The longer I live in Korea, the more I learn about the way the government and police operate. What disturbs me isn't the fact that I know about oppression and now I can see it happening outside my window. I'm not precious. I'm coming to terms with the fact that I haven't ever experienced a difference in how citizens think about Law. I guess I'm experiencing a kind of alienation for the first time that I could easily permit to become anger and frustration directed at Koreans and about Korean culture. But I want to resist that temptation because I think it's power I'm experiencing. Power, that as a white guy from the US, I have never confronted. I've read about it, sure. But this is different.
Koreans and Americans do not have the same experience and understanding of Law. A little knowledge of history explains the experiential aspect of the difference between our cultures. It's our, Korean and American, understanding of Law I want to quickly focus on before sharing a story from The Hankyoreh to illustrate my feelings. Feel free to comment if you disagree or want me to flesh this out. I'm more than willing to.
Many Americans, I'm ashamed to admit, don't really know that the reason we think and act like we do, as Americans do, has a lot to do with Laws. In the US, we have a Constitution and system of Laws that protects rights and punishes crimes. Americans like to talk about Rights all the time. We like to insist our Rights are Natural, even that we are born with them. We even have much of Continental Philosophy (See, Kant et al.) to back-up our notions that democratic life within a capitalist market is part of Nature's unknowable plan to guide us to ever more control of ourselves and toward overall Liberty. Nevertheless, we forget that without our enforceable social contract, all our Rights would simply be wishful and hopeful thinking. Yes, I'm saying that Americans take it for granted. I think we all know this is true.
Koreans have Laws with a big "L", too; it is, after all, the Republic of Korea. But Korean citizens don't think about their Republic as a Republic of Laws in the same manner Americans do. Laws in Korea are tools used by the police and the government to enforce the government's will, which is more appropriately stated as enforce the majority Party's will.
Koreans simply cannot freely speak in public in opposition to their government's ruling Party without worrying about punishment. Nor do they have the ability to freely assemble to protest and/or to organize in dissent without worrying about punishment. And when they do assemble in groups in active dissent, punishment does occur. A tourist passing through Seoul on a summer weekend would have to be blind not to notice the massive police presence in the streets.
I'm trying to come to terms with the visible and sometimes abject oppression many Koreans and immigrants struggle with here. The only thing that keeps me from running back to the US in disgust is that I'm well aware that, though Americans like to pretend it's otherwise, we have abject oppression in the US that is quite comparable while less widespread. In Seoul, it's easy for me to see it. I'm not from here. At home, I have to look for it. But it's there.
What I'm trying to come to terms with is understanding the middle-ground Korea occupies right now between the totalitarianism of the recent past and a more free Democracy of the sometime in the future. And I want to understand why Koreans don't have the feeling that it's their right. That's for another post, though. (And I should say that all the liberal and leftist Koreans I have met would say that it is their right. I'm generalizing here, of course, and I hope not too much.)
Below is a link to a story from a recent edition of The Hankyoreh. Korea's versions of Conservative Republicans are members of the Grand National Party (GNP). The American GOP and the Korean GNP have a lot in common. At this moment in time, both parties' membership likes to claim that they know better than everybody else how to legislate. In addition, they are the parties of old, well-off men and their sons and their wives. GNP visions of Korean daily life remind me of the white power structure that guides the GOP through its decision-making back home.
Currently, The GNP is attempting to enact a law that would make it illegal for people to assemble in groups between 10pm and 6am. The dissenting members of government insist that this could be handled by instituting a permit process, that an outright ban would be too extreme.
The law isn't the problem here; the warrant the GNP uses to argue in support of it is the problem. The GNP's reason is that somebody might break a law or a late assembly might turn violent. It's a real problem, this logic. A US citizen would say without too much pushing: Hey, a person has to commit a crime before being charged with one. We don't use laws to prohibit people from choosing to break laws. People choose to participate in our social contract. If a person breaks a law, then we punish that person. And so on.
In Korea, the social contract is an idea and law is a tool used to enforce participation. For the most part, Koreans accept this enforcement. Rather than shaping legislation that encourages peaceful participation in free discourse, laws that suggest what a true disturbance is, a law is suggested that prohibits all assembly. Most foreign historians and essayists on Korea like to argue that the existence of this general acceptance of oppression is a hangover from the bad days when dictators ran daily life in Korea. Well, I think that's a shitty excuse for a real problem that needs real reform to ever change. In addition, I think it's terribly patronizing to listen to white intellectuals talk about Korea's hangovers. It's a shitty, demeaning, and anti-intellectual means to addressing a complex cultural construct.
GNP introduces bill to completely ban nighttime outdoor assemblies
Here are two paragraphs from the article. They highlight the problem I address above:
The GNP lawmakers at the committee meeting, including Cho, called for the bill to be passed during the February extraordinary assembly after the bill had been handed over to a subcommittee for legal deliberation. GNP Lawmaker Kim Tae-won said concerns over the destruction of evidence or escape were great regarding nighttime assemblies, and they could very likely turn into violent demonstrations. Thus, he added that until a peaceful demonstration culture takes root in South Korea, a time restriction would have to be placed on outdoor demonstrations.
Democratic Party Lawmakers Kang Gi-jung and Kim Yoo-jung, however, protested the bill, saying that since it excessively restricts the people’s Constitutionally-guaranteed basic rights, it would be better to place limits on noise or venues rather than time. They called on the GNP to drop discussion of amending the Assembly Law and instead hold hearings to gather public opinion. A bill proposed by Democratic Party Lawmaker Chun Jung-bae and Democratic Labor Party Lawmaker Lee Jung-hee, currently stuck in committee, would in principle permit nighttime outdoor assemblies under the condition that participants maintain law and order.