By Lee Yu Kyung / July 05, 2009
“This is what had happened 22 years ago when I was a university student. Now my son is 20s, one generation has passed. But the violent crackdown is being repeated now. Still the same! How come!”
As police forces were smashing down shields and baton charges on peaceful demonstrators, one middle-aged man bitterly wailing in the middle of chaos, in which tens of thousands people were screaming and running to all directions to avoid shields, batons and ‘tear water’. It was late night of June 10th 2009.
Minutes later, one man was seen to be taken by several policemen by force. Then a woman Lawyer, whose mission was to monitor human rights violations at protest site, rushed to follow the arrestee and asked the police ‘why arrest?’ She kept requesting policemen to allow interview with the arrestee to give him a legal service. The poor man visibly had a mental problem, but the legitimate request by the lawyer was not accepted.
What’s happening now has reminded people in Korea of what was happening during the ‘June Uprising’ in 1987, although it’s not technically same. Today was the 22nd anniversary of the Uprising, which was triggered by a death of Lee Han-Yeol, a student killed by teargas in a protest against the then military dictator Chun Doo Hwan. The death had become a catalyst of the Uprising, irritating hundreds of thousands people to the street to chant out, ‘Get out Chun Doo Whan!’, ‘Down with Dictatorship!’ Today’s slogans were not different from the ones of 1987, except the name of ‘dictator’.
Down with Dictator’, Again
South Korea is a country, which never missed a street demonstration no matter what it is workers’ strike, farmers’ protest, anti-war march or various street campaigns, including the right wing-organized ‘anti-North Korea’ protest.
In terms of ‘violence in a street’, however, it has been quite missing during Kim Dae-Jung government (1998-2002) and his successor Roh Moo-Hyun’s (2003-2007), which many called ’the 10 years liberal regimes’, while the then opposition Grand National Party (or the GNP) – now in power- has called ‘the lost ten-years’. Police crackdown was less violent without teargas during the ‘lost ten-years’. Molotov cocktails and sticks had been nearly disappeared accordingly. Freedom of expression with highest broadband internet on earth has championed in Asia, where hardly any country has been enjoying genuine or stable press freedom and democracy. The well-learnt lesson from the Kwang-Ju Uprising of 1980 and the democratization onwards have been admired by many and inspired many in Asia.
Things have turned over since early 2008, when Lee Myung-Bak (or Lee MB) was inaugurated as a President. People, including many of those who voted for Lee MB with illusion that the former CEO of Hyundai Corporation – the monopoly company – is a moderate conservative and could revive the economy, have been out crying that they’re suffocated with worsen freedom of expression. Six people have lost their lives in Young-san neighbourhood in Seoul as a consequence of violent oppression while protesting against an imminent forced eviction on 20th January. 1,500 special task police forces were dispatched to disperse about 50 protesters at the time. Justice system is being used to retaliate political woes, such as the late President Roh Moo Hyun, who had tried not to intervene Justice System. It is tooled for silencing critical media as well, for instance, the popular documentary programme ‘PD Notebook’ of MBC TV.
The programme has provided crucial information and analysis on ‘mad cow disease’ last year, chipping in months-running protest against resuming US beef imports. In return, the journalists and writers of ‘PD Notebook’ were indicted for spreading ‘false information’. On 18th June the prosecutors have disclosed parts of email contents of one of the programme’s writers, claiming that the email was an evidence of programme’s ill-intention to defame government, whereas the writer has claimed the revealed contents were distortedly edited out of the far longer original to fit into the government ill-intention. This Orwellian disclosure has stunned the society, attracting criticism to intrude one’s privacy.
“The prosecutors have abandoned their independence and dignity as a Justice servant to flatter the regime now. Shame on them.” Lee Jung-Hee(40), the former lawyer and now a lawmaker from the Democratic Labor Party (or DLP), said.
“I thought democracy itself wouldn’t be challenged even if the conservative GNP came to power. I never thought this much roll back of democracy by the GNP government.” Kim Young-Kum (40) in Seoul Plaza, where the commemorative event of ‘1987 June Uprising’ was taking place hours before the violent crackdown, said.
