Seoul May Day 2011

It was an overcast spring day in Seoul, the capital of South Korea. A truly massive, sprawling metropolitan area, Seoul has the strange capacity for huge events to take place just blocks away from where you stand and you are completely unaware of it. That day I happened to be in the Jongro district, the central area of old Seoul. There’s not much ancient about it, save for the palaces and old Bank of Korea set among corporate high-rise headquarters, shopping districts, and back alleys of innumerable pubs and restaurants. Everything seemed like always, except for the larger-than-normal number of police buses parked along the thoroughfares. Seeing them there on any given weekend is not unusual for a Seoul denizen; the area is home to the American embassy, and wide streets and Gwangwhamun Square, all prime areas to stage a protest. But I sensed something was different on this cloudy Sunday. Normally those police buses are near Gwanghwamun or tucked down back streets near Jogyesa, an ancient Buddhist temple, but this time they were everywhere around Jongro.

Then I remembered the date: May 1st. May Day. The day of international protest for any variety of causes. There were a bunch of pink-shirted students doing choreographed dances in front of Bosingak, the enormous bell on Jongro – “Bell Street” – itself. The students were protesting for migrant worker rights. Many workers come for a few years from poorer countries around the world – from China to Nepal to the Philippines to Pakistan to Nigeria – to work in Korean factories or construction projects, doing the worst, dirtiest, or most menial jobs. The students seemed passionate, but not violent – hardly justification for the show of force those police buses portended. The Korean left is known of welcoming confrontation – many leftists from other countries have described how Koreans are often at the front of the barricades at anti-globalization protests around the world, the most passionate and strident voices in the whole crowd. But today, they didn’t seem to live up to that reputation.

I stood corrected as my girlfriend and I neared Seoul City Hall in our taxi. Traffic slowed to a crawl and cops in high-visibility jackets sprinted down the sidewalks toward City Hall and Deoksugung, the old royal palace, sitting across the street. You could see people swarming in the grass square in front of City Hall and more down in front of the palace gate. The din of amplified speeches reached us through the car windows. A dozen, perhaps two dozen, student protesters occupied City Hall Station exit 2, blocking the stairs and chanting at the top of their lungs. A cordon of police sealed them off quickly and reporters scrambled and pointed their cameras over each other and the police to get the best picture possible. The grass plaza in front of City Hall was swarming with people, though nowhere near the number that could have been there.

Our taxi driver was extremely polite toward us, but swore up and down at the protesters. “Every year on this day they have a fit like this and then do nothing the rest of the year.” He used the word jiral (지랄) to describe the protester’s “fit,” which in (quite harsh) Korean means to thrash about like an epileptic.

I was fascinated by the goings on, but my girlfriend, a Korean, was not interested. This was nothing new to her and her disinterest in politics only amplified her desire to urge the cab driver on to the restaurant. I went, reluctantly, feeling like I was missing a show. We ate lunch and then wandered up a hill behind Deoksugung to the old Russian legation, where Emperor Gojong hid out after his wife’s assassination by the Japanese. From that spot you could still hear the shouting from City Hall rolling over Deoksugung and up the hill. My curiosity was growing every minute, and, finally able to stand it no longer, I badgered my girlfriend into going down to the protest.

There were no rocks nor brickbats sailing through the air when we arrived. Both police and protesters were well restrained. It felt more like a giant party than anything. Crossing from the palace to the grass square, I saw families walking past stop and take pictures amongst the crowds. Flags waved everywhere, from every sort of faction: the major trade union federations, student groups, human rights groups, even a gay rights banner or two, always a surprising sight in socially conservative Korea. People were talking and chatting amiably, seemingly hardly listen to the man on the stage assembled on the far side off the green. Wearing a bandanna around his head, he screamed at the top of his lungs, “Firing a worker is murder!” When he finished his lengthy polemic about the injustice of unemployment, a group of students, to the cacophony of drums and Korean horns, stormed the stage and tore a banner to shreds in a mosh pit-like frenzy. I couldn’t tell if it was truly spontaneous or a planned act.

