gag Concert that many expatriates have decried as demeaning to Africans and black people generally.

In the sketch, Korean comedienne Heo An-na dons full-body black makeup, over-sized fake teeth and a leopard-print loincloth to play an African tribeswoman in a tumultuous relationship with a Korean man.

Completing the image of a savage African, Heo’s character at one point becomes so emotional that she resorts to animalistic grunting and beating her chest.

A video of the sketch soon spread among resident foreigners on SNS, sparking both anger and dismay. Many wondered out loud how the state broadcaster in such an ostensibly modern country could air such racially offensive material. Their outrage in particular focused on the use of “blackface,” referring to the use of makeup to imitate black people, which has become largely taboo in the United States in particular due to its association with the mistreatment of black Americans.

But what was the reaction in the Korean media and webosphere? Silence. This writer could not find a single article, blog post or comment thread even acknowledging that such race-based mockery might be controversial, never mind objectionable.

Whenever such examples of Koreans apparently lacking racial sensitivity arise, the common justification, made by both locals and many foreigners, is that Koreans either mean no harm or don’t know any better. Indeed, while many foreigners attacked the Gag Concert skit, lots of others equivocated that Korea does not share the same racial history as the U.S. or other Western countries, or that most Koreans don’t know racial stereotypes are offensive, having been only so recently exposed to foreigners.

The implicit suggestion is that Koreans can’t be held to the same standards as Westerners because, unlike Westerners, their intentions are most likely benign. The idea that Koreans are a particularly innocent and moral people is held with pride by some Koreans, and all too often indulged by foreigners, some of whom are likely to squirm at the thought of judging people of a different race and culture.

Recently, on a trip to Busan, I had an alcohol-fuelled conversation with a group of four 20-something Koreans that revealed this mash of myopia and a sense of moral superiority. Without exception, each insisted that there is little racism in Korea. Not only that, they said, racism is much worse in Western countries. I challenged the first claim, listing various examples of racism and xenophobia I’d witnessed personally, as well as the experiences of other foreigners documented in the media and elsewhere. To the second point, I said that trumpeting a supposed lack of racism in a country with so few foreigners was almost meaningless because a large number of racist incidents would first require a relatively large number of foreigners. It would be like a boss congratulating himself on the lack of sexism in an office with no female employees.

The special pleading and excuse-making made by, and on behalf of, Koreans might be understandable if Korea were simply a politically incorrect place that slaughtered sacred cows without prejudice.

Even if one ultimately objects to such an environment, there is at least an appealing consistency and rebellious mischievousness in declaring that humor has no limits, even when it comes to race. After all, lots of great humor has offended somebody, somewhere.

But Korea is not such a place. Korean society, media and officialdom often express outrage over perceived slights against their country and people.

And it goes beyond historical grievances and territorial disputes with Japan. In fact, the Korean media has demonstrated plenty of familiarity with the pitfalls of racial caricatures and stereotypes – that is, when it has been Koreans who have been the victims. When, in 2012, a foreign Hollister model on assignment in Korea uploaded a photo of himself making a squinty-eyed pose to appear East Asian, it generated dozens of articles in the local media and outraged comment online. Just this May, Jorge Cantu, a third baseman for the Doosan Bears from Mexico, sparked a flurry of critical media coverage when he retweeted an image joking about how East Asians supposedly all look alike. During the World Cup, meanwhile, one Seoul newspaper reported that Russian fans had mocked Koreans by pretending to have slanted eyes during the game between the two countries. Earlier this month, a social media-driven news site reported that K-pop star G-Dragon had been heckled with the insult “ching chong” by a member of the public outside a fashion event in Paris.

The examples go on and on. Simply put, pleading ignorance about racial sensitivity looks ever more dishonest and self-serving.

As an outsider, it isn’t long before you become aware of the deep sense of victim hood rooted in Korea’s national character, most often manifest in dealings with larger and more powerful countries, be it in diplomacy, business or sports. Crucially, being a victim means never having to admit fault. Perhaps this is why Africans can be mocked on national television without a whisper of protest, while jokes at the expense of Koreans cause controversy.