The government have habitually announced earlier that the event will turn to be violent and illegal. Dozens of Police buses had encircled the Plaza for many days to prevent people from getting into the Plaza for the Event, but in vain.
“I’m here to witness what’s really happening because I cannot trust media reports about demonstration” Cho Ha-Kyung (17), the high school girl said.
Cho was one of hundreds of high school students, who have issued a ‘High School Student’s Statement’ on a crisis of democracy. Likewise, a statement from various walks of life, such as professors, school teachers, who would be disciplined by Ministry of Education later on, media workers, artists, and writers have been continued to be issued since early of June. Nonetheless Lee MB, whose nickname is a ‘bulldozer’, was going to crackdown relying on excessive forces.
“Besides order by senior commanders, individual policemen also use excessive forces their own with kind of impunity, I think. For example, the policeman who was horribly kicking a woman protester in head and elsewhere last year, was ‘detained’ only for 7 days as a ‘punishment’. We don’t know how the policeman was treated while detained”
Kim Hee-Jin, the secretary general of Amnesty International (or AI) in Seoul Office has explained.
According the Amnesty International, the subjects of its recent reports on South Korea have been ‘widened’.
“Since the year of 2000, we talked about migrant workers, refugees, conscientious objectors, death sentence and National Security Law. Now we also talked about freedom of expression and media issues, which have emerged first in ten years. In terms of the subjects of the Report, the Country has similarity to those developing world.” Ms. Kim said.
When asked how well implemented AI’s recommendations by the authority and the police, Ms. Kim replied,
“Well, just little bit. Let me give an example. We recommended ‘not to use fire extinguisher’ on demonstrators. They now use instead ‘teat water’, which is worse.”
Suffocating ‘Plaza’, tearing peaceful gathering
The heavy-handed suppressions in ‘off-line Plaza’ have been conducted in ‘on-line plaza’ simultaneously. Various debate boards and blog sites are under surveillance. ‘Defamation’ or ‘false information’ is an excuse of the on-line crackdown by the authority.
The case of Park Dae-Sung (alias ‘Minerva’), who has sharply predicted a collapse of US investment bank Lehman Brothers last September, was an outstanding example. He was apprehended for the prophecy on a charge of ‘spreading false information’. He believes that he was jailed for his criticism on economic policy of the government. Absurdly, his case was taken charge by Narcotics and Organized Crimes Department at the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office. This has terribly affected his social life, even after being acquitted.
“I’ve lost many friends, who received calls from investigators of the ‘Narcotic department’ just because they’re on my friends’ list. I’m feeling too sorry to contact some of them, even after I was acquitted.”
Minerva, the self-taught economic pundit, is kind of ‘reading addict’ not a ‘drug addict’. During the interrogation, he has found that the interrogators from Narcotic Department were so ignorant about internet world.
Minerva has become ‘sensitive’ at night and has ‘lost dream’ while sleeping as side effects from 100 days jailed life. But he doesn’t lose his dream in his real life. He will study economics in the USA with sponsor of some Korean-Americans from next year.
“I used to be an onlooker but realized that nothing can be changed without participation and action against injustice”. Minerva said.
Lame Duck’ from the beginning
It is widely understood that a phenomenon of ‘Lame duck’ of the Lee MB administration has been signalled even before he was inaugurated to the presidency. Early 2008, the Presidential Transition Team has tried to attach the National Human Rights Commission to the President office for direct control. Having received protests from the both domestic and international rights groups including the UN body, it has ‘reserved’ the idea but has continued to bother the Committee. After strong recommendations from the Committee regarding a crackdown on the Candle light protest last year, the government has tried to ‘reconstruct’ of the Committee by diminishing of its staffs up to 50%. Eventually 21% of its staffs are waiting to be laid off sooner than later as of end of June.
“We had understood that the former government was not happy with our activity but it lets us do what we had to, whereas the incumbent has attempted to control the Commission in one or another way from the beginning”.
