Why was this image placed on the website of the ruling political party’s website? Why was some hacker logged on there as an admin, and responding to all commenter’s complaints with the same phrase: “Myung Bak is asleep!” What could possess anyone to do something so foolhardy?
That’s the question I’m trying to answer in this post. It takes a while to get to, but I hope the read is worth it.
(Note: This post is mostly for the benefit of those outside Korea. Those within Korea mostly are reading the lowest-common-denominator commentary at Marmot’s where, as usual, the sport of the day is mocking Koreans.)
Last night, two people were one person was blinded [partially] by the water cannons that police turned on protestors who had converged on Cheong Wa Dae, that is, the “Blue House.” (Yes, “The White House” of Korea.)
(UPDATE: Another person — at least one — got a skull fracture and is under observation, as reported by the woman who treated her, one of the most-read articles on Daum right now. [And while some commenters are claiming she’s not even a doctor, I have it on good authority that she is, for she was a classmate of someone I know!]; another protester got a brain hemorrhage in the same way, and many, many people have reported ruptured eardrums. This casts serious doubt on the honesty of claims by police officials that it’s impossible for the water cannons to cause seriously injury.)
The protests going on are huge these days. The streets have been utterly filled with people — I’ve heard claims that last night’s demonstrations peaked at 70,000 people in Seoul, and probably 100,000 nationwide. They’ve brought ladders with them, so they can go over the police buses that are blocking the roads. They’ve brought raincoats and food, so that they needn’t leave the scene and can fend off at least some of the water from the water cannons being used on them.
But the truncheons are out, and the Korean media has, finally, stopped pretending that everyone at these demonstrations are middle schoolers. It was a lie from the start — I know because I was at the first two demonstrations, and saw the vast majority of people were adults with my own two eyes; Lime saw the same the other day, with Catholic clergy and office workers and mommies with babies in tow all together — and the lie has outworn its usefulness. (Foreign commentators on Marmot’s persist in clinging to it, unsurprisingly.)
President Lee Myung Bak’s response last night, shown on TV, was, “Who bought all those candles? Who’s behind all this?” This is precisely the same sort of response that Korean’s Big (and Right-Wing) Media has been asking for a while.
(Apparently, college students have replied, “Uh… I spent my pocket money?” and some of them have been jokingly claiming, as did Matt, that it’s the candle companies and paper cup manufacturers behind it all.)
But this idea that there must be someone backing this movement, from the shadows… it’s the same attitude that is referred to — uncritically, I might add, as if it were not just as easy to mock — at Marmot’s as a search for “string pullers,” betrays a belief common in the right wing in Korea that anyone who disagrees must be a ninny being manipulated by Communists. Because, after all, the common people would never actually, you know, self-mobilize or give a crap about anything, right?
The protests aren’t really about beef at all, as Iambe commented at Marmot’s recently — a comment so good, I have to quote it here:
There is a slight uniformity of opinion on the comment board here over this issue, and a combination of that opportunistic idiot Sohn and “I don’t want to die” wailing high school kids are granted, ripe for ridicule and render sympathy for their cause a little hard, but it is a little more complicated than “irrational fear of BSE”. I am playing devil’s advocate to a certain extent here, but allow me to elaborate:
The health issue has proven to be a catalyst for some very deep grievances about the LMB administration (his plummeting approval rating is not just amoung the left).
And they go like this:
Dear Lee: Beef was not part of the FTA deal. Given that the FTA is arguably unlikely to pass Congress anyway, capitulating to the US beef lobby just so you could get a Camp David photo opportunity was bound to go down like a lead balloon.
You claim to be the best person to ‘fix’ Korea’s economy. But letting the won drop that far against the dollar just to boost exports is stupid, inflation is rampant, and you just made oil more expensive for unhappy consumers here.
Cack-handed attempts to stifle protests, no matter how irrational the latter are, remind emotional youngsters – keen to emulate the glory of their 386 predecessors – of authoritarianism in the ’70s and ’80s. Given that your party has publicly ridiculed the past two administrations – who, whatever their faults, were committed to democracy and all the raucous frictions that that entails – as a historical anomaly, I don’t find that so suprising.
