Words of Warning and Encouragement to South Korean Student Protesters
by Emanuel Pastreich and Ku Yaerin
Young people are at the forefront of change in South Korea. What can they learn from the past?
Dear Student Protesters:
We are deeply inspired to see all of you -- college students, high school students, and even middle school students -- gathered in Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul, candles in hands, waving your hand-crafted posters. It is a noble action for the citizen to take to the street and demand the rule of law and insist on accountability. That so many young people have taken to the streets suggests an awaking of political consciousness in Korea that is heartening.
The media has praised you for the peaceful manner by which you have carried out your protests, going as far as to suggest that Korea is now a model for democracy.
But do not assume that this ordeal is over now that prosecutors are grilling President Park Geun-hye's buddies like Choi Soon-sil in the impeachment proceedings.
It is entirely possible that this ordeal is only beginning.
Learning from History
It is critical that you remember the last time that a Korean president resigned --on April 26, 1960. Rhee Syng-man was forced to step down as president of the Republic of Korea after massive strikes by students, joined by concerned citizens. The students rejoiced in their victory and imagined that a democratic government would soon be set up. But for all of their bravery, the students who led those protests had few connections within government and no solid plans for how Korea should be governed, or what policies to promote.
What do young Koreans want?
They did not anticipate that the power vacuum created after the government was completely discredited would encourage others to seek power. Korea careened dangerously forward and Prime Minister Chang Myon engaged in political games without a clear vision. The result was that a savvy young military officer named Park Chung-hee helped to organize disgruntled members of the military and seized power in May 16, 1961, crippling the democratic process in Korea for decades.
Also recall the promise of the Seoul Spring of 1980, which ended in political fragmentation when"The Three Kims," (Kim Dae-jung, Kim Young-sam, and Kim Jong-pil) drifted apart, leaving space for General Chun Doo-hwan to take control and rule with brutality.
And that trick was repeated in 1987 when the Three Kims were, again, unable to unite and the Army General Roh Tae-woo took power. If you read history, you will know that too many demonstrations have failed in Korea because the leaders bickered, creating an opportunity for political opportunists.
Korea has come a long way since then, but it would be naïve to assume that such a risk no longer exists. Removing President Park Geun-hye from power is only the first step as we try to disentangle politicians and chaebols (conglomerates). But removing her from power should not be the final goal.
Korea's economy is deeply dependent on revenue from trade and is unable to produce its own food or energy. It is guaranteed to suffer a major economic downturn next year. Already we can see the signs of collapse in shipping, ship building, and steel production -- even if the media politely tries to hide these facts from you.
The only plan the government has is to sprinkle your tax dollars as a stimulus package on those teetering industries in the hope of creating some sort of magical recovery. They will fail miserably. Korea has not even started to develop new industries to replace the fossil-fuel dependent industries at the core of the economy and you are not demanding that it should anywhere in your demonstrations.
Korea will be squeezed between an irritated China, which is rapidly cutting back on economic interactions in retaliation for the agreement to deploy the THAAD anti-missile system, and a Trump administration that has promised to crack down on Korea by imposing tariffs across the board. The new administration is planning to take on China first and foremost, but has Korea in its sites.
As a result, under the direct fire of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, US Trade Secretary Robert Lighthizer trade advisor and Peter Navarro, the entire free trade system that your parents assumed was as natural as the sun rising in the East and setting in the West is in danger of collapse very quickly.
Perhaps you are thinking that if President Park steps down, the THAAD disaster will then be undone. But the Trump administration has every intention of trying to force Korea into an alliance with the United States and Japan to confront China, and it's unlikely to use a subtle approach. How far might theTrump administration go to try and install a conservative regime in South Korea? Well, Trump has surrounded himself with hardliners who intend to confront China militarily. His new Secretary of Defense James Mattis is postulating China as a direct threat to the United States and his advisor for trade Peter Navarro, author of the sensationalist book Death by China, blames all of America's ills on a Chinese conspiracy of unfair trade.
THAAD was after all only part of a massive set of purchases of US weapons systems including drones, helicopters, and other items that made South Korea the biggest purchaser of US weapons for the first time in 2014 at $7.8 billion. As the U.S. economy worsens, the promotion of such massive arms deals with South Korea will become only more important for Americans.
The Errors of the Educational System
There is no doubt that you are sincere and committed to improving Korea, but you have been cheated by the educational system in Korea. The humanities have been stripped from the high school and college curriculum and you found yourselves forced to take boring management, economics and accounting courses. Although Samsung may want business majors with no big dreams for Korea's future, good government and a healthy society requires students who read political philosophy, history, and literature and understand at a deep level human nature and the frailty of human institutions.
The humanities are absolutely required to come to grips with this level of political chaos. You need to read Plato and Confucius, Weber and Marx if you want to start understanding how you set up a government with a balance of powers, how you encourage a responsible citizenry, and how you avoid the dangers of tyranny which can appear in a multitude of guises.
Your management classes, which focus entirely on process, have done nothing to prepare you for this crisis. In fact, your predecessors in 1960, or for that matter in 1979 or in 1987, were far better prepared in terms of their understanding of philosophy and ethics and the strategies for building a healthy society than you are. They were well read, and wrote well, in the age before standardized tests. They suffered tremendous setbacks, but ultimately they were able to put together two administrations (Kim Dae-Jung and Roh Moo-hyun) that strived to take Korea in a different direction.
