Friday, May 08, 2009

Won Joon Choe on Korean Politics

Roh Moo-hyun
Asking for trouble . . .
. . . and he got it!
(Image from BBC)

The photo above comes from Kate McGeown's article "Raking over S Korea's colonial past," which appeard in the BBC News Online five years ago (August 19, 2004), when Roh (pronounced "Noh") was president of Korea and pressing for "investigations into the widespread collaboration which took place during colonial rule, and the repression of the military regimes which followed." President Roh insisted that "those whose ancestors collaborated with the colonial power -- or with the military governments in the 1960s -- must not face punishment." His critics retorted that Roh's proposal had "little to do with recording an accurate version of Korea's past -- and much more to do with discrediting his opponents." Roh's Uri (pronounced "ou-ree") party rejected the accusation, but one early consequence showed -- albeit ironically -- that the critics were right about the potential for Korea's past to discredit individuals today:
The chairman of the Uri Party, Shin Ki-nam, resigned on Thursday [August 19, 2004], becoming the first casualty of the campaign.

An enthusiastic supporter of Mr Roh's plan to investigate collaborators, Mr Shin even backed the setting-up of committees to name and shame those who worked for the Japanese.

When it was revealed that his own father had served as a sergeant in the colonial police force, Mr Shin felt he had little choice but to go -- even though he claimed the revelation was as new to him as it was to everyone else. (Kate McGeown, "Raking over S Korea's colonial past")
The fact that Shin Ki-nam had to resign shows how punishment for the sins of Korean fathers are visited upon their sons . . . even for the father's 'sin' of having been a mere sergeant in the police force under Japanese rule.

Our new friend Mr. Won Joon Choe -- who has commented recently on the Korean language as well as upon the ideas of Leo Strauss -- contributed an article, "South Korea's retrograde politics," to Asia Times around the same time (September 4, 2004) as the BBC article, and he commented upon President Roh's 'truth commission' investigation into Korea's colonial suffering as well as the impeachment proceedings launched against Roh that same year:
[M]any Western observers have misinterpreted the meaning of these events. Lacking a firm grasp of the historical and cultural context within which these events transpired -- and sometimes even ignorant of the basic facts about these events -- Western observers have crowed that the impeachment and its aftermath signal the ascension of the rule of law in South Korea and exulted that the proposed truth commission heralds a new era of openness.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The two events taken together, viewed in their proper context, teach a sobering lesson about the difficulties inherent in establishing a genuine liberal democracy atop an authoritarian and communal political culture, a lesson that those intoxicated with "regime change" elsewhere should heed. (Won Joon Choe, "South Korea's retrograde politics")
Mr. Choe reveals that what is really going on is more of less what went on in Korea during the late Chosun Dynasty:
Politics in Korea's last monarchy, the Chosun dynasty (1392-1910), was a vicious "winner-take-all" affair. The losers faced confiscation of their property, exile, and often execution. In a Confucian culture that elevated the rule of men over the rule of law, everything was permissible for those in power. Further, the sins of the fathers were not only visited on the children but on the grandchildren as well, as three generations of family members were enslaved or exterminated. Unfortunately, in spite of the glib rhetoric about South Korea's "vibrant democracy" in the Western media, South Korean politics today resemble the politics of the Chosun dynasty. (Won Joon Choe, "South Korea's retrograde politics")
I'll leave to readers the enjoyment of perusing the article themselves, which is very informative on Korean politics -- with its rule "by" law rather than rule "of" law -- and which is just as relevant now, five years later, but I will quote Mr. Choe's interesting conclusion, which offers a broader application than merely a perspective on Korea:
The persistence of the past and the absence of a genuine liberal political culture in South Korea are deeply troubling. South Korea has a robust economy with a large, well-educated middle class. Its popular culture is inundated with Americana. And if liberalization in such a country is only skin-deep, then one must ask: What hope is there for nations such as Iraq? (Won Joon Choe, "South Korea's retrograde politics")
Indeed. Well, we will certainly see about Iraq, whose tribal, ethnic, and religious divisions make Korean politics look like child's play. Moreover, Mr. Choe's remarks should help put to rest the suspicion in America that Leo Strauss was the intellectual godfather of Neoconservatism's drive to promote democracy everywhere, even at the price of American military intervention, for the 'Straussian' Mr. Choe appears to be profoundly skeptical of such efforts.

But judge for yourselves: read Mr. Choe's article.

