Tense Korea: Leftward tilt in Seoul meets with growing public protests

by WorldTribune Staff, August 28, 2017

North Korea’s nuclear missile threats have dominated world headlines this year, but growing unrest in the South is exacerbating tensions on a peninsula bordering China and Russia and with U.S. forces stationed in the South.

Protests against the liberal Moon Jae-In administration are becoming more frequent and show a deep ideological split in South Korea along generational lines. The government is also reopening the investigation into the bloody “Gwangju incident” of 1980 which has been blamed on both the military government then in Seoul and North Korean infiltrators.

Demonstrators supporting Park Geun-Hye rally in Seoul. / AP

Moon’s dominant party, having ousted the nation’s first female president, Park Geun-Hye, is pressing ahead with her trial and conviction. And in a related prosecution, the chairman of Samsung was sentenced last week after being convicted for illegally donating to causes Park favored.

On Aug. 26, thousands of supporters of impeached former President Park marched in Seoul, calling for her release and for a “dying” nation to “wake up,” the Associated Press reported.

The rally was also held in reaction to a court ruling on Aug. 25 that saw Samsung heir Lee Jae-Yong, the country’s most powerful businessman, sentenced to five years in prison for crimes including offering bribes to Park. The protesters see the ruling as part of a trend by South Korea’s political-media culture  against Park in her own criminal trial.

“South Korea’s judicial system has committed suicide,” Jung Mi-Hong, a former television anchorwoman and one of the rally’s organizers, said. “We need to take a stand against the North Korea-sympathizing leftists who threw a person in jail when she didn’t even take a penny in bribes, and show them once and for all who’s in control.”

“We need to drive out the leftist dictatorship or this country will be ruined,” Chung Kyung-Ae, 62, said during the protest march.

“What did the leftists ever do for this country?” 58-year-old Son Tae-Ho said. “They did nothing. They just brought a spoon to the table. Now they have the power and are trying to find and persecute every single right-wing person like me.”

Son said he doesn’t have a regular job and earns a modest living off the stock market. He used to run a record store and video rental shop before the “internet killed them” in the early 2000s.

Son said he most fondly remembers the era of Chun Doo-Hwan, the military dictator who took power in a coup shortly after Park Chung-Hee’s assassination in 1979. Chun’s government bowed to massive protests and accepted free presidential elections in 1987.

“For me, the Chun Doo-Hwan period was the best. Back then, anyone could get good jobs if they just put in a little work,” Son said.

South Korea has one of the worst elderly poverty rates among developed nations.

Many of the protesters are elderly men and women who “lash out against politicians, judges and a government they never wanted, against media they accuse of lying to keep leftists, traitors and opportunists in power,” the AP report said. “The nation’s only way forward, they say, is the release and redemption of Park, the daughter of a slain anti-communist dictator and conservative icon.”

Some analysts say the pro-Park demonstrations are driven by struggling older people “who feel marginalized and cling to memories of the 1970s and ’80s, when jobs were easier to get under the aggressive industrialization polices of authoritarian leaders including Park’s father,” the AP report said.

Park Geun-Hye, 65, was elected the country’s first female president in 2012, convincingly beating her liberal rival, current President Moon Jae-In.

“Her base was conservative older voters who consider her father, Park Chung-Hee, a hero who lifted the nation from the devastation of the 1950-53 Korean War and rescued millions from poverty in the ’60s and ’70s, despite a brutal record of civilian oppression,” the AP report said.

Park Geun-Hye’s “image of selflessness for her country collapsed for many amid allegations that she colluded with a longtime confidante to take tens of millions of dollars from companies in bribes and through extortion, and allowed the friend to manipulate state affairs from the shadows.”

But to her remaining supporters, Park remains the wronged “mother of the nation.”

Kim Jeong-Hi, 71, said Park couldn’t have taken bribes because she was “raised and educated by Park Chung-Hee.”

“What was it that she did so wrong? Why is there so much hate against her?” Jang Hyeong-Ryeol, 48, said outside the courthouse where Park appeared on Aug. 25. “This country is not normal. It has lost all objectivity. It’s dying.”

Park was stripped of her presidential powers and jailed in March in South Korea’s biggest corruption scandal in decades. She could receive a lengthy prison term in a trial expected to reach a verdict in mid-October.

Meanwhile, Moon last week ordered a new investigation into the military junta’s bloody crackdown on Gwangju citizens during their pro-democracy movement in May 1980, Kim Hyo-Jin reported for Asia Times on Aug. 28.

Moon ordered investigators to focus on two allegations that the military led by Chun Doo-Hwan, then an Army general, shot at citizens from helicopters and had fighter jets ready to bomb the city. This was recently brought to light by a former pilot who testified he was awaiting orders for such a mission, the Asia Times report said.

Chun and military officials denied they ordered soldiers to fire on Gwangju citizens. Who first gave the order to fire at unarmed citizens and when and why still remains unanswered.

In 1997, following the prosecution’s probe under the Kim Young-Sam administration, Chun was sentenced to life in prison and his successor Roh Tae-Woo was sentenced to 17 years, though they were later pardoned by President Kim.

“They were found guilty of treason and murder for their leadership in the massacre. But their order to fire by the army was not proven by any evidence or through witness statements,” the Asia Times report said.

Tim Shorrock, a leftists Washington-based investigative journalist who was granted the first interview by a foreign journalist with new President Moon, studied more than 3,500 confidential U.S. documents about the event and advised the Moon administration to request more U.S. documents on the military junta’s actions, the Asia Times report said. Shorrock unveiled a document, codenamed “Cherokee” which he said shows U.S. approval of South Korean troop mobilization into Gwangju.

Kim Yang-Rae, the executive director of the May 18 Memorial Foundation, a Gwangju-based fact-finding civic group, said that “Many things should have been unveiled by now if they had looked into their past sincerely. For 37 years, the military kept silent and looked away from groundless rumors such as a possible involvement of North Korean soldiers in the Gwangju Uprising. We should pay close attention. Otherwise, the military could just repeat this pattern.”

Seoul’s Defense Ministry said it will begin its three-month special investigation into the allegations in September.

This is the fourth official government probe during the past 37 years. The last investigation took place in 2007.

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