Losing track of the difficult Korean sentences garbled by amplifier distortion, I turned my attention to booths run by various organizations around the perimeter of the green. One documented the case of children of Samsung Semiconductor workers coming down with leukemia. While the posters delved into hyperbole and hysterics, they were not far from the truth. Samsung has been accused of lax safety procedures for its assembly line workers, especially those involved in the chemical washing of components. Young workers with only a few years on the assembly line at Samsung’s Giheung plant have also come down with cancer. The company has stonewalled many efforts to provide a clear investigation into such matters. Why? Is it embarassing negligence on Samsung’s part? Is it flagrant disregard for safety? The risks of a new manufacturing procedure? Who knows. It is often difficult to tell – much of Korea’s discourse still falls along old Cold War ideological lines, bent only slightly for the twenty-first century. The conservative newspapers of Chosun Ilbo, Dong-a Ilbo, and Joongang Ilbo wrote next to nothing about the protests at the Hanjin Heavy Industries shipyard in the southern port city of Busan, where the police utilized water cannons spraying a CS (tear gas) and water mixture into the faces of demonstrators at high-pressure. But so too will the major left-of-center newspapers, such as the Hankyoreh and Kyunghang Shinmun, who documented heavily those heavy-handed polilce actions, neglect to report anything negative about North Korea, which the conservative dailies jump on in a heartbeat.

The Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has noted that modern moral discourse decides right and wrong not from rationality, but from which argument is more psychologically adroit. When there is a lack of common ground between competing (and often incompatible) ideologies, the one with a more powerful, cunning, or appealing argument will succeed in establishing its view as correct, even as ‘rational.’ The passion of the leftists in front of Seoul City Hall demonstrates this point well – appealing to people’s sense of justice and fairness against the power of the mighty is far more likely to stick if you scream, chant, and show solidarity as a group than if you present a simple, reasoned argument in an respectful forum.

This is not to say the critiques of these weekend activists are unfounded just because they use suspect means. I saw many more displays which chronicled how thugs hired by either corporations or local government to forcibly evict poor people from their homes. My girlfriend explained that under President Lee Myung-bak’s administration, a great number of development and renewal projects have been implemented. Again, there are two sides to the issue, both of which rarely get reported in the same instance. These land seizures are technically legal, and, from the perspective of government and economics, necessary: the globalizing Korean economy and expanding capital city area requires more efficient land use for its businesses and residents. Yet that is to argue the practicality of the matter, while ignoring the human cost, which these leftists are attempting to draw attention to. Both are distinct ways of looking at actions in the political sphere, with different goals in mind. To say which is right or wrong is to compare apples and oranges. But when you post photos of thugs slugging old women, there is an attempt to make such distinctions irrelevant and to ‘win’ the argument by emotional appeal.

Standing on that square amidst the noise and surprisingly restrained crowd, I realized the fact, fascinating and tragic at the same time, that Korea had been absorbed by trends so alien to its ancient character. Modernity, an originally Western phenomenon, has caused that breakdown in moral discourse that MacIntyre noted. Yet that is antithetical to both Korea’s Confucian heritage and its centuries of historical experience as a single-culture, single-tongue, isolationist, agrarian polity. Such homogeneity made it far easier to render Confucianism’s objective of perfecting relations in society by building chains of obligation between people. It was accepted that such harmony is the proper objective of everything, from social codes to institutions to morals to the specific duties of every individual. Living in such a way will lead to the best way of life for a united Korean race. With that in mind, what disagreements would have traditionally arisen were of a far different sort from the kind chanted now as slogans by the autoworkers’ unions.

Yet that modern veneer has not altered fundamentally the roots of the Korean way of life completely. Factions may utilize different ideologies in furtherance of their end, but they are ultimately tools to attain the well-being of the people, the minjok (민족). The South Korean left sees secure employment, welfare, friendship with North Korea, et cetera, as best for the Korean people. The conservative South Korean establishment sees economic dynamism and military security as the better way to the same goal. There is a common good that they strive for, a notion totally lost on the contemporary West.

