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May 1, 2017 | by  | in Features |
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Not My President, But My Country

On the last day of March, 2017, President Park Geun-hye was arrested for the part she played in a major 2016 South Korean political scandal. By then it was three months after her official impeachment, but that time was not enough to dilute the drama of the occasion. Some commentators argue that Park Geun-hye was never legitimately voted in as president in the first place and that the voting process had been tampered with. Nevertheless, polls before and after the election indicated that Park Geun-hye had a significant number of supporters. These supporters continued to remain vocal for a long time.

***

When Park Geun-hye was appointed in 2012, Time magazine introduced her sporting impeccable hair and an artfully cut garment, slightly turned away from the camera with a noblesse oblige smile, a perfectly preserved “Strongman’s Daughter.” In the shadow of her father, the dictator Park Chung-hee, she entered the political arena, and her primary appeal was her link with the past. Park Geun-hye rose as a leader of the conservative wing because she was a stand-in for the glories and the gore of the bygone days.

During the lead up to the 2012 election, Park Geun-hye’s primary rhetorical tactic was to attack the faults of the previous government and the left-leaning candidates, and insisted that  “If I became a president, I will proceed with clarity about those matters.” Repeatedly she equated her presidency with the miraculous achievement of grand goals without substantially backing up her claims with a plan of action.

When a fresh disaster struck, President Park Geun-hye’s immediate response was to call forth the subordinate and inquire what’s going on with the government, why, and what could be done better. Over and over the citizens saw her issue an inquiry, shift the blame and the responsibility to one of the ministers, and then step back. For Park Geun-hye, the president was the figurehead who represented the democratic power that enabled the state to function, who repeated the voice of the people, and allowed the autonomy of the state to manifest itself. There was no need to chair the discussion, lead the action, investigate the issue, or develop a plan.

As her autobiography suggests, the presidential position was simply a part of her identity, and her narrative of loss and return; an era ended with the death of her father Park Chung-hee, and the world that Park Geun-hye knew died with that era. Her goal was to be the sceptre — a visible reminder of the time when an order could be issued, be obeyed, and magically bring about results. Her goal was to be the channel through which power flowed. Park Geun-hye hardly had any power to lose, but a certain kind of political power accompanied her presence, as she willingly remained as an embodiment of her father’s dictatorial era.

Park Geun-hye’s downfall in 2016 came with the disillusionment of the people. She had promised to be the sceptre of political power, and a charismatic head of the state. Yet time and time again, her power failed her people. When the Sewol ferry sank in 2014, and 304 lives were lost — 250 of which were high school students — she remained absent, and her government failed to respond to the disaster in a timely manner.

Park Geun-hye’s downfall was also based on her past actions while in office. Investigations dug up a series of interwoven crimes, lobbies, and shady deals, at the centre of which was an unofficial adviser to the president — the wielder of the sceptre — Choi Sun-sil. The single individual who had the freedom to influence everything from the appearance of the president to the presidential speech, was none other than the daughter of Choi Tae-min, a cult leader.

 

President Park Chung-hee (left), Park Geun-hye (centre), and Choi Tae-min (right). 1976. Korea Times.President Park Chung-hee (left), Park Geun-hye (centre), and Choi Tae-min (right). 1976. Korea Times.

 

Using his new blend of spiritualism, Choi Tae-min reached out to young Park Geun-hye, who was dealing with the loss of her mother who had been assassinated by Mun Se-gwang in 1974. The public shooting of the first lady would have been a traumatic event on its own, but Park Geun-hye was also stepping into the political arena to fill her mother’s place, and Choi Tae-min readily presented himself as a medium and a parental figure.

After Park Chung-hee was assassinated by the head of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, Kim Jae-gyu, in 1979, Park Geun-hye withdrew, retreating further into the inner circle of Choi Tae-min’s congregation. Conspiracy theorists even go on to imply that Park Geun-hye gained a child from Choi.

After Choi Tae-min’s death in 1994, his authority as a cult leader and the advisory role was transferred to his daughter Choi Sun-sil, who was by then like a sister to Park Geun-hye. In April, 2017, Choi Sun-sil testified that her relationship with Park Geun-hye is based on “loyalty and fidelity.” Whose loyalty to whom? That question is yet to be answered.

***

Before Park Geun-hye, Korea had elected a shady businessman as a president. President Lee Myung-bak, who came to power in 2008, was a shrewd son of a poor family. Lee Myung-bak played up to the fantasy of social mobility, where a poor man can be made rich through hard work and intelligence, and economy can be improved dramatically by a few strategically placed redevelopment projects. By the end of his term in 2013, Lee Myung-bak left many families disillusioned and bitter about the cost of living. A group of people felt that it was time to fight for a better democratic system. Another group, the slightly older generation who remembered Park Chung-hee and had lived through the period of economic depression, turned to the familiar tactic of Saemaul Undong.

Supporters of the late Park Chung-hee give him the credit for Saemaul Undong, a government-led movement that in the 1970s called for collective sacrifices and compromises in order to modernise the then rural Korean economy. Citizens were asked to voluntarily give up the small luxuries of life. People came together to enrich the country and to protect it from the perceived threat of communism. The strategy delivered results. Korea’s economy grew substantially during the 1970s and ’80s, dubbed “The Miracle on the Han River.” Then the IMF came.