Your penchant for running things in a highly personalised manner, using personal weight rather than structural tweaking to get things done, again goes down badly with people now used to an almost functioning legal system. (Weber’s rational/legal vs traditional domination). You represent the latter to a lot of people, no matter whether you are right or wrong on the issues.
And when you try and privatise a number of banks, water etc, the right is going to bay for your head too for selling off the national silverware.
Opting for a bragging-rights photo op in an earthquake zone while this is going on at home looks shit too.
By the way. “Arrghhh I don’t want to die from BSE”
(Predictably, other commenters at the site have completely ignored this comment in favor of calling Koreans idiots and making fun of them. Par for the course over there.)
Iambe is perfectly correct: beef was the catalyst, beef is a vehicle, and it’s certainly a “folk devil.” (I cannot remember who used that term recently, but it’s the best use of the time I’ve seen.) It’s very easy to understand why some Koreans are panicked about it, given the kind of information they’ve been given by the media — but also the lack of any other information from the government, and given the horrid track record of beef in Britain and the fact that beef is still used in feed in the US. Slim chance or not, it’s easy to see why people would worry. (And anyway, as mentioned here, even some Americans think the American beef industry is note safe.)
And even if you think it’s irrational, that’s no reason to tell people they have no right to fear, to get angry, and to demonstrate. If opposition kills the FTA, it kills the FTA; life will go on, someho, and to be honest, I have other issues with the FTA, especially the very crappy implications for IP law, the very nature of the Internet, and by implication, not just the electronic freedom but also Korea’s future technical competitiveness.
“Shut up, I’m the boss of you!” does nothing to allay fears, founded or unfounded. It also does little to quell the anger that people have been voicing in these protests. Anger that has much more to with the very attitude with which responses have come.
The protesters, whatever you think about the vehicle, are busily figuring out that their voice can actually make a difference, and that when people gather, they can make and impact. Back in 2002, a friend of mine told me this was what she discovered during a trip to Seoul, during the World Cup soccer game, which was really interesting. She was the one who first mentioned the active promotion of sports (along with sex and… what was the third s? songs? (UPDATE: screen! as in movies!)) as a way of depoliticizing the Korean public during the long postwar dictatorships. Baseball leagues, it began with. But, she said, this was different. Even if it was weird, and silly, and strange, she said, people realized that they could organize, they could gather, and that there was a force that came of gathering in that way.
They didn’t win the soccer games, of course. The force is not magical. But Korea’s democratization was never really completed, as I’ve been saying for some time now. Getting to vote who screws you for the next four or five years isn’t democracy… it’s not all of it. I’ve cited Lawrence Lessig many times before, and I’ll do it again, this time at great length, from his book Free Culture: How Big Media Uses the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity (freely available online):
[D]emocracy has never just been about elections. Democracy means rule by the people, but rule means something more than mere elections. In our tradition, it also means control through reasoned dis-
course. This was the idea that captured the imagination of Alexis de Tocqueville, the nineteenth-century French lawyer who wrote the most important account of early “Democracy in America.” It wasn’t popular elections that fascinated him—it was the jury, an institution that gave ordinary people the right to choose life or death for other citizens. And most fascinating for him was that the jury didn’t just vote about the outcome they would impose. They deliberated. Members argued about the “right” result; they tried to persuade each other of the “right” result, and in criminal cases at least, they had to agree upon a unanimous result for the process to come to an end.
Yet even this institution flags in American life today. And in its place, there is no systematic effort to enable citizen deliberation. Some are pushing to create just such an institution. And in some towns in New England, something close to deliberation remains. But for most of us for most of the time, there is no time or place for “democratic deliberation” to occur.