Kim Chil-Joon, the secretary general of National Human Rights Commission has said. The ‘attempt’ by the Lee MB administration is vividly reflected on the GNP-proposed media laws, which will allow Chaebol (the monopoly corporations that overwhelm the South Korean economy) and the conservative newspapers (namely Chosun ilbo, Jungang ilbo, Donga ilbo or “Cho-Jung-Dong” in short), to own broadcasting company to air the ‘news’.
“We will never tolerate the laws. Public broadcasting news has made public opinions balanced versus conservatives’ domination from print media at least. If there’s a ‘Cho-Jung-Dong Broadcast News’, monopolization of righting wing media would be even further up to threat Democracy”
Choi San-Je, a chairperson of the National Union of Media workers, has extremely worried.
The “Cho-Jung-Dong”, which have tirelessly advocate hatred policy against North Korea, have occupied two third of media markets with collaboration with the Power and illegal means, among which is a free gift distribution. They, with no one’s doubt, have enormously contributed for Lee MB to become President.
“Media workers have owed workers, farmers and students for the country’s democratization. The June Uprising in 1987 and its consequent workers’ general strike from July to September of the same year has generated Media Workers’ Union,” Choi has continued.
Memory of June : War and Uprising
As a month of June is about to end, the ruling GNP and the opposition have been extremely confronted due to the media laws as well as the laws on non-regular workers. June in South Korea is indeed a month of confrontation. It is a month of uprising and a month of war as well. The memory of three years Korean War, which broke out on June 25th 1950, has overwhelmed the country for generations to justify the successive right wing dictatorships against left leaning people’s movement. The ‘memory’ and ‘justification’ seem to have not died out yet.
As Lee MB administration has tried to upset his precedent’s policy including the reconciliatory ‘Sun-Shine policy’ towards North Korea, it has ended to provide the hungry North with unconditional fertilizer aid and rice. Tensions of the two Koreas have escalated ever since the Lee’s tougher stance has met with North Korea’s rocket launch in April and Nuclear test in May, while the ‘neo-liberal dictator’ Lee MB has bulldozed the hard-earned democracy by people’s movement.
“There are some evidences that Lee MB administration would politicize the worsening situation of Korean Peninsular to driven out critical eyes from domestic challenges to the North threats,” Jeong Wook-Sik (36), a representative of Peace Network and an expert of North Korea, has analysed.
“Earlier this month, the National Intelligence Service –the main intelligence service of South Korea – has called lawmakers in person to ‘inform’ about succession of the North leadership ‘seemingly on purpose’. Some military commanders at high level have continued to spell out strong words against the North, for instance, “if the North Korea touches our finger, we will chop their wrists”. The North Korean-styled words by commanders hardly were out there before”.
Such words were also heard after the North leader Kim Jong-il reportedly suffered a stroke last August. Gen. Walter Sharp, who’s a Commander of the ROK-US Combined Forces Command, has talked about ‘US-Korea combined troops into North Korea in emergency’. Some bureaucrats in the South have said then ‘waging preemptive strike on North Korea’s nuclear facility’.
“Although I don’t see LEE MB has aggressively pursued the hatred policy against the North, there are possibilities that the LEE administration let the North and the South militarily clash and use that confrontation, in which the Administration and right wing extremists stand in hands against the North”. Prof. Cho Hee-Yoen, the progressive scholar of Songkonghoe University, has pointed out.
Certainly, many South Koreans have been frustrated with the staunch hard liner in North, who has so much ambitioned of developing Nuclear power, neglecting starvation of its own people. Yet, like Choi Hyung-Mook(54), people are not happy with LEE MB‘s path towards confrontation with the North either.
“Even for our survival, we shouldn’t confront with North Korea but pursue dialogue utmost.”
Outraged at a renaissance of ‘neo liberal dictatorship’ in South Korea, frustrated with harsh rhetoric and all sorts of ‘tests’ by ‘feudal communist dictatorship’ in North Korea, democratic citizens in South Korean are anxiety as to what’s next in the Peninsular. And many are wondering what the fate of Lee MB, who has already had 14 criminal records, would be, after his tenure will be expired as well as the fate of ‘Dear Leader’ in the North, which has test-fired another four short range missiles on July 4th.