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.

5 Responses to “Protest and Bad Government: A Response to Popular Gusts”

  1. popular gusts Says:

    Good post. I agree with the idea that the 2008 protests were more against the government than America, but what happened was that the Anti-US groups used what they knew/hoped would resonate with a large audience: the idea that America – or foreigners in general – would deliberately harm Korea/ Koreans (“they’re sending us the meat that they won’t eat themselves!” was something I heard a lot of at the time, along with the assertion that said cheap meat would go into school lunches and threaten students (and teachers!)). The farmers’ plight was not really given much attention when LMB announced the resumption of US beef imports, despite the chance to attend several protests prior to the PD Diary episode being broadcast (which is what provided the impetus to join the first candlelight protest). PD Diary’s misuse of that study about the prevalence of a certain gene possibly related to mad cow disease among the Korean population tapped into the belief of Koreans/Korean culture being unique, as well as feelings of victimization that the media and education system like to encourage at times.

    As for the 2002 protests, I do wonder if asking questions some time after the fact quite captures the mood of the time (much like asking friends about the 2008 protests now would elicit rather different – and more measured – answers). I doubt the majority of people believed the soldiers deliberately killed the girls, but there were enough reports – in left wing media and on anti-US websites – suggesting such things (such as that the soldiers were laughing when they got back to barracks and got into fights with KATUSAs there), that some people – especially students who got their news from the internet – believed it.

    To sum up, the critical attitude and skepticism aimed toward the LMB government in 2008 and toward statements by/policies of the government and politicians in general was not applied to xenophobic beliefs and assertions that foreigners were out to do Koreans – especially Korean children – harm in 2002 and 2008, and it was that lack of skepticism that helped initially drive people into the streets.

    By the way, in case you haven’t read it, Scott Burgeson’s essay on the 2008 protests is worth a read.

  2. Hyomin Lee Says:

    This is a very good analysis. Thank you.

    Allow me share another “Korean” perspective about these protests. A lot of Koreans, myself included, can’t stand LMB and think he’s horrible for Korea. And he is. But if you dig deep enough, you’ll find that some of the instigators of these protests, especially the beef protest in 2008 and anti-American sentiments, were whipped up by those with direct ties to, and those who sympathize with North Korea for obvious reasons. Propaganda is powerful.

  3. King Baeksu Says:

    Dude, you seriously have no idea what you’re talking about.

    BTW:

    “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.”

    Have you been in Korea so long that you presume to speak on behalf of not just a single ethnicity or nation-state, but several entire continents’ worth of people?

    Unbelievable!

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