Quietly, like a little blip before Christmas Eve 2020, the Constitutional Court of Korea finally ruled that it was a big no-no for President Park Geun-hye to have created a blacklist to sabotage the lives of nearly 10,000 of her own citizens because they didn’t agree with her politically.
The blacklist was sixty pages long and focused on artists. There were 9,473 names on the list – some for just signing a petition. If you were among the targets, which included author Han Kang, film director Park Chan-wook, and Parasite star Song Kang-ho, government ministries colluded to block you from arts funding and projects. Even businesses started to turn their backs on artists because of fear of being targeted by the government just by association with those on the blacklist. Yes, even delivery companies.
Mr. Hong was invited to show his painting at a Berlin arts festival. But no domestic logistics company would transport the work for fear of government retaliation.New York Times, Jan. 12, 2017
It turns out the Park administration passive aggressively stabbed artists in the back so they would stop stirring public sentiment against the administration’s failure in the Sewol Ferry sinking that left 326 people dead. And for whatever other slights and transgressions their bucket of revenge could hold.
But just like the outcome, which got little attention, the revelation of the artist blacklist back in 2016 also debuted on the political stage to mild reception. Then scandal after scandal surfaced, which ultimately led to Ms. President Park’s impeachment. So the artist blacklist got upstaged and shuffled to the background.
When the blacklist was discovered, I was floored and immediately expected uproar – and impeachment at the very least. If artists were targeted, who knows how many other blacklists existed in other industries and sectors of civic life. But public dialogue treated it as another bad act to add to the pile.
“Make them afraid to challenge the president.”Journal Entry of Former Aide to President Park
Was I overreacting? It seemed a betrayal of democracy. Of the constitution. Of humanity. But to most Koreans, it seemed like another tiresome demerit. I even asked one constitutional law professor, “Wasn’t this unconstitutional? Wouldn’t this be an impeachable offense?” He said it was an impeachable offense but shrugged it off. What was anybody gonna do about it?
And it turned out the president did get impeached. But the blacklist wasn’t center billing. More concerning was how she abused her power to shakedown corporations and let her ‘best friend’ get all these goodies that would make any ordinary Korean boil with envy and rage. A building in Gangnam. College entrance for her unqualified daughter to an elite school. Getting Samsung to pay for your daughter’s horse. It makes the recent Varsity Blues college admissions scandal in the United States seem amateur by comparison.
Audio recordings of presidential office meetings sounded like the best friend was calling all the shots and assigning tasks. The president was treated and sounded like an office assistant.
“Freedom” was installed like a software upgrade with the bugs and viruses of the old system
In the eyes of the world, South Korea is a gleaming capitalist democracy that raced towards modernity. But you have to remember that democracy is not a spectator sport. The people must be players. For almost all of Korea’s history (and most other nations in the world) – the people expected to grovel at the sidelines. They took their roles as spectators to serial tyranny. Emperors, kings, feudal landlords, Japanese occupiers, and military dictators wrecked their lives. Yet, they had to normalize injustice to survive.
Unlike the United States, democracy in South Korea wasn’t created in a new land with a fresh start. “Freedom” was installed like a software upgrade with the bugs and viruses of the old system coming along for the ride. In essence, not everyone wanted democracy nor knew what it fully entailed.
Democratic politics took several centuries to emerge in the West.
In South Korea, though, it was introduced all at once, in 1948.
Thus, the foundations of Korean democracy were very weak.National Museum of Contemporary Korean History
Even the first president of the Republic of Korea in 1948 – Rhee Syngman – had blacklists of his own. But they were more than that. They were murder lists. The targets weren’t artists either. They were his political rivals and enemies. It even included the mayor of Seoul.
One man on the list, Chough Pyung Ok ran for president against President Syngman Rhee in 1960. He died a month before the election. Oh yeah… and the man who ran against Syngman Rhee in 1956? He also died. Ten days before the election.
Turning the clock back some more to 1950, just two years into his new post of heading a brand-new democracy, President Rhee called the shots as the Korean War erupted. When North Korean forces advanced near Seoul, he told the residents to stay in the city and keep going to work as usual. He claimed he and his cabinet members would be staying in Seoul too. But he didn’t stay. He had quickly fled south. And North Korea overtook Seoul. Before President Rhee fled though, he bombed the bridges leading out of the capital to make it harder for North Korea to advance south. He also effectively trapped his own citizens in the city in the process.
