Thursday, June 24, 2010

Into the breach

For the 60th anniversary of the Korean war, the Hankyoreh has published some recently discovered photographs by Lim In-sik. You can view them here and here. I'm not normally one to publish much on this period, since Matt does such a good job at it and my interests are more contemporary. But the picture above, of the floating bridge across the Han really struck me, so I'd thought I'd share.

The legacy of the Korean war, especially the afterlife of cold war anti-communism and its chilling effects on domestic politics is something I've been writing about a little more these days (more on that later). Particularly, the way that a Chimera of communism has been used to condone crimes against South Koreans. On that note, there is a moving piece also in the Hankyoreh about Kim Gwang-Ho, president of the National Korean War Surviving Family Members' Association. Kim's father and grandfather were victims of state violence. His grandfather, a nationalist from the March 1st movement, executed by rightist youth during the Korean war; his father, a wealthy citizen who, in 1960, reburied victims of rightist massacres during the war, only to incur decades of torture and harassment.

Grim reading. Part of the rhetoric of the story reminds one of the red baiting rhetoric employed by members of the conservative government:

When Kim’s father asked the prosecutor, “What crime is it to bury my father’s remains?” the prosecutor reportedly replied, “It is a crime to bury Reds.” In January 1962, Kim’s father was sentenced to seven years in prison by the revolutionary court, and he was released two years and seven months later.

After that, Kim’s family began to collapse. The released father, perhaps because of the aftereffects of torture, was unable to do difficult work. Kim and most of his seven brothers and sisters were unable to attend high school. One older sister was divorced for being from a “Red family.” The pain continued for another decade afterwards. Whenever any espionage incident took place, large or small, Kim’s father was dragged off and returned half-dead.

“We get a call from some place at the market merchants’ association where we worked,” Kim recalled. “They say, ‘He’s out.’ So the whole family takes a taxi from Busan’s Oncheonjang to Nampo-dong and races over. We find our father sprawled out somewhere in the harbor, wrapped in a straw mat. We went through that more than twenty times.”

Though times have changed, the survival of this kind of political discourse is still a great problem. I think it is, however, largely ineffective these days, but it still does damage. Politicized prosecutions, national security law investigations against dissidents, and a general fear mongering in politics are how it is manifested. And yet, this doesn't seem to win elections and only seems to placate that frenzied fragment of the old right that valorize the Park Chung Hee regime. Though, it should be mentioned that the new right tries to label the economic policies of the liberal left and even shareholder value reformers (neoliberal corporate governance reformers, in other words) as 'red' or 'leftist' policy in a similar attempt to obscure and make a monster out of public criticism. And, in my mind, this is a more serious afterlife of a statist nationalism antagonistic toward civil society. Even more saddening when you hear comments like "which country are you from?" from the supposedly moderate prime minister, in response to doubts raised about the recent Cheonan sinking.

This is not to say that one cannot criticize NGOs like any other interest groups according to the logic of their claims, but to make their exercise of speech itself the problem, and to stigmatize and threaten them with the national security law, returns civil society to a politics of voluntary subordination to the national state, a silencing of dissent, and an erasure of civil rights. It also overstates rational risks to national security by attempting to create, since none of this has been successful at a popular level, an inflated sense of internal and external risk. Unfortunately, even though it doesn't seem to sway public opinion -- who, let's face it, care more about the World Cup at the moment than North Korea -- this kind of politics perpetuates political and economic structures badly in need of further democratic reform. Especially at the level of the prosecution, corporate governance, labour relations, urban development, and inter-Korean engagement.

1 comment:

  1. Great to see you active again on this great, valuable blog...reading just a couple of the recent posts, so 'worth the read'!