Saturday, September 04, 2010

Scott Burgeson on Korea's Anti-Democratic Left

2008 Anti-FTA Protests
(Image from Wikipedia)

Long-time Korea resident Scott Burgeson has published an online article, "A Stranger in Chongno" (hat tip, Robert Koehler), analyzing the anti-democratic character of the Leftist street protests of 2008, which were aimed at reversing the Free Trade Agreement between South Korea and the United States and at bringing down the pro-American Lee Myung-bak administration. Burgeson's explication of the Korean Left's irrational anti-Americanism is particularly persuasive because he himself is on the Left and in fact started out covering the protests as a sympathizer, a position made clear in a letter to the International Herald Tribune (cf. NYT) on June 19, 2008:
As a long-term American resident of South Korea, I have often been perplexed by extreme manifestations of Korean nationalism on both sides of the demilitarized zone. However, I think Philip Bowring missed the mark in 'A potent, troubling nationalism' (Views, June, 16), by overstating the anti-American and nationalistic aspects of protests over resumption of U.S. beef imports in South Korea.

Fears of beef tainted with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, or BSE -- while legitimate to a certain extent -- were merely the spark that set off a much wider firestorm across the Korean Peninsula.

In effect, U.S. beef was used as a kind of stealth weapon by opponents of the newly installed president of South Korea, Lee Myung Bak, in order to put a check on his neo-liberal policies, which include the privatization of numerous state companies and services.

Speaking as someone who has attended the protests daily, they are largely about internal Korean politics and social divisions, with nary a whiff of anti-U.S. sentiment to them.
As a regular reader of the IHT and also a long-time resident of Korea paying close attention to the anti-beef protests, my reaction at the time was one of incredulity, and I wondered how Mr. Burgeson could be so blind. Well, eventually, so did he. His article serves the double purpose of explicating not only the Korean Left's unreasonable blindness but also how his own eyes were opened.

Burgeson's article is fascinating but a hard read. Most difficult for many readers will be the liberal sprinkling of Korean expressions throughout the text -- in Korea's own Hangul alphabet! Granted, these are mostly translated in footnotes, but few readers will be able to wade through them without losing patience and giving up. Second in difficulty is the heavily theory-laden character of Burgeson's writing, even somewhat distractingly overtheorized. If you're not up to snuff on critical theory, you'll find his analysis nearly impenetrable. This doesn't mean that his writing is abstract or stilted. Indeed, he has a tough, vigorous style that kept my attention. Personally, I enjoyed much of the theoretical aspect (a quirk of mine) and thought that some of the material on myth worked fairly well -- though I wonder if Benedict Anderson might not have been more relevant than Roland Barthes. Nevertheless, I learned something about Barthes on myth, and that appeals to the historian of ideas in me.

Where Burgeson really stumbles, I think, is in the analogy that he makes between the anti-US beef protests in Korea and the pro-war sentiment in America leading up to the invasion of Iraq. Burgeson finds in both a profound complex of deception and irrationality. I agree that the anti-beef protests were deeply deceptive and irrational, but the pro-war sentiment seems to me to have been fundamentally sincere and rational, which isn't to say that I was pro-war. Let me explain. Even though the chant "Bush Lied, People Died" has become a meme of the Left, I don't think that the Bush Administration did lie about its intelligence on Saddam. Rather, the intelligence was faulty and incomplete, as intelligence often is. The mistaken conclusion that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction was understandable, for the man acted like he had something to hide. He did in fact have something to hide, to wit, the fact that he had nothing, as Burgeson acknowledges:
Saddam Hussein could not have simply come straight out and admitted in public to having no active WMDs program, since such a naked admission would have left his country dangerously vulnerable to his enemies in the region, Iran most of all.
Absolutely correct . . . in hindsight. That explains why the weapons inspectors could find no hard evidence but simultaneously felt compelled to keep searching. Saddam had nothing, but acted like he had something. Prior to the invasion, the belief that Saddam had WMDs was reasonable and widely held, not just among conservatives, and remained to be disproven. I thought that he had them, though I was also in favor of continuing the weapons inspections and not in favor of invasion to rid Saddam of WMDs unless there were no other choice.

The anti-beef protests, however, were based upon 'evidence' that was demonstrably false at the very moment that the 'evidence' was cited. Belief that US beef posed a high risk of Mad Cow Disease in human beings who ate it was clearly, empirically unreasonable.

Burgeson's analogy thus appears flawed to me. A comparison to the current "Tea Party" has been suggested instead by other readers, citing the widespread "Birther" views among those attracted to its protests (or the belief that Obama is a "Secret Muslim). I suppose that Burgeson's Iraq analogy, however, could serve to establish his street cred among the Korean Left and leave them more open to considering his critique of their irrationality . . . though that same irrationality might preserve them against any rational critique even from others on the Left.

Burgeson's article, as I've noted, is a hard slog, but it's worth the intellectual hike and serves as a manifestation of his basic honesty and willingness to follow pretty much where the facts lead him. He might be rather overstating his case in arguing that the hard Left leading the protests was aiming an an coup d'├ętat (why not a revolution instead?), but he is surely on the mark in noting this Left's undemocratic attempt to bring down the then recently elected Lee Myung-bak government.

