By Jason Lim
Watching events unfold in Korea recently, I realized how scary Korea was.
Just to start off, in what other country would you see a tear gas canister thrown in the middle of a parliamentary debate? In Korea, we are already used to seeing hunger strikes, flying fists, roundhouse kicks, banshee screams, and even sledgehammers used to break down doors. But tear gas? I mean, that is so out of place and time.
After all, today is not the late 1980s. Tear gas in Korea should be the sole province of the riot police, not a National Assemblyman. Then again, the riot police prefers to use water cannons to control the crowd these days anyway, especially in subzero temperatures. Water cannons are so much easier to aim and don’t blow back into your face as much.
But that’s not the real scary part. The real scary part is to have a National Assemblyman sue a comedian for making fun of… wait, yes, the National Assemblymen as a whole! No, this is not a joke. This really did happen.
Kang Yong-seok, who was recently ousted from the ruling Grand National Party after being convicted of defaming TV news announcers for saying that they needed to ``give it all” (in a casting couch sense) to succeed, sued the comedian for “defaming” all politicians.
In a famous comedy show, the comedian, Choi Hyo-jong, had satirized the underhanded and self-serving backroom deals that characterized the national elections. What he said wasn’t new. He was just expressing the sentiments of a cynical electorate. Also, the routine didn’t single anyone out. It satirized the whole political process.
By all accounts, Kang’s lawsuit was patently ridiculous. But, according to Kang, that was exactly what he was trying to get at. Kang now claims that he wanted to show the world how ridiculous his own conviction ― defaming a whole class of people ― was by suing the comedian for essentially the same offense.
Well, if that was his point, Kang might have succeeded in bringing attention to his predicament. But he also brought attention to the fact that he was unscrupulous in using innocent bystanders for his own gain. Also, attacking a core democratic value in freedom of speech in order to make a minor legal point is like using a bazooka to kill a mosquito. It’s a good thing that Tina Fey doesn’t do comedy in Korea. If she did, Sarah Palin would have a really good case to have her shot.
But I guess that even that’s not the really scary part. It’s funny and sad rather than scary. What is really scary, however, is how the whole political establishment is up in arms over Venerable Beomnyeon, a Buddhist bonze, expressing a ``political” opinion on the future well-being of the country.
Venerable Beomnyeon is a well-known Buddhist bonze who’s regularly polled as one of the most respected religious leaders in Korea. Well, he recently got into trouble with the politicians because he said, in response to a question during a lecture, that he believes the current sclerotic, bipolar state of politics in Korea is not best suited to lead Korea into the future and that a ``third way” might be needed to really inspire the people to become more engaged in politics and give them hope for the future.
Immediately, the political establishment was indignant, accusing Beomnyeon of meddling in politics. They said that he was laying the groundwork to establish a third political party, with Ahn Cheol-soo at its head. They said that Beomnyeon’s ultimate ambition is to become like Monk Shin Don, who had briefly wielded political power during the late Goryeo Dynasty.
Lee Hoi-chang, the establishment conservative, even said that ``as a rule, priests should stay in the chapel, monks in the temple, and ministers in church.”
This is where another scary part becomes apparent. Lee’s remarks actually reminded me of a gruff, slovenly man dismissively grunting to his wife, ``Your place is in the kitchen, woman! Stay out of men’s business.”
It almost seems like that the politicians, and many of the electorate, believe that there is a professional class of ``politicians” who should have the sole monopoly on ``politics.” No monks, priests, ministers, comedians, actors, doctors, nurses, teachers, students, merchants, or anyone need apply. We should all ``know our place.”
It’s too bad that all this actually goes against the tenet of democracy. People shouldn’t forget that being a politician is a public service. Strictly speaking, it’s not a profession. U.S. Founding Fathers actually envisioned that being a member of Congress would be a part-time job. Pennsylvania’s state constitution even had a provision calling for members of the Legislature to ``have some profession, calling, trade, or farm, whereby he may honestly subsist.” In short, I don’t want a comedian taking out my appendix, but he could represent me in the National Assembly if I voted for him.
Democracy can only remain a democracy when politics is not a specialized profession and everyone can have a say. Every citizen has a right to express his hopes and fears for his own country. Even a monk.
Jason Lim is a Washington, D.C.-based consultant in organizational leadership, culture, and change management. He has been writing for The Korea Times since 2006. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @jasonlim2000.