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 "A Stranger in Chongno" (Part 3 of 4)

Barricade Breakers: A 386er leads police-bus rope pulling in Kwanghwamun early on the morning of 21 June 2008 (Photo
by J. Scott Burgeson, Copyright 2010)

I do not believe that it is an overstatement to say that war came to my neighborhood at the beginning of May 2008, and lasted
almost without stop for the next several months. At first, there were eerie sounds and angry words that were portents of the
coming chaos: Every night as I walked to the local Au Bon Pain bakery on Chongno 1-ga to pick up my breakfast for the
following morning, I heard ghostly, amplified speeches in the distance denouncing the present regime, and saw stickers on
lampposts and graffiti on walls making militant accusations: "조중동=뉴라이트=한나라당=친일파" read one long line of
black spray-painted letters right in front of Au Bon Pain. Wow, I wondered, were the millions of ordinary South Korean
citizens who had voted for the Grand National Party's Lee Myung-bak during the last presidential election (more than 5
million more, in fact, than his closest rival, United New Democratic Party’s Chung Dong-young) all "pro-Japan collaborators"
and "national traitors"? Were the millions of voters who had given GNP lawmakers an overwhelming majority in the National
Assembly in April 2008 all "evil Japanese stooges" as well? And since I had written several columns for The Chosun Ilbo myself
over the years, was I a "친일파," too? Was this to be some kind of war of liberation? Soon, however, the conflict took on the
distinct character of outright civil war: Much of Chongno became a militarized zone, with dozens of caged police buses lining
the boulevards and back streets from City Hall to Kwanghwamun to Chonggak to Kyongbok Palace, and thousands of riot
police and soldiers occupying the sidewalks and underpasses of the neighborhood almost around the clock; meanwhile, armies
of protesters, numbering in the tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands, poured into Chongno almost daily, marching through
the streets, shouting defiant slogans and waving forests of oversized, multicolored flags as if in a medieval battle scene. Often
when I left my home and went out in the late afternoon or early evening, I found the sidewalks in my neighborhood filled with
small groups of shifty-looking individuals in low-brimmed hats shielding sharp, darting eyes, with long, narrow black cases
slung over their shoulders and heavy, oversized backpacks strapped onto their backs; sometimes I saw them conferring with
masked associates on bicycles, whom I soon realized were scouts conducting reconnaissance and advanced surveillance of the
area. These groups were in turn joined by well-organized shock troops literally dressed in matching ROK Army combat fatigues,
who were often at the front lines of engagement with the police and the storming of police barricades; they claimed to be
"예비군" or Army reservists serving as an all-volunteer protective "buffer" force between the protesters and police, but in
reality they often went missing as waves of masked or bandana-wearing protesters provoked and assaulted the police lines
repeatedly, dragging dozens of young military conscripts off the line and using long, giant ropes to haul police buses into
the middle of the streets. On many nights the clashes were extreme, violent and bloody, with hundreds injured on both sides
throughout the course of the summer, and many buildings in the Kwanghwamun area defaced by anti-government propaganda
and in some instances even wrecked by rampaging protesters: One night in June, the front plate-glass windows of the Kumkang
shoe store on Saemun'an-gil were smashed after protesters pulled a police bus off a barricade line and dragged it right into the
storefront; on another night in late June, the front of the Koreana Hotel on T'aep'yongno, which is loosely affiliated by family
ownership with The Chosun Ilbo, was vandalized by crazed protesters, who plastered it with hundreds of stickers and placards,
hurled piles of garbage and uprooted plants at the main entrances and into the lobby, and even urinated on the building in a
final act of vulgar insult and scorn. In the end, the protests degenerated into a kind of hit-and-run urban guerrilla warfare, as
bands of rioting protesters ran amok throughout Chongno and Chung-gu, blocking traffic and occupying streets from Myong-
dong to Chonggak to Chongno 3-ga, and physically attacking innocent, ordinary citizens who were the unfortunate casualties
of a battle that had gone horribly wrong, and had unleashed a genuine reign of terror upon a neighborhood that I realized I
could no longer call my own.

While it is undeniable that the mad-cow candlelight protests of 2008 often displayed the characteristics of open warfare, I believe
that the movement as a whole can most accurately be described as an attempted coup d’etat. I do not use the term "coup d'etat"
lightly here, which is precisely why I now consider it to have been such a dangerous threat to South Korean democracy. To be
sure, I am well aware that the organizers and participants of the 2008 candlelight protests incessantly and loudly proclaimed that
"democracy" was their core principle and motivating purpose, but just as Bush exploited the term democracy for his own anti-
democratic takeover of Iraq, it can be seen that their movement was the very opposite of democracy in almost every important
sense. Indeed, I find it hard to believe that its leaders and organizers understand the meaning of the word "democracy" at all.

