‘All change please’: mind the generation gap
Upon leaving his post, former British Ambassador to Seoul in the 1970s, William Bates (affectionately known as “Master Bates” to his Foreign Office aides), wrote a long and passionate valedictory to Whitehall that outlined some of the changes he had witnessed as the United Kingdom’s “man in Korea.” In it, he spoke of the shiny new tower blocks that were cropping up across the country, the fast cross-country motorways that had reduced the Seoul to Busan expedition to a mere commute and the emergence of heavy industries that
But, true to his unfortunate nickname, Bates downplayed human rights violations under Park Chung-hee, arguing they had been “greatly exaggerated.” Worse still, he blamed the Chun Doo-hwan government’s heavy handed response to the Gwangju Democratization movement on the students themselves who he characterized as being “immature” and “impetuous.” For Bates, he had witnessed what many at the time dubbed an “economic miracle.” He, like some of his contemporaries, felt that the pace of economic development was so incredible that the demand for social and political change or indeed anything else that threatened to slow economic progress was nothing more than a nuisance.
But now that Korea’s economy has long-since developed, can the same be said of its politics? As is the case with any fast changing society, politics can often be the last thing to adapt to a new economic mold.
This March, Barack Obama stood on the Demilitarized Zone and declared his troops were protecting “freedom’s frontier” from North Korea, dubbed by many as the world’s “last Stalinist state” ― where the Cold War is, according to some, still cold. But things aren’t so warm here either: the last few weeks has seen both online and offline debate become completely dominated by a resurgence in anti-communist politics, perhaps sowing the seeds for the world’s “last McCarthyist state” on this side of the 38th parallel.
But why is McCarthyism still engulfing Korean politics? McCarthy, an archetypal anti-communist, characterized the 1950s politics of the West. His campaign against communism and blanket demonization of anyone showing even a hint of pro-communist sympathy went down in popular legend as a dangerous and over-generalizing power exercise that, at one time, threatened to destroy the very free press and media that the United States claimed it was defending in the first place.
Last weekend, Unified Progressive Party (UPP) member Lee Seok-ki, threatened with expulsion from the party for vote rigging, generated thousands of comments from netizens after he suggested that “Aegukga” (literally the patriotic song), Korea’s national anthem, should in fact be replaced by “Arirang,” a well-known Korean folk song that has acted as a de facto national anthem of sorts in both Koreas. Lee has been regularly labeled as a pro-North “jongbuk,” or slave of the North figure, finding himself on the opposite side of the fence that divides him and his circles from the allegedly pro-U.S. “jongmi,” or slave of the U.S. camp. Anticipating an attack, he went so far as to claim that the real slaves to their puppet masters are in fact the jongmi group, presumably because there is at least a more tangible line of dialogue open between Seoul and Washington. Nevertheless, when politicians are campaigning on a platform that warns voters that the opposition is a “bunch of commies,” things really have regressed to the kind of hysterical name calling that would’ve made Senator McCarthy proud.
It should be noted that this kind of old-fashioned finger-pointing comes six months before the next presidential election and is a dominating theme that looks set to continue. Indeed, where Korea’s pace of economic change has been unrivalled, politics can sometimes feel like it’s still at the starting blocks, despite many attempts at reform. But politics is not the only thing to be left in the wake of monumental change. People too can find it hard to keep up with a society that, in the space of one generation, has undergone changes that in some countries would take two.
What about the old girls’ generation for example? In a refreshing and touching change from the usual nonsense that dominates the Internet, a photo of a scanned love letter from an ageing grandmother to her deceased husband gained thousands of “Likes” and “Shares” on Facebook. The grnadmother had only recently learned how to read and write the Korean alphabet thanks to a specially-organized course at a community center in the southern county of Namhae.
Putting her newly acquired skills to good use, the 75-year-old widow Park Sang-yeop wrote a moving letter to her late partner, winning both the competition and the hearts and minds of local media. In it, she reassured the father of their then 4-month-old son that he was “on the right path in life” after she saved enough money for his education by selling items at Busan’s Jagalchi Market. She signed off by asking her love to meet her in heaven. Hundreds of netizens commented with the two Hangeul (Korean script) characters “bb,” an emoticon used to show crying ― a fitting tribute to both Hangeul and Park for her literary efforts.
Whilst many now laud over the incredible success of the KTX bullet train, some, like Park, are still metaphorically on the aptly-named and slower Saemaul line (named after Park Chung-hee’s rapid industrialization policy), as is this 1950s neo-McCarthyist name-calling. At the minute, the momentum looks set to continue into December where these themes could decide who gets off at the Blue House. Will this be McCarthy’s final stop?
James Pearson and Raphael Rashid are co-editors of the website koreaBANG, a daily-updated blog that translates the latest hot issues on the Korean Internet into English. They can be contacted on www.koreabang.com or via Twitter: @koreaBANG.