The choice for Korean society, then, seems clear: embrace a modest degree of racial sensitivity, or don’t and duly renounce the right to complain when Koreans become the butt of jokes themselves.


Gay pride in Korea and foreign ‘interference’

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

In a country where homosexuality remains in the shadows, last weekend’s celebrations for the annual Korea Queer Festival were notable for their scale and bombast. As many as 5,000 people attended a parade in Seoul’s Sinchon on Saturday, according to news reports. Some of those present felt comfortable enough to dress flamboyantly, with at least one man apparently happy to pose to be photographed in nothing but a thong. And while the festival’s official website still requested that media obtain permission before capturing any participant’s image to protect them from possible repercussions, organizers in previous years had gone as far as banning photographers outright.

The parade still, inevitably, encountered resistance, in the form of conservative Christians, who at one point blocked the parade from proceeding. Amid a significant police presence, some protestors reportedly hurled insults at the gay, lesbian and transgender marchers. Among other grievances, the anti-gay protestors held gays responsible for the spread of AIDS and divisions in Korean society.

More interesting was their charge that Westerners, namely the U.S., French and German embassies in Seoul, were imposing their supposed moral laxity on a resistant Korean society by participating in and offering their support to the festival.

It was interesting because, deliberately or not, it played upon an accusation that makes many Westerners squirm, especially those who are white and of a liberal disposition. Whether they are taking a conscious position or acting on reflex, such individuals are uncomfortable with the idea of privileged Westerners passing judgment on cultures that are not their own.

Such moral relativism about culture has gained a degree of authority in pockets of academia and the media. Accordingly, journalists and academics have criticized the imposition of “Western standards” of human rights on other cultures, from prominent feminist Germaine Greer comparing female genital mutilation to genital piercing in the West, to one humanitarian aid worker opining in a British newspaper that “No one should ever be tortured, arbitrarily executed or held in slavery, but notions such as freedom of expression, religion and sexual relations do vary in different parts of the world. The right to private property is basically a western concept…”

In the case of gay rights in Korea, the obvious get-out-of-jail-free card for the cultural relativist who also champions sexual minorities is that plenty of Koreans are tolerant or even welcoming of gay people. They could point out, correctly, that the main drivers of the gay pride festival are Koreans, not foreigners.

But this hardly resolves the contradiction satisfactorily. No culture, however that word is defined, is monolithic. Not everyone in Saudi Arabia believes that it should be illegal for women to drive, for example. But there is clearly a cultural chasm between that country and the rest of the world that makes something as innocuous as women drivers so objectionable as to be banned.

It is undeniable that Korean society, at large, is uncomfortable with homosexuality. In fact, to say as much is to stretch a euphemism to breaking point. In a Pew Research Center survey carried out last year, 59 percent of Koreans answered “no” to the modest implications of the question, “Should society accept homosexuality?”

Nor is it enough to point out, again correctly, that Christianity was introduced by the West in order to argue that more “authentic” Korean culture treats the issue much differently. On top of the fact that only a minority of Koreans are Christian, the Confucianist elites of the Joseon Dynasty had little tolerance for homosexuality.

Consistency would demand that the cultural relativist at least equivocate about, if not actually oppose, foreign embassies’ support for sexual identities considered unacceptable by the local culture.

It’s perhaps a measure of how drastically attitudes to gay people have changed across the West – to the point where opposing, rather than supporting, gay marriage is now more likely to result in social and economic repercussions — that I failed to observe any online commentary from foreigners in Korea that sympathized with the Christian protestors’ argument.

Another likely reason is that it would be easy to compartmentalize the anti-gay sentiment as a problem of Christians – often far from loved by the young, university-educated foreign residents who typically make their views known on the Internet – rather than Koreans.

But that just avoids wrestling with the core issue. What the gay pride episode should make plain is that culture cannot be the sole determinant of what is right. The only sensible way to assess ethics and culture in tandem is to strip the latter of its untouchable aura that creates such anxieties about racism. Most important should be the ideas in play.

Intellectual rigor absolutely demands that the foreign observer inform himself about the culture he seeks to criticize. But that is different from making identity the final arbiter of moral judgment.

