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South Korea’s rollback of democracy
By George Katsiaficas
May 25, 2009 -- The suicide of former South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun on May 23, 2009, left South Korea in shock. All over the country, tens of thousands of tearful people sought to eulogise and memorialise Roh — to find ways to express their grief and anger. Conservative government politicians were blocked by local residents from joining tens of thousands people who made the journey to Roh’s small hometown the day he died. Not only were they refused admittance, many people splashed them with water and chanted that they should get out — shaming them into leaving. Opposition party spokesperson Kim Yu-jeong expressed what is in many people’s hearts when he blamed Roh’s tragic death on the conservative government’s relentless and disrespectful offensive against him: “The people and history know what made the former president do something so tragic.”
presidency Roh had often compared himself to Abraham Lincoln. Both men owed
their education to diligent home schooling and sought to bring new progressive
policies to their countries. While Lincoln’s life was taken by an assassin’s bullet,
Roh’s tragic fate is being seen as no less tied to vengeful attackers. A former
aide declared, “The late President Roh had appeared to be exhausted from the
prosecutors’ investigation.” Despite many people’s outrage with the
conservative Lee Myung-bak government’s stranglehold on the nation’s democracy,
police buses encircled a memorial site in Seoul for former president Roh, and riot squads
refused to open their cordon of buses, compelling thousands of people bringing
incense and prayers to line up through subway stations. Nearly 1000 police were
deployed in front of the memorial at
Despite his status as labour minister, Lee has refused to agree to engage in dialogue with the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions and the KCTWU. Adding that holding talks with groups engaging in “illegal acts” like demonstrations, Lee’s remarks were echoed by President Lee Myung-Bak’s similar refusal to agree to speak directly with trade union leaders. On the contrary, police announced that they have applied for the arrest warrants for seven union leaders who led the memorial rallies for Park Jong-tae in Daejeon on May 6. Ten days later, at least 457 workers were arrested at a demonstration there when 15,000 union members gathered to mourn Park and demand reinstatement of the fired delivery drivers. According to the legal director of the KCTWU, after police recklessly attacked the dispersing demonstrators, they arrested even people who were eating dinner or on their way home.
The new Lee Myung-bak administration has wasted little time in seeking to roll back the clock of progressive democratic reforms won by South Koreans through decades of arduous struggles. Ten years of progressive administrations under Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun resulted not only in more liberties but also in higher standards of living for many people. Although progressive presidents embraced neoliberal policies, turning more than 50% of all Korean workers into part-timers and thereby creating a widening division between rich and poor, they also legalised autonomous trade unions, worked out a tripartite system (of business, labour, and government) to manage industrial relations, and permitted a wide range of protests. The Lee Myung-bak administration seeks to undo many of the policies of its progressive predecessors.
after the inauguration of the Lee Myung-bak administration in January 2008,
government officials forcibly removed members of a part-time workers’ union
from an ongoing sit-in demonstration. The new Lee Myung-bak government released
leaders of chaebol (the giant
corporations that control much of the South Korean economy) convicted of
corruption and imprisoned under President Roh Moo-hyun, stepped up prosecution
of immigrant workers who overstayed their visas, and designed a new
Moo-hyun’s leadership, enormous strides were made investigating tens of
thousands of state-sanctioned murders during the Cold War. On the
Of all the
troubling initiatives undertaken by the Lee Myung-bak government, none is more
unsettling than its offensive against the media. In July 2008, MBC television
producers were taken to court for alleged exaggerations in a documentary on US
beef imports, and when they refused to show up, over the next ten months, they
were arrested one by one as they went about their daily lives (including a
bride-to-be planning her wedding). In August, the KBS president was forced to
resign — even briefly detained — and replaced with Lee’s crony. A friend of the
president was named to head
The president and his cronies may be free to pressure the media, but when ordinary citizens do so, it is evidently a crime. A citizens’ boycott against the country’s conservative newspapers (Chosun Ilbo, JoongAng Ilbo and Dong-A Ilbo) was declared illegal, and charges filed against its internet organisers. Their passports were seized. The government's attempt to control the media is so intense that it has criminalised even citizens who hold press conferences. “New Right” ideologues are delighted. Fashioning themselves after US neoconservatives, they revised newly rewritten textbooks that broke ground by denying the role of the democracy movement in the country’s progress. The New Right helped produce an “updated” government history video, distributed widely to school teachers, which did not include mention of the Kwangju Uprising as part of South Korean democratisation. Ahead of a formal investigation, Lee Myung-bak’s New Right supporters have already labelled the entire 1948 Jeju Uprising communist as part of their more general campaign to revive the “red complex”.
One reason for
the Lee Myung-bak government’s attacks on media and revision of history is to
cover their new closeness with
At a time when
Myung-bak admires former
continues to emulate Bush-era policies, even though they have been disastrous
“MB-nomics” [Lee Myung-bak is commonly referred to as ``MB’’] has slashed wages for new employees and seeks to extend the two-year cap for temporary workers as well to shrink current restrictions on hiring of part-time employees.
Not only has
the Lee Myung-bak administraion alienated
On May 20, 2009, during a press conference presided over by Prime Minster Han Seung-soo, the government announced its unilateral decision to discontinue permits for large demonstrations in cities and empowered police to arrest anyone committing the now-illegal act of meeting in public. In Prime Minister Han’s words, “The government intends to counter illegal strikes and violent demonstrations that could have negative effects on the nation’s economy. To reach the level of an advanced nation, it is necessary to correct the backwardness of our demonstration culture.”
posed by Lee Myung-bak to
Katsiaficas is a visiting professor at
For more on the candlelight protests, see “Thank You Korean Schoolgirls!”
http://eroseffect.com/articles/candlelight.htm, accessed on
 Meredith Woo-Cumings, “Market Dependency in US-East Asian Relations, “ in Arif Dirlik (editor), What Is In a Rim? (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998) pp. 166, 184.
Choe Sang-hun, “Protests in Seoul Galvanize Koreans,” International Herald-Tribune,