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At 7:03 AM, Blogger DC said...

Excellent summary and analysis.

At 7:06 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, DC.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:49 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Mr. Scott Burgeson,

For some reason, Blogger is acting up and swallowing comments at random, perhaps to be regurgitated sometime. Fortunately, your comment was sent to me via email, so I'm posting it here in case it never gets regurgitated from the belly of the Blogger beast:

Hello Jeffery--

thanks for the thoughtful comments.
It is a known fact that the Bush administration "ginned up the intelligence" on WMDs in Iraq, but then presented its case to the U.S. public and the world as "rock solid" and a "slam dunk." This misrepresentation of the facts and reality certainly qualifies as "lying" in my book. See the current issue of the New York Review of Books for more on this matter, from an insider CIA officer, no less.

You are correct that my critique of and analogy with the Iraq War was partly strategic, given that my primary audience was Korean. However, such related concepts as "WMDs" and "preventive war" also made the analogy quite fitting in my opinion. Most of all, the irony of comparing the Korean progressives with the Bush-led neoconservatives was meant to be deliberately provocative and stinging.

As for the attempted coup argument, various state-affiliated actors joined in and helped organize the protests. A coup need not employ overt military force (hence a "bloodless coup"), but the role of one element of the state taking on the state itself is the key defining element of any attempted coup. If the protests had merely involved ordinary citizens and NGOs, I would not have put forth such an argument.


Scott Bug in China

At 9:08 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Mr. Burgeson,

Thanks for the comment (and apologies for Blogger's ravenous appetite).

We'll have to disagree on the 'lying' interpretation. I would agree that the Bush Administration was wrong, but lying goes beyond that to willful misleading. I think the Bush Administration really, truly believed what they said about Saddam. They were convinced, true believers.

Everything that I've seen on the so-called "ginning up of the evidence" remains within the bounds of possible interpretation -- perhaps like your argument that the radical protest leaders were fomenting a "coup."

I wouldn't insist, for instance, that your "coup" argument is deceptive, merely that it's an exaggeration -- though not a willful one, for I don't doubt your sincerity. And your point about a "coup" is intriguing to consider, but I remain unconvinced.

Likewise, I remain unconvinced that the Bush Administration was lying.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Limiting my comments to the intelligence on the WMDs specifically - perhaps the most objectively neutral and informed pre-invasion analysis is to be found in the archives of the defunct Knight-Ridder organization. (Which incidentally I'm not going to search). But in those archives one can find upper level intelligence officials stating, on the record, their "serious doubts that Iraq possesses a militarily tactical stockpile of WMDs, and certainly no strategic stockpile, though there is no consensus."

In my opinion, that lack of "consensus" constituted essentially what poker players would call a 'hole card' a card which war proponents could, and in hindsight did, use to buttress the arguments "for."

Would I call those former administration officials 'liars'? No. Would I accuse them of being a bit 'stretchy' with the facts? Yes.

I'm sorely tempted to sign off otherwise - but I prefer keeping my search hit numbers down. That those Knight-Ridder reports are accessible, seals it.


At 6:47 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JK, that seems reasonable to me.

I think that some in the Bush Administration were so convinced that Saddam had WMD that they persuaded themselves that the evidence was stronger than it was, and given Saddam's own record and behavior, their interpretation of the matter was not off the charts.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:07 AM, Blogger John from Daejeon said...

If Saddam had none of those weapons, how exactly did this happen.

Seems pretty reasonable that many people of sound minds around the world would therefore believe that he had these deadly weapons since he'd already openly used them against women and children.

At 12:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

J from D,

Precisely the problem for the analysts. But that was an aerosolyzed attack. The instances where chem weapons were used during the Iran-Iraq war in weaponized form gave (apparently) battlefield commanders the very same experience gained by those whose forces employed them during WWI. Specifically, gas is likely to be as lethal to the force using it as it is to the intended targets. Depends of course on which way the wind blows, among other things.

Storage, shipment, mixing, and other requisite elements for having a strategy where gas is to be an integral component of one's ground military force structure makes it an inherently poor choice.

However, having demonstrated that the willingness to employ chem weapons then becomes an effective deterrent - whether the actual chem is in fact on hand, isn't actually necessary for the deterrent to be effective.

There was the crux of the argument for intel against the presence. IMINT (image intelligence) revealed no widespread evidence of the necessary architecture for storage.

However, it must be admitted, Saddam's inner circle was fairly tight-knit and just because one agency might have a strong case against, that doesn't mean the intel will be shared among all agencies.

And it depends on which agency has the ear of the policymaker.

Hope that helps.


At 2:09 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

John, that gas attack on the Kurds was prior to the Gulf War (1991). After that war, we were able to disarm Saddam of his chemical weapons.

He was kept on a pretty tight leash until the Iraq War (2003), but he acted like a man with something to hide, so I felt sure that he had chemical weapons. However, none were found after the invasion in 2003.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:13 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JK, Saddam certainly had chemical weapons prior to the Gulf War, but he never seemed to have worked out a reliable delivery system, if I recall.

But even his chemical weapons program seems to have stopped functioning after the Gulf War.

Jeffery Hodges

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