If it made no sense to judge the foreign element in the gay pride celebrations through the lens of culture, the same will be true the next time culture is used to skirt criticism on a question of ethics or rights in Korea.

South Korea can’t count on the U.S. to resolve its issues with Japan

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

On his visit to Asia that ended last week, U.S. President Barack Obama once again performed the delicate balancing act that has long characterized his country’s relations with the region’s major powers. On his visits to South Korea, Japan, Malaysia and the Philippines, the American president came bearing the usual rhetorical gifts for his hosts. But in Seoul and Tokyo, especially, these statements of praise and pronouncements on policy were no doubt carefully judged to garner good will from the respective hosts, while not causing an unacceptable level of offense to the other side.

In Seoul, on his fourth visit to the capital, Obama offered South Korea a significant publicity coup in his unambiguous denunciation of Japan’s sexual enslavement of Korean and other Asian women during World War II. In a joint press conference with President Park Geun-hye, Obama said that the women had been “violated in ways that even in the midst of war was shocking.” In most contexts, it would be an easy statement to make, an observationof moral clarity so obvious as to be banal. But considering the juggling act the U.S. employs to keep its two biggest Asian allies on side, it represented about as firm a stance on the issue as South Koreans could reasonably expect.

Indeed, even while bolstering perhaps South Korea’s biggest grievance with Japan, Obama offered Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe the slight consolation of being able to save face by claiming that the Japanese leader recognizes the importance of an honest telling of history. Many Koreans, no doubt, would question this claim. 

The significance of Obama’s remarks was made clear by Japan’s reaction. Clearly reflecting the government’s displeasure with the U.S. president’s remarks, deputy chief cabinet secretary Katsunobu Kato later said the issue of the comfort women “should not be made into a political or diplomatic subject.”

Despite the relative clarity of Obama’s stance in an arena as full of platitudes and insincerity as political diplomacy, it was not enough to please some Korean commentators.

In The Korea Times, an editorial about the visit lamented that “Obama raised, subtly but mistakably, Tokyo’s hand in the Sino-Japanese dispute over the Senkakus/ Diaoyu islands in South China Sea, while not saying a word about his host country’s historical regressions, highlighted by visits of nearly 150 Japanese political leaders to the Yasukuni Shrine which houses the remains of 14 Class A war criminals, just a day before the U.S. leader’s arrival.”

Further on, it continued: “President Obama…needs to realize that his ‘pivot to Asia’ will get nowhere if he fails to persuade — or force — Japan to own up to its past misdeeds before reasserting itself.” 

 Considering how high resentment runs here against Japan, as well as the closeness of the South Korea-U.S. relationship, it is on some level understandable that some South Koreans would be disappointed by its biggest ally’s reticence on certain grievances. But such disappointment speaks of unrealistic expectations, and, more crucially, an unhealthy reliance on the U.S. to achieve the country’s foreign policy aims.

Like any sovereign country,the U.S. will ultimately always seek to put its own interests first. Washington has an interest in there being a cordial relationship between South Korea and Japan, but not in championing one side’s causes at the cost of egregiously antagonizing the other.

Despite almost comically unbelievable remarks from the Obama administration to the contrary, the U.S. hopes that South Korea and Japan can work together to further its aim of preventing a rising China from asserting total dominance over the Asia-Pacific. To do this, it must walk a fine line between supporting each side’s respective policy objectives and keeping a suitable distance from issues fraught with diplomatic risk. 

It will never be feasible for Obama to walk lockstep with South Korea in its stance on Japan. As long as the U.S. maintains its close alliance with Tokyo, no future American leader will be fundamentally different on this point, either. 

All of which makes complaining about American reluctance to fight others’battles a waste of energy. South Korea is ultimately responsible for its own foreign policy, as is Japan for its foreign agenda.The two countries together are also responsible for setting the tone of their relationship, regardless of whatever role the U.S. may play as a mediator.

 South Korea is no weakling. It must have the confidence and conviction to pursue its policy priorities without the expectation of American heavy lifting. 


