Nostalgia for a Despot: an Armchair Perspective of Korea’s Present

The big talking point in the land of the morning calm is undoubtedly the election of the conservative party candidate Park Geun Hye to the presidency. Park’s father is man by the name of Park Chung Hee, whose name is both revered and reviled in Korea. Park Geun Hye is a woman, but more in the vein of Margaret Thatcher, where it could be argued gender is incidental.

Park’s election has sparked plenty of talk due to her relationship with her father who ruled this nation with a very controversial iron fist for the best part of two decades in the 1960s and 1970s. While I didn’t follow the election race in too much depth, I know that Park’s victory ticked all the boxes in terms of surprise, disappointment, doom, and any other negative or positive political emotion you can think up.

Now, I rarely talk politics here as it’s not in my writ really (unless it’s Irish politics but I save that for places like twitter and pub, which is the best place for it – I wouldn’t want to go and develop a bad reputation or anything like that now would I?). In terms of international politics, as in the politics of countries I’m not from, I do my best to merely observe, as becoming too involved or concerned does little other than frustrate me, and whoever decides to troll my comment thread. There’s more to this than that though.

Four years ago when Barrack Obama was running for president I made a determined effort to step back and ignore the entire debate. I knew he presented some viable opportunities for change but at the same time he was running for the office of American president, so despite all claims of wonder he was, deep down, aspiring to be a crook and a war criminal. Now I won’t deny that I did get excited by this year’s election as, well, the whole thing was so entertaining. The most disappointing thing about the whole process was that it was real life.

That’s just how I deal with politics, and I treated the Korean election with a similar amount of interest. You might wonder why this would be the case considering I have a vested interest in the outcome, and I do – I have a job, family, and lifestyle here in Korea, as well as paying all of my taxes here – but what good would it have done? Other than me being incredibly disappointed or annoyed (about another thing) it would serve little function. Korea would continue and I would have to seek to continue on within it without a say in how this continuance happened.

Now, for a better analysis of the result of the election, I’m going to direct you to Bobster’s House (Bobsters House: The Day After the Last Day of the World), which is where I took the title for this post from, as he has a more detailed, passionate, and constructive criticism of the situation on his blog. What I am going to do now is continue to observe as best I can.

The thing about elections is, and this is something not mentioned enough in this kind of discourse, is that the result of an election, be it a landslide or decided by a few loose votes, is always a reflection of the mind of society in which we have chosen to live. Love it or hate it, this is always the case.

In the case of Park Geun Hye’s election, it’s a story of the dictator’s daughter who actively participated in the administration who has emerged as the president of the country, now a respected democracy and global player in international affairs and economics, among other complaints. This country is now a starkly different one from the one her father took charge of and it now has the laws and institutions to protect itself from another despotic regime taking over – unless the North invades of course. But does that make a difference? Perhaps. No one actually knows what is going to happen. Alas.

Yes there are going to be some serious outcomes from the new president. I believe freedom of speech and freedom of information will continue to be threatened.  I believe equality will continue to remain something to be aspired to in the future (putting it mildly). I believe the wealth gap will continue to widen. I believe that few solutions to Korea’s economic situation worth remembering will be instituted.

Society in Korea has decided that it wants this lady to rule the country, and there is little more that we can complain about. Korean society is a lot more different and diverse than the bright lights of Gangnam and this election has done well to remind us of this significant reality. I travel to the countryside quite a lot, especially into Gangwon-do and around the outskirts of Cheonan and Yongin, and there is no doubting that eclectic neon-clad districts of Seoul such as Gangnam and Hongdae are more the exception than the rule.

As The Bobster pointed out, there are now more fifty year-olds in Korea than forty year-olds; that’s more people recalling the glory of full employment and rapid economic development than those who recall the aftermath, which was at the height of Park Chung Hee’s despotism. Even members of Herself’s own family who voted for Park in the recent election used the fact that because of her father she would do a good job.

It does not surprise me so much that Park was elected as president. Korea is a conservative country, and she is from the conservative Saenuri party. In fact, it strikes me that the opposition parties have done quite well considering how conservative Korea is, both politically, but also socially and culturally.

What doesn’t seem to be being mentioned loudly enough is that Korea is such a different country from what it was. It is a different time with different demands, of which there re too many to discuss here. I don’t think enough people know this. Korea doesn’t need full employment and rapid economic development as its highest priority any longer. It needs stability and support for its population, which is overpriced, aging, and suffering increasingly from its overly competitive dynamic. The miracle on the Han River is no longer as miraculous. The Han River’s economic development is now routine to the point it has become stagnant.

Back when Korea was developing, becoming an export economy was the best option, as there were plenty of people desperate for work, food, money, and everything else society required in the latter half of the twentieth century. Now is it any different? I would say no, it is not. Korea is still an export economy and its population revolves around the survival of its key players, namely Samsung, Hyundai, LG, and possibly some of the smaller, less famous Chaebol.

If you come down to Suwon where I live you can see this. Samsung’s Digital City is located in the centre of the city, which is an old and aging one without much industry around it. Surrounding Digital city spread out across both Yongin and Hwaseong counties are at least six more large Samsung manufacturing plants, all top of the line and all make Foxconn’s Chinese production facilities look primitive. This is the core of Samsung Electronics’ manufacturing empire in Korea.

