Won Joon Choe on Korean Politics
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.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.
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")
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.Mr. Choe reveals that what is really going on is more of less what went on in Korea during the late Chosun Dynasty:
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")
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.