Does that sound familiar to you? During the Sewol Ferry disaster in 2014, the captain of the ship repeatedly told passengers to stay in their rooms while he high-tailed it off the ship as one of the few who made it to rescue boats.
Deep sea divers recovered cell phones with SIM cards that had videos of high school students joking that obeying the order to stay in their rooms would lead to death as the ship kept sinking. By adolescence, even teens recognize the repetitive markers of being conned into being the sacrificial lamb. Six decades later, the dictator-version of South Korean democracy clings on.
Speaking of the Korean tradition of blacklists and dictators, President Park’s father, Park Chung-hee took control of South Korea through a military coup d’etat in 1961. He and his followers wanted to purge the country of the corrupt and authoritarian ways of the Lee Syngman regime.
And what ended up happening? Another corrupt and authoritarian regime. Under President Park #1, the country no longer had term limits for president and lived under a new constitution tailor-made for President Park to become lifetime Dictator Park.
This fairy tale horror show lasted until 1979 when President Park #1 was assassinated by his own head of intelligence. But let’s not forget about his own hit lists during his tenure. Among those on the blacklist was Park’s chief political rival in the 1971 presidential election, Kim Dae-jung.
A month after Kim narrowly lost the election, a truck suspiciously ran into his car, which gave him a limp for the rest of his life. Though the motor accident left room for doubt, he didn’t have to wait long for confirmation that the president was out to get him. In 1973, Korean intelligence agents kidnapped him in Japan. He had been living overseas in exile waiting for the heat to die down.
In his own words, Kim Dae-jung said,
“The agents took me to their boat at anchor along the seashore. They tied me up, blinded me, and stuffed my mouth.”
The hitmen were about to throw him overboard to his death when a Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force airplane intervened. It was a coordinated rescue response between the United States and Japan.
If Kim Dae-jung rings a bell, he became president of South Korea in 1998 and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000.
The more you look under the surface, you discover a very cruel society deeply rooted in endless cycles of revenge. Fueling it is compliance with abuse of power. To survive, you don’t challenge the system. You hurry to align with a powerful leader and pray to god that you got under his cover in time and that he wins whatever power game is playing out to determine your fate. Not being ostracized is the goal. Picking the winning team to join is the jackpot. One day being the top dog with free reign to abuse anybody is the dream. Reforming the system to block tyrannical abuse of power is a waste of time that would only get you behind in life.
And so it continues. Private citizens targeted by a spiteful ruler and their minions with the power of government institutions. Through quiet, mundane legal mathematics they can weaponize their government against you.
But is there a way to win in this environment?
Legendary film director Im Kwon-taek (now 84 years old) had developed a prolific filmography and award-winning reputation by the 1980s. But even he still feared retaliation from dictatorial presidents. Instead of lamenting the unfairness, he navigated treacherous political landscapes by moving forward with films that wouldn’t get him into trouble while saving others for a safer time.
By the late 1980s, he was itching to work on his passion project called “The Taebaek Mountains”. But he and his producer thought it best to wait for the next presidential administration when a more democratic leader, Kim Young-sam, was expected to win in 1992.
In the meantime, Im Kwon-taek took on a ‘random’ project to pass the time as he waited out the latest dictator. “Seopyeonje”, a period piece about traditional Korean pansori singers, came out in 1993. The low budget movie ended up being Korea’s first blockbuster to sell over 1 million tickets. Literally an unexpected jackpot. He did it just for fun because of tyranny.
Kim Young-sam indeed became president in 1992, giving the green light for Im Kwon-taek got his passion project done. “The Taebaek Mountains” opened in 1994, but it didn’t do that well. Patience, getting sh-t done and a little luck seems to be the winning path for life under dictators.
Not only do rival politicians exile overseas and film directors plan production calendars around presidential elections, even royalty of the Korea’s business conglomerate families can’t escape the vindictive power of presidential blacklists.
