[Column] Are we witnessing the zombification of Korea’s democracy?

Posted on : 2023-06-21 16:58 KST Modified on : 2023-06-21 16:58 KST
The ways in which the characteristic attitudes of a dictatorial state have been coming to the fore is an extremely troubling sign
Police forcibly break up a nighttime cultural festival for precarious workers held near the Supreme Court in Seoul’s Seocho District on June 9. (Yonhap)
Police forcibly break up a nighttime cultural festival for precarious workers held near the Supreme Court in Seoul’s Seocho District on June 9. (Yonhap)
By Shin Jin-wook, professor of sociology at Chung-Ang University

Investigation, audit, raid, detention, indictment, ban, restriction, punishment, crackdown, arrest — these are all words we’ve been encountering on a daily basis under the Yoon Suk-yeol administration.

With a copy of the legal code in one hand and a whip in the other, the state is now hard at work dividing the public into “law-abiding citizens” and “offenders” and punishing them accordingly. At root, this is a matter of a fundamental change in the relationship between the state and its public and the state’s attitude toward that public.

The repressive stance of the state is most starkly evident in its harsh treatment of workers. Even after the suicide of construction worker Yang Hoe-dong, the police went straight ahead with a raid on the labor union offices and union members’ homes.

The secretary-general of the Korean Metal Workers’ Union was left beaten and bloody as he was dragged down from an aerial protest to demand improvements in the treatment of subcontractor employees. A cultural festival for irregular worker groups was forcibly disbanded. Day after day, we’re seeing these sorts of acts of state violence happening on the front lines of labor.

The president and the ruling People Power Party (PPP) have also begun restricting the public’s freedom to collectively express opinion through assemblies and demonstrations.

While Yoon has repeatedly made remarks stressing the importance of “strict enforcement of the law,” the PPP has announced its intent to add new legal provisions banning nighttime demonstrations and providing exemptions for the use of police force to respond to assemblies and demonstrations.

This is a dangerous notion that will restrict public freedoms while encouraging the abuse of public authority — effectively sending the signal that it’s “OK to bust heads.”

Hazardous police equipment has also made a comeback.

Pepper sprayers using the eye irritant capsaicin had disappeared since the Park Geun-hye administration, following the death of farmer Baek Nam-ki, who was struck by a water cannon jet during a 2015 demonstration. Now Korea National Police Agency (KNPA) Commissioner General Yoon Hee-keun has brought them back, while also hinting at the possibility of bringing the spraying trucks back too.

The Constitutional Court previously found the spraying of water/lachrymatory agent mixtures unconstitutional in 2018, followed by the firing of water cannon jets directly at people in 2020. In both cases, it determined that these measures would cause serious harm to human lives and bodies, while violating their freedom of assembly.

The people in power now make it out as though they are reestablishing order after the Moon Jae-in administration’s “failure to enforce the law.” But they’re only contradicting themselves.

When Moon was in office, the people occupying central Seoul and shouting extreme slogans through large speakers every weekend were members of right-wing groups and the “Taegeukgi corps.”

The Yoon administration came to office by joining forces with those very groups. The more its members claim that the Moon administration was “too generous” in guaranteeing freedoms of assembly and demonstration, the more the current administration denies its own past.

The anachronistic nature of the Yoon administration becomes even more evident when we look at the shifting relationships between public authorities and citizens in other countries around the world.

Scholars who have researched states’ responses to citizens expressing their views through assemblies, demonstrations, signature campaigns, and other means have classified the different “traditions” observed in different countries. They include the “community policing” model in the UK, the “constitutional state” model in Germany and central European countries, the “dialogue policing” model in northern Europe, and the oppressive “royal police” models in France and Italy.

While there may be different traditions, the overall trend has been a decrease in state restrictions on civil liberties and a shift toward maximum guarantees of basic rights based on dialogue and negotiation. In response, citizens have come to focus more on communicating their messages to their society rather than clashing with the authorities.

In South Korea, the forms of citizen participation and the response from the authorities had been developing away from the repression/conflict model of the dictatorship era toward the kind of dialogue-based model seen in the advanced nations.

During the dictatorship era, the use of power was a means of crushing actions by citizens and workers that threatened the regime’s continuation and went against corporate interests. But many things have changed since the 2000s.

We’ve abolished the riot police and conscripted police systems through which young people were sacrificed as tools to perpetuate regimes. Gone is the “white skull corps” of police officers dressed in plain clothes to make arrests. Instead, we’ve introduced the concept of the “dialogue-oriented police” as a way of harmonizing freedom of assembly and demonstrations with the need to preserve public order.

The culture of assemblies and demonstrations has also shifted.

As recently as the Kim Young-sam administration, there were over 800 reported cases of illegal or violent actions per year. That number plummeted to below 100 under the Kim Dae-jung presidency and continued declining from there. With just 12 instances recorded in 2018, such practices have almost completely disappeared.

As this shows, the relationship between the state and the public in South Korea has been making positive strides toward the sort of model seen in advanced countries. This isn’t a trend associated with any particular party in power — it’s been a basic direction that all administrations have supported in broader terms.

Now the Yoon Suk-yeol administration is sweeping that entire history away and returning to a dictatorship-era concept of the state: one that recklessly does harm to the public’s freedom and to individual persons, showing no restraint in the exercise of official power.

South Korea’s current political system cannot be characterized as a dictatorship right now. But the ways in which the characteristic attitudes of a dictatorial state have been coming to the fore is an extremely troubling sign.

If things continue backsliding, we could find ourselves devolving into a “zombie democracy” where the lifeblood of freedom has disappeared, leaving only the hollow symbols of elections. That sort of thing would spell the death of hope and the destruction of our future.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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