Protest and Bad Government: A Response to Popular Gusts

As the title suggests, this is a post in response to this post by Matt at Gusts of Popular Feeling. Go read that one first, it’s a good post and very interesting, before coming back to read what I have to say on the matter.

From here on in the rest of this post assumes that you’ve read Matt’s post.

I’ve read Myers’ book and found it to be very good, and I have a lot of time for his opinions. There are some things here, however, that I disagree with, and others that I agree with.

I agree with Matt also, that Myers’ most interesting and important point is the difference in reaction to the Cheonan sinking and the protests.

That said, I think I need to throw in something to broaden the perspective on those two series of protests. I know that some people, particularly Americans, will feel very frustrated, angry, aggrieved about the protests, and they have every right to. I also know that that means they may not like what I’m about to say, but my intention is not to undermine their justification to feel angry about what happened.

Firstly, the 2002 protests. Now, I was not there, I was not in Korea at the time, nor did I speak Korean at the time. Despite this, when I have asked Koreans about it at a later date, the vast majority do not blame the individual soldiers for what happened. They also concede that similar things happen on Korean roads every day with Korean drivers, and nothing is done about it. Despite this, they think that friendly soldiers during times of peace should not be causing the deaths of schoolchildren on the streets. Accident, yes, but should it have happened, no, is the general message.

Regarding the protests, everybody I’ve asked has said it was more about the perceived lack of apology from America, and the fact that it apparently wasn’t a big deal in America, than about America itself. Their view is that, considering it was America that was stationed in Korea, America should have been more willing to conduct itself by Korean standards when apologising. That is, what Americans may have considered an over-elaborate gesture for a more minor incident (think of the number of friendly fire deaths in wars America has been part of), is what Koreans would have considered to be a fitting gesture to apologise for a serious incident. Think of the way Koreans in Korea apologised about the guy who shot his school up – they were nothing to do with it, and yet they apologised. This is a cultural thing, which some Koreans understand is different in America, others do not. Regardless, they felt this was the way America should have behaved. And whether we agree with that viewpoint or not, we surely must concede that that is a Korean cultural standard that America did not necessarily uphold at the time.

Bearing this in mind, and despite my positive opinion of what Myers has to say in general, I question then, “it was widely claimed that the Yankees murdered them callously.” Yes, there was public outrage, but as I’ve said above, many Koreans believe this was more at the way the incident was handled than either the incident itself or America. What sources is Myers using for the above comment, then? Or does he simply assume people will accept it? Same goes for the Uncle Sam comment, where so far only one such image has been found.

Of the 2008 protests, again, I think perhaps our view is somewhat distorted because of how we experienced the protests as non-Koreans. To us they were anti-Americanism at its ugliest.

Yes, some very xenophobic people helped stir them up, but there was more to it than that, and more to it than beef. I will acknowledge completely that the vast majority of Koreans were and still are hugely misinformed about the issues regarding mad cow disease. However, this really was, in many ways, more about the Lee Myung-bak government. I know some people will see this as the Korean justification, that it clearly was about anti-Americanism, and I understand that viewpoint. I also think some people want it to have been about that to justify their own anger about it. I don’t think that anger needs justification, personally, as it’s completely acceptable. It is still true, though, that the mood in Korea at the time was one of anger at the government, that something had to be done to show the government how angry people were.

The beef issue was the excuse to go out protesting, in the grand old Korean tradition. People felt that American beef imports were necessary, but that the government was weak in negotiations. The Koreans wanted younger cattle, who are statistically less likely to carry mad cow disease, and they wanted each cow checked, and the checking to be done by Koreans. What they got was older cattle, with random checks, carried out by Americans. Now, I’m the first to vociferously argue about the stupidity of protesting American beef because of the dangers of a disease that wasn’t present in American beef. On the other hand, I also accept that the government’s behaviour caused people to think that they were submitting to America, that they were acting as America’s lapdog, rather than in the interests of their own people. I’m not saying who I agree with but I do think this was the largest factor in the scale of the protests and of the anger. It may have seemed like it was directed at America, but they were in reality largely protests against the government, and out of frustration that it seemed that the government would let America have its own way and as a nation they were powerless to act in their own best interests.

The text at the bottom reads "Beef older than 30 months" - referring to older meat that is apparently more susceptible to mad cow

The government handled the protests badly, using overly violent means to try and suppress them, saying the babies who were there (who never should have been there) were protesters just the same and so on (See here, here, here and here). We know this, we’ve seen the videos and the photos. But what non-Korean speakers may not have picked up on is again the public calls for an apology, this time from the government negotiators. They wanted them to stand up and say they were sorry for not fighting harder for what Koreans wanted – which after all is their job – but instead, those negotiators went on tv and ate American beef. This just made it worse, predictably.

Irresponsible parents respond to irresponsible government

Then there’s the issue of Korean farmers, who were and still are rapidly becoming a dying breed due to the importation of cheap American rice and beef. I know, as I’m sure most people do, that this will benefit Korea in the long term. The issue is that these people are losing their livelihoods now. I personally have very close friends who have family members who farm rice and beef. With no suitably state pension, if these sorts of people can no longer sell what they know how to farm, they essentially can’t survive. People are angry and definitely were angry then about this, and I can see why. And then also, as I alluded to above, there’s the frustration that when such international negotiations take place, Korea comes off as the weak party. People often have the opinion that if Korea disappeared, America would move one and barely feel any ill effects, whereas if the reverse were true and America disappeared, Korea would soon follow.