After your candlelight vigils, do you gather to discuss political reforms and the nature of governance? Do you argue late into the night with other students about how to bring democracy to Korea and how to serve the needs of the people? Are you scribbling notes in the corners of your copy of de Tocqueville's Democracy on America or Hobbes' Leviathan? Only if thousands, hundreds of thousands, of young people are active in building up their own competency in the principles of politics and governance, mastering the details of policy, do we have any chance of avoiding being fooled yet again by the politicians.
And be wary of social media that keeps telling you how great you are. Much of the popular media, like Ohmynews and Pressian in Korea, has become so commercialized that it has lost their edge over the last decade. Reporters are more concerned with getting your attention (and bringing in revenue) than with presenting in-depth, accurate reporting. That means that articles scream out for your attention but give you little in the way of real details about how things really work, or real solutions as to how you can fix these problems. Long-term institutional problems are all but absent from those writings.
Mass media and digitalized content and social networks have created a window for you to see the incompetence and corruption in the administration. But the same media studiously avoids discussing the creeping corruption that infects every aspect of Korean society, including many progressive institutions. Getting you caught up in the 24-hour reporting about Choi Soon-sil means you will be distracted, unable to apprehend that the problem lies not in individuals but in economic, social, environmental, and diplomatic challenges that leave Korea immensely vulnerable.
Think about it. The popular media, progressive or conservative, gives almost no details about the actual content of laws passed and their impact on your lives. No description of the structure of the institutions that receive funding from the government and enforce its laws. We are unable to tell whether policies actually work, or even if they are implemented, because we do know in detail what the policies are.
Do not expect much from politicians. Their job is to stay in power, not to help you. If politicians think that helping you will allow them to stay in power they will modify their behavior. The problem is not so much politicians as it is us. There is an old saying: “People do not want leaders; they want miracle makers.” That is to say, so often people wrongly assume that they will elect someone and that person will then solve their problems. That will never happen. Only if you keep after politicians day and night will you see change. If you are looking for a leader, just look in the mirror.
The Air Around You
Graphic by Emanuel Pastreich and Kim Ki-do
Did you notice how terrible the air quality in Seoul's Gwanghwamun Square was while you were protesting? The Park administration has done away with regulations and sent all the inspectors home who are supposed to inspect factories and punish those who pollute. Those factories are now emitting dangerous chemicals pumping micro particles into the air that will give a significant number of you cancer, or other serious diseases, over the next 20 years. That domestic smog combines with pollution that wafts over from China to form a noxious potion. And yet, although air pollution in China is worse than in Korea, China is at least making massive investments in solar and wind power and will make tremendous progress over the next decade. Korea is the worst in the OECD in the use of renewable energy, and it is increasing coal power at a time when the rest of the world is getting rid of it.
Yet, in your protests, clean air is not among your top 20 demands. Actually, for many out there the only demand is that Park Geun-hye step down. Do you even have 20 demands?
Did you notice how unseasonably warm the weather in December was? The brutal reality is that it has never been that warm in December in Seoul. There is nothing mysterious about this fact. Thousands of scientists have explained in detail how the emissions from fossil fuels, and our destruction of the environment, are creating an ecological nightmare that will take millennia to undo.
Climate change will turn Korea into a desert. Already massive deserts are sweeping towards to Beijing, and arid land is spreading in North Korea. Rising oceans are guaranteed to put most of Busan and Incheon completely underwater in the near future. The politicians are not talking about this crisis—but neither are you!
And there are so many other issues, from our over-dependence on technology to the collapse of families and communities in this hyper-competitive culture we have built.
What Can You Do?
You have the power to change Korea and the world, and we are counting on you. But please realize that this project is not a matter of showing up for a few protests. It will be a tremendous struggle over decades. Pace yourself.
You must move beyond the fierce competitiveness that your high school held up as a virtue and realize that only if you work together with your peers, if you support each other and build a caring community, can we have change.
You need to think flexibly: to get outside the box and look at the world as it is, not as your parents, or the corporate media want you to see it. You must break out of the outdated ideology of industrialization and consumption and create, through your actions, a sustainable and cooperative society. Nobody will do this for you.
You must teach yourselves because the system has failed to teach you. Listen to all politicians with skepticism, even if the media labels them as"progressive." Judge them based on what they do, not based on what they say, or on what authority figures say they are. For that matter, do not assume that a particular economic system can be labeled simply as good or evil, or that foreign countries are forever enemies, or forever friends.
Millennials, you have been misled by the commercial media and by your seniors into thinking that if you just followed the rules and studied you would get a good job and live a prosperous and carefree life. It was a fiction.
You may not be able to vote yet, but you can start to change this society with every single action you take. The leader of this country is you. The presidents and CEOs will never do anything to put Korea on the right track unless you demand it. Write down your plan and get to work. You are capable of convincing average Koreans that investing in youth is the way to develop Korea.
If passionate grassroots movements force politicians to hold to their words, we will start to see progress. As the old phrase goes,"don't get mad; organize!" Nothing could be truer for Korean youth. The protests so far have not led youth to organize in the way they did in the 1960s, 1970s, or 1980s.
You need to think long-term about what sort of a society we want to build. Your elders failed because they were complacent and stopped paying close attention to politics. They were drunk with the myth that Korea had become an advanced country.
You are different from the CEOs and politicians being shuttled around in limousines. You are the true leader of Korea. Have the bravery, the imagination, and the confidence to go forward and change Korea!
Emanuel Pastreich is the director of the Asia Institute (asia-institute.org). Ku Yaerin is a researcher at the Asia Institute and undergraduate at Kyunghee University.
Article: Courtesy Foreign Policy in Focus.
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"Words of Warning and Encouragement to South Korean Student Protesters"