Category: korea

30th Anniversary of the June Democracy Movement in South Korea

Democratic consolidation: The process by which a new democracy matures, in a way that means it is unlikely to revert to authoritarianism without an external shock. – Wikipedia

Today marks the 30th anniversary of democracy protests in South Korea–known as the 6월 민주항쟁 (the June Democracy Movement)–that led to democratic consolidation in the South Korea. While so crucial to the identity of Korea today, and even having learned about it in school, its significance wasn’t in my consciousness until much later as an adult when I had gained a greater appreciation of the human fight for progress (which continues today!) across centuries, especially recent decades.

(Aside: Much of that recent appreciation came via a Democratic Development MOOC on Coursera, taught by Stanford professor Larry Diamond. The movement in Korea itself is part of the greater context of a democratization wave (1960s-1980s) across Asia, worth learning for those w/o contemporary Asian history context)

As I started the appreciate the historical relevance that happened in the span of my family’s lifetimes, the need to be proactive in dealing with today’s challenges is also clear, as the fight for democracy continues across this world.

The background of the Korean protests are fascinating and worth reading into (I won’t go into them here), but despite much uncertainty, they ended peacefully, with concessions from the then-authoritarian government to rewrite the Constitution and established the Sixth Republic of Korea, leading to the following promises being implemented:

  • Direct participation in upcoming presidential election for all citizens over age 20
  • Freedom of candidacy and fair competition
  • Amnesty for Kim Dae-jung and other political prisoners
  • Protection of human dignity and promotion of basic human rights
  • Freedom of the press and abolishment of the restrictive Basic Press Law (see: Media of South Korea)
  • Educational autonomy and local self-government
  • The creation of a new political climate for dialogue and compromise
  • Commitment to enact bold social reforms to build a clean, honest, and more just society.,_1987

I had just turned 2 at the time, so I have no recollection of the actual protests, but my parents do remind me that it was only months before we moved to the U.S. in late 1987. By the time we moved back in 1995, it had only been a few years since the events, but indeed, at least what I observed and felt like a functioning democracy.

Through the eyes of history, these events are seen as the Asian component of the Third Wave of Democracy, which also includes similar movements in Philippines and Taiwan. As most of the world knows, these transitions from an authoritarian rule to democracy are often messy, with the principle characters being young people (students) against the various proxies of authoritarian regimes.

And not all of these movements succeed or remain peaceful, as sadly, we we’ve seen recently in the Middle East after the much anticipated Arab Spring, and when things go wrong, horrible things can happen like the ongoing tragedy in Syria.

And with major disruptions in stability, the temptation of authoritarianism when facing crises real, or amplified by the political climate is ever present. One notable rollback of liberal democratic norms has been in the Philippines, which despite their history of democracy, we are seeing with the current administration, a steep decline in the rule of law, and a sharp rise in populism, supporting a distinct shift toward an authoritarianism. For someone like me, who focuses on trends, this is not encouraging, and across the world, we’ve seen with a rise in those willing to fan the flames of populist resentment. Not in Korea though, and with the newly elected center-left president, Korea’s execution of democracy moves forward.

Still, advocates for democratic development can take hope in the one more recent event in South Korea: the overwhelmingly peaceful civil protests that ultimately led to the impeachment of President Park (a constitutional process that hasn’t even (yet) happened in the U.S.). With this and the subsequent peaceful transition of power to an opposition party president, it is clear that despite the chaos, it was a test and a win for the rule of law, democracy as a principle, and the people at large.

I actually remember when I was younger, seeing a US official address a crowd of students in Korea. Referring to the idea of “national stability” — he said something along the lines of, “In Korea, if you had an impeachment, the country would tear itself apart.” Glad to see that wasn’t true.

Politics aside, kudos to Korea for demonstrating how democracy is done! It is something the country should be incredibly proud of. What had been still on formation while growing up, as of today, I’d say that it is one of the few true democracies in East Asia, along with Japan and Taiwan.

Looking back at the last 30 years, I think it’s important to remember the active role the citizenry must play in fighting for and preserving democratic norms and values. The global push and pull of nationalism and internationalism has never been so readily apparent, and in this joined mission, we must realize that the universal principles and norms of liberal democracy must be fought for and the battles, and heroes, remembered.

The specific date of the anniversary does celebrate one particular incident — a democracy movement protester that was killed by a police tear gas grenade. That event is considered crucial to bringing public awareness to the authoritarian regime’s violent crackdown of the protests and is considered a pivotal moment in public sentiment. From that shift, ultimately, the government conceded to the demands of protesters seeking democratic reforms.

Today, Korea remembers this day to remind itself of how freedom from authoritarianism must be won, and to remember those who fought in that struggle.

Truth, Satire, and ‘The Interview’

I’ve been meaning to talk about The Interview since I first watched it on Christmas Day, but oh well, Happy New Year world!