What is a coup e'tat exactly? In the strict sense, it is the sudden overthrow of a government by a small group or segment within
the state apparatus. Traditionally, of course, the military or the threat of military force is often used in coups, but this not an
essential feature of a coup, and in the case of the mad-cow candlelight protests, we can say that it was a newer type of postmodern
coup attempt in which propaganda, image and, most crucially, myth, were the primary weapons deployed by the movement's
masterminds and ideological sympathizers. Thus, according to what we now know from the public record, it is clear that a
number of individuals and groups associated either directly or indirectly with the state establishment colluded and joined together
with the ultimate aim of toppling the Lee Myung-bak government. Take, for example, the group responsible for organizing the
first large mad-cow candlelight protest at Ch'onggye Plaza on 2 May 2008: The name "LMB탄핵투쟁연대" couldn't be any
clearer in its intent, and appears prominently on posters for the demonstration; according to news reports, its Daum cafe Web
site ("이명박 탄핵을 위한 범국민운동본부" or "안티 이명박" for short) was launched on 19 December 2007, the very
same day that liberal and progressive presidential candidates like Chung Dong-young and Moon Kook-hyun were trounced
at the ballot box, with 14 of its administrators being either former Our Open Party members or belonging to present-day
opposition parties such as the Korea Renewal Party. We also know that 한국진보연대, which played a central role in organizing
and leading the mad-cow candlelight protests, was plotting against the Lee administration as early as January 2008, several
months before Lee struck his controversial beef deal with the U.S. on 18 April 2008; according to documents seized by police
during a raid on its offices in July 2008, Alliance members had determined at a January meeting, "이명박 정부의 저돌적 추진
과정에서 대중의 공분을 불러일으킬 수 있는 고리를 포착해 대중적 저항전선을 형성해 투쟁을 전개하자." During a
subsequent meeting, their purpose couldn't have been any clearer when they declared, "우리의 진정한 목표는 이명박 정부를
주저 앉히는 것이다." Among the 37 or so members of the Alliance, including such pro-North groups as 남북공동선언실천
연대 and 한국대학총학생회연합, it is important to note that the Democratic Labor Party was also a participant; in fact, the
flags of the DLP flew at the forefront of most of the major mad-cow candlelight protests, and the DLP's Kang Ki-gap was
himself a high-profile figurehead for the movement, often speaking at rallies and even leading sit-down protests in the streets
of Chongno on several occasions. Since the DLP had earned five seats in the National Assembly during the April 2008 elections
(and ten seats during the previous general elections in 2004), we can say that its lawmakers were indisputably "a small faction
within the government of the state," which as stated above is a defining feature of a classic coup or coup attempt; in addition,
DLP politicians and party members were regularly joined during protests by lawmakers and party members from other opposition
parties such as the United Democratic Party (renamed the Democratic Party in July 2008) and the Korea Renewal Party –
sometimes hundreds at a time. At the same time, two major public TV broadcasters, KBS and MBC, served as virtual cheerleaders
for the candlelight protests throughout their duration, and without their active support, it's doubtful the protests would have been
so large or lasted for so long (although MBC is legally a private broadcaster, its majority stockholder is the Foundation for
Broadcast Culture, a public entity, which is in turn overseen by a council of directors appointed by the government-run Korea
Communications Commission every three years). Finally, if we look even more closely, a number of other groups and players
can also be seen as "elements of the state" either directly or indirectly through subsidiary financial relations: The Korean
Teachers & Education Workers' Union (KTU), for instance, was an early and prominent supporter of the mad-cow candlelight
protests, and has tens of thousands of its teachers working in public schools who are, therefore, directly employed by the state;
even the aforementioned "예비군" must attend regular training until age 35, and consequently remain under the military
jurisdiction of the state (indeed, it is quite possible that their highly visible – and clearly partisan – role during the protests
subconsciously evoked for some the classic type of coup in which a renegade military force is used to confront a ruling government,
and was in fact in violation of the ROK Army's pledge, made during the Kim Young-sam administration, not to involve itself
in political affairs); and while the 1,800 or so civic groups and NGOs who officially joined the "광우병 국민 대책회의"
are not a direct part of the state apparatus, it is certainly the case that a fair share of them – including many well-known
environmental, women's and education groups – receive or have received direct funding from the state (even the Korean
Confederation of Trade Unions or KCTU, which also joined the 대책회의 and many of the candlelight protests, received billions
of won in assistance from the Roh Moo-hyun administration). All of which brings me to a central point: While I do not doubt
that the various groups and politicians who spearheaded the mad-cow candlelight protests are committed to their own progressive
values, beliefs and causes, it is also undeniably true that after ten years of liberal administrations under Kim Dae-jung and Roh
Moo-hyun, these progressive forces were well aware that their vested interests, including real jobs and financial resources, would
be under significant threat from the conservative Lee Myung-bak administration. Obviously many government officials, civil
servants and employees at state companies who had been installed during the previous two liberal administrations would be
removed or replaced as Lee and his ruling GNP allies in the National Assembly sought to reform or restructure pubic companies
and institutions as they saw fit (thus, when we consider the rumors that surfaced almost as soon as Lee took office that MBC
and KBS2 were to be privatized, for example, it is not too surprising that they would be favorably disposed to support an
anti-Lee Myung-bak movement, and certainly the President of KBS, a Roh Moo-hyun appointee and former Editor-in-Chief
at the pro-Roh Moo-hyun Hankyoreh, knew that his days were numbered). In other words, the progressive forces in Korea
knew that since they had lost power at the ballot box in recent elections, they had to find some other way to confront Lee in
a last-ditch, all-out power struggle for their very survival. And when MBC’s PD수첩 dropped a perfect present right into their
laps on 29 April 2008, they quickly seized the initiative and threw everything they had behind their attempt to overthrow the
government – and at several points seemed to come very close to succeeding. It is for this reason that it is no exaggeration to
call the mad-cow candlelight protest movement an attempted coup e'tat – and therefore both anti-constitutional and profoundly
anti-democratic in nature.

Of course, it is one thing to know that a minority faction of progressive forces here were unhappy with their poor performance
in recent elections, and were determined to grab back power any way they could; but this does not explain how they were able
to rally so much of the Korean public – "국민 생각" in Sohn Hak-kyu’s words – to their side and to join their movement,
during which time South Korea saw the largest street demonstrations since the pro-democracy "June Struggle" of 1987, and
the 광우병 대책회의 felt emboldened enough to issue the following ultimatum on 11 June 2008: "If the government decides
to ignore the mandate from the people, who hold the sovereign power in this country, we will not hesitate to launch a campaign
to drive President Lee Myung-bak out of office." Hadn’t the "sovereign power" of the Korean people been exercised and made
quite clear just two months earlier during the general elections, and again four months before that during the nation’s presidential
election? Indeed, Lee had been in office a mere two months when the progressive forces launched their campaign to oust him
from office; what had he done to warrant such incredible hubris and provocative action on the part of his political and ideological
opponents? How and why had their anti-government message, which at its core was a radical call to insurrection, resonated so
strongly with much of the general populace here? How could the mad-cow candlelight protests, which numbered over a hundred
and lasted well into August 2008, have gone on for so long? Why had Korea’s democratically elected government been forced
to face such a profound political crisis, and so soon after having been given such a sweeping mandate by the Korean people?

