Monday, May 26, 2008

Politicized Policing

Yet another post from the Hankyoreh (as you can see my free time has been limited lately). This one comes after yesterday's crackdown on LMB's beef agreement with the US. Lot's of stuff happening which can catch up on through most Korea-related blogs and websites. The crackdown on the protests seems set to provoke a large reaction from the public, but what is perhaps most disturbing about them is the way in which the policing involved reminds many observers of the role of the police in previous dictatorships. Since LMB's election to police have seemingly been reintegrated into the governments political strategy and have been monitoring and interfering with civic groups. The crackdown yesterday signifies the first time that they have shown their face in this new role vis a vis civil society or speech related protests (if one accepts that the authoritarian policing of labour and especially migrants was never fully eliminated).

[Analysis] Lee administration reversing democratic achievements
Infringement on media freedoms tops list of troubling changes made since Lee Myung-bak took office

»[PICTURE] Police drag away citizens who participated in a two-day, sit-in candle vigil to protest the resumption of U.S. beef imports when they try to march toward Cheong Wa Dae at dawn on May 25.

There are growing concerns that the administration of President Lee Myung-bak, who marked his first three months in office on May 25, has reversed some of the democratic progress that Korean society has made. For the first three months, law enforcement authorities, including the police, the prosecution and the Board of Audit and Inspection, have been mobilized to ingratiate themselves with the government’s initiatives. Regular meetings on public security with the National Intelligence Service, which were common under the military-backed government in the early 1980s, have been revived. The terms of the directors of public entities, which are guaranteed by law, have been ignored and an advisory opinion on the rights of migrant workers given by the National Human Rights Commission was overturned by a remark made by President Lee.

In a clear sign of a setback in progress toward democracy, riot police beat protesters and forcefully arrested them in the early morning on May 25 and 26 to disperse a street rally after a candlelight vigil was held to oppose the planned resumption of U.S. beef imports. Democratic achievements, obtained by the Korean people since the pro-democracy uprising in June 1987, have gradually been undermined. Human rights have been suppressed easily enough by intelligence authorities resuming investigations into members of the civilian population. With the government-controlled economic system showing signs of revival, the road to economic democratization has become rockier. Where the law ends, the politics of intervention begins.

Kim Ho-ki, a sociology professor at Yonsei University, who described the government of President Lee as “neo-liberal authoritarian rule,” said it is characteristic of the government to use “neo-liberalism to handle education, employment and welfare policies under market principles, while trying to control civic society and social movements with an authoritarianism similar to that employed during the Yushin (revitalizing reform) regime and the fifth government.” The Yushin regime and the fifth government, which date back to the 1970s and 1980s, constitute one of the darkest chapters in modern South Korean history. At the time, South Korea was ruled by military generals with most the basic rights held in abeyance. “Such a way of ruling is fundamentally opposed to the pluralism brought by the democratic era, so will amplify social unrest and discord,” Kim said.

Of the setbacks democracy has suffered, what’s most worrisome is the government’s attempt to control the media. The Board of Audit and Inspection, the Korea Communications Commission, and other government agencies are engaging in a full out attempt to force Jung Yun-joo, the president of the Korean Broadcasting System, to resign from the post. It is becoming clear that the government is trying to appoint people who are considered as “yes-men” to serve the administration of President Lee at posts in broadcasting, at news wires and media institutions, where the government has an influence on personnel appointments. Nevertheless, conservative media outlets, which had trumpeted the idea that they would protect media freedoms under the liberal governments of the past decade, have kept mum. The cozy relationship between powerful politicians and the conservative media, which put democracy into limbo until the 1980s, has returned.

Kim Hyeong-gi, a professor of economics at Kyungpook National University, said, “During the administration of former President Roh Moo-hyun, (the government) weakened the privileges of the major law enforcement authorities. But the government of President Lee Myung-bak has tended to strengthen its authoritarian rule while promoting the idea of a market economy. This phenomenon has occurred because the country turned conservative before the monitoring of law enforcement authorities by the National Assembly and civil society had taken root, and amid a lack of democratic maturity.”


