우물 안 개구리

5/18/2012

Diaspora And Diplomatic Communities Memorialize Conflict

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 4:47 pm Print

A memorial plaque was dedicated in a park in Palisades Park, New Jersey in 2010 which reads

In Memory
of the more than 200,000
women and girls who were
abducted by the armed forces of
the government of Imperial Japan
1930′s-1945
known as “comfort women,”
they endured human rights
violations that no peoples should
leave unrecognized.
Let us never forget the horrors
of crimes against humanity.

Two things struck me about this article from the NY Times. The first is in the headline: “New Jersey Town’s Korean Monument Irritates Japanese Officials.” There have apparently been two official attempts to convince Palisades Park to remove the monument, presenting two very different approaches. The first emphasized Japan’s past apologies and attempts to stage reparations as justification for de-emphasizing the sexual servitude issue:
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2/7/2011

Police Torture in Egypt and 1987 Korea

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 1:08 am Print

Historical comparisons can open up new exciting ways of understanding events that have become trapped by a dominant narrative, or proposing solutions to pressing current issues. We do, however, have to be very careful when we juxtapose highly distinct clusters of events. As I have watched things in Egypt unfold (I emerged from my own research having missed Tunisia) the democracy movement in South Korea has constantly been on my mind, but some connections are more helpful than others. If forced to connect the dots, Jo Gap-je’s linking Jeon Du-hwan (전두환) with Mubarak and No Tae-u (노태우) with vice president Omar Suleiman playing a transitional role is easy to make but the comparison is deeply problematic in both descriptive and normative terms. Nor is a making a connection between the Muslim Brotherhood and Korean Christians useful in understanding the roles either played in protests.1

There are a whole number of questions, both small and large, we could ask about Egypt now and Korea in the late 1980s that might help us both better tackle general phenomena as well as understand the two historical moments in their own right. What is the role of the politics of self-immolation?2 How important is the symbolic power of specific physical spaces such as Tahrir square or Myeongdong cathedral? How do we evaluate the rapidly changing and internally divided US policies towards its authoritarian allies? How important are highly organized movements in these moments? How is middle class support gained in each case? In this posting I wish to explore another one of the issues where I think there are deep parallels between the Egyptian January 25 uprising and the momentous spring of 1987 in Korea: the role of police torture and brutality.

The Most Serious Eventuality

A CIA report from April, 1980, included this observation in its evaluation of the potential for unrest in South Korea:

Should a bloody confrontation develop, the most serious eventuality would be the death of a student at the hands of the police or military. Government officials are all too aware that it was the police killing of a high school student in Masan in 1960 that provided the student movement with a martyr, solidifying student opposition to the Rhee government, which led to Rhee’s eventual downfall.

Only a few weeks later a popular uprising in Gwangju was met with massacre, and followed by several years of renewed state oppression. The first fatality at the hand of paratroopers in the city, Kim Gyeong-cheol, contributed to an explosion in support for the protests.

The death of protesters would time and time again provide such martyrs. Byron Engle, who helped retrain police in US occupied Japan after World War II and for decades led controversial US training programs for police around the world, advised departments against using bayonets in riot control (advice apparently not heard by soldiers in Gwangju). His reason for wanting to remove these fixed knives from crowd control was more cynical. It was too easy, he argued, for a Marxist agitator to “push a demonstrator onto one” and thereby gain an instant martyr for the cause.3

Police torture and brutality tends to simmer for much longer. It is notoriously difficult to prove, especially when police use techniques that leave little mark.4 It is also double sided. Police torture can be a powerful weapon of intimidation by an authoritarian regime. It is not only used to extract confessions or reveal information; in both in Egypt and in South Korea it has been deployed as a form of punishment and to spread fear among those who challenge the state. Suspects might not even be processed, but instead given a thorough beating for a few hours or days and then released.5 To generate this deterrent fear impact, it need not be used in all or even a majority of cases, thus promoting deniability.

However, if the timing and circumstances are right, revelations about just one or a few cases of brutal torture at the hands of the police, especially if it results in the death of a prisoner, can have an effect that is arguably more powerful and long lasting than the death of a single or several protesters. Since these actions take place away from the chaotic and violent interactions on the front lines of a political demonstration, they cannot be dismissed as tragic accidents, but come to serve as a symbol of the systemic failures of the regime. Since revelations of police torture and brutality are often accompanied with shocking details of attempts to cover-up the brutality, they become a bitter cocktail of violence and corruption waiting to be set on fire.

One of the most famous Korean examples of this can be found leading up to the mass protests of June 1987: the torture and killing of Pak Jong-cheol. Before his death in January, the nation was already following another case throughout the previous year. The first woman to step forward and bring suit in accusations of police sexual torture, Kwon In-suk, had an especially powerful impact on the mobilization of women but was accused by the government of being a lying Communist sympathizer and cruelly humiliated in the censored press.6 In the tense January days that followed Jeon Du-hwan’s 1987 New Year’s policy message and tense debates on constitutional reforms, news emerged of the death in police custody of Seoul National University student Pak Jong-cheol (박종철 Pak Jung Chul). Officials announced he had fainted during questioning and died of “shock” but relatives who attended the autopsy immediately made accusations of torture. Anger and sympathy grew quickly, especially after memorial protests for Pak were held on February 7th and details of his water torture and the police cover-up emerged in May, leading directly to the resignation of the Prime Minister at the time, No Sin-yeong.