Tl;dr: I thought the movie was awesome delivering laughs, memorable one-liners, and a unique satirical take on American hopes and fears of the reclusive state and it’s leader, in a genuinely hilarious fashion. For satire, there are some great nuggets of truths in The Interview, and it’s expressed in the right doses of seriousness in the film. If you’ve displeased yourself while watching this movie (yes, it’s your fault) you’re probably taking it too seriously; for those that weren’t tightwads in college, the humor will probably deliver. Added tip: try watching it in Washington or Colorado.

The controversy around Sony’s release of The Interview was much talked about for good reason. That an international conglomerate as powerful as Sony, with annual revenue equal to about a quarter of North Korea’s GDP, could wither under the pressure of anonymous hackers on the internet, initially canceling the film’s release, surprising many. It is absolutely worth noting and remembering that this started with the cowardly decision on part of movie theater chains to pull out of showing the film. Equally cowardly was Sony’s decision to make a statement in-effect cancelling any sort of release. The backlash by the American social media populace was rightfully swift, with round condemnation from the internet to the President saying that “Sony made the wrong call” by basically caving in to anonymous threats.

Economic moves aside, that Sony was influenced by pressure from hackers (regardless of their disputed origin) amounted to a clear defeat of the freedom of speech and sets a completely wrong precedent for speech as a whole. Sony eventually backtracked (what a bunch of flip-floppers), allowing more forward-thinking VOD distributors to embrace the film’s release as a cause. Google instantly became a worldwide movie theater, and scored the vast majority of the views via Google Play and Youtube at time of release.

The official rhetoric of the DPRK should surprise no one, and for those that have learned not to take too seriously, it’s quite hilarious. In the real world, I felt that their previous UN protest of the film is actually a positive indication that they are taking international mechanisms for conflict resolution seriously.

“Obama always goes reckless in words and deeds like a monkey in a tropical forest,” North Korea’s National Defense Commission (NDC) continued, adding that President Obama “is the chief culprit who forced the Sony Pictures Entertainment to indiscriminately distribute” The Interview, a film that is “hurting the dignity of the supreme leadership of the DPRK and agitating terrorism,” the BBC reports.
– From an article in the Rolling Stone

For those thinking this is just a bizarre isolated case of backlash against perceived deprecation of deified figures should recall not-long-ago Danish cartoonish controversy. There too, fears of death began to have a chilling effect on what people would/could say with possibilities of provoking an angered reaction. For a country that reportedly worships Kim’s cult of personality like the living messiah, it’s reasonable to think how the idea of a low brow comedy (though not the first) about their equivalent of Jesus or the Prophet Mohammed could offend, and even I’ve seen conflicts of western values of free speech when it comes to satire of religious figures.

It’s too bad, because it impedes the enjoyment of an otherwise hilarious comedy that indeed, will not appeal to all. Some say that the movie does injustice to those genuinely suffering under the regime, but the truth is, satire is a great way to encourage discussion about valid topics. That America public cares about North Korea at all should be the surprise, and if anything, a complement to the regime’s notoriety. Poking fun at the leader Kim is already an internet pastime, and this movie just pushes that forward AAA-style. Those of us that are from the internet are a great reflection of how seriously hitherto, America has taken the current Kim:

The distinction that Sony Pictures does not represent any official policy statement of the US government, may be lost on the North Korean leadership, who probably take this way too personally, and likely add to their fears about exposing their house of cards to their information-controlled population. North Koreans, allegedly, are taught from early childhood that their cult of personality leadership are demigods upon this earth and are raised in a institutionalized state where this is constantly reinforced. It’s hard to say when this started, but assuming it’s been since the state’s founding in 1948, it has now gone on for three generations, possibly producing a nation of zombie-like followers with no sense of humor, or understanding of comedy, particularly when it comes to their deified leadership, all to easily angered at any perceived slight against their divinity.

Regardless of whether or not American comedy writers are obligated to take these things into consideration, this specific case highlights a unique interaction between private media and state (or possibly stateless/rogue) agents and is a clear indicator of the influence of soft power in international relations. It’s interesting that the controversy comes from both sides, with another subset of folks calling out that the movie “humanizes the brutality of the leader Kim”. This too, I believe is silly. Looking back at the lens of history, countless times, scholars have found it useful to understand the perspective of leadership as individuals, and I will admit, there is a certain sense of American hopefulness in the movie.

In one of my set of favorite scenes, where Franco’s character is out bro-bonding with Kim, it’s revealed that Kim secretly is a Katy Perry fan, playing, of all songs–Firework — listening as a 30-year-old kid with affluenza, so detached from the plight of his people, yet so trapped by the cult that his father and grandfather he created that he too, feels forced to continue the role. In the movie, Kim plays the role of the misunderstood villain, who might just as well be a cog in the huge wheel of history that move nations to fight each other.