It is here that the parallels between Bush's selling of the Iraq War to the U.S. public and the mad-cow candlelight protests become
instructive, and weirdly ironic until we realize that both movements – Bush and the neocons in the U.S. and the hardcore anti-
Lee Myung-bak progressives in Korea – exhibit many of the classic characteristics of totalitarianism: Just as Bush overhyped the
threat of WMDs in Iraq to justify his invasion there, so did Lee's political foes exaggerate the specter of BSE-tainted U.S. beef
as a terrifying and deadly "WMD" that would devastate the Korean nation; in both cases, paranoia and fear were cynically
manipulated to inflame domestic nationalism, and thereby rally the masses behind a specific political and ideological agenda.
At the same time, both Bush and the progressives in Korea made impossible demands that they no doubt knew their enemy
could not meet, which was in turn meant to justify their own extreme course of counteraction: While Bush had warned Saddam
Hussein that a U.S.-led invasion could only be avoided if he "fully disarmed" and "destroyed all of his WMDs" (this despite the
fact that U.N. inspectors in Iraq had found no evidence of WMDs there in the months leading up to the war), it's now accepted
by reputable, mainstream analysts – including many intelligence officials in the U.S. government – that Saddam Hussein could
not have simply come straight out and admitted in public to having no active WMDs program, since such a naked admission would
have left his country dangerously vulnerable to his enemies in the region, Iran most of all; similarly, opposition political leaders
here in Korea, from Kang Ki-gap to Sohn Hak-kyu to Moon Kook-hyun and many others, as well as the leaders of the 대책회의
itself, surely must have known that Lee was unable to accept their calls to scrap and renegotiate the beef deal his administration
had made with the U.S., for to do so would have been ruinous to South Korea's credibility as a responsible trading nation in the
eyes of the international community. But while it is true that much of the mainstream U.S. media uncritically and irresponsibly
supported Bush's propaganda campaign calling for the invasion of Iraq, they hardly had the chance to enter Iraq prior to the start
of the war and verify for themselves whether or not Iraq still had an active WMDs program; Saddam Hussein was not about to
open up his country to a small army of American and other Western journalists and give them a guided tour of his defense
facilities, so on a purely practical level, the media in the U.S. had little other choice but to rely on the Bush administration's
now discredited assertions about the existence of Iraqi WMDs and their imminent threat. However, in the case of PD수첩's 29
April 2008 program, "Urgent Report! Is U.S. Beef Safe from Mad Cow Disease?" many of its claims about the alleged dangers
of U.S. beef were quickly debunked by established media outlets here (in an 8 May 2008 story in the JoongAng Ilbo, for example,
it was reported that Hallym University Medical College Professor Kim Yong-seon felt that PD수첩 had misunderstood and
exaggerated his 2004 thesis stating that 94.3% of Koreans carried the gene "MM," which was also found to exist in all 207
people who had contracted the human form of BSE up to that point, and he even claimed to enjoy eating U.S. beef himself),
and in mid-May, the Press Arbitration Commission ruled that two of PD수첩’s key points were unfounded, noting that a downer
cow in the U.S. had been incorrectly identified in the program as a "BSE-infected cow," and that during the interview in which
an American mother speculated that her daughter may have died of "CJD," the translated subtitles had wrongly read "vCJD," the
human variant of mad-cow disease; thus, it was only blind, stubborn commitment to their own ideological agenda that made many
liberal and progressive media outlets here unwilling or unable to adopt a more balanced and responsible approach to their coverage
of the U.S. beef import issue. Meanwhile, the highly controversial principle of "preventive war," a cornerstone of the Bush
Doctrine and the primary justification for the invasion of Iraq (in effect dressing up unilateral military aggression as the
"promotion of democracy" abroad), was also mirrored by the progressive forces here in their war against Lee Myung-bak
in several ways: In a certain sense the mad-cow candlelight protests were themselves "preventive" in nature, since the traditional
symbolic meaning of a candlelight vigil is to mourn and pay remembrance to someone's death, so to many foreign observers,
they seemed to be mourning the imagined future deaths of Korean citizens due to "poisonous" U.S. beef; and even after a contrite
Lee had compromised over a number of the protesters' demands, promising during a nationally televised news conference on 19
June 2008 to secure a guarantee from the U.S. government to voluntarily ban Korea-bound shipments of U.S. beef older than 30
months, withdrawing his plan for the Grand Canal as long as it was opposed by the Korean people and vowing to curb his
privatization plans for public corporations, the anti-Lee forces continued their protest campaign against the government and
actually became more militant and aggressively violent: When I asked a number of the protesters (and several Korean friends
and acquaintances who supported the movement, including the designer of the famous candle-girl logo, himself a well-known
visual artist) why they weren't satisfied after Lee had compromised and tried to meet their demands more than halfway, they
invariably replied, "Because we don't trust him! We don't believe his promises!" In other words, they were now protesting against
hypothetical actions they claimed he would undertake in the future, which hardly makes sense at all (just as the "안티 이명박"
cafe had been launched on 19 December 2007, two months before Lee even took office, thereby making their impeachment
campaign another obvious instance of Bush-like "preventive war" of the most absurd kind). Of course, common sense is one of
the first things to go out the window when a country has been seized by the totalitarian grip of virulent nationalism: On the eve
of the Iraq War in the U.S., two Republican Congressmen angered by France's opposition to the invasion went so far as to order
all references to "French fries" changed to "freedom fries" on cafeteria menus in the House of Representatives, a ridiculous
reaction that made headlines around the world (two years later, after the main justifications for the Iraq War had been proven false,
one of the Congressmen in question was reported to have said of the "freedom fries" episode, "I wish it had never happened.");
here in Korea, fears of mad-cow-infected U.S. beef reached a similar peak of hysteria when wildly unscientific rumors began to
circulate – including, ironically, on the homepage of the North Ch'ungch'ong Province chapter of the Korean Teachers Union –
claiming that BSE could be contracted from cosmetics, diapers and women's sanitary napkins (clearly virtuous Korean womanhood
was under assault by the dastardly Americans). Given all of this, Sohn Hak-kyu's observation to Lee – "이성적, 합리적 판단
못지않게 국민 생각이 중요하다." – seems less an expression of populist solidarity with "the people" than an unwitting critique
of nationalism run amok.