“The Avengers” won’t transform Korea’s image – but it’s part of the process

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

By John Power

The Korean media has been desperate to get the inside scoop on the sequel to “The Avengers” ever since it was announced that a portion of the film would be shot in Seoul. The excitement no doubt partly stems from Seoul having been overlooked by Hollywood for so long in comparison to Asian cities such as Tokyo and Hong Kong. In fact, apart from fleeting scenes in a handful of films, Seoul has gone virtually unrepresented by the world’s entertainment capital.  That is a shame. Seoul is one of the most significant and vibrant cities in Asia and is long past due the Hollywood treatment.

That the sequel to the third-highest grossing film of all time is filming in Korea is obviously news. But the anticipation from media and citizens alike is undoubtedly also a function of Korea’s seemingly insatiable desire for international recognition. Much of the media coverage has framed the production in terms of how it will promote the Korean brand. The government has duly made impressive predictions of the film’s positive impact on tourism and investment. At minimum, it will give many Western audiences a concrete image of modern Seoul for the first time.

But already it appears as if expectations may be inflated beyond all reasonable levels. The desperate need of Korean officialdom for foreign approval means that the film must not merely depict Seoul, but transform its image around the world. At times, one has gotten the sense that officials interested in the production see “Avengers: Age of Ultron” less as a profit-seeking slice of entertainment about superheroes than an advertisement for Korea itself.

In the most obvious example of this mindset, the KTO and several film and investment-related agencies signed a memorandum of understanding  with Marvel Studios last month in which the film studio agreed to “portray Korea as a high-tech, modern country and shall avoid portraying the Republic of Korea in any negative manner.”

That Seoul would be depicted negatively was apparently more than an abstract concern for government officials. One Culture Ministry official, quoted in The Korea Herald, recently complained that, “In foreign movies, Korea is either shown as a backward place or given a negative portrayal.”

He also said that the prospect of how Seoul would be portrayed in such an explosion-heavy action film had initially worried him.

With such sensitivities in play, it is worth asking just what is meant by “any negative manner” as stipulated in the agreement.  Would that include the destruction of landmarks, practically obligatory in such films, or the fleeting inclusion of a homeless person?

In reality, Seoul is powerless to control how it is perceived in a Hollywood blockbuster. An MOU is little more than a formalized gentleman’s agreement; it is not legally binding. There is no way to seek recourse should Seoul feel slighted by the eventual product.

Moreover, it strains credulity that Seoul would have denied Marvel without such an agreement, or that that the studio would alter the plot of a multi-hundred-million-dollar production to placate local concerns.

In effect, it was a very public sop to the national inferiority complex.

There have been many other examples of the high hopes being placed on the impact of the film. Park Young-gyu, the head of public relations at the Korea Tourism Organization, was recently quoted in The Korea Herald as saying the film could make Seoul as recognizable to foreigners as Tokyo and Shanghai. This would be an astounding accomplishment for a single work of cinema, most of which is to be set outside of Korea.

Of course, it is in the DNA of public officials to set lofty targets and make grand pronouncements. That is a function of their nature, elsewhere as well as in Korea. But projecting a country’s hopes for international recognition onto a single film is bound to end in disappointment.

“Avengers: Age of Ultron” is not likely to utterly transform Korea’s image abroad. The average Briton will continue to first think of Tokyo rather than Seoul at the sound of “Asia.” The average Spaniard will remain more acquainted with chow mein than jjim ddak.

But so what?

Korea is nothing like the small, insignificant country many Koreans imagine it to be. It is the 13th largest economy in the world, with an ever-growing cultural clout to match its considerable political and economic status.

Korea will continue to expand its influence overseas and seize the interest of foreigners. But it will do so primarily through the natural interactions of people in an ever more globalized world, not by government diktats and campaigns that betray deep insecurity.

The sequel to “The Avengers” will be just one more part of that inevitable process. And a whole lot of fun, too.

Ahn Cheol-soo’s lack of confidence

The following op-ed was originally written for translation for Newsweek KoreaKorea. — John.