More bizarrely, there is generally not even permission for it to occur. We, the most powerful democracy in the world, have developed a strong norm against talking about politics. It’s fine to talk about politics with people you agree with. But it is rude to argue about politics with people you disagree with. Political discourse becomes isolated, and isolated discourse becomes more extreme. We say what our friends want to hear, and hear very little beyond what our friends say.
Enter the blog. The blog’s very architecture solves one part of this problem. People post when they want to post, and people read when they want to read. The most difficult time is synchronous time. Technologies that enable asynchronous communication, such as e-mail, increase the opportunity for communication. Blogs allow for public discourse without the public ever needing to gather in a single public place.
But beyond architecture, blogs also have solved the problem of norms. There’s no norm (yet) in blog space not to talk about politics. Indeed, the space is filled with political speech, on both the right and the left. Some of the most popular sites are conservative or libertarian, but there are many of all political stripes. And even blogs that are not political cover political issues when the occasion merits.
Two things are notable: the first is that, in Korea, the notion of citizen deliberation never really got coupled into democracy. That’s not surprising, since there it’s a big tradition of citizen deliberation.The tradition is of monarchs until only a hundred years ago, and then foreign occupiers until fifty years ago, and then dictators until pretty close to 20 years ago.
This is clearly visible in the election process, described in vivid detail here, so I’ll summarize: there are no debates, no town hall meetings, and there is very little intelligent reportage. Worse, at times when elections are approaching, South Korean citizens are indeed forbidden to post their personal opinions online if the posting is an effort to affect the election. You got that right: citizens can be fined or jailed for posting information — true or false — or even just opinions online if those opinions are deemed to have been posted in order to affect the elections.
Lessig argues that the tradition of citizen deliberation is flagging in America, being forgotten; in Korea, it never actually even got soldered onto the imported, second-hand democratic machinery. Democracy doesn’t really come with a user’s handbook, but there is a history to learn and study. That didn’t get sone here; instead, educators were relentlessly opposed to “Americanizing” education, and fled into the solipsistic lion’s den of building national identity by importing from a much more problematic source: race-based nationalism, bloodline-fetishism, and more of what Japan imported from Central Europe and left lying around in the ruins of their colony in Korea.
And since democracy has actually arrived, there hasn’t really been a concerted effort to fill in the gaps. Political debates for elections? Why? Intellectual discussion of politics on TV? Why, when we can have tin-pan-lid-karaoke? That’s not to say Koreans have no inkling of democracy, of course. Peasant uprisings in the past have segued rather neatly into anti-colonial protests, and the “demos” throughout the dictatorships. And that’s what we’re really looking at here: the postmodern equivalent of a peasant uprising. The rhetoric surrounding it may not be reasoned, the motivations may not be expressed in a reasoned way, but peasant uprisings are always bad for the rulers, and dangerous to the status quo. They have been a kind of stopgap democratic force, in history… but always short-lived, and rarely all that effective in the achievement of any shared social goals, or formation of a consensus. And they have often been conducted in ways that look a lot like peasant uprisings must have done.
This is probably why the restrictions on demonstrations are so much more strict here than in the West. When a wall was built in Quebec City to cordon off the protesters during the Summit of the Americas meeting there in 2001, my friends and I were struck with the bizarre strangeness of it; limiting people’s movements could be understood to some degree — nobody wanted any would-be assassin to use the protest as a cover, for example — but a wall? And mass use of tear gas and rubber bullets?
In Korea, if you want to demonstrate, you have to book it ahead. You do not have the right of assembly, meaning that if your protest was not booked ahead of time, it is illegal and you can be dispersed or arrested by the police. This is, obviously, a remnant of the era of dictators, but it’s still in place and was recently thrown in the face of protesters: at the second demonstration I witnessed in Seoul, the police were saying, “This protest was registered as having so-and-so many participants! You have too many people now, so this is illegal! Go home!”
