Thursday, June 12, 2008

Castle MB

From the Hankyoreh:

Barricades that blocked protesters incite widespread resentment
Internet users invent phrases laced with sarcasm to express criticism of gov’t action

» In the photo above, a protester waves the national flag of Korea atop a barricade of shipping containers constructed by the government at dawn on June 11. The sign under the protester reads: “Is this what you call ‘communication?’” The sign skewers President Lee Myung-bak for saying he would communicate with the general public prior to constructing a barrier to keep them out. Below, the barricade is removed in the morning of the same day.

The watchword for the huge candlelight protests attended by up to one million people on June 10 was “Myung-bak castle” (Myungbaksanseong). The word combines the first name of President Lee Myung-bak and a Korean word that means “mountain fortress wall,” with the latter part referring to the rows of shipping containers used by police to block protesters from approaching the Blue House.

A 5.4-meter-high wall of shipping containers filled with sand, one of three such walls, was removed from the main thoroughfare on Sejong Avenue in the early morning of June 11. However, the phrase invoking the barricades is likely to stay on people’s lips as a symbol of President Lee Myung-bak’s refusal to communicate with the citizens of Korea.

The term “Myungbak castle” was first used by Internet users almost instantaneously beginning on June 10, and generated a number of derivatives. As police constructed the shipping containers as a way to block protesters, the term “Welding Myung-bak” (Yongjeopmyungbak) was coined just as quickly. This term refers to the method police used to weld the containers together. Tens of thousands of messages with the term “Welding Myung-bak” were posted on the Internet debate site Agora, which is operated by Daum Communications.

Some of the messages left online exude the sense of sarcasm and scorn felt by the majority of the general public toward the government. One person wrote, “Because a huge fortress wall was constructed overnight, it should be designated as a World Heritage site.”

Another said, “The look of the grand canal and the fortress wall reminds me of Qin Shi Huang.” The Grand Korean Waterway, which would connect Seoul to Busan via three interlocking canals, is one of the president’s pet projects, while Qin Shi Huang was the first emperor of China and built China’s Great Wall.

A composite photograph that combines a photo of the shipping container barricade with a caption saying, “This is the ‘Myungbak castle,’ which has been designated as National Treasure No. 0,” spread rapidly through the Internet.

Behind the widespread criticism and satirical comments, lies a sense of anger and regret over President Lee’s having turned a deaf ear to the public. A 32-year-old office worker who works in Gwanghwamun, downtown Seoul, near the site where the barricades were constructed, said on June 11, “When I saw the ‘Myungbak castle’ on my way to the office, I felt a sense of despair.” The worker, who was only identified by the surname Choi, said, “If (the government) were to think about how to allay public resentment instead of thinking about how to block the voices of the people, it could suggest more than 100 new plans.”

An Internet user with the nickname “Themis” wrote, “With the ‘Myungbak castle,’ the response to citizens holding candles is akin to a trampling of the people’s will. This government has made another big mistake.”

Police officials even criticized the construction of the barricades. A police officer said, “I was surprised to hear about the idea of blocking a main thoroughfare with a wall of containers. With the wall, citizens were made to feel that they were shut out and mistreated. I think the countermeasure seems to have gone wrong.”

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See also this interesting article on the new culture of protest involved in the demos.


  1. I love how the Hankyoreh has been nothing but an uncritical cheerleader for these protests from the get-go. Fair and balanced news reporting? Hardly. If they are so concerned about 2MB's lack of communication with the public, why didn't they interview him (or an official spokesperson) for this article and give him a chance to speak? Could it be that the Hankyoreh actually doesn't care what Lee thinks? Well, that's fine but it seems silly to lecture Lee on his faulty communication style when The Hankyoreh only knows how to listen to one side of the argument itself! I mean, didn't former Hankyoreh poster boy Roh Moo-hyun himself say that these protests are "undemocratic"? It also disgusts me the way Hankyoreh has used the protests to take pot shots at ChoJoongDong every chance it can and thereby increase its own circulation and influence. Did it ever occur to Hankyoreh that the way to be a better, popular newspaper is to offer a competitive, high-quality product, rather than simply whining about the competition all the time and offering shameless spin instead of objective and fair news coverage? Did it ever occur to The Hankyoreh that Chosun Ilbo and JoongAng are more popular because they're actually far more professional and simply offer a better product?