There is, however, a crucial difference between the propaganda campaign waged in support of Bush's invasion of Iraq and that of
the mad-cow candlelight protest movement, which brings us back to myth and its frequently symbiotic relationship with national
identity: Whereas Bush was guilty of overselling the Iraq War to the U.S. public with fabricated military intelligence and outright
lies, he succeeded in doing so because, as we have seen, he was on the "right" side of American myth and national identity; Lee,
on the other hand, was guilty of nothing more than underselling his beef deal with the U.S. to the Korean people, and was forced
to pay a nearly fatal political price when he found himself on the "wrong" side of Korean myth and national identity (and despite
being on the right side of most of the distortions and deceptions deployed against him at the time). After all, it was Roh Moo-hyun
who had first pushed for and ultimately signed the KORUS FTA, and as a condition for the agreement he had pledged to Bush in
April 2007 to reopen South Korea's market to U.S. beef imports in accordance with World Organisation for Animal Health or
OIE guidelines (which in May 2007 had certified the U.S. as a "controlled risk country for BSE," meaning that it had a "safe"
rating for exports of beef of all ages, with minor limits on SRMs); thus, Lee was simply following through on and bringing to
completion a promise that had been made by his liberal predecessor, which is no doubt why he had calculated beforehand that
there would be little political risk to quickly settling the beef deal with the U.S. so that he could next focus on securing formal
ratification of the FTA in the National Assembly and U.S. Congress (by the end of 2008, Lee's confidence in U.S. beef would
be proven prescient, when it was reported that it had become the top seller in the South Korean market, ahead of even Korean
Hanwoo beef). Of course, it was to be expected that Korean cattle farmers and other hardcore opponents of the FTA would be
against the beef deal and take to the streets at least a few times to voice their concerns and complaints, but obviously he did not
imagine that the entire country would be turned upside down because of it – and nearly bring down his administration in the
process. How had he miscalculated so badly? What went wrong?

I believe that Lee's greatest mistake was to underestimate his political opponents' ability to leverage Korean nationalism in the
service of their own mythic self-identity and narrow, short-term interests. Of course, on a certain superficial level, the myth of
American exceptionalism was echoed in the willingness of many Koreans to leap to conclusions after hearing of Prof. Kim Yong-
seon's thesis (for how many had actually read it?) and believe that they were genetically "two to three times" more susceptible to
BSE than "Americans" and "Britons" (apart from the science itself, such appeals to "Korean exceptionalism" made little sense to
me at the time, given that Americans, for instance, are not a "race" – or even an ethnicity – and in fact there are several million
ethnic Koreans in the U.S. whose very existence problematizes such essentialized binary oppositions). But the forces at work here
go much deeper, and revolve around not only ideological and class divisions in Korean society, but also generational cleavages
and competing visions of the modern South Korean nation-state and its relationship with the wider world: More specifically, Lee
found himself confronted with and overwhelmed by the power and perverse determination of the 386ers to construct a mythical
narrative and impose it upon the nation just as effectively as Bush had done in the lead-up to the Iraq War; more than anything
else, it was their ability to do so which inflamed and expanded the movement beyond the usual farmers and anti-FTA activists
and transformed it into a broad-based social phenomenon that endured throughout the long, hot summer of 2008. Without
endorsing their aims or tactics, we must concede that the protesters' propaganda efforts often displayed flashes of mad genius,
which was itself best symbolized – perhaps intentionally – by the plastic sunflowers worn in the hair of many of the mad-cow
candlelight protest organizers; the key point to keep in mind for our purposes here is that those sunflowers – which of course
signify insanity in Korean culture when placed behind one's ear and worn in public – were themselves quite fake.