Overall Samsung employs around 100,000 people in Korea (about half its global workforce). However, the local economy’s reliance on this company is staggering. From my window I can see large construction projects being carried out in Digital City. In the Dongtan plant, there is also large construction work underway. Surrounding all these factories are companies which supply and support Samsung’s manufacturing processes. Let’s not forget the newly developed towns, such as Yeongtong where I live, new expressways, subways and buses to connect to Seoul, schools, shopping and dining facilities, and more. This kind of development has nothing to do with Korea’s economic prominence; it has everything to do with the global demand for Samsung products.

As usual, this export orientated development is no different from the 1960s when Korea fulfilled a similar role to the one now carried out by China – a manufacturer of cheap but high quality goods, but ultimately dependent on the international economy for its survival. Is Korea not any better now as it churns out televisions and mobile phones at a high rate to satiate an always hungry global consumer?

The thing is, when Lee Myoung Bak became president, it was argued that he was the right man for the job and he could reinvigorate Korea’s stumbling economy (let’s not forget that this was 2008 – a time when major European economies and the US were themselves beginning to falter). The same party’s candidate can hardly have much more revolutionary steps up her sleeve for seeing about an economic rebirth, especially for a country that is tied to the ups and downs of its buyers across the world.

What Korea needs now is a change, and a big one, across the board. The economy is just one area which needs work, but it is certainly an obvious and easy one to provoke. Korea needs to learn to innovate and it needs to become attractive to the international environment – which isn’t easy when you consider the compeititon in Asia alone is places like Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and of course Singapore.

Korea has a fantastic population of hardworking and concerned citizens who only want the best for their country. But are these people being misled? Possibly. It needs to re-educate and approach the world from a new angle. It needs to change its institutions and it needs to respect them. It has to look at itself and rely on itself more.

Changes need to be made to turn away from this old-fashioned overly dependent means of running the country to one which encourages the old to develop into the new, and one which sees its Korean identity as pivotal in its interaction with others. This is not the case now. This is merely the tip of the iceberg, and this is an iceberg that will take longer than five years to melt.

P.S. I could be very wrong about all of this.

*UPDATE* Have a read of Roboseyo’s take on the election, including a more in depth and less one sided (and despondent) perspective on the role of Park Chung hee’s role in Korea’s past and present. 

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5 thoughts on “Nostalgia for a Despot: an Armchair Perspective of Korea’s Present

  1. Thanks for the link, and this article. I especially like what you said about Korea needing to strengthen and trust its institutions. I’d add that some of those institutions badly need to be extricated from government or chaebol influence.

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    • I’d push the boat out further and have chaebol influence curtailed in every area – except where they’re in business…which is probably everywhere so there goes that idea!

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  2. Conor, I read this when it was fresh last weekend and I regret I’m just now getting around to offering a reply, and let me say immediately that was honored and a little bit touched that my own thoughts spurred you a little bit to write this. I’ll happily and humbly disagree, however, that my analysis is really any better than anyone else’s. Anyone – everyone – observes the world through the lens of their own experiences, attitudes and preferences, and yes, prejudices, and there’s not much more than a brief glimpse of that sense of different perspective that any of us can offer each other.

    But I think I might need to disagree with anyone dropping a hint that your our opinions about local politics are inconsequential, merely because we are foreigners. As a long-term resident, Conor, (and new father, congratulations again) you not only have a strong stake in what happens here, you might also have a vote, at least in municipal matters, and local officials often continue their careers on to the national level. Simply by participating in conversation as we are doing now – with each other and with the Korean people we come in contact with – we commit ourselves and engage with the world around us, and even if the ultimate effect of that seems miniscule, I believe it is real.

    The subject of the chaebols interests me, and one source of optimism I noticed lately is that Koreans seem more and more willing to discuss the overbalancing influence they have on society here. It can’t be denied that their achievements have brought the country forward into the First World, and their main value has been that of promoting Korea into the international realm, but I think one useful direction for the government here would be to mitigate and correct whatever negative effects they produce on the Korean people here. The public sector needs to offer a deal: we’ll help you do these things abroad, Mr Hyundai/LG/Samsung, but we ask you also to do these other things for the people here.

    That’s just my take, and I think something like that might happen. I don’t know if Ms. Park will have a better shot at it that Mr. Moon would have. We’ll have to see.

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    • I’m far from a political expert so the hat-tip in your direction (even if you also are far from a political expert) is deserved. I had my head in the sand up until I read your post.

      As for the voting, if I have a vote then I’ll probably say something. To be honest I’ve never been really involved in a heated political competition because I’ve spent most of my post-university life outside of Ireland, and maybe this is effecting my opinion on this. But at the same time, I think it’s ‘their’ fight and I think there are issues involved which I can’t fully understand – and I don’t really appreciate when outside sources poke their opinions on issues I’m involved in, but maybe that is just me needing to thicken up my skin a little.

      As for the Chaebol: they do little in terms of promoting Korea outside Korea. You’ll see no taeguki flying next to the Samsung cameras and LG tvs back home. My own main concern is the kowtowing that goes on. I’m surprised there aren’t shrines outside Digital City where people go and light candles and pray that the company will do well, or some other nonsense.

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