  1. Jamie, I suggest you rely on other sources than just the Hankyoreh, which is extremely biased and recently misquoted me and refused to apologize despite witnesses and documented evidence to the contrary. I have been attending the recent protests in Chongno daily and the police have been amazingly patient with the protesters. Last night, several dozen Korean worker and student types literally body tackled a police line in front of Kwanghwamun Post Office for at least an hour, hurling abusive language at them all the while, and the police did nothing but calmly hold their line and gently push them back. This went on for an hour until finally the protesters got bored and wandered off somewhere else. It was obvious that these guys were trying to provoke the police merely to provoke them and create more media images for papers like The Hankyoreh to show that "Korea is returning to policing tactics of the Yushin era." I don't buy it. When people want to occupy the largest boulevard in Chongno till 5am, they should expect that at some point the police will round them up for blocking traffic and not complain about it. I am not an apologist for the police, but the shameless way that outlets like Hankyoreh are trying to exploit this issue disgusts me, especially when they cannot even practice ethical and professional journalism themselves. Try getting your information from as many sources as possible, because Hankyoreh is an out-of-touch propaganda organ that only sees the truth when it jibes with their own ultranationalist agenda.

  2. Scott,

    Some good points, there is certainly an issue about relying on the Hankyoreh for long-distance blogging.

    I think the issue is not the protest policing as such as it is the more active politicized role that the government wants to make for the police particularly in regards to the dam projects, policing protest in general (as in the criteria for illegal rallies and the establishment of new, harsher anti-riot squad). What seems different in terms of the on ground protest policing is the length they are holding people and who they are arresting in terms of the students and more normal citizens versus perhaps the people you were describing. Actually, in terms of policing opposition to the FTA and labour issues, the Roh government was just as severe in terms of making certain rallies illegal, he wasn't the same in terms of the rhetoric employed or the number of arrests, questioning, and promise of an internet witch hunt. I mean if you look at labour and migrants issues no government has really stopped the authoritarian policing, its is just a matter of degree. LMB may step that up because he is now including that slippery category of civil society into those he wants to police.

    As for the Hankyoreh, I actually like it for its editorials and coverage which I find less ideological than the other papers, but there is something of an old 386'er Minjok nationalism to some of its editors and in the way it represents some issues. This is certainly not an juchist ultranationalism or the 'statist' and jaebol-can-do-no-wrong cold war ultranationalism of the far right, however, you right to point out that they have a certain agenda. Personally, I'm sure the risks of getting mad cow are pretty slim compared to other food safety problems domestically or with other trading partners, I think the opposition generated by this issue however has to do with the acceptance lower standards, abandonment of the precautionary principle (part of the old MAI and WTO agenda that collapsed), and the obvious will to do this against better information on behalf of the government, that is irking people. One can certainly go from there and bring out a host of other power relations that are part of this or speak about the economic impact of too much free trade, but that hasn't really happened yet. Therefore there is still a kind of open moment to the protests, is it about US mad cow in particular or is it about the governments attitude to negotiation and a host of other issues. The Hankyoreh's reporting seems ambivalent about this, they go both ways, thus it is hard to say that they are just ultra-nationalist. Voice of the people on the other hand, maybe they have a more left version of nationalism, and the right wing papers their own version too (not the defensive measures on mad cow kind but a different sort). Also, it is important to point out that Roh essentially was bargaining a similar agreement with US beef but only stopped imports due to precautions and public opposition. He was also harsh against his opposition and the Hankyoreh seemed to support him or not cover the issue as much back then.

    Anyways, thanks for you comment and please continue to share you observations. I think at the moment the late-night rowdiness is the not the kind of opposition one wants to see as it will probably play into the government's hand, but the 100 people boarding the buses certainly shows that the issue strikes a nerve with many and that the government is taking the wrong course in trying to repress speech.



  3. Jamie, below are some stats on recent protest arrests from today's JoongAng Daily that you might not find so easily in the Hankyoreh. Out of several hundred thousand protesters over the past month, a grand total of 27 are still in detention (and a majority picked up yesterday)? Does this strike you as martial law, or a return to the Park Chung-hee era? Seriously, people need to tone down the hysterical rhetoric by several notches:

    "Twenty-one farmers were arrested yesterday on their way to the Blue House. According to the Korean Peasants League, the farmers from around the nation began their protest march toward the presidential office around 2 p.m., but police quickly intervened. After a 30-minute scuffle, police took the farmers into custody. Following Thursday’s overnight rally, police arrested six demonstrators. Since Saturday, police have rounded up a total of 217 protesters for questioning, and 179 were booked without physical detention. Twenty-one were referred to a summary trial, while 11 were let go with a warning. As of yesterday, the six street demonstrators and the 21 farmers remained in custody."