Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A country gone mad?
(Or: Arson by candlelight)

A post from 2008 at Brian Deutsch's website that was about commemorating the Kwangju Massacre but delved into last year's mad Mad Cow protests compelled me to respond. This is addressed not necessarily to Brian himself, but to those who so easily conflate the chants and attitudes of anti-US protesters with the opinions and beliefs of the broader Korean public.

In reference to the continued use by chinboistas (chinbo, or progressive groups) of images of Shim Misun (Shim Misŏn, 심미선) Shin Hyosun (Shin Hyosūn, 신효순), two middle school girls tragically killed when they were run over by a US military armored vehicle in June 2002 in an incident that sparked angry anti-US protests later that year, he states:
I have to question the sanity of those who constantly invoke this incident, as it's not used to preserve the memory of those two girls, but rather to encapsulate a victimization complex that is so vital to the national psyche.
Oh, they are not insane whatsoever (and no, it's not part of the national psyche, but a key part of the modus operandi of the pro-Pyongyang left). They know exactly what they are doing.

At the core of many of the chinbo (진보/進步; "progressive") groups are individuals who are directly getting marching orders from Pyongyang. The goal is to whip up so many people against the US that the ROK government will demand the removal of USFK, which dramatically tips the balance of power on the peninsula in the North's favor.

On other fronts, in the things one might not recognize because they are in Korean, they also try to whip up so much anger toward the ROK government that people will topple the government.

[above: Students rushing off to protests aimed at toppling the government of Syngman Rhee during the so-called 4.19 Movement, referred to sometimes as the April Revolution, in 1960.]

This is not some pie-in-the-sky dream. This kind of popular "toppling" has in fact happened twice. But it did not lead to the revolution Pyongyang had wished, nor a weakening of South Korea. It led to another strong dictatorship in the 1960s and it led to a democratically elected government in the late 1980s.

The hoped-for removal of US forces has not happened in South Korea, but it did work in the Philippines and it is starting to work in Okinawa, where forces are moving to Guam, where there are also local agitators against the US military.

Anyway, the goal of the people behind the scenes is to spread disinformation and provide imagery such that the average Korean who does not suspect or does not want to believe in such pro-Pyongyang machinations, demands removal of USFK or takes to the streets to force out whoever's in the Blue House.

This is not to say that the Kwangju Uprising did not have legitimacy. Although I'm sure there were a few Pyongyang operatives within the rank and file, the majority of the people were fighting for a legitimate cause (and the government's side was overreacting on a belief that almost everyone in Kwangju was a pro-Pyongyang enemy of the state).

Anyway, you can see it with the Mad Cow protests. A legitimate beef (one's own government setting aside in-place safety regulations at the behest of their economically dominant ally) which reasonable people can get behind, distorted and manipulated by disinformation (an irrational fear of a rapid spread of Mad Cow Disease) that itself had some basis in reality (documentation of illegal use of downer cows in the United States and the US's own inadequate Mad Cow screening, as well as other health issues), bundled together in order to reach a critical mass.

Now here's the key: What was the goal? If you think it was to spread anti-Americanism then you have missed the point. Anti-Americanism was merely one of many tools to manipulate public sentiment toward the final goal, which was the ousting of President Lee Myungbak.

This same kind of thing plays out again and again. Each potential issue, regardless of its merits, must be pushed as far as it can go to see which has the potential to resonate with the larger public that is not accustomed to going out and protesting or even attending candlelight vigils. Like blasting solid rock with high-pressure water hoses to see where the one fissure is that will — if the pressure remains high and constant — eventually be the crack that splits the rock in half.

They thought they may have found it with the deaths of the two middle school girls — which was not a mere accident because it involved high degrees of negligence on the part of USFK, which was daily creating a deadly hazard where sleep-deprived soldiers were operating unwieldy machines while using faulty or out-of-order equipment including those used for communications (it was literally an accident waiting to happen, but the fault was with the commanders, probably not the two men who went on trial).

They thought they had it with Mad Cow, where legitimate complaints about the president scrapping legitimate health measures in a quid pro quo to get the US-Korean Free Trade Agreement passed were mixed in with (and eventually overshadowed by) frenzied claims about the real dangers posed by BSE (Mad Cow Disease). In time, some other issue will come up in the future, and these old issues will also be rehashed, too, because maybe the magic formula lies not with one issue, but with a critical mass of issues.

But the vast majority of Koreans has no interest in this. The deaths were tragic, and a lot of reasonable people were angry, but most Koreans don't want the USFK to pull out over this. Each and every South Korean president, from both left and right, has insisted that USFK is needed for South Korean security (Roh Moohyun so much so that he nearly committed political suicide to send troops to Iraq, though his slow-motion deployment was very ham-handed).

That's why we see candlelight vigils in favor of the hard-core protests with rock-throwing and tear gas volleys (though violence can still erupt, as well as graffiti). Anyone can grab a cup and a candle and join a peaceful vigil. Public transportation will take you there.

[above: Not far from my house is Kwanghwamun, which was ground zero for the Mad Cow Protests. Throughout the summer, there were nightly confrontations between the protesters and the police, with many police vehicles being vandalized like this one. Typical of the graffiti is what you see at right, "MB OUT," referring to President Lee Myungbak by the initials of the two characters of his given name. Below that is a slightly bewildering one: "MB = Pedophile." I guess they were testing that one to see if it would pick up traction; it didn't. If I hadn't been so busy, I would have stuck around and taken more pictures.]

And those citizens carrying candles may not realize that their participation is a tool for the ultimate goal of the political arsonists behind the scenes. The tens of thousands of candlelight villagers, many portrayed as meek young girls, are meant as cover for the true vigilantes: the hard-core who we saw in 2008 trying to provoke reactions by the staid and stoic riot police who long ago were participants in the tear gas-infused operas of lore, destroying government buses carrying those soldiers, blocking traffic, writing the graffiti that was to whip up the masses to take down Caesar, er... President Lee.

Sigh. The ultimate goal of this post is to provide some perspective and to point out the meaning of the fact that not only did the vast majority of the public not join in, but they condemned the protests and bought up the supposedly Mad Cow-tainted beef in record numbers. That meaning is that these perpetual protesters in Korea, as per usual, do not represent the whole of Korean society.

South Korea is a nation with a still-powerful enemy that works through many ways and many channels — some overt but many clandestine and insidious — to bring about their ultimate goal. I hate that I sound like some paranoid right-winger when I say things like this, but to anyone who chooses to look objectively behind the headlines, this stuff is just plain obvious.


  1. I enjoyed this post on Seoul protests, Kwangju legacies, and the pro-Pyongyang left. I liked the scope of it. I'm aware of work by Gi-Wook Shin and Sheila Miyoshi Jager about student nationalism, but I wonder if someone could point me in the direction of a more pointed documented critique/expose of North Korean involvement in South Korean student movement, especially in 1960 or 1980. For instance, is there proof of DPRK involvement in those protests?

  2. You mean anecdotal conjecture is not enough for you? ;)

    Seriously, though, I think it would be extremely hard to put something together like that for several reasons, including the illegality of it preventing people from being forthcoming about what they know about others, the unwillingness by people to believe they are being duped, the polarized and politicized nature of such claims, and the very nature of such operatives to hide such connections as part of their overall m.o.

    Back in the 1990s I used to encounter and interact with Gi-wook Shin in various Korea-related online forums. My twenty-something self was less informed and not yet in a Korean studies grad program, but I still shared some ideas with him. Good guy, though he probably doesn't remember me.

  3. Is the photo of Seoul at night, streets full of people, from the 2008 beef protests?


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