What, then, was the precise mythic narrative that had mobilized the masses against the ruling government here so readily, and
so dramatically? In psycho-political terms, we can say that it was characterized by what in psychoanalytic theory is called
"regression," a kind of defense mechanism whereby one reverts to an earlier stage of personal development in the face of
obstacles, conflict or unacceptable impulses; we might even argue that it was symptomatic of what is described by psychologists
as a "return of the repressed," when certain feelings, desires or thoughts which have been blocked in the conscious mind reappear
in generally distorted – and often disruptive – form; but in much simpler and more practical terms, the mythic mechanism that
drove the mad-cow candlelight protests was in essence a flight from reality and escape into the now distant past: It was, I am
suggesting, a direct reaction to the devastating political collapse of the 386ers in recent elections, and their own realization that
their utopian dreams of transforming Korean society had failed – at least for the time being – and ended in disaster and defeat.
For it was the 386ers who were going to complete the grand project of Korea's modern development that had first begun in
earnest in the 1960s, building upon the industrial development and political democratization of decades past with social
development and economic democratization of the most progressive and future-oriented kind – and ultimately leading to
reunification with the North and the long-cherished realization of "One Peninsula, One Nation." But as with the neoconservative
ideologues of the Bush administration, who believed the U.S. could magically transform Iraq overnight into a democratic oasis
in the heart of the Middle East, many of the grandiose aspirations of the 386ers and their political leaders simply did not match
up with stubborn reality; in both cases, a toxic mix of idealism, insularity and hubris led almost inevitably to tragic overreach.
Of course, the origins of the 386ers are well-known, and their unique sense of generational entitlement is not without genuine
merit: Throughout the 1980s, they had been at the forefront of the democratization movement in South Korea, culminating in
the June Struggle and the ouster of the military regime of Chun Doo-hwan in 1987; but they had also learned the hard way that
attending clandestine Marxist-Leninist study sessions and fighting in the streets for democracy is altogether different from
running an entire nation of 50 million people and a trillion-dollar economy, especially in today's complex, cutthroat era of
globalization. Kim Dae-jung had been elected president in 1997 with the strong support of the 386ers, and the succeeding Roh
Moo-hyun government was so closely associated with this reform-minded generation that it was even dubbed "the 386
administration," but after a decade of "liberal" rule under both leaders, many of the 386ers' hopes and dreams remained
just that: Roh in particular had campaigned for the presidency under the banner of "participatory democracy," "egalitarianism"
and "social justice," but it is a sad irony (lost on few 386ers) that income disparity and inequality surged during his tenure in
the Blue House. (It is also hugely ironic that while blocking Lee Myung-bak's "neoliberal agenda" was a key goal of the mad-
cow candlelight protests, both Kim and Roh pursued neoliberal economic policies wholeheartedly themselves: Kim embraced
the radical market restructuring plans of the IMF as soon as he took office, presiding over a fire sale of Korean banks and
industrial concerns to speculative global capital, while weakening labor unions and expanding the irregular workforce here
dramatically; meanwhile, Roh's much touted – and much ridiculed – plan to transform South Korea into a "financial hub"
of Northeast Asia was predicated on further opening up the domestic economy to international finance, and he was, of course,
the original backer of the FTA with the U.S.). At the same time, social conflict and polarization were widely perceived to have
been exacerbated by the notoriously provocative Roh and the ideological firebrands in his administration – many of them 386ers
and former student activists – which was, in fact, exactly what had helped lead Lee to victory in the presidential campaign of
2007: Correctly reading the public mood, he had successfully managed to brand himself as a can-do, center-right "pragmatist"
in the eyes of voters, many of whom had long since grown weary of the endless ideological disputes sparked by Roh's "radical"
reform agenda (in other words, he had appealed to voters not as idealized "societal beings" embedded in a common community –
the standard approach of liberal and progressive political candidates – but rather as real-world "consumers" with basic pocketbook
concerns that he would focus on single-mindedly). However, while Lee's ability to downplay his own ideological identity was his
primary strength, it was also arguably his greatest weakness, since it left him exposed on his proverbial "left flank" – meaning
that he was open to attack by political opponents with a stronger and more well-defined ideological position. And so when the
first real opportunity presented itself, the progressives were able to "rebrand" Lee by quickly spinning and ensnaring him in a
narrative web (both symbolic and cyber) that was at once cartoonishly simplistic and brazenly anachronistic – and all the more
effective for being so. In short, they were able to convince much of the nation that it was no longer 2008, but rather the 1980s
all over again: Lee, they called out high and low, was an old-style "dictator" suppressing the people with the "brutal police," and
the candlelight protesters were democratic "freedom fighters" defending the nation against U.S. hegemony and its local lackeys.
It was really a form of psychological time travel into the Korean past, and what's astonishing is that so many South Koreans
were willing to take that trip.

Of course, this narrative was purely mythic because it simply did not reflect the reality of present-day Korea. It's absurd – and
frankly sophomoric – to call Lee a dictator, especially when even the progressives here must surely acknowledge among
themselves in private that the only tyrant on the Korean Peninsula these days is Kim Jong-il: Not only did Lee's administration
allow the protesters to hold candlelight protests daily for three straight months in the center of Seoul, often until dawn of the
following day and often without permits or proper registration, but he even apologized to the nation twice on national television
for failing to adequately consider the public's concerns about U.S. beef, and moreover compromised over several of the protesters'
key demands. This hardly seems indicative of dictatorial behavior, and certainly does not qualify as "suppressing" the democratic
"voice of the people," as was repeatedly charged in the local progressive media; to the contrary, it was exceedingly indulgent to
any fair-minded observer. But the appeal of the mythic narrative of the mad-cow candlelight protests, like that of Bush's invasion
of Iraq, was not really rooted in any sort of factual foundation, which if there even was one was about as solid as quicksand: It
succeeded first and foremost by affirming the foundational identity of the 386 Generation, born and baptized in the righteous
battles of the 1980s, and at the same time resonated among certain segments of the broader Korean public by harkening back to
a simpler time in modern Korean history, when democracy was still a perfect utopia glimmering just off on the horizon, instead
of a messy and often disappointing reality; when it was much easier to indulge in moral certainty and absolutes, because the
government was so obviously "bad" and the people so clearly "good"; and when it was still possible for want of reliable
information to romanticize North Korea as a proudly independent workers' paradise, and dream of reunification if only the
U.S. military forces here would just get out of the way and go home. Perhaps there was also a vague, generalized sense in
society here that South Korea had already peaked, had climbed as high as it could go on the mountain of modern development,
and that it might be all downhill from now on: Would small, high-wage South Korea still be able to compete economically and
maintain its present standard of living in the future, increasingly squeezed between high-tech Japan and low-wage China, that
rising juggernaut just across the Yellow Sea? And had the old dream of reunification with the North in fact become more of a
nightmare that many South Koreans now feared, given the great financial burden they would forced to bear when – or if – it
finally happened? (Certainly there was a growing consensus here in the South, after ten years of largely unreciprocated attempts
at engagement with the North, that the Sunshine Policy of the Kim and Roh administrations had essentially been a failure.) Indeed,
the election of Lee as president was itself was something of slap in the face of the noblest aspirations of Korean democracy, since
many Korean voters had willingly set aside widespread concerns over his questionable ethical past in favor of rather more
materialistic considerations. Was that all there was? Was Korea nothing more than a hypercompetitive consumer society with
no higher ideals to aspire towards anymore, a kind of spiritually shallow, American-style Brave New World? Perhaps it was,
and yet the 386ers and the progressives in Roh's administration had been unable to formulate and implement a credible, alternative
vision for Korea's present and near future, which makes it all the more understandable why it would be comforting for many to
escape back into the psychological security of the 1980s, when the struggle for a better society was so much simpler and not so
overwhelmingly complex, when progressives here had a purity of intent still untainted by the demands of real-world politics and
its many inevitable compromises and defeats, when the collective task of national development still held such great promise and
hope, and might be perfected if only the "right" people with the "right" progressive values were in charge and leading the nation.