And then there’s the cordon. I stood by the cordon, watching police prevent people from coming or going into the protest area. Now, if you think for a moment, that’s a very interesting thing: why cordon off the area of protest? Why not just have cops at the perimeter? Why make it harder for people to come and go than it has to be? The answer, of course, has nothing to do with public safety: the location of the protest must be booked as well. At the second protest I was at, the location of the protest had been booked, but there was also an impromptu stage (that appeared overnight, seemingly) covered with half-naked Korean women bellydancing and rappers rapping. The music from their “performance” overpowered even the megaphones-and-microphones of the protesters. One wondered just whom it was who booked this “Street Culture Festival,” and when. It wasn’t too festive: the same three groups performed constantly during the time I was there.
The cordon is really a reminder to every protester present: We are still in control. We control you. You can protest here, because we give you that freedom. But don’t you dare imagine you are free to do this anywhere else.
And this is the rule that the protesters have finally broken: now that Lee is back in Korea — back from making friendly with China — the protesters decided it was time to move their protest to the front of the Blue House, and they marched there. The cops blocked the road well in advance, but they broke past, en masse, and demonstrated.
Now, far be it from me to excuse all that the protesters have been doing. Trying to get into the Blue House is utter stupidity, and would in any developed country be begging for arrest and long incarceration. But the problem is, Koreans haven’t really figured out what to do when protests get out of hand. Korea doesn’t have a tradition for that, because really, protests led to crackdowns, and things never ended well. Kwangju is only one example, the most extreme perhaps. The longer that the government dismisses protesters, though, the longer that the government fails to provide some argument to back up its policies — something tangible for opponents to busy themselves disagreeing with — the worse these demonstrations are going to get. Lee’s now the President with the quickest shift in Korean history from election (albeit in the most apathetic election yet, and with only 48.7% support) tobeing subject to popular demands for impeachment.
Netizens in Korea have a bad reputation in the mainstream media, and sometimes they deserve it. But right now some netizens are essentially attempting to use the Net to do the only thing they know how, absent the tradition of citizen deliberation:
They’re lashing out.
At least the lashing out online is good for our amusement. I’ve already mentioned the amusing “Fuck You” donations made to Shim Jae Chulin in order to deplete his discretionary budget. Well, this morning the website for President Lee’s party, the Han Nara Party, was down. (It’s inaccessible right now, having experienced the Korean equivalent of being Slashdotted or BoingBoinged or DOS attacked, too.) The reason?
And last but not least, here’s that animated image of that dancing cat mentioned above:
The finer points of the reference are probably not necessary, but the pointed implication is an unflattering comparison between the President and the rodents which cats are usually relied upon to catch and eat. Personally, not my kind of humor, but hey, it’s a dancing cat, and the Internet was made for the posting of Cat Pictures. So… well, there it is. Today, only a few months into Lee’s tenure as President, his website got hacked and cat pics were used to insult him online.
My prediction? Watch for Lee’s already-considerable love affair with censorship to bloom into some kind of full-blown crackdown on the Internet. After all, if he’s so buddy-buddy with China, and enough morons in Korea are willing to swallow just about any excuse for a crackdown, as long as it contains the word “left” or “communist.”
The problem is that all this restriction will not really punish the kinds of people who hack government web pages. They punish everyone, and they effectively will be the equivalent of performing an abortion on the nascent online movement of citizen deliberation that could, in the long run, come of Korean “netizen” culture which, after all, is still in its early infancy — something most commentators have constantly and almost studiously failed to recognize.
As I’ve written before, Lee’s Administration is not unique in its love of censorship: they are, however, alarmingly more comfortable with it. This isn’t a surprise, but it should be cause for alarm and vigilance. I suspect the days where installing some privacy software, and for me to establish a separate blog for comments on Korean politics, may be fast approaching.
That’s why I think the cat was posted: it’s like the peasant-uprising styled behaviour on the street, where people are fighting for the right to say something, somewhere, but not used to knowing what to do when that chance is finally found, and not knowing quite what to say.
Is hacking okay? No. But neither are censoring people and shutting down the large, messy processes of what remains here still only nascent democracy.
UPDATE: I meant also to post about this — more humor used to fight back against the government’s retrogressive ways — but you can read it for yourself.