This song has been stuck in my head for days now! Thanks @sethrogan…

I like that the movie seems to ask if it has to be that way, playing into our confused depictions of what’s going on over there. The depiction of course, takes much creative license, but given how little we do know from oddball ventures like Dennis Rodman’s affairs in North Korea, we’re forced to imagine the true nature of the leadership. One line of thinking could take us to where this film does, and of all possible ways of depicting the DPRK’s Kim, I found the movie’s version quite novel, but with a level of authentic believably that even North Korea watchers say reflects some truths. It’s not hard to not feel bad for the guy, trapped in the shell of what must be a very insecure role, living constant in fear of enemies, both foreign and domestic. One could almost even imagine this 30-year-old Kim trolling the underworld of the internet with monikers such as the “Guardians of Peace”, while overcompensating for his fear with all to familiar bombastic outbursts fit for a child throwing a tantrum. The writer’s choice of Firework plays particularly into the zeitgeist of the Millennial generation, which, we mustn’t forget, that Kim Jong-un is also a part of. So can’t we figure out a better way?

As a Korean-American, I’ve been particularly sensitive to mischaracterizations in popular media, but I didn’t find the storywriters depiction too far out of left field; this is a Seth Rogan comedy after all, and it appeals quite well to the crowd it targets. As a satire reflecting the American mood, I felt the movie depicts how we wish it could be; a huge misunderstanding between people that in another world, would probably get along. Maybe Rodman was onto something. Lol.

Vienna Teng

music and words by Vienna Teng

we’re here where the daylight begins
The fog on the streetlight slowly thins
water on water’s the way
the safety of shoreline fading away

sail your sea
meet your storm
all I want is to be your harbor
the light in me
will guide you home
all I want is to be your harbor

fear is the brightest of signs
the shape of the boundary you leave behind
so sing all your questions to sleep
the answers are out there in the drowning deep

you’ve got a journey to make
there’s your horizon to chase
so go far beyond where we stand
no matter the distance
I’m holding your hand

…that’s just one of the amazing songs that Vienna Teng played/sang tonight at the Union. And I am saying, it was one of the most amazing concerts I’ve been to. From the first time I heard her songs (two days ago) I was amazed at what they had to say–and almost for the first time, in person, she didn’t disappoint.

Songs that meant something to me found even deeper depth from how she created them. Every song had some sort of story behind it–some real, some fictional; but all of them were genuine in emotion. She wrote them at the oddest times (probably what I empathize wiht more though): procrastinating an English paper away, being annoyed at her roommate, and her boyfriend… and wrote songs, in their point of view. That’s somehting amazing for me, something I find really rare in the pop music world–and so each song has its story. Bah, whatever, I’m not writing a review, I’m talking about how amazing the concert was.

One amazing thing about her, besides her is how… normal she looked. She commented that one day, she was being egotistical, and Googled herself; found a site about 20 hits down, where she found a guy who truly loved her music, but also said (paraphrased) “dude, if vienna teng was hot, i would totally stalk her”—lol–whereupon she concluded that she’d take it as a good sign, finding the best of both worlds: good enough to be liked musically, but not hot enough to be stalked.

Teng happy after pulling off some song

Pretty cool how the internet can affect people so far away. Sometimes it seems so private up here… in Xangaworld–yet ANYONE can access what I”m saying… cool in a way?

Haha anyway–her music was AWESOME, and I found her writing process as amazing as the stories themselves. She also sang a song in Mandarin (“excuse my American accent–I’m a 5th grade Chinese school dropout”) which (I believe) was originally a Taiwanese folk song… respectable. THe immigrant story, from so many 1st-2nd generation families are destroyed in the inter-generational conflicts; mine almost was. So many Asian-Americans that venture out of the “traditional” asian specialties (math/sci/eng/med) also strip away their cultural-selves, yet knowing that she at the very least tried, (and probably did well, it was a nice song) to hold on to the stories of her past gives me some hope. I wished I knew the song’s title so I could find it… (more on that later) and looK!:

Autographed CD!

I actually bought her CD (first CD purchase in nearly a year)–I’m just glad to support her, not because she’s Asian-American (and we could definitely use some more Asian artists in this counrty) but I truly appreciated her… songs/stories/humor/attitude… it was good, and the least I could do was to buy the CD (IT WAS A FREE CONCERT!). And for her sake, I shall do all the marketting that I can–OH, she’s coming to CHICAGO later this month too!

Besides, this made it all worth it!

Uh huh–that’s right–whos the man??? I forgot to ask her what her REAL name was… oh well. The dudes flanking her are the Lams, hilarious tite twins that make the Huangs look like arch-enemies–

I also found a hidden track on my CD–playing it, it was the mandarin song she had sung! And my life was complete, and I am gonna sleep now…

lol–oh yea, in response to a question she said one of her favorite programming languages was Java… maybe java aint so bad–:-|

Check her site out (yay marketting!) Free MP3’s!  No guilt!