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At 8:49 AM, OpenID sonagi92 said...

Won Joon Choe is on the mark with his final remarks about South Korea and Iraq. So many war supporters were citing the Korean War as a precedent, claiming that since South Korea was now prosperous and democratic, Iraq would be, too. Counterarguments that Iraq was culturally, demographically, and geographically different fell on deaf ears. Just because wheat grows well on the loam soil of Kansas doesn't mean that wheat can be grown in the marshy soil of the Texas Gulf Coast.

At 9:46 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Especially on the mark since according to WJC, democratic ideas and practices are still superficial even in South Korea.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:24 AM, Blogger Won Joon Choe said...

Mr. Hodges,

O the wonders—and the horrors!—of the Internet that has such necromancers in it!

The op-ed that you resurrected from the Asia Times is actually a small segment of a much-larger essay on “Asian values” that I wrote eons ago in response to some of the most textually ignorant propaganda about Confucianism purveyed to the West by Kim Dae-jung, Amartya Sen, and others (and then picked up by the liberal intelligentsia in the West as gospel truth).

To be succinct, my view occupies the moderate middle between the two warring camps. I agree with Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir that East Asian culture is unambiguously authoritarian and communal, and that immediate or near democratization would be disastrous (and has been disastrous when it has been tried, e.g., Chang Myon’s parliamentary reforms after Syngman Rhee’s ouster). Yet, I also disagree with Lee and Mahathir that culture is immutable, and that East Asia can never successfully democratize. In this presumption, Lee seems to ignore that the pre-Modern West was closer to the “Orient” than the modern West. In short, I do to some respect agree with the sociologists of the modernization thesis like Bell, as well as more recent and philosophically-minded IR scholars like Fukuyama. Again, I split the difference between Huntington and Fukuyama; Huntington is right in the short-term, but Fukuyama is right in the long-term.

--to be continued--

At 3:06 AM, Blogger Won Joon Choe said...

Now to the vexing and controversial issue of the link between Leo Strauss and George Bush’s neoconservative (or neo-Wilsonian) foreign policy.

I do not think it is possible or fair to try present anything definitive (esp. in the context of a short Blog comment, on this issue) even though I have made such a sally in public.

(But that attempt, on the pages of the Korea Herald, must be understood contextually. It was a response to a Korean IR academic who simply mimicked the American media’s conspiracy-mongering regarding Strauss, and hence I was forced to understate the radical and problematic nature of Strauss’ thought or present a thoroughly benign Strauss.)

So I will settle with a few disordered observations for now:

1) It is indisputable that some of Strauss’ close students (and their close students) went to work in Washington, and almost all of them went to work for Republican administrations. It is also indubitably true that they were at the forefront of the emergence of neoconservatism and the Reagan movement.

But does the fact that some of his students were architects of Bush’s foreign policy automatically link Strauss to those policies?

Obviously, one cannot answer this question without a comprehensive study of Strauss’ thought itself, but I ought to first and foremost emphasize that Strauss is not the first great thinker to get in hot water because of their disciples. We all know that perhaps the decisive evidence against Socrates was how some of his students turned out: Alcibiades aspired to tyranny, and Critias did become a tyrant. So perhaps an influential teacher will necessarily be not only be blessed with Platos and Xenophons, but also be saddled with Aclbiadeses and Critiases as well. Anything brilliant attracts all that surrounds it—including, and perhaps especially, insects. Plato himself repeatedly deals with his problem in his portrait of some of the wayward students of Socrates, not just Alcibiades and Critias, but also the more obscure ones like Aristodemus and Apollodorus.

In short, if you are willing to indict Strauss on the evidence of a Wolfowitz, you will have to indict Socrates through Alcibiades and Critias, Aristotle through Alexander the Great (he was in most sense, not an admirable man and a grossly over-rated military commander to boot), and ad infinitum.

2) So what are those aspects of Strauss’ thought that may bear on this issue? Again, a lengthy discussion is not possible in this space. I will limit my cursory examination to two inter-related aspects of Strauss’ thought: His defense of philosophy as the best life, and his unambiguous anti-utopianism. And I shall do so with a reference, however inadequate and truncated, to his understanding of Plato’s best regime.

Many contemporary readers have read Plato’s construction of the Kallipolis, the regime of the philosopher-king, his “utopia,” as a straightforward blueprint for the best government that we can actualize. Strauss does not read Plato in such a straightforward manner; and he is, contrary to contemporary media, almost universally supported by the opinion of subsequent philosophy and Platonic scholarship at least up to the Enlightenment.

