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27 Jun 2008

A light in the dark – As regular readers (if I still indeed have any of those left) know, I don’t usually write about politics here at Liminality. There are a number of reasons for this. For one, I don’t have enough of an interest in politics to keep as informed as I need to be to write anything of substance about it. There’s also the fact that, no matter how informed and intelligent you may be, most people who don’t agree with you are still going to be convinced that you’re just pulling stuff out of your butt.

“People have been daily marching through the streets of downtown Seoul, carrying little beacons of light in symbolic protest against the darkness of the age. At least, this is what I am told.”

So why break that grand tradition of staying away from politics? I don’t know. Maybe I haven’t gotten enough hate mail recently. Maybe I’m just a glutton for punishment. Or maybe I just need to get stuff off my chest after having to hear every day on the news about people marching around with candles. Whatever the case, I decided to write about politics. I started working on this entry on Tuesday, and I have been fiddling with it (and debating whether I should even bother posting it) since then. Here we go.

Last Friday evening, after we had finished eating dinner, Hyunjin suggested that we go have a look at the candlelight demonstrations. For those of you not up on the latest events in Korea, the candlelight demonstrations have been going on for ages now (or at least it seems like that—they started in the beginning of May), and people have been daily marching through the streets of downtown Seoul, carrying little beacons of light in symbolic protest against the darkness of the age. At least, this is what I am told.

The demonstrations began as a protest against the Korean government’s handling of the issue of beef imports from America. Basically, people felt that Lee Myung-bak and his administration were not transparent in their dealings, and that they endangered the nation’s health and welfare. For a while there were a lot of people participating in the demonstrations—some realistic estimates had the highest figure at a couple hundred thousand people—but the numbers have been steadily dwindling. Hyunjin wanted to have a look for herself before they dwindled any further, and I figured it would make an interesting excursion.

We left our apartment at around half past eight, hopped on the subway, and went straight to the City Hall station (one nice thing about living here is that the city center is not too far away). When we emerged from the station at around nine o’clock, the head of the column had just passed by and the main body of the crowd filled both lanes of the very broad street. I climbed up onto the stone wall surrounding the stairs into the subway station and started taking photos.

I then got down, put the camera on top of the wall, and took a few longer exposures. In this next photo I like how the people left of center are standing motionless, just watching the lights go by.

We stayed there until most of the crowd had passed by and then slowly made our way northward. Despite being a crowd, the people were moving pretty quickly, and we realized that we would never be able to catch up to the head of the column unless we took a shortcut. Hyunjin asked one of the protestors where they were going, and then we cut through some back alleys until we got to the head of the column again.

The march wound through central Seoul in a big loop in an effort to pick up supporters along the way. When we were prevented from crossing the street thanks to barriers down the middle, we ended up walking along with the protestors for a while, and a guy carrying extra candles approached us and asked if we wanted one. We elected to remain in the dark and he went off to spread the light elsewhere.

When we finally reached the head of the column, we stayed by the side of the road to watch everyone pass by. The protestors consisted of people from various groups, many of them university students.

The flag here is from a university, and it appears to be Chungang University. The red characters in the upper part of the flag spell “Uihyeol,” which means “blood spilled for justice/righteousness” (literally, “righteous blood”). It struck me as rather militant (not to mention a bit creepy) for a peaceful demonstration. I imagine that the phrase is intended to evoke memories of the demonstrations for democracy in the 1980s. Apparently some of the protestors feel they are following in the tradition of those historical demonstrations, but personally I think it’s a bit of a stretch at best.

When everyone had passed by, I estimated that the demonstrators probably numbered near ten thousand at best, but it was hard to say. We later found out that the police estimated that three thousand people showed up, while the organizers estimated that nearly twenty thousand people participated. Since the organizers’ estimates have been extremely inflated (they estimated that they reached a million people, which is pretty ridiculous), I’m guessing I wasn’t too far off. With not much more to see, we made our way back to the grassy (now muddy) square in front of City Hall, which has become the base of operations for the protest.

In a rather odd twist, protestors and interested citizens watch news coverage of the demonstrations—which are at the very moment taking place a few hundred meters away. It reminds me of the Yonsei riots (demonstrations, whatever) in 96, when I was huddled in the central room of our boarding house with a towel wrapped around my head along with everyone else (because the tear gas had seeped into the outer rooms), watching on television what was happening fifty meters down the street.

On the left you may notice a shirt that says “OUT” above the number 2 in a red cross-out sign—this is a play on words, since “two” in Korean (sino-Korean, actually) and the president’s last name are homophones.

All around the square (it’s actually a big circle), tents are set up that act as information booths for the various organizations participating in the demonstrations. The standing sign on the left is advertising a publication called “Matbul,” which is translated at the bottom as “Counterfire.” I think it’s a clever but slightly dangerous translation. “Bul” in Korea simply means “fire” in the sense of “flames,” whereas “counterfire” in English generally means “gunfire”—thus turning a symbol of hope and light into something quite aggressive and militant. It is true that the original Korean is somewhat aggressive (“Mat” is a prefix similar to “counter” in English—it is used in “matseoda,” for example, which means “to stand against”), but the translation makes it downright militant.(In what was certainly meant to be a tone of defiance, the latest issue of Counterfire proclaims, “The candlelight resistance is not yet over!”)