It is in this sense, then, that it is possible to speak of the mad-cow candlelight protests as a "return of the repressed," or really
a perfect trifecta of repressions: After all, the failures of the Roh Moo-hyun administration were, more than anything else, a
profound repression of the greatest hopes and dreams of the 386ers in particular; meanwhile, Kim Jong-il had cynically and
quite selfishly thwarted the utopian project of reunification on the Korean Peninsula, thereby repressing the ultimate goal of
the type of "progressive nationalism" embraced by many 386ers; and in a much broader sense, we can say that reality itself
had defeated and repressed the 386ers' once confident assertions that they would lead Korea boldly forward as a so-called "Hub
of Asia" into the globalized world of the 21st century. No doubt, a significant amount of frustration, shame and guilt had built
up in the collective unconscious of progressive 386ers over the past few years, culminating in their crushing defeat by the
conservative forces in the December 2007 and April 2008 elections. At the same time, and as noted above, when certain
impulses and desires have been blocked in the conscious mind, they have a tendency of reappearing in distorted and often
disruptive form; it only takes the slightest trigger to unleash such pent-up feelings and submerged psychological energies,
and Lee's decision to lift the ban on U.S. beef imports was without question such a trigger. Indeed, the "안티 이명박" cafe
had already held a small-scale anti-government demonstration at Ch'onggye Plaza on 26 April 2008, and on its poster for
the rally, the phrases "굴욕외교" and "미친소" appear prominently in bright red letters; once PD수첩 aired its inflammatory
report on the "dangerous threat" of U.S. beef three days later, the first phase of the mythic narrative of the mad-cow candlelight
protests had been officially launched on the national stage, and in almost ready-made, prepackaged form: For the hated figure
of the "U.S.- backed" authoritarian leader and "puppet stooge" is a key archetype in the collective psyche of 386ers most of all
(just as it is in the North, of course), and Lee Myung-bak's ideological opponents were able to quickly cast him in this mould –
regardless of whether he actually fit it or not. Thus, it was claimed repeatedly by the protesters and their allies in the local
liberal and progressive media, Lee's beef deal with the U.S. was a "humiliating concession" to Washington and grave erosion
of South Korean sovereignty, which would allow the U.S. to force its "deadly" beef down the throats of innocent South
Koreans; in short, it was a classic instance of "사대주의" that could not be tolerated by any proud, self-respecting Korean.
While the emotional appeal of such claims was all too apparent, they made far less sense when examined from a more neutral,
dispassionate vantage point, given that Lee was simply fulfilling a promise that had already been made by Roh, whom one
would never accuse of having lacked sufficient nationalistic pride. And as far as "shameful diplomacy" was concerned, wasn't
it rather more "shameful" and "humiliating" when thousands of Chinese exchange students went rioting in Seoul on 27 April
2008, violently attacking pro-Tibet protesters and North Korean human-rights activists during the Olympic Torch relay here,
which was in turn justified by a spokesperson from China's Foreign Ministry in Beijing with the following response: "As to
the disruptions and sabotage by the separatist forces, some students upholding justice came out to safeguard the dignity of the
torch – I believe that's natural." I certainly don't recall any candlelight protests denouncing such decidedly imperial hubris.
And wasn't it quite a bit more "humiliating" and "shameful" when Park Wang-ja, a 53-year-old South Korean housewife, was
shot and killed by a North Korean soldier at the tourist resort of Kumgang-san on 11 July 2008, and the North went so far as
to blame her murder on the South Korean government, even demanding an official apology? I certainly don't recall any
candlelight protests led by the progressive forces against such outrageous, heartless hauteur, either. And, more to the point,
wasn't it rather "embarrassing" – and "shameless" if not "shameful" – to be protesting the alleged dangers of "BSE-tainted
U.S. beef" when Hanwoo actually had at the time a lower OIE rating for safety against mad-cow disease ("undetermined risk,"
according to the official classification)? Well, wasn't it?