  2. BTW, here's an interesting story from The Chosun Ilbo. They're obviously getting pissed off, but at least they offer a lot more interesting information on the people behind the protests than your average Hankyoreh hack:

    "The Real Identity of the Mad Cow Fearmongers

    The People's Association for Measures Against Mad Cow Disease on Wednesday issued an ultimatum against the Lee Myung-bak administration, demanding the scrapping of the Korea-U.S. beef accord and the start of all-out renegotiations of the accord with the U.S. by June 20. "If the government decides to ignore the mandate from the people, who hold the sovereign power in this country, we will not hesitate to launch a campaign to drive President Lee Myung-bak out of office," it said in a statement. The association has been acting as if it has been leading the candlelight vigils.
    Article 1 of the Constitution of the Republic of Korea says the sovereign authority of the country lies in the public and all power comes from the people. But nowhere in our Constitution is there any reference to the People's Association for Measures Against Mad Cow Disease as representing the public. Yet that association used insolent language to say it is "ordering" the government and would not hesitate to launch a campaign to oust President Lee. Judging from such words, the association must think the participants of the candlelight vigils are its supporters and that it feels empowered beyond imagination. But if you ask the housewives, high school students and office workers who took part in the vigils if that association represents them, most would wave their hands in denial and question just what that group does. Yet this very group is going around shouting out demands as if they own the candles that were carried by the people and have been empowered to be their leader.

    A search through the association's Internet homepage reveals that it was launched on May 6 following a proposal by the People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy and another civic group called the Korea Progressive Coalition. The coalition was created in September of last year after pro-North Korean groups such as Hanchongryun, the Solidarity for the Practice of the South-North Joint Declaration and other civic groups got together. The co-chairperson of the coalition, Oh Jong-ryeol, takes center stage during news conferences or rallies protesting against U.S. beef imports, acting as if he is the head of the People's Association for Measures Against Mad Cow Disease. A search through newspaper archives reveals that Oh had served as co-chair of a citizens' movement to close down a U.S. military bombing range in Maehyang-ri in 2001. He co-chaired another citizens' task force protesting the accidental killings of two Korean schoolgirls by a U.S. armored car in 2002, yet another citizens' task force seeking to nullify an impeachment motion against former President Roh Moo-hyun in 2004, an anti-APEC movement and a group opposed to the expansion of a U.S. military base in Pyeongtaek in 2005, and another movement opposed to the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement in 2006. He is a professional "co-chairperson." And it is obvious what types of groups he has co-chaired.

    The people working at the association's briefing room are mostly affiliated with the PSPD or the Korea Progressive Coalition. A PSPD official heads the association's briefing room and he was the one who stood on the stage during a candlelight vigil on May 25 and shouted "Let's go to Cheong Wa Dae!" The person who created the song "Article 1 of the Constitution," a favorite at the candlelight vigils, was arrested during a spy crackdown back in 1992 for creating a song praising the late North Korean leader Kim Il-sung.

    The Korean citizens who came out to the candlelight vigils, with their children in strollers, out of genuine concern for the health of their families, will be surprised if they find out such people are acting as their representatives. Moreover, Koreans will be appalled to learn that these people are threatening to nullify the election that even they participated in six months ago within the framework of the Constitution. The members of the association should be held jointly responsible for the mismanagement of the country during the Roh Moo-hyun administration. They are the very people who took this country backwards and divided the people by siding with Roh shouting anti-American and pro-North Korean slogans. And these people, who had been chased away by the public, are now using the crisis facing the Lee administration and hiding behind the mad cow scare to agitate others and calling on them to storm the presidential compound. The public needs to see the true faces of these people who are hiding behind a mask."

  3. Scott,

    Wouldn't really think that a comment from the president would be common thing to get on a matter of protest policing, but sure, I guess if one could get it, why not?

    I'm still going to disagree with you on the Hankyoreh. The other papers seem represent corporate interests more than, let's say, civil society interests. The Hankyoreh falls on the other side. This becomes problematic in their sometimes hypocritical editorializing, especially when Roh was in power, because for once NGOs had a bigger impact on the state.

    But let's be clear, there is a world of difference between that and the red-baiting crap the Choson editorializes about. Like the last paragraphs here used:

    "The members of the association should be held jointly responsible for the mismanagement of the country during the Roh Moo-hyun administration. They are the very people who took this country backwards and divided the people by siding with Roh shouting anti-American and pro-North Korean slogans. And these people, who had been chased away by the public, are now using the crisis facing the Lee administration and hiding behind the mad cow scare to agitate others and calling on them to storm the presidential compound. The public needs to see the true faces of these people who are hiding behind a mask."

    Not only is this wrong -- Roh, who idolizes Lincoln, was the one who negotiated the FTA and sent troops to Iraq, really anti-american thing to do -- it is also dangerous, and a symptom of the exclusion or progressive interests from national politics. The right love to throw around terms like 'leftist' to describe Roh and Kim DJ, but there was noting leftist about them, they were proud liberal market democrats. It they are left than the right is just simply corrupt, and it appears that actually that is what they are, not even good neoliberals if one is actually interested in market transparency, shareholder rights, fairness in government procurement, let's be clear on that.