If you want my personal opinion, I think the Lee Myung-bak government is pretty useless – worse than – and the biggest reason is the complete inability and failure of the government to explain themselves to the people. If they are really acting in the way which they consider to be in the best interests of the country (beef imports, FTAs), they also have to be able to explain why this is to the people. They are either inable or just don’t; they act against the wishes of the people, and instead of explaining their reasoning beforehand, they bulldoze straight through and try and suppress the inevitable backlash. That’s not good government, and if it was my government, I’d want to protest it too. Had the beef protests never happened, we could well have seen similar protests as a result of the 4 Great Rivers project or any number of other things. That said, anti-Americanism among a small minority was vociferous and vocal enough to really fire up those protests, which were of course a perfect vehicle for it.

There’s obviously more to say about this, and I know not everyone will necessarily agree with what I’ve said, or like it, so I welcome discussion in the comments.


Family Matters

For this post I thought I’d share something with you.

My parents are divorced, my father has since remarried and has two more children. This creates some unusual situations and linguistic difficulties in Korea, however. As I’m sure anyone who’s lived in Korea will know, Koreans often ask about your family – how many brothers and sisters do you have, what do your parents do and so on. It’s also worth noting that divorce in Korea is no longer uncommon or even particularly frowned upon – no more than anywhere else anyway. So that’s not the problem. Nobody bats an eyelid when I tell them my parents are divorced, or even when I say my father is remarried. But what do I call my father’s new wife in Korean?

Don’t get me wrong, I know the answer – 새엄마 or 새어머니 are the most common ones. These are the ones I learnt from Koreans. My dictionary also says, 의붓어머니 and 계모. I haven’t heard of 의붓어머니, so perhaps it’s not in such common usage (please correct me if I’m wrong), but it seems an acceptable translation. This makes me wonder why I haven’t heard it more often. I was, however, under the impression that 계모 had more of a negative connotation, perhaps more along the lines of a “wicked stepmother.” The hanja for 계모 – 繼母 – seem to mean “the mother that follows,” or “the mother who succeeded (the first)” – not a particularly affectionate term, but again, correct me if I’m wrong.

So this takes me back to 새엄마, the term most Koreans suggest when I ask how to explain my family. This term means “new mum,” and 새어머니 “new mother.” Now, I don’t particularly like these terms. Divorce and related issues are felt differently by different people, but I would venture that most people in the same situation as me would not refer to their step-mum as their “new mum.” Primarily this is because I still have a mother, but secondly, even if I didn’t the term “새엄마” seems to me to imply that my mother has been replaced, or that her role in my life is now being fulfilled by my stepmother. This clearly isn’t the case, and wouldn’t be even if I didn’t have a mother.

Also, I would like to know from somebody more knowledgeable whether the equivalent term for a stepfather is 새아버지 or 새아빠? I’ve never heard this, and it seems strange that the two wouldn’t be called the same just with father instead of mother. If it is the case that this term isn’t used, does that mean it’s still less socially acceptable for a woman with children to get remarried? Or less of a physical possibility for financial reasons? Or perhaps stepfathers are just not considered “new fathers” – replacement fathers, in the same way stepmothers are considered replacement mothers. I think there are other issues included in this, but I can’t remember everything I wanted to say (I first thought about this post about a week ago), so please do chime in in the comments section.

On top of this, there’s the issue of the children. To me, they’re my half-siblings. In Korean, the most common phrase used is 배 다른 동생, which means sibling from a different belly. I’m not saying I have a problem with this phrase, it’s just different, but suitably accurate. Something I’ve often had difficulties with though when it comes up in conversation is that Koreans struggle with the differences between step-sibling and half-sibling. I often have to explain why one is not the other, but more importantly the significance of that to me. I share 50% the same DNA with my half-siblings, but if I had step-siblings (which I don’t), I wouldn’t share any. It would feel different, although of course this discounts the fact that – as I said above – everyone experiences these things differently. For example, some people may be especially close with their step-siblings.

I don’t want this post to be misunderstood as a complaint or rant – it’s really not. I’m just interested in the differences, and I think it’s an interesting insight into the way Korean society is adjusting to internal changes. I think the term 새엄마 raises some interesting points – is it acceptable to replace a mother but not a father in Korea, is it socially less acceptable for a mother to re-marry than a father, do fathers determine the type of relationship children have with their mothers, step-mothers and even other women, and how is or isn’t that different to other countries and societies? Of course, there are more related issues, and this is a lot to extrapolate from just one little phrase, but they’re interesting topics – and I’d like to read what you think!


This is not the sort of thing I would normally post on here, but this really is a painful piece of journalism from the Korea times website.

What can you do when you see many ladies on the street just wearing bikini? Yes, you may stop your car and staring at. In China, few women in bikinis did street cleaning to staging an environmental protest against pollution from the plant in Chengdu, Sichuan province.

A crowd quickly grew and massive traffic jams spread through the area as cars and buses stopped at the unusual scene. The girls, who wore banners saying “Sweep Jialing power plant out of the city”, said they had no regrets.

Oh dear. Was there really any need for this? I feel sorry for the poor kid who’s been forced to write this sort of stuff just to get a chance to be a real journalist.