By Andrew Salmon
I recently covered a demonstration opposite Seoul’s Chinese Embassy. Mobilized by the “Save My Friend” organization, some 200 young South Koreans were protesting Beijing’s forcible repatriation of North Korean refugees.
Among the demonstrators were movie actor Cha In-pyo and TV star Ricky Kim. Both spoke eloquently. I was interested to learn that Cha had contacted some 60 fellow entertainers to join the protest; apparently, around 20 showed up.
Cha is the star of (among other movies), 2008’s “Crossing.” This film follows a North Korean defector and his desperate attempts to rescue his wife and son from that benighted land. As humanistic cinema, it compares to the finest works of Roland Joffe, director of “The Killing Fields,” “The Mission” and “City of Joy.” How heartbreaking is “Crossing?” The defector whose story it is based upon could not bring himself to watch it.
Yet it was not a box office smash ― I assume because North Korean human rights issues are unfashionable among young filmgoers.
But to return to the protest. Though the presence of stars caught the attention of two of my editors at international newspapers, one could hardly call the demonstration a major one. The foreign editor of an American paper once gave me a rule of thumb for covering Korean protests: “If there are less than 100,000 demonstrators, don’t bother reporting.”
So why were just a couple of hundred South Koreans protesting this issue? Why not a couple of hundred thousand?
Granted, the heydays of mass protests, the 1980s, are past. But students ― “the conscience of the nation,” the idealists who protested Japanese occupation in 1919 and who overthrew authoritarianism in 1997 ― still mobilize en masse.
Since the turn of the millennium, hundreds of thousands of young people protested the U.S.-Korea Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). Similar numbers demonstrated against U.S. beef imports. Tens of thousands rallied against the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement, and thousands protest the Dokdo and “comfort women” issues.
These are inflammatory issues. But are they issues of real gravity?
The anti-SOFA protests were sparked after two school girls were run over by American soldiers. A tragedy, certainly, but the perpetrators apologized and paid appropriate compensation for what was ― when all is said and done ― a traffic accident, not a deliberate crime. The alleged health risks of American beef proved to be a complete non-issue; as for the FTA, Korea, a trade-centric nation, has much to gain.
Dokdo is laden with emotion, but the islet’s Korean police garrison obviates any possibility of Japanese Marines storming ashore. Dokdo remains Korean, making the sovereignty issue a non-starter.
I support those protesting on behalf of the surviving “comfort women,” who are some of World War II’s most tragic victims. But there are only a handful surviving and they are (thankfully) well taken care of in their winter years.
Certainly, it is reasonable to demand Tokyo confess to this crime, but the number of victims ― the top estimate of comfort women is 200,000 ― pales into insignificance beside those suffering from Pyongyang’s woeful governance.
Despite lying at the heart of booming Northeast Asia, North Korea is a nation where over a million are estimated to have starved to death in the late 1990s; where millions endure malnutrition today; and where hundreds of thousands suffer inhumane conditions in the gulag.
So why the hell are young South Koreans not flooding the streets and protesting this issue ― an issue that is ongoing, just 40 miles north of their capital?
One answer may be that Pyongyang is unresponsive to demonstrations, and there is no North Korean body or organization to protest outside in Seoul.
Perhaps. But demonstrations raise an issue’s visibility, forcing democratic governments to respond. Let us recall the significance of international protests in prodding governments worldwide to sanction apartheid South Africa.
Then there is China. While isolationist Pyongyang may not give a fig about overseas protests, China is embedded in the global community. If enough demonstrators make enough noise, governments around the world may begin pressuring Beijing.
However, I suspect that there are other reasons behind Southern protestors’ blindness toward Northerners’ sufferings.
Firstly, pan-Korean nationalism focuses virulent passions outward, rather than inward. Viewed through this prism, North Korea may be a foreign state, but is a brother nation (of a sort).
Secondly, street politics here, with its roots in trade unionism and student activism, is chiefly the province of the left, not the right.
Add these together and the result is a protesting population that is more easily inflamed against foreign targets, notably historical villain Japan and rightist America, than against socialist “brother-state” North Korea.
From where I am sitting, this stinks.
I applaud “Save My Friend” and related organizations, and hope that more “hallyu” (Korean wave) stars, so popular in China, have the integrity to open their mouths on the issue. If they do, Chinese fans will take note. China’s government may not be democratic, but I believe Beijing’s political future lies in upgrading responsiveness to its citizenry.
Then there is North Korea. Hallyu is widely (though illegally) distributed there. Imagine the frisson Northern viewers would experience if they realized their Southern idols understood and sympathized with their plight.
Finally, I hope that endorsement by entertainers will place the North Korean tragedy on the radar of South Korea’s highly vocal demonstrating class.
Andrew Salmon is a Seoul-based reporter and author. His latest work, “Scorched Earth, Black Snow,” was published in London in June. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.