The announcement Sunday that political maverick Ahn Cheol-soo and Democratic Party chairman Kim Han-gil will merge forces to form a new liberal party has taken many by surprise. The Joongang Daily, the English-language edition of the country’s second-biggest daily , referred to the development as a “political shocker,” while Yonhap News Agency more soberly described the move as a “surprise.”

The decision is surprising because Ahn’s camp had recently announced that his New Political Vision Party would officially launch by the end of the month. But perhaps a more fundamental reason is that a politician with enormous voter appeal and potential political capital has yet again scuppered the opportunity to be an influential independent political force. In recent surveys, Ahn’s fledging party had polled well ahead of the DP. In a Gallup Korea poll in December, Ahn’s party even came within three percentage points of the Saenuri Party, an extremely impressive showing for a party challenging a popular president in the relatively early days of her administration. Considering that support for the conservatives will almost inevitably decline as the administration wears on, Ahn had reason to believe that he could seriously challenge for a majority at the National Assembly and/or the presidency in 2017.

The core of Ahn’s appeal has always been his outsider status. As a newcomer to political life, he conveyed to voters, and the young in particular, an image of a successful but socially-minded businessman largely untainted by the murky dealings of politics. By merging his party with an unpopular opposition before it has even begun, Ahn has essentially become part of the establishment, losing in the process one of his most attractive qualities.

Ahn, of course, has form when it comes to blinking at the last minute. After first entering the public conscience as a potential political force during the race for Seoul mayor in 2011, Ahn ultimately declined to run and endorsed current mayor Park Won-soon. A year later, Ahn stepped out of the race for the presidency to allow DP candidate Moon Jae-in make an uncontested pitch for liberal-leaning votes.

It is true that Ahn’s latest political play is less of a retreat than the climb downs of 2011 and 2012. He will presumably have considerable influence over the future direction of the main opposition block. But it nevertheless hints again at a weakness that has dogged him from the beginning: Ahn may have political allure while not necessarily being a very good politician.

Behind the optimism and hope for change, the truth remains that politics is a game of strategy. It isn’t won by good intentions or moral authority alone. Ahn may have wagered that a chance to influence the second-most powerful political party in the country is worth sacrificing his independence and outsider appeal, but any such immediate gain in power is likely to be offset by the damage done to the Ahn brand. After all, what proportion of the 32 percent of the electorate who said they supported Ahn in December will be repelled by his merger with the DP, which received just 10 percent support in the same poll?

Were he a shrewder politician, Ahn would have gone ahead with the party launch, devised a coherent identify and set of policies, and worked to cultivate support across society. Then, Ahn simply had to bide his time. The elections in 2017 are still more than three years away, leaving Ahn ample time to explore what level of support he could control by election time. If joining forces to avoid splitting the liberal vote makes electoral sense now, what about in a year, or two, or three? If his efforts to grow the party proved particularly successful, Ahn could have committed once and for all to going it alone for one or both of the elections. If prospects appeared less promising, Ahn’s party could have formed a loose pre-election alliance with the DP, allowing it to still maintain a distinct identity, with a view to forming a coalition government.

Coming so soon after assurances that a distinct political alternative was in the offing, and in the context of his earlier retreats, Ahn’s latest play seems more indicative of indecisiveness than any particular political vision. Each time Ahn appears on the verge of blazing a new trail in a tired political landscape, his nerves fail him. Either he isn’t quite sure what he believes, or he lacks the confidence to carry it out. Observing his brief but tumultuous political career, it is easy to get the impression that the public has more faith in Ahn Cheol-soo than Ahn Cheol-soo does.

Expats’ place in Korean society and their response to claims of sexual abuse

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

On January 6, it was reported in the Cambodia press that a former native English teacher in Korea had been arrested in the country on charges of paying a 14-year-old boy for sex. Before long, rumors surfaced online about the Canadian’s conduct with minors during his decade living in Korea. My curiosity piqued, I decided to look into the validity of these claims. As I dug into the speculation over the course of a month, it became clear that it was more than idle gossip: an overwhelming trail of evidence implicated the former expat here in sexual contact with underage boys. Other compelling evidence suggested failures by the police and acquaintances to act on credible suspicions against the individual.

