Category: musings

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.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South_Korean_presidential_election,_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.

Election 2016 Aftermath

It’s been little over a month since the election; yet the world pre-election day world seems so far away. “Shocked” and “stunned” echoed on all through the week, even from folks in the president-elect’s camp.

Echos

A photo posted by Alexander (@skyrien) on

The populism-derived movement of the president-elect certainly is a disruption of the status quo. I frequently think of how the present will be written in history, and this administration certainly will have an interesting chapter.

With President Obama’s first post-election press conference, I’m reminded of how stark of a contrast these administrations will be; as much as he tries to reassure that the federal government is “like an ocean liner” in that it’s not very nimble; I suspect that rule only applies to those that understand and respect the institutions’ history. That said, I’m all for moving the country forward in the right direction, with so much yet unknown, we’ll just have to see how things go.

This election is one that prompts some introspection, about what my role in this democracy is, but also what kind of America we’re living, and sometimes fighting for.

As one that’s only lived in reliably blue states of Illinois, Washington, and California, and even at that, mostly close to (sub-)urban metropolitan areas of Chicago, Seattle, and the Bay Area, it’s been all too easy to fall into a bubble mindset about to what extent progressive values are shared.

Despite this, having grown up in a largely conservative environment, I considered my now-adult views relatively balanced, While I feel I can understand the motivations behind the Trump phenomenon, upon inspection, the balance of risk-reward did not seem to measure up.

I am starting to understand though, that underneath his strategy’s blatant appeal to populism — which perhaps suggests the president-elect will be able to leverage this bias to advantage — lies a sensibility about disruption and chaos and the ability to land successfully (and even better) than others around him.

This is a mindset I share, and though I probably wouldn’t risk the world order for a chance at disruption, I am cautiously optimistic that the results will be a net positive.

1995: 20 years ago, I joined the Internet

Twenty years ago today (roughly), I joined the internet. It wasn’t a particularly glamorous affair, but was necessitated by MSN (not the website, the original ISP service that debuted with Windows 95) having shut down its service in Korea, forcing me to find a local ISP (and convincing my parents that 7,000 won a month (about $6) was worth connecting to this nascent world wide web. For that, you’d get access to Chollian’s ISP, and 15 hours of access to the “internet” via PPP dial-up.

I was 10 years old and my family had just moved to Seoul from the United States for reasons that I still am not quite sure of, and in the demise of MSN, the ISP, I had just lost a major connection to the English speaking world that I had left behind. Quite sad, I know, but all that was about to change. I chose a Korean ISP called “Chollian”–which literally meant “vision of a thousand li” (li was a unit of distance in old Korea). No reason why i picked it other than that I got a CD with a trial; think of those old AOL CDs.

I spent a while trying to pick a screenname and email address, and ended up with: aer95@chollian.net. It was 1995 and ISP emails were the only way you’d get reasonable email. (Go ahead, spam it all you want. I doubt it even exists anymore. Oh where oh where do the lost emails go?) Anyone who asks about the origins of the name will be regaled with a rather hilarious story of the hours I took to come up with it. (Okay fine: one involves my name Alexander {obviously}, the E. and the R. stand for “Enforcer” a screenname I used frequently in Duke Nukem 3d multiplayer matches, and “Riker” as I believed the good TNG number one was a badass, esp as Admiral). Need I remind you, dear reader, I was 10 in ’95 and personal identity was an important thing to a kid.

It’s hard to recall what my first experience online was like; certainly I had an awareness that “holy shit, I’m connected to the world!”. But in 1995, (especially in Korea where most families didn’t even have a computer), with barely 0.4% of the world on the internet, there really wasn’t much to do other than, well browse here and there and try to find interesting things. I had already been online over the past year on closed-ISPs which made it quite easy to have a curated, though highly limited, online experience (recall AOL, Prodigy, and MSN, which kept their own little communities? Lest we forget, this was a big part of the “online” world in the 1990s. I was involved with a Doom map making community rather early, and I was blown away by how much interesting stuff I could find and explore.). By comparison, the discovery experience for new world wide web user was quite brutally obtuse. Imagine you have never heard of the internet and you open a browser for the first time (one without a decent portal); without knowing that a search engine exists, how would you even know what to enter into the blank URL bar? I remember being confused even at the syntax of a URL: http://www.chollian.net <- a web URL is second-nature to us now in 2015, but in 1995, at first glance, it was quite foreign.

(On a side note, when my family moved to Korea one of my chief concerns was falling behind in my learning, and not being able to keep up if/when I returned to the US. My early use of the internet absolutely turned that around, and I was able to learn at my own pace, to my own interests. The internet absolutely was a formative experience of my childhood.)

But the “Internet” was quite different back then. I didn’t even know what a search engine was, let alone what to do if i didn’t have one of those mysterious “URLs” to go somewhere interesting. The blank page and address bar were like big question marks. It seemed like the only way I could find anything was via links from other pages; which turned my internet activity into some sort of scavenger hunt. I’m telling you, you kids today don’t know what it was like back then. My first modem was 14.4 kbps. That’s KILOBITs per second. I developed mental math to convert megabytes into time, (turned out to be roughly 10 minutes per megabyte, which is still ten times faster than New Horizons is sending data to NASA right now…), which was an important conversion when using the internet meant nobody could use the home telephone line. Trust me, however old you are, it is not easy convincing your parents that it’s ok that their phones aren’t working, and having them plan out their calls… lol.

But what was I doing back then? Most of the time, I was reading the news about what’s happening in the world (in English, before the internet it was quite difficult to find content in the language of my choosing), finding new shareware games to download and play, and/or picking up random fun things to do. I learned both Doom map making and Photoshop at around the same time.

By 1996, I was 11 and had at least one other friend from school that would explore the internet with. Yahoo chatrooms were particularly memorable. He would enjoy trolling people, whereas I’d find the most interesting person in each room to figure out/learn something new. We’d coordinate using an ancient IM platform called ICQ. I don’t even remember my ICQ ID. I was also an avid PC gamer at the time, and I’d frequent many tech sites oriented towards games and the PCs needed to run them.

Still, it was a very impersonal affair, and while the internet always was about connecting people, back then, it was certainly not easy, and most definitely not “encouraged” by the media, which seemed oddly terrified at the idea of a computer that was connected to gasp other people. I recall at least a few random people chatting and making sorta/kinda friends that existed somewhere in the world. It was like pen-pal discovery for the digital age. “a/s/l?” Do people still do that?

(Aside: I feel like the real-name orientation of Facebook has taken away some of the fun and mystery of discovering the human behind a screenname. “Add Friend” is just not nearly as intriguing as “a/s/l”, even if most of those interactions were rather silly and pointless.)

That’s how I recall the internet back in the mid 1990s, a curiosity for most people, at least for me, with hardly any means for connecting with anyone. But by my local standards, I was already exposed to a small but growing population of internet users, barely 0.4% of the world population, and a phenomenon that would be hugely upend everything. It was pretty obvious by the late 1990s, especially in Korea, which like a crazy stampede, everyone suddenly decided that mobile infrastructure and the broadband internet were top national priorities. Hot damn. A bet well played.

All that changed with the emergence of social media, and real-time communication media; which turned the web from static place, into the living, breathing, web that connects a growing majority of the world’s people and information. Half of the entire planet’s population, three and a half BILLION people, are just an IM/SMS away.

How amazing is that! We’ve come a long way in 20 years, and the march goes on. Let’s connect everyone!