Scott Burgeson on Korea's Anti-Democratic Left
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.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.
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.
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'état (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.