Full of thoughts, it seemed time to go. The charged atmosphere of earlier was stagnating, petering out. As we walked away from the green, crossing the street toward the Seoul Plaza Hotel, I saw what must have been the police chief in charge of the security operation looking about frantically. He pointed east and, in full dress uniform, scuttled off, shouting into his radio, subordinates sprinting after him. I looked at where he was headed. A great mob of sprinting protesters had suddenly broken the police cordon around the square and, with flags waving, were sprinting down Sogong-ro, a street running south away from City Hall. I wanted to follow, but my girlfriend refused. We walked parallel to Sogong-ro, toward Namdaemun, the south gate of old Seoul. That area was packed with armored police, waiting in case the demonstration took a sudden turn west toward the gate and Seoul Station beyond. No protestors showed, though. Finally my girlfriend was starting to get intrigued by it all. “Let’s find a coffee shop so we can watch every thing safely,” she said. We walked through Namdaemun market and headed back toward City Hall, on an adjacent road, having nearly made a loop. As we drew closer to City Hall and Myeongdong, the high fashion shopping district, road traffic snarled and the sound of blaring bullhorns echoed over the traffic. The protesters had occupied the whole northbound lane of Sogong-ro. Quickly, we ducked into the Lotte Young building and managed to snag a narrow little table in the window of the third floor coffee shop, watching the ranks protesters in the street below shaking fists and chanting.

I asked my girlfriend if her mom remembered anything of the student movement protests during the ’80s, which was when she was a student.  “No, because she had nothing to gain.  She was just a rich girl, living in a nice part of Seoul, doing anything she wanted.  She didn’t care about anything but herself at the time. At least not until she married my father and fell on hard times.”

The democracy protests were a huge part of Korean history during that decade. The Gwangju Massacre in 1980 marked the beginning of popular revolt and the intense dictatorial repression in response – her mother would have been a high schooler at the time. And seven years later, when the June Democracy Movement forced a new constitution and republic, her mother already had one kid, with a second on the way. Those two years bracketed changes, both for South Korea as a nation and for her family. Yet those changes were not immediately connected. My girlfriend’s grandfather, from rural Pocheon, had grown up from nothing to be an accountant for a major Korean corporation. There was an element of stability in the modernizing Korea of the ’70s and ’80s, thanks to the wealth and upward mobility generated by the new capitalist order. That prosperity insulated his family from the tumults of a dark period in Korean history, one that ironically was most likely to have touched ordinary people. Yet some folks, no matter how tumultuous the times, have nothing to do with the grand events. They keep on doing what’s best for them or their family, making ends meet, trying to live well, be happy. Some have mean stepmothers and drunken gambler husbands to deal with. For them, who perhaps make up most of us, the ideological issues battled out in the streets, revealing the bizarre contradictions of a changing world, are often less important that the well-being of family and the importance of how life is lived, day to day.

In ensuring that well-being, in all the sacrifices they make for their families, Koreans end up have a parallel effect upon their society. The Korean view of the people’s well-being as the paramount importance in political life mirrors that concern for the health of the family. And Koreans are willing to sacrifice for the betterment of the national family just as they do for their blood kin. What has changed is that divergence, that mismatch in rhetoric, which makes it so difficult to articulate that single sense of mind that Koreans possess into a practical, consistent policy that can be sustained over many generations for the health of the minjok.

That is what is so remarkable about Korea. Forced to modernize to survive in a cutthroat world, it has managed to ameliorate some of the worst (and seemingly insoluble) problems of modern civilization. The Koreans thus offer a rebuke to both those who would insist on retreating into and recreating a past world and those who believe that all that has transpired is indeed progress. There is another way, the Koreans say, for all their family squabbles, both familial and national.

Eventually the protesters on the street below stood up, chanted and shook their fists in small circles for a few minutes, then rolled up their flags and went home as dusk closed in. “I don’t think they accomplished anything,” my girlfriend said. Such is May Day in Seoul, South Korea.

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