On strict condition of anonymity, two former close friends of the Canadian, formerly a minor celebrity on Korean television, revealed that he had admitted to them to being arrested in Seoul in 2007 on suspicion of fondling a boy. Afraid of bringing shame on the family, the parents of the alleged victim declined to press charges, the sources said. More damning still was a recording of a conversation provided by one source, in which he confronted the Canadian about his sexual activities with minors. In the 40-minute recording, the former Seoul resident could be heard admitting to sex acts with minors in Korea and the United States.

Perhaps most concerning of all was the picture of inaction and apathy — among both acquaintances of the former expat and the authorities — painted by people close to the story. It is true that the law at the time would have prevented charges from being brought against the Canadian for the alleged incident in 2007 without a parental complaint. Nevertheless, additional evidence secured in the years after his arrest such as the recording was not taken seriously by the authorities, according to my interviews. One fellow foreign English teacher, who knew of the compromising recording, claimed to have contacted the police, only to be put on hold and “hear cops laughing about who was going to have to talk to the foreigner.” Disheartened by their lack of action, he and some fellow like-minded foreigners decided to bring their concerns to the Canadian embassy in Seoul.

He said they were told that it was not something they could deal with, a claim that would appear to be accurate at least in so far as not having the authority to investigate or prosecute a criminal case. The question of whether diplomatic pressure could have been put on the Korean authorities is more difficult to brush off. Moreover, Canadian law actually allows for prosecution of citizens involved in sexual activity with minors abroad, even if such activity is legal in the country in which it takes place. To this end, the Canadian government’s own website actually recommends that people with suspicions about Canadians abroad contact their embassy with their concerns.

Another fellow English teacher eventually resorted to circulating an email to numerous recruiters of English teachers in which he labeled the Canadian unfit to teach children and implored potential employers to give him wide berth. The Canadian left Korea about a year later to teach in Thailand, where he had been residing until his arrest while on holiday in Cambodia. All of these developments, backed by multiple sources, are outlined in detail in my long article published in expat magazine Groove Korea on January 28.

Apart from the specifics of the case, the allegations raise serious concerns about procedures to deal with suspected sex offenders generally. First, there are obvious questions for the police, which, it is claimed, were far from receptive to well-founded concerns about a teacher’s interactions with minors. Further, my attempts to confirm the suspect’s arrest in Korea with the police produced a troubling response: while, perhaps predictably, no confirmation could be provided on privacy grounds, the police were unsure if such a record would even exist.

Two reasons were given for why there might not be any file on the arrest: the police database had been changed in recent years, and records that old were generally not kept anyway. It seems astonishing that it could be impossible to verify the arrest of a suspected child sex offender just seven years ago. While it cannot be said with certainty that no file exists as the police simply refused to check, their own comments hint at major weaknesses in the database.

The second area of concern regards the connection that foreigners, in this case some teachers from Western countries, have to their host society. Foreigners living in Korea often remark that they are perpetual outsiders. The case above goes some way to suggest that this is the case, though not necessarily because of their host nation alone. On one hand, it is claimed, numerous foreigners aware of the allegations against a teacher in their midst were hesitant to act. It is not certain why this might be the case, but a plausible reason might be concerns that such impropriety would negatively impact the image of foreigners in Korea. Such fears were expressed to me on several occasions when I discussed the story with other foreigners. One foreigner, himself a journalist with one of the local English-language newspapers, very publicly threatened violence against me on social media for supposedly providing another reason for foreigners “to be ostracized and given the short shaft.” Such an attitude suggests a detachment from the wider community, with greater concern given to the potential fallout for a minority of foreigners than the safety of any number of Korean minors. On the other side of the cultural divide, the alleged response of the police equally reinforced the status of foreigners as outsiders. Credible reports from foreigners were seemingly not to be taken seriously. The very idea of a foreigner contacting the police was worthy of laughter.

Ultimately, a situation where foreigners remain at the periphery of Korean society is in the interest of neither Koreans nor foreigners. More than that, it can literally be dangerous.

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.