Of course, to most of the world, IMF stands for the International Monetary Fund. But to Koreans aged over 20, IMF stands for the Asian Financial Crisis of the late ’90s and subsequent economic restructuring. This crisis caused individual homes to feel the chill of national debt, and the suicide rate rose dramatically. The sentiment behind Saemaul Undong manifested itself as a new campaign. Households gave up their gold jewellery, such as wedding rings or the sentimental tokens for newborn babies, to pay off the national debt. Never mind where the gold really went.

The success of Saemaul Undong and collection of gold had a strong emotional resonance for the generations who lived through colonialism, division of country, military coup, and financial hardship in short successions. Repeatedly, the country was on the brink of collapse, and citizens were called in to defend the right to have a country. As time passed, and memories dulled, Park Chung-hee’s dictatorship was redeemed in retrospect by Korea’s miraculous rise from debt to prominence. The man became a figurehead for misplaced patriotism, and the violence he perpetrated is brushed under the carpet, along with other histories of similar nature.  

As Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump discovered, misplaced patriotism works well for conservative bigots. “Make America Great Again” is a magic phrase for the Trump administration. “Let’s make Korea great again and show the world” was equally effective for Park Geun-hye, until she failed to bring back the Miracle of Han River. The votes for Park Geun-hye in 2012 were cast as an expressive gesture, where a certain kind of group wished to assert that they were there with their history of pride, woes, aspirations, traumas, and wishful thinking.

In Korea, patriotism stems from pride in the fact that our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents fought against the odds to reclaim our nationality and to make democracy flourish. This pride, as you might see, is based on the myth that something can be miraculously achieved out of nothing if we all try together. Park Geun-hye made several attempts to be eloquent about this pride and this myth. This is what she managed to come up with, under the editorial aid of Choi Sun-sil: “If you desire it wholeheartedly, the universe steps in to help you achieve.”

Park Geun-hye also stated: “Without knowing your country’s history, your soul is lost.” This statement was in defence of the government’s decision to elect a state-authorised group of editors for history textbooks, allowing the creation of a sanitised history that celebrates collective struggle under the colonial period, the division of the country, and the military coup as a worthy sacrifice. The sanitised history can then be used to minimise the blame on the perpetrators of violences, as well as on the group of people who benefited from the sacrifice made by the others.

***

During Park Chung-hee’s time, citizens had to be nondescript, hardworking individuals to evade the bludgeon of his dictatorship. If you spoke out, your history was erased, and Saemaul Undong covered up any petty concerns about legitimacy of the government. Similarly, under Park Geun-hye’s administration, the issues of ordinary people bore the burden of erasure. Critical issues were framed as personal indignations, and the everyday indignities experienced by people were erased from the equation as a result. Unemployment, household debts, anxiety about Middle East respiratory syndrome, anxiety about the environment, mistreatment of victims who were dubbed “comfort women,” and the tragedy of the Sewol ferry all became labelled as irrelevant with a sleight of hand.

In the meantime, an increasing number of people felt embarrassment for the venerated history of collective sacrifices. The country has been under foreign influence for so many years. For previous generations, the right to have a country took priority over the rule of people. Yet how many more sacrifices must be made for the right to claim a country? By now we must have earned the right to be protected as Korean citizens, and to exercise our rights, without worrying about the coercion of foreign powers or the loss of our democratic system.

People poured out to streets to salvage the country that betrayed their expectations. A candle protest was arranged to call for the impeachment of Park Geun-hye and then to pressure criminal investigation of her administration. The square in front of Gwanghwamun is a culturally charged site. On November 5, 2016, a newspaper reported that 45,000 protester gathered in the square with candlelight. The number of protesters reached 900,000 in March 2017.

The first time I saw candles in the street was in 2003, after the arson case in Daegu subway station. Candle protest is emotional, expressive, and eloquent. For me, the candlelight protest worked because it is a demonstration of unbending will, just like homemade flags must have meant for the generation who participated in the Man-se demonstration. However, candle protest gives you a space to step away from the need to sacrifice for a worthy cause, or to exert yourself to make something out of nothing. The darkness dotted with light gives the protesters a space to stand beside someone else, marking a seat of dissent, and giving voice to all the smaller narratives that are wiped out by official discourses. When we come out to the street with a candle, we don’t do it to make you notice. It is to show each other that we are not alone in our grievances and to draw strength to continue standing. But if you turn around, you will not fail to see us.

Park Geun-hye will not be released from prison easily. But she will continue to enjoy small favours and special treatments in prison as long as she’s not forgotten. She is already given access to the “better” rooms ordinarily occupied by the prison guards. For someone like Park Geun-hye, privileges are hard to separate, and while she remains part of a political dispute, someone will find it useful to keep her satisfied. Park Geun-hye’s name attained a political significance in Korea, and strategic use of her presence has the potential to shift the focus of political discussion in the future.

Gender issues, represented as a debate between military conscription versus reproductive rights, are already forming a significant part of discussion about political candidates, meaning that the majority of Korean citizens have already begun to move on. We are now back to resolve the tension between the employer and the employee, the parents and the children, the upper region and the lower region, the seniors and the juniors, and soon a new president will step in, individuals’ political opinions will be diluted, and new wars will take place in the cyberspace, until a new disaster strikes.  

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