Thursday, March 25, 2010

It's Election Time.

Seeing the democratic process in action is often viewed with contempt in America.  Honestly how many of us enjoy the endless parade of election ads?  How many of enjoy the constant slandering, mud slinging, and bold-faced lies that are told to us on a hourly basis during election years?  Maybe, just maybe, there is something that can be learned from the course of elections in a small Korean city.  Seosan, by American standards is a large city of nearly 200,000 people.  However, by Korean standards, this city is small.  It is the equivalent of living in a town of 30,000 people in rural Kentucky.  Yes, it's the big town in the area, but man there is not much to it.

Korean elections are interesting to experience from an outside perspective.  For starters, there are no paid for commercials.  Maybe when people run for President or major office there are, but I have yet to see any ads on television.  It's really nice.  You don't have to hear "My name is Barack Obama, and I approve this message," 10,000 times a day.  There are certain rules and requirements for people who wish to run for office.  One is that they are required to wear a sash, that not only has their name on it, but the number they have been assigned on the ballot.  In fact the number is as important as their name.

Here everything is very grassroots.  There are no mass political spectacles.  Here the politicians press the flesh like nothing I have ever seen.  I have personally met at least three of the five people running for office here in Seosan.  The politicians ride around in trucks with loud speakers, they hand out business cards to everyone they see.  They stand on the street corner and bow to cars passing by.  I was even serenaded by one as I was walking to the gym.  He was standing on the corner with a small group of his supporters.  They were playing music and signing, and as I walked by he switched to his very limited English.  It consisted of him singing "I love you" repeatedly.  Awkward, somewhat, humorous most definitely.  I don't even know if I'm allowed to vote.

Perhaps what I find most interesting is the involvement of their supporters.  You rarely see this type of involvement in local campaigns in the United States.  Some of these people are running for Office of Education positions and they still have a loyal group of people working for them.  Maybe, they are family members like what you see in the United States.  On the other hand they could be people who are engaged in the political process.  Whatever it is they are, they stand on the streets, they wear matching uniforms, they sing, they dance, they bow, they do things that we would never even associate with getting elected.  However, here in Korea, it is how you get yourself elected. 

It is the involvement of ordinary people that makes this political process impressive.  It is the relative insignificance of the post, combined with the utter determination and devotion to ensure that your candidate gets elected.  You can't help but be impressed by the people standing on the side of the street doing choreographed dance routines in the hopes that you will like their dancing better and elect their candidate.  It is nice to see politics in its purer form.  A form where government is not controlled by special interests and promises to do favors for those who elect them, but are directly responsible to the people who elect them. 

Perhaps it is the fact that I am outside the political process here that has given me the impression I have.  Maybe, the election cycle, and the political process are just as corrupt and soul destroying here as they are in America.  Whatever it may be though, it is interesting to see another country, and they way they choose to implement Democracy. 

Monday, March 1, 2010

The March 1st Movement.

I have briefly talked about the March 1st Movement before, but seeing as yesterday, March 1st, was a national holiday here in Korea I feel the need to explain both the movement and the reasons for which this movement was important.  March 1st in Korea is celebrated as a sort of independence day.  However, unlike most independence days which are causes for celebration, this day in Korea takes on a far more somber tone.  There are no massive firework displays, there are no drunken BBQs, there are no beach parties.  March 1st is more of a national day of remembrance in the mold of what Memorial Day and Veterans Day are supposed to be.  Here the country pauses for a few minutes to honor and remember all those who died to bring this country the freedom and independence that it craved.

The history of Korean independence, like so many other colonial struggles, started with a small group of dedicated nationalists, and ended with the deaths of thousands of people.  Inspired by Wilson's 14 points and the right to national "self-determination" the people of Korea, and numerous other colonized countries began a process of rebellion against their colonial power.  In the case of Korea, their colonial power was Japan.  Japan having recently emerged from its cloak of secrecy was rapidly catching up to the west due to the Meiji restoration.  Their first attempt at a colonial policy was directed at Korea.  Japan viewed Korea as a dagger pointed directly at the heart of Japan.  They believed that if Korea was colonized by another power it would be a direct threat to Japanese security.  Korea for centuries had been a suzerain state of China.  While nominally an independent nation, Korea routinely paid homage to the Chinese emperor.  Chinese policies heavily influenced the Korean government.

Japan first forced the government of Korea to open itself to Japanese trade and interests with the Treaty of Ganghwa in 1876.  From this point on the countries of Japan and China were in continual conflict to exert more influence and control over the policies and people of Korea.  In 1894 these tensions came to a head with the outbreak of the 1st Sino-Japanese war (August 1894-April 1895).  This war was primarily fought in Korea and led to the expulsion of the Chinese army and Chinese influence.  After the war ended the Korean ruler Empress Myeongseong, advocated stronger ties between Korea and Russia in an attempt to block Japanese interests in Korea.  This led to her assassination on October 8th 1895.  Under orders from the Japanese minster to Korea several swordsman entered the Empress's bed chambers and killed her and two other women who might have been her.  Directly after her murder the conspirators burned her body and spread her ashes in a pine forest.  In 1905 Korea became a protectorate of Japan, and in 1910 it was officially annexed by Japan.

This brief history ignores many of the factors that caused the March 1st movement.  Koreans, like most Asian societies, are an exceptionally proud people.  They are proud of their heritage, their language, their history, their culture, etc.  Japan during its control of Korea attempted a sort of "cultural genocide."  Korean monuments, history, names, and buildings were either changed, removed to Japan, or destroyed altogether.  This does not also include retaliation for villages which hid partisan fighters.  The retaliation often ended in rape, murder, and the village being burnt to the ground.  Needless to say all of the bad things associated with colonialism happened here in Korea.  I also freely admit at this point that I have been influenced by my time spent in Korea.  No matter what your take on the Japanese annexation of Korea, the simple fact was that within 9 years of official annexation, and within 24 years of official involvement in Korea the March 1st Movement happened.

The March 1st Movement began when 33 nationalists met in Taehwagwan Restaurant in Seoul and signed the Korean Declaration of Independence.  After signing the declaration they informed the local police of their actions and waited calmly until the police arrived and arrested them.  Later that day, a student walked into Tapgol Park in Seoul and read the declaration aloud to several thousand people who had gathered there.  Across the country on that day appointed delegates read the declaration across the country at 2 p.m.  The declaration sparked twelve months of protests in which over 2 million people took part in over 1,500 protests.  During these protests over 7,000 people were killed, 15,000 wounded, and 46,000 people were arrested.  There were several reprisals by the Japanese including the imprisonment, torture and murder of several hundred people in Seodaemun prison, all without trial.

The movement is memorialized in Tapgol Park via a series of bas-reliefs  which depict the worst aspects of the Japanese crack down on the Koreans.  However, even with the massive numbers of people participating in the protests, Japanese rule of Korea would not end until 1945 with the Japanese surrender in World War Two.  The movement, while not achieving its overall goal of independence did cause several changes in Japanese policy towards Korea.  The first was a replacement of the military police with a civilian police force.  They also received slightly better treatment and were granted limited freedom of the press.  However, with the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937 these small freedoms were rescinded and a harsher rule exerted over Korea.  During this period of harsher rule between 20-50 thousand Korean women were lured, kidnapped, or worked as "comfort women" (or prostitutes) for the Japanese army.  A further discussion of comfort women will take place at another point and time. 

It is with all of this in mind, and much more that Korea pauses every March 1st, and remembers those who suffered, those who sacrificed, and those who died, to fight for the essential right of freedom we take for granted every day.