    As for professionalism, even the BBC has sloppy standards. Myself, I was misquoted in the way you were recently during an event in Canada and it is super annoying, but short of an apology, at least I know that the journalist concerned is a hack and won't go far with that kind of reporting.

  4. Jamie, your points are well-taken and I agree that last paragraph goes a bit far which is why I said they were getting pissed off (although the wording does not suggest that Roh was a commie, just that along with Roh the groups mentioned in the article deserve blame for what the Chosun perceives to be the problems of the past 5 years). Anyway, if for the last 40 days hundreds of thousands of people were gathering outside your headquarters and screaming hell at you nonstop, like Chosun perhaps you might start to get pissed off as well.
    That said, are you saying that Hankyoreh is justified in offering nothing but rosy, uncritical coverage of the protests? I was there on Friday night and despite it being the anniversary of the tank killings, the turn-out was quite dismal and by 1am almost everyone was gone (normally there have been crowds till dawn during big rallies), yet Hankyoreh's coverage did not mention this and made it seem like another big turn-out (and from what I read did not even mention that the parents of the two girls did not want their daughters dragged into the protests at all). Then there are tensions within the demonstators: It seems Agora, for example, wants a peaceful approach and some other groups including unions want a more confrontational, violent approach. I know one Korean kid from a Marxist-Leninist study group who's been going to the protests regularly and he is disappointed by the peaceful turn the protests have taken of late and thinks more violent struggle is necessary. Indeed, when they were building the Myung-bak Sansong on Tuesday, the pro-violence and anti-violence factions spent literally an hour arguing and fighting with each other after it was built deciding what to do (i.e., go over the containers or not), and it was quite disgusting the way the leaders were physically fighting with each other (they even fought over who got to hoist the first flag at the top and were trying to yank down each other's flags; in fact, it reminded me of regular Korean politicians fighting and hurling objects at each other in the National Assembly), but you wouldn't really know about these internal divisions just reading the English edition of Hankyoreh as they tend to just whitewash everything about the protests. And another issue, for example, is that last night a clear majority of participants seemed to be just curiosity seekers who came with their friends to have a few drinks and party in their own small circle and did not seem very keen to participate in the broader event or interact with other protesters; indeed, going by the last two nights I sense this thing is starting to wind down and lose steam.
    In any case, what annoys me most about the Korean major newspapers is the way they are so polarized. Chosun has its faults for being biased but it seems to me that Hankyoreh is merely replicating this problem by being so blatantly partisan and non-objective as well (and thus has no right to claim the moral high ground as it often does). What we need are major newspapers that are reasonably objective and offer the facts for people to digest, and then various alternative publications on both left and right that can offer more extreme, radical or subjective viewpoints. But it seems that the major newspapers here also fall into the latter category, and thus the truth is often found wanting here.

  5. Point of clarification: Last night my Korean friends also called the styrofoam staircase built on Tuesday night the Myung-bak Sansong so that's why I called it that in my previous post, but I see that it may not be clear because that is also what the container barricade was called. I personally think it was more like a staircase, but in any case I need to check and find out what the correct terminology for it is in Korean.

  6. Hey Scott,

    I agree with your comments, I just think comparing Hankyoreh to Choson is a little like comparing the Washington post to the village voice, that's all.

    I do remember reading about the internal tensions between demonstrators but I think that may have been in the times or somewhere else.

    Oh, even the IHT had some bad spin on the protests calling Roh a leftist and stuff, so not even domestic sources are immune.

    I expected the attempt to relive the anti-SOFA protests would fizzle, I think SOFA got renegotiated anyway after the 2002 protests, no?

    One can compare the connection of the protests to the June struggle with the commemoration of Lee Han Yeol, who's mother came out, as being a successful association and the connection with anti-SOFA as perhaps unsuccessful, their parents obviously don't support it so it is weird to see civic activist holding the portraits, and a lot of it is contextual, I think most just think of it as a horrible accident that touched a sore point about SOFA. Anyways, let's call it an issue of framing: effective framing vs bad framing.

    I'm not there so I have to rely on what I hear from you and what I read on the sources, but the tensions you describe seem quite natural. I think at the moment it is still best for the old social movements to follow the new movements creativity. It was so nice to see irony and mockery used effectively in the protests. I'm always saddened when I hear about someone immolating themselves, in contrast. It seems even Chun Tae Il's mom disapproves of that tactic quite a lot. I met her briefly once by the way, really nice person.

    I think the step now would be to start unpacking the issues one by one -- privatization, trade, school reform, etc -- and try to make clear campaigns. Certainly, issues of geopolitical power imbalances might play into the strategy but I find one has to be very very clear about handling this kind of imbalance without slipping into bad forms of nationalism and utilizing the creativity of the demonstrators wherever possible. That's my wishist, some very concrete suggestions of possible alternatives would also be welcome.



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