Obviously, the anti-colonial discourse that had been articulated most forcefully by the 386ers during the 1980s only broadly
resonates against two specific nations, or really just one when speaking of the actual political and military situation on the
Korean Peninsula in the post-1945 period. In other words, the first phase of the mythic narrative of the mad-cow candlelight
protests could only have been activated on such a large scale because it was able to trigger local "anti-colonial" and "anti-
사대주의" resentments against the U.S. (this despite the fact that for all intents and purposes, the U.S. is itself a virtual
economic colony of South Korea at this point, considering the massive trade surpluses that it has enjoyed with the U.S. in
recent years), and soon this narrative entered its second, decisive phase when the protesters began to take to the streets towards
the end of May and deliberately provoke the riot police, thereby summoning forth an entire complex of archetypes that are
essential to the 386ers' understanding of themselves as a generation: Specifically, if the first phase of this narrative was driven
primarily by anti-사대주의 sentiment (especially after PD수첩's most exaggerated claims about U.S. beef were discredited
almost as soon as they were aired), this second phase can be characterized mainly as the cynical manipulation of the "police
brutality" meme in the local media and in cyberspace, which in turn allowed the demonstrators to portray themselves as heroic
"freedom fighters" who were only trying to safeguard and advance "democracy" against an oppressive "dictatorial regime."
The only problem with this particular meme is that it was largely fiction: I attended all the major mad-cow candlelight protests
throughout the summer of 2008, and not once did I see the police provoke or attack the protesters first; in fact, it was invariably
the other way around, and the point was always to goad the riot police into some kind of reaction, which could then be
"documented" – and sometimes even fabricated in several infamous cases – by the local liberal and progressive media (and
countless amateur "citizen reporters" who were thoroughly partisan) and disseminated throughout the mediasphere as so many
"shocking" examples of "police brutality" – while at the same time almost always editing out the initial provocations by the
protesters themselves, at least in the liberal media. I first witnessed this tactic in action myself on the evening of 29 May 2008,
when several ajosshis in their forties, including one of the main protest organizers, spent nearly an hour in front of Kwanghwamun
Post Office hurling themselves repeatedly against a riot police line while screaming all manner of obscenities and abuse at them;
there were dozens of members of the media present standing by with their cameras and waiting for the police to "react," but the
police merely absorbed each body blow and gently pushed the protesters back each time, until everyone grew bored and
eventually walked away. A few days later, early on the morning of June 1st, one of the first and probably most notorious
cases of "police violence" occurred when a female university student was filmed being dragged to the ground and kicked
twice in the head by a riot policeman at a barricade beside Kyongbok Palace; the video immediately went viral and helped
spur a massive turn-out of enraged protesters the following evening at Kwanghwamun, during which the protesters began
pulling police buses off the barricades for the first time and generally engaging with the police much more aggressively.
However, it's important to recall what led up to this unfortunate incident, and was excluded from the video in question: It
was on the morning of June 1st that the protesters had first come so close to the Blue House, no doubt compelling the police
to assume a much more "robust" defensive posture, and in fact the protesters had already begun rocking and attempting to
overturn police buses earlier that night and even climb on top of them; furthermore, I personally saw the protesters drag at
least one young riot policeman off the line at the same Kyongbok Palace barricade earlier that evening and hit and kick him
several times in a tight circle, which certainly must have upset his fellow riot policemen behind the barricade; and if one
closely examines the video of the university student being kicked, she had clearly broken through the police line – joining
in a confusing rush forward along with dozens of other protesters – and was actually on the back side of the barricade. One
wonders what she expected to happen after literally breaking through a police line during what must have seemed like a mob
riot at the very footsteps of the Blue House, which is perhaps why it was reported that she ultimately declined to join in a
lawsuit filed against the police by a dozen other protesters from that same night. In any case, a half dozen police directly
involved with the kicking incident – including several superior officers – were either disciplined or suspended from active
duty, and from that time on I noted the police were consistently patient and restrained in their response to the protesters, even
as the protesters became increasingly provocative and violent themselves on many nights. In fact, over the course of the summer,
I saw literally dozens of young military conscripts pulled off riot police lines and sometimes savagely beaten by protesters (a
terribly ironic inversion of the "police brutality" meme), but of course these incidents were intentionally ignored by the liberal
and progressive media, because they did not fit the mythic narrative that they themselves had helped construct, which from early
June was fully in place: In effect, the "progressive nationalism" that had been announced during the first stage of the mad-cow
candlelight protests was soon supplemented by an insistent, self-righteous rhetoric of "anti-authoritarianism" that explicitly and
repeatedly invoked many of the archetypes and symbols of the 1980s, including Kwangju, the June Struggle and such well-
known martyrs of the 1980s democratic movement as Park Jong-chul and Lee Han-yeol. For this reason, we cannot overstate
enough the importance of the "police brutality" meme to the protesters' propaganda efforts, for it allowed them to portray Lee
as a democracy-despising "dictator" in the mode of Chun Doo-hwan, which in turn served as a means of discrediting his entire
administration, and helped bring out the masses at many key moments in support of the movement to oust him from office.
However, the meme of "police brutality" was a classic case of the protesters putting the cart before the horse, for as we have
seen, their basic aim was always to provoke the police first and then present themselves as innocent victims of "police
suppression." We might even go so far as to say that this false attempt to transform today's riot police into an anachronistic
symbol of the South Korea's authoritarian past was emblematic of the mad-cow candlelight protest movement as a whole,
which in essence was more of a depthless simulacrum of "democracy" than anything truly genuine or real. After all, once
we admit that the "threat" of mad-cow disease in U.S. beef was largely a fabrication, as was the issue of "police brutality,"
what we are mainly left with are the objections of the protesters to the overall policy platform of Lee Myung-bak and his
conservative allies in the GNP. But, of course, the elections of December 2007 and April 2008 had already made quite clear
the direction in which a majority of the South Korean people wanted their country to be taken by their political representatives.
Is it really "democratic" when a minority faction of voters seeks to overturn the democratically expressed will of a majority of
their fellow citizens? Surely there can only be one answer to that question.