The banner hanging at the bottom of the booth on the right is cut off, but in full it says “You (plural) are illegal, we are constitutional” on the top and “Negotiations are null! Complete renegotiations!” on the bottom. This refers to the deal concerning American beef imports. I will admit to not being completely aware of all the ins and outs of the beef dealings, but a public announcement of the additional negotiations was made yesterday and went into effect immediately. I’m not sure if this means that the protestors are protesting these additional negotiations or if they plan on finding something new to protest now.

On our way home we circled back around and stopped by the intersection of Sejong-no and Chong-no, where we saw the new barricades that had been erected across the street to prevent protestors from marching on the Blue House. The original barricades were made of shipping containers, but the new barricades are much more stylish, although you can’t really see them all that well in this photo—my flash doesn’t carry that far.

Actually, we weren’t there to see the barricades. We were there because there is a place on that corner that Hyunjin says serves really tasty waffles topped with chocolate and cream and all sorts of other things that are not good for you. Unfortunately, it was nearly 10:00 by then, and the place had just closed. I briefly considered lighting a candle outside in protest, but we ultimately decided just to head home.

Along the way, we were handed various materials, namely two glossy placard-type signs and a newsletter. When we got home I laid these out on the table and took a photo of them.

Even if you don’t read Korean, you’ll probably notice that these three materials have one thing in common: the English word “out.” You may also notice that the Korean word that precedes “out” is the same in all three instances. That’s the name of the president, Lee Myung-bak, and the intention should be clear. Even if it hadn’t been for these posters, we would have gotten the message—the lead truck that trundled along slowly in front of the parade of protestors held several men with megaphones continuously shouting, “Lee Myung-bak, step down!”

Besides calling for the president’s resignation, the two colored posters list the sins of which he is guilty. On the red poster on the left, we have: “Mad Cow Disease, Explosive Rise in Prices, Low Wages, and Evil Law of Irregular Jobs.” That last one needs a bit of an explanation. Basically, “irregular job” refers to non-salaried jobs, or those that are paid by the hour. The “evil law” in question states that if non-salaried workers work a certain amount of hours per week for one year, their employers must give them a salaried job. Great idea, right? Well, I suppose it would be, if employers were ethical. Basically what has happened is that employers are doing everything in their power to ensure that their non-salaried workers don’t meet the requirements of the law. This includes firing workers before they reach one year or refusing to give them enough hours to qualify for a salaried position.

The interesting thing is that this law was passed during the previous administration—Lee Myung-back had nothing to do with it. Of course, a lot of the people protesting this law expected things to change when Lee took office, and they are growing impatient with what they perceive as inactivity on the part of the government. I’m not going to get into the details, mainly because I’m not familiar with them, but it seems a tad odd to list a law that Lee had nothing to do with as a reason he should resign.

The green poster on the right goes into more detail, listing sins such as (in order) importing mad cow beef, competitive education, privatization of health insurance, pushing through the great canal plan, privatization of water, electricity, and gas, and attempting to seize control of broadcast media. Again, I will not go into detail. The newsletter on the bottom calls for the abolition of non-salaried positions.

Ultimately, though, I don’t think that any of these issues really matter—not even the mad cow beef issue. Seeing how many new issues are cropping up, I find myself tempted to say that the protests are no longer about mad cow disease, but I don’t think that’s precisely true either. After watching the protests on the news and now seeing them for myself, I get the feeling that they were never about mad cow disease. This may seem to go against logic, especially considering what I said above about the protests starting as a protest of the government’s handling of the mad cow beef issue. I should make one thing clear: back in the heyday of the demonstrations, when several hundred thousand people gathered in the city center, I am sure that a large proportion of those people were protesting the mad cow beef issue. But that doesn’t mean that the organizers and the leaders of the demonstrations really care about mad cow disease.

Back when the streets were overflowing with people, it was easy to be blinded by the big issues being bandied about. Now that things are dwindling down, though, the moderates have left and only the hard-core protestors are left. My impression is that the people behind the demonstrations ultimately want one thing: to disrupt the government, maybe even topple it if they can. Mad cow disease, the “evil law” concerning irregular jobs, the privatization of various sectors—all of these are just means to an end. The organizers used these issues to get people to rally to their cause, whether they realized it or not (and I’m guessing that most didn’t).

One way of looking at it would be to say they want to drive Lee Myung-bak out of the Blue House because they believe that all these issues they are protesting will be solved if he leaves power. Honestly, though, I think that is a rather naïve way of looking at things. When the demonstrations drew hundreds of thousands of people, I’m sure that most of those people wanted change for the better. The people who are left now, though, don’t want positive change—they want change in the form of destruction (witness the clever subversion of candlelight into aggressive action with “Counterfire”). If Lee were to step down and Jesus Christ himself were to ascend from heaven and establish his thousand-year reign of peace on earth, with Seoul as the New Jerusalem, I wouldn’t be surprised if these people took to the streets once again in protest. In a word, the protests are about protesting—it is their raison d’être.

But this is just one man’s opinion, and what do I know, right? I’ve lived in Korea for over a decade now, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I understand everything that goes on around here. If you’ve got a different take on the issue, I’d be glad to hear from you (although, judging by the number of responses I’ve gotten to the survey I posted last week, I’m guessing that I don’t have too many readers left in Korea anyway. Would it help if I told you that I am on my knees as I type this, begging for your help? Just ten or fifteen minutes of your time is all I’m asking— please help me out. Thanks.)

An hour or so ago I entered all of my grades into the school’s system and officially finished up the semester. In a little over three hours from now, I will be heading out the door on my way to the airport and a land of sun and surf, where Hyunjin and I will be spending the next three or four days not even thinking about politics. Have a good weekend.

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