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Saturday, February 12, 2011     GET REAL

40 years of protests, democratic meltdowns and always the overarching threat

SEOUL — The drama on Cairo’s Tahrir Square evokes memories of Indonesia’s “Year of Living Dangerously” for a journalist who’s been in and out of Asia for more than 40 years witnessing periodically mass protests in the name of democracy against old orders of thugs and plutocrats.


South Korean chief delegate Colonel Moon Sang-Gyun, right, is seen in Seoul on Feb. 8. Delegations from South Korea and their North Korean counterparts met at the border village of Panmunjom.      / AFP/Jung Yeon-Je
After seeing the slow demise of Sukarno in Indonesia in 1966 and 1967 and the fall of Ferdinand Marcos in the People Power revolt in the Philippines in 1986 and the anguish on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, it’s possible to wonder whether these revolts do anything other than introduce new villains eager to exploit those who lofted them to power.

The questions are relevant in South Korea, where mobs every few years storm through central Seoul driven to a frenzy against the authorities, against the American alliance, against an order they see as exploiting them though the country seems a whole lot more prosperous than most others we read about.

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In the case of South Korea, the fear forever lurks of a jealous predator hovering above the northern frontier, impoverished and spoiling for vengeance against its southern neighbor for wrongs real and imagined going back to the horrors of the region’s bloodiest war in the early 1950s.

Pointing the barrel of a gun forever loaded with nuclear warheads of unimaginable potential impact, the North forces the South to count on its American ally in the crunch, however much the South would like to see the last of the 28,500 US troops going home in a torrent of rhetoric and sighs of relief.

Far from diminishing, the threat of the holocaust only increases as the two Koreas, and the powers surrounding them, go through seasonal rounds of crisis, talks about talks, then talks, deals made, deals broken — and crisis again.

The process ratcheted up a notch this week when colonels from either side met for a day and a half in the “truce village” of Panmunjom — the term “village” a quaint reference to when it was a war-torn cluster of half-destroyed farm buildings and the scene of the signing of the truce that stopped the shooting in July 1953.

The South Koreans, to be sure, were not parties to that signing. The South’s war-time president, Rhee Syngman, refused to countenance a deal that would only perpetuate the division of the Korean Peninsula. An American general on one side, Chinese and North Korean generals on the other, signed an armistice that exists to this day.

Nowadays, though, the South Koreans do show up at Panmunjom on sporadic occasions driven by the exigencies of the moment, but the outcome remains just as strained and fraught with tension as always. Was it the North Koreans who abruptly got up and strode out on Wednesday afternoon, or was it the South Koreans, a colonel, a lieutenant-colonel and a Unification Ministry official?

The South Koreans said the North Koreans, the North Koreans said the South Koreans, but we can be pretty sure the South Koreans had the story right since the word would soon spread in Seoul and there would be no point in the South Koreans making up a simple story.

There was, however, news from those talks, but of quite a different sort. The news was that the Unification Ministry official, a mid-level director, garbed in a formal dark blue uniform, was a woman — the first woman ever to appear as a negotiator opposite the North Koreans in nearly 60 years of intermittent yakking.

These were “preparatory” talks for talks between defense ministers, which were in turn to lead to talks between North and South Korean negotiators, which would then lead to — what? Right, “six-party talks.” About what? North Korea’s nukes of course.

The music on the old 78-rpm recording was meant to play on, but the needle got stuck on the A-word. No, not “atomic.” Apology. The North won’t “apologize” for anything, certainly not the torpedoing of the South Korean corvette the Cheonan in March in which 46 sailors perished in which it persists in denying a role, and certainly not the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in November that killed four people, including two marines and two civilians. The North proudly acknowledges the latter — and blames the bloodshed on the South Koreans for firing into their waters during military exercises.

So there we are, but then think of some alternatives. What if there were no such stand-off at Panmunjom? Would the crowds of more than a million that swarmed central Seoul during the Kwangju revolt of May 1980 and again in June 1987 be on the streets again?

Those were the days of dictatorship and corruption when democracy was the rallying cry, and the smell of eye-burning tear gas, flavored with a peppery substance that enriched one of the country’s chaebol or conglomerates, hung in the air.

The South’s democratic constitution was promulgated in late June 1987 along with the promise of the thuggish ruler, General Chun Doo-Hwan, to step down in favor of a democratically elected president. True, the winner of the first election under the new constitution was Chun’s military sidekick, Gen. Roh Tae-woo, but civilians have been elected ever since under a constitutional bylaw that limits them to five-year terms.

No more dictator-for-life here, but would the South be so fortunate were it not for the need to worry both about North Korea and the South’s democracy-minded American ally? Leftist haters of the conservative government of President Lee Myung-Bak may yearn for reconciliation with North Korea, but their arguments wear thin while the North provokes incidents.

At the same time, those who would revert to harsh authoritarian rule have to consider not only overwhelming democratic sentiments here but also the views of policymakers in Washington. Disillusionment with dictatorship in the U.S. was intrinsic in the fall of Chun Doo-Hwan after years of American support of quasi-dictatorial rule under Rhee Syngman, ousted in the student-led revolution of April 1960, and Park Chung-Hee, assassinated by his intelligence chief in October 1979.

Revolutionaries elsewhere need not fear a nuclear war perpetrated by zealots in the other “half” of their divided countries. Sukarno, once the hero of Indonesia’s independence movement, yielded to Suharto after the slaughter of communists on Java and Bali in 1967. Corruption and dictatorship were the rewards of the mobs I saw in Jakarta in late 1966 and 1967.

The widow Corazon Aquino in her emblematic yellow dress rose to the presidency of the Philippines after millions filled Epifanio de los Santos, aka Edsa, the avenue that runs by the sprawling police and army headquarters, defying Marcos at the end of 1985 and early 1986. And now what? The disease of corruption and authoritarianism cripples the armed forces of the Philippine and the civilian bureaucracy from national to local level.

Tiananmen? The demonstrators, building up for days around a mock Statue of Liberty, either disappeared on their own or were blown away when soldiers stormed the square and the streets around it. The memory of Tiananmen endures more as that of authoritarian repression than as a proud moment of democratic protest.

And Tahrir Square? Will the protesters carry the day and, if so, will democracy really ensue — or just more evidence of the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The examples of democratic protest over the past half century are not exactly edifying. But then again, are talks that go nowhere, under the muzzle of nuclear weaponry, while people shrug it all off as same-old, same-old really better? That’s not exactly a great alternative either.

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