No matter which political party or politician is in charge here in Korea, they’re always accused of abusing power and acting like dictators. Each opposition force vows to bring down the injustices of the previous regime. But once they get into office, they too find themselves again accused of being dictatorial. Back and forth. So what gives?
First off, it wasn’t until 1992 that South Korea really had its first democratically elected president. Until then Korean emperors, Japanese emperors and militaristic dictators ruled the nation. For centuries, you lived under a system where once you got into power it was expected that you slay your enemies and their families. And to maintain power, you instill fear where saying the wrong thing could cost your life and your family’s welfare. Feudal relationships between the haves and the have nots fostered the mindset that if you were the top dog, you could get away with anything. And the end goal was that once you get on top, you take everything you can quickly.
“In 1800, the Joseon Dynasty fell into the hands of ravenous and rapacious families, who paid no attention to the fate of the nation. A victorious patriarch in the political struggle would install a child-king as a puppet, have him marry his own daughter or granddaughter, and then proclaim himself the father or grandfather-in-law of the king… In the meantime, the in-law families plundered the people and treated them with ‘as much arrogance and greed as if they had been conquered in a war.'” – Chong-Sik Lee, Author of Park Chung-hee: From Poverty to Power
Even Korean cultural tradition was used a weapon of oppression as the Chosun Dynasty started to decay.
“Lethargy and corruption set in, and the reigning ideology became rote and form, rather than a dynamic guide for the improvement of society. Even worse, it became a tool for political struggle, a weapon to attack opponents. Once opponents were defined as heretics, there was no room for compromise. Extremism became the norm, and a multitude of able men were persecuted or exterminated in the name of upholding orthodoxy… The government had fallen into such a state of decadence that honesty and hard work simply did not pay.” – Chong-Sik Lee, Author of Park Chung-hee: From Poverty to Power
But doesn’t this sound familiar to today’s South Korea and while we’re at it… North Korea? It’s been the blueprint for hundreds of years. But it comes at the cost of the brutal revenge that each side takes against the other. It seems to occupy at least the first 25 percent of a new presidential administration’s term. And the hurt they inflict during the rest of the term is paid back eventually later when the political pendulum shifts.
Both of the previous presidents are now in jail. Most of the presidents before them were jailed by the subsequent administration. President Park Chung-hee didn’t even get a chance for that to happen. He was assassinated by his own director of intelligence in 1979 while still in office. Reform efforts are railroaded with ingenious plots to tear down opponents. You’d be amazed at the incredible innovations in political chicanery. Korean politicians are masters at political sabotage. If they only could put half the effort into actual policy, there would be a new Korea. Moreover, the modern version of being killed for speaking ill of the regime are Korea’s anti-whistleblower defamation laws that scare people into silence.
Where’s the humor I’m trying to get to? Well, sometimes you have to ask whether the people really want actual democracy or whether they want the democratization of dictatorship. What we’ve seen in this young democracy are little dictatorships being established all across the country. From families to companies to sports clubs to small businesses to government offices. Everybody gets to be a dictator in Korea if you put the right amount of effort and manipulation into it.
You can be a dictator. She can be a dictator. He can be a dictator. That’s why in a roomful of dictators no one can get along. At best, they all agree on who’s the most dictatorial and bow down temporarily to move forward. At least the smart ones do. Then they quickly get back to their little kingdom where they can be a dictator again.
Until the public stops seeing the road to happiness as waiting for the dream of one day becoming the dictator, they will never invest in reforming the system. It can be summed up best from a quote I heard about a young student who was asked, “Aren’t you upset when rowdy senior citizens verbally abuse you on the subway?” He replied, “No, because when I get older I can do it to someone else too.”
But let today’s rising senior citizens be a warning. Those in the 1950 to 1970 baby boom generation are seeing that the dream of democratized dictatorship is fading. Fewer people are willing to put up with abuse. So you can see the real frustration on the faces of the seniors who endured years of abuse for the promise of ‘being able to do it too’ once they came of age. It’s time to change the dream. The solution to being disempowered and oppressed is not to become the oppressor one day. It’s to invest in a system that safeguards against any tyrants from wasting your life and mine. It’s just the wise thing to do.