Strauss (and his students like Bloom, Rosen, Benardete, in more painstaking detail) emphasize a bewildering variety of clues that indicate that the Kallipolis may be neither perfectly just nor actualizable. It is not just because, among other things: The regime of the philosopher-king violates the definition of justice ostensibly advanced in the dialogue (one man, one job); It for most part abstract the searching, zetetic quality of philosophy and presents the philosopher as a wise man, a dogmatist, and indeed a pre-Socratic and even a Sophist of sorts (leading one to believe that genuine philosophy is not possible in the so-called regime of the philosopher-king!); it requires for its founding and sustenance a continuous application of inhuman cruelty (e.g. all above age of 10 must be expelled or executed to ensure an atmosphere hospitable for proper indoctrination). It is also not actualizable because, among other things, the philosopher ultimately will not be able to force or coerce the city to undergo such a dramatic transformation. In all this, what emerges is not the Protean power of philosophy or man to shape his environment, but the overwhelming power of fortune or chance. Man and his philosophy or science is not all-powerful or even powerful but limited. Recall that the Kallipolis cannot sustain itself, because the philosopher does not know the “nuptial number” that governs the proper generation of human beings.

In this context, it is not difficult to see why both Strauss and Bloom call Plato’s Republic the most anti-utopian book ever written. And it is natural for the man chastened by the limits of praxis to turn to theoria, to the perfection of the self rather than the perfection of the world. Moreover, to the extent that the chastened philosopher is bound by necessity or chance to attend to the affairs of the city, his vision will be solidly anchored on what is possible, guided by prudence and moderation, not philosophical speculations.

At 5:45 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

WJC, thanks for the detailed explanations of your views.

I recall being curious about that Asian-values debate back in the 90s. Like you, I didn't doubt that there was something to what the proponents had to say, for values are generally dependent upon culture, and so on.

But also like you, I didn't think that culture is immutable. Your point about the mutability of Western culture is a point that I've also noted -- sometimes in discussion with Korean students, explaining that Medieval Europe was as hierarchical and authoritarian as Korea (though more open, perhaps, because of the large size and various ethnic groups).

As for Plato, I've not read his Republic in a long time, so I don't recall the details, but your Straussian analysis sounds plausible.

When the debate over Strauss erupted due to the influence of Neoconservatism on the Bush administration's foreign policy, I was skeptical that Strauss's philosophical ideas had led directly to military intervention to spread democracy. That sort of foreign policy didn't mesh with what I'd picked up about Strauss from my talks with Andy in Jerusalem or from other sources, for that matter.

Your explication confirms my doubts. Thanks for the comments.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:29 AM, Blogger Won Joon Choe said...

Dear Mr. Hodges,

The whole thing about the "Asian values" debate was a farce because people who knew nothing about Confucius or Han Fei Tzu were taken as authorities in the West, solely because they were famous Asians. (In the case of Sen, he can at least claim to be a scholar, but as his TNR essay abundantly demonstrated, he knew literally zero about Confucianism and kept deflecting the argument to Hinduism, which had nothing to do with the argument at hand.)

My favorite nugget was DJ's claim (picked up by Sen and others in the West) that Han Fei Tzu's Fa chia (mistranslated as "Legalism" in the West) was the East Asian equivalent to the rule of law as articulated by John Locke, et al. Yet more incredible, he then claimed that Chin Shi Huang di, he who buried Confucian books and burned Confucian scholars, represented the example par excellence who governed according to the rule of law.

Be that as it may be: What is your e-mail address? I've been procrastinating a lot at various Blogs the last few days because I've been ill with the flu, but obviously I can't keep it up. Nonetheless, I'd like to steer you toward some potential leads if you are interested in pursuing the Strauss-Bulgakov project further.

Moreover, I am afraid our exchange has been too monologic thus far when I probably have more to learn from you than the vice versa. So let us pursue the dialogue in private, whenever it suits your leisure.

At 8:21 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

WJC, thanks for the additional comments.

On Strauss and Bulgakov, I would be interested in some direction, so please do email me.

I try to keep my email address off this blog to avoid spam (and hate mail), but you can easily find it using Google. Run a search for "Horace Jeffery Hodges" and "Milton List." I post often to that listserve on John Milton, so you'll instantly find my email address there.

Jeffery Hodges

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