Blacklists Target the Ultra-Elite Too
Miky Lee, the spunky vice-chairwoman of CJ Group, who leads the entertainment arm of the business empire, became a target of President Park #2’s administration. Apparently they weren’t happy with the content coming from the company. How could they produce a biopic of political rival and former President Roh Moo-hyun! How could SNL Korea create sketches that poked fun at politicians including President Park! How could you turn President Park into a teletubby! The Park administration believed these moves needed to be punished. (Actually I thought the SNL Korea sketches were biased in favor of President Park. You ended up liking her character the best. Even the actor portraying Park felt a little guilty that his performance probably assisted the campaign even though he didn’t share the same political views.)
Maybe they had no artistic sense because the Blue House called the chairman of CJ Group (Miky’s mom’s younger brother) to remove Miky Lee from her post. Miky was able to hold on, but not for long.
As with most vengeful people drunk on power, one hit to hurt your target is not enough. Observers say the nail in the coffin came early in 2016 at Davos. That’s when Miky Lee violated the first law of The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene: Never Outshine the Master. Miky brought the power of her entertainment company and Korean celebrities to a Korean culture week at the World Economic Forum. It was a gesture to make President Park and South Korea shine in front of the world’s elite.
But apparently Miky and famous people like Psy got more attention than President Park. How you’re supposed to control people’s reactions to suit the insecurities of a ruler I’ll never know. Yet people try. It is why you’ll often see Koreans adopting body language, voice and behavior that minimizes themselves. Don’t automatically assume they’re shy, insecure or nervous. They’re usually doing it to appease the most nervous and insecure person in the room: their dictatorial master and their cronies. For certain though, outshining the master is a capital offense in this world. And only the offended top dogs get to decide how much shine it takes to cross the line. (The offended party may not have only been the president herself. The team around her can easily be offended and act like they deserve to be worshipped too.)
Miky Lee left Korea to spend some time in Southern California for ‘health reasons’. She probably had to take a mental health vacation over the trauma of being targeted by the most powerful office in the nation. She was being called a leftist – a favorite go-to accusation by Korea’s authoritarian clique. They couldn’t have chosen a more inappropriate target. Miky Lee is Samsung royalty. Her grandfather founded Samsung. CJ Group, which is controlled by her immediate family is actually a spin-off of the original Samsung conglomerate. Their Beverly Hills compound is reportedly registered to an offshore corporation. How many leftists do that? And not for nothing, taking bribes from Samsung to help the Lee family maintain control of its business empire is part of the reason why President Park was impeached. Really, Miky should have been treated as part of the team by this conservative administration.
success – the sweetest revenge?
Fast forward to late 2019-early 2020, blacklisted artist Song Kang-ho starred in a movie directed by blacklisted director Bong Joon-ho, which was produced and distributed by blacklisted Miky Lee of CJ ENM. The Washington Post surmised that if Bong Joon-ho stayed on the blacklist, he never would’ve made Parasite. Indeed the talent and the financing wouldn’t have appeared either.
Parasite won the Academy Award for Best Film in 2020.
Perhaps blacklists are an improvement from assassination lists. But presidents and their staff shouldn’t have the power to put anyone on a ‘list’ for annihilation.
Bong himself recalls being blacklisted as “traumatic” and “nightmarish.”Washington Post, Feb. 11, 2020
In 2017, a group of artists filed a suit with the Constitutional Court, contending that the blacklist violated freedom of expression and freedom of art. How about just freedom itself? The courts shouldn’t have taken over three years to come to the conclusion that blacklists are B-A-D. They ruin careers. They destroy families. They wreck countries.
“infringement on freedom of expression”
Just before Christmas 2020, the Constitutional Court finally ruled that this blacklist was unconstitutional because it was an “infringement on freedom of expression”. The artists won. But what about the rest of society?
What about a lawyers blacklist? Or a teachers blacklist? Or a tech worker blacklist? Guess freedom of expression can’t help them there. Instead of putting the burden on the victims to sue for justice, why don’t we reform the system? How about creating broader criminal statutes for those who weaponize the government to settle their own private vendettas?
In a fragile democracies, it’s up to the people to resist the temptation of normalizing injustice.
Keep strengthening the foundations and do not wait for the perfect leader to arise. The system won’t let it. Otherwise, you’ll eventually find yourself on a blacklist too. It’s too easy for the insecure to abuse power by crushing anyone who slighted their poor ego. Sometimes big fish get caught as an example to release public angst and settle a political score. But most victims have to grin and bear it. And live another day.
It’s no way to live.