When we recall Barthes' understanding of modern myth as means of disguising a particular view of the world as a "natural" and
"universal" representation of the truth, it should now be plain that the narrative of the mad-cow candlelight protests of 2008 was
mythic in almost every sense, for while it continually claimed to express the "popular will" of the entire nation, it of course only
represented a very specific and narrow ideological point-of-view. From the first candlelight protest on 2 May 2008 to the last
major demonstration of the summer and the "movement" on August 15th, the basic strategy of the protest organizers and leaders
remained the same, and was actually quite simple: By occupying the physical streets of the capital and the nation in real time,
they could produce so much real-world "material" or "content" which they would then "self-represent" and disseminate online
and via more established liberal and progressive media outlets sympathetic to "the cause"; in this way, the wholly self-referential
narrative they had constructed could be "imposed" upon the nation and kept constantly before the eyes of the general public,
until it had become so "naturalized" and "self-evident" that realization of the "regime change" they sought might somehow seem
"inevitable." (And herein lies the main "beef" that the protesters had with the so-called "조중동": Their real "issue" wasn't that
these papers "lied" as they repeatedly claimed, but rather that the "조중동" were able to provide an effective, powerful
counternarrative to the one that had been spun by the protesters, deconstructing and undermining it at every turn; in this sense,
and perhaps somewhat ironically, the "conservative" media here were able to help safeguard genuine democracy in South Korea,
in contrast to the ostensibly "liberal" mainstream media in the U.S., which had failed to do so during the lead-up to the 2003
invasion of Iraq.) Moreover, as I have also argued above, the symbolic core or heart of this mythic narrative belonged to the
progressives and liberals of the 386 Generation, for it had been formed in reaction to their recent political and electoral defeats,
and was animated by psychological dynamics unique to their generational demographic. Of course, the candlelight protests were
joined by other segments of society, most famously large numbers of female middle-school and high-school students early on,
and then later a good many university students, especially after the protesters began marching in the streets and classes wound up
for the semester, but they were really operating within a symbolic space that had been shaped and defined mainly by the 386ers,
and were subsumed under a greater narrative that had been provided almost paternalistically by their progressive and liberal elders.
(In fact, it was widely reported that many of these middle-school and high-school students had been "encouraged" to attend the
first candlelight protests by teachers belonging to the KTU, in many cases 386ers themselves, and nostalgia was arguably a strong
motivating factor for many university students who had missed the storied struggle for democracy here during the 1980s, and
found themselves with a chance to follow in the 386ers' footsteps and "prove" themselves in their own right by joining the fight
against yet another "dictator" determined to "destroy" Korean democracy – though, it must be said, it's doubtful many South
Koreans under 25 have any direct memories or understanding of what living under a genuine dictatorship is really like.) No
doubt, just as the riot police are a dominant archetype from South Korea's authoritarian past, so is the figure of the righteous
student demonstrator an important archetype in the collective consciousness of the nation, and certainly the participation of these
students in the candlelight protests helped add an extra layer of "moral legitimacy" to the overall movement; in reality, however,
they were more like so many "extras" playing a background or supporting role in what was, in essence, a kind of perverse
psychodrama being acted out first and foremost by liberal and progressive members of the 386 generation upon the national
stage. Speaking once again in psycho-political terms, the driving mechanism of the mad-cow candlelight protests can ultimately
be summarized as follows: By transferring and displacing their own feelings of frustration and disappointment over their recent
political collapse onto Lee Myung-bak and the riot police, who were the most immediate and visible agents of the Lee
administration's authority (and it should stressed that by early June, protest chants against the riot police had become as
common as demands to renegotiate South Korea's beef deal with the U.S., and were predominant by the end of June and
throughout the remainder of the summer), this broad-based coalition of 386er-led progressives and liberals had transformed
Lee and his administration into a obvious scapegoat for their own political shortcomings and failures – an altogether reactionary,
self-serving and in the end immensely destructive substitute for their inability to face up to reality in a more mature, responsible
manner. To be sure, the leaders and organizers of the mad-cow candlelight protest movement probably had a quite different
understanding of their own motivations and actions, even if they were as deluded by self-righteousness and ideological fervor
as Bush had been in planning for the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq: If the candlelight protests could convince enough of
the populace that only the progressive and liberal forces here had the "moral authority" to lead the nation (by virtue of their
willingness to stand up to the U.S. and its "puppet dictator" in the Blue House), they could ultimately force out the Lee Myung-
bak government in the manner of a Philippines-style "People Power Revolution," and in so doing "redeem" themselves both
in their own eyes and in the eyes of the nation. But on a more basic and fundamental level, what they were really doing was
presenting and arguing for a particular view of the nation, one they clearly felt was more "legitimate" and "righteous" than
that of their conservative rivals. The question all progressives and liberals in South Korea would do well to ask themselves,
however, is this: Was it really a credible and future-oriented vision, relevant for leading the nation forward into the 21st
century, or was it perhaps too much rooted in the past, and too reliant on any number of outdated myths that had long since
served whatever "justifiable" purpose they once may have had?

Last Page


1. “조중동=뉴라이트=한나라당=친일파” = "Chosun Ilbo/JoongAng Ilbo/Dong-A Ilbo=New Right=Grand National Party=
Pro-Japan Collaborators"
2. “LMB탄핵투쟁연대" = Lit., "Alliance for the Struggle to Impeach Lee Myung-bak"
3. "이명박 탄핵을 위한 범국민운동본부" = Lit., "Headquarters of the National Campaign for the Impeachment of Lee
4. "안티 이명박" = "Anti-Lee Myung-bak"
5. "한국진보연대" = "Korea Alliance for Progressive Movement"
6. "이명박 정부의 저돌적 추진 과정에서 대중의 공분을 불러일으킬 수 있는 고리를 포착해 대중적 저항전선을 형성해
투쟁을 전개하자." = "Let's create an excuse that can arouse public rage against the Lee Myung-bak administration and create
a frontline of citizens to carry out the protests."
7. "우리의 진정한 목표는 이명박 정부를 주저 앉히는 것이다." = "Our ultimate goal is to make the Lee Myung-bak
administration collapse."
8. "남북공동선언실천연대" = "Solidarity for the Practice of the South-North Joint Declaration"
9. "한국대학총학생회연합" or "한총련" for short = "South Korean Federation of University Students Councils"
10. "광우병 국민 대책회의" = "People's Conference against Mad Cow Disease"
11. "대책회의" = short for "광우병 국민 대책회의"
12. "PD수첩" = "Producer's Notebook or Diary"
13. "굴욕외교" = "humiliating" or "disgraceful" or "crow-eating diplomacy"
15. "미친소" = lit, "crazy cow" or "mad cow" (i.e., BSE-infected beef)
16. "사대주의" = "flunkeyism" or "toadyism" or "kowtowism"

Introduction to "더 발칙한 한국학" [10]

    "A Stranger in Chongno" (Part 1 of 4) [10]  King Baeksu  2009/04/30 22366 2038
      "A Stranger in Chongno" (Part 2 of 4) [10]  King Baeksu  2010/08/20 10778 1152
      "A Stranger in Chongno" (Part 3 of 4) [10]  King Baeksu  2010/08/20 12556 1207
          "A Stranger in Chongno" (Part 4 of 4)  King Baeksu  2010/08/20 13852 1198

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