The outrage over the killing of Pak Jong-cheol went well beyond those already in the protests and sparked sympathy for the students throughout society, especially among parents. It also helped to mobilize students who had stubbornly refused to join the protests, including one Korean friend of mine who had up to then, “only smelled tear gas when it came through the windows of my classroom.” Another activist remembers the impact of the revelations about the Pak case, “From that moment on, I knew I could not live a normal life like getting married and having kids”7

Pak Jong-cheol Memorial
Students holding Pak Jong-cheol’s Picture

Worldwithouttorture
“I want to live in a country without torture”
From Pak Jong-cheol Memorial Protests 1987.2.7
See more pictures from the event here.

Since democracy movements are highly complex events, with a multitude of causes, actors, negotiations, and political changes, a case like the torture and killing of Pak Jong-cheol also provides a convenient marker for use in more compact historical narratives. For example, two 2008 Korean history textbooks for high school students I picked up last time I was in Korea note the importance of the Pak torture case (one with a photo) on their single page of coverage of the 1987 June democracy movement.8

We Are All Khaled Said

I couldn’t help thinking of Pak Jong-cheol when I first heard about the organization, “We Are All Khaled Said” (Arabic) in Egypt. A loose network of activists that formed in mid-2010 after the brutal beating and killing of Khaled Mohamed Saeed by Egyptian police, judged by its (Arabic) Facebook support alone, the group was already the largest human rights organization in Egypt many months before the January 25th uprising. Saeed was beaten to death before he even reached the station, leaving a number of witnesses, and a horrifying photograph that made laughable police claims of an accidental death caused by choking on swallowed drugs.

We Are All Khaled Said began as an organization dedicated to opposing the rampant police torture that has been attacked by Human Rights Watch and in US Department of State human rights reports, though the US has been known to make use of their skills. The organization also collected video clips of Egyptian police torture and organized protests.

Jan 25 RevolutionAs I understand it, following the revolution in Tunisia We are All Khaled Said shifted into new gear, and cooperated closely with other older political organizations such as the April 6 Youth Movement that had experience in mobilizing workers and an emphasis on economic issues. These groups decided to combine their forces and on or around January 15th settled upon the date of January 25th for the beginning of a nationwide uprising. Of these organizations, We are All Khaled Said was the largest and, according to Freedom House researcher Sherif Mansour, “promoted the [initial] event widely and managed to get it to over one million people. They also were the central location for organization, instruction, sharing information and sharing materials could be printed out and distributed by hand.” The Facebook wall postings and event announcements on their site from the time already began to embrace a wider set of issues: unemployment, dictatorship, oppression and fear under the emergency law, and the stagnant economy.9 However, the day chosen was not random: it was Egypt’s annual Police Day – celebrating the police as nationalist heroes by remembering a moment decades ago when their officers stood up against the English colonial oppressor.10 In Youtube clips (2011.1.20, 2010.1.22) posted by the coalition and spread widely on Facebook and twitter, it was the theme of police torture that was most emphasized. One of the videos transitions from patriotic clips of the police fighting the English to scenes of police beatings.

There was no guarantee that Jan 25 would become what it did. Even before the internet was shut down in Egypt, the movement was already an organic force of its own, driven by deep structural circumstances that have been building for years. The protester victories of those first days were in a war fought directly with a clearly despised police force and their triumph was made visible to the world as the Egyptian interior ministry forces almost completely melted away. Torture in their hands, alas, has continued up to day I write this posting. New York times reporters who were detained on Friday were not themselves hurt, but during their short stay, they could hear the sounds of tortured detainees in cells nearby.

As we continue to watch developments in Egypt and calls for a calm and smooth transitional regime, I hope no one will forget that while this takes place, the repressive institution that continues to hold thousands of protesters will be free to continue its practices, especially under a vice president who is no champion against police torture.

Even when there is a clear and unambiguous message sent to police that torture will not be tolerated under any circumstances, it takes years to reform an institution of that size, even without a process of reconciliation or retribution against torturers. That work needs to begin now.

  1. The Korean government did not, for example, frighten its US ally with ominous reports of Christian terrorists waiting in the wings. Beck’s short article can be found with slight modifications half a dozen places online. It mentions a spring 1987 election in the posting, but think this is an error. []
  2. Readers in Boston interested in this might be interested in attending an upcoming Harvard Korea Institute talk by Professor Kim Sun-Chul, on “The Politics of Self-Immolation in South Korea, 1990-2010” I am certainly looking forward to it. []
  3. A. J. Langguth Hidden Terrors (Pantheon Books, 1978), 54. []
  4. Judging from video clips, Egyptian police, for example, apparently like to engage in heavy slapping at the base of the neck or upper back as one of their milder forms of brutality. Does anyone know if this has some cultural significance or is done due to the ratio between pain caused and marks left behind? Also see the powerful arguments on rise of hidden tortures in Darius Rejali, Torture and Democracy (Princeton University Press, 2009) []
  5. On the Korea side, see Jerome A. Cohen and Edward J. Baker “U.S. Foreign Policy and Human Rights in South Korea” in William Shaw, Human rights in Korea: historical and policy perspectives (Harvard Univ Asia Center, 1991), 180. []
  6. The importance of the Kwon case goes beyond the democratization issue and is seen as pivotal in changing Korean views on sexual violence. Chilla Bulbeck, Sex, love and feminism in the Asia Pacific: a cross-cultural study of young people’s attitudes (Taylor & Francis US, 2009), 78. Also Ueno Chizuko argues that the Kwon case was important in motivating former ‘comfort women’ to step forward in the years that followed. Chizuko Ueno and Beverley Yamamoto, Nationalism and gender (Trans Pacific Press, 2004), 71. []
  7. Mi Park, Democracy and social change: a history of South Korean student movements, 1980-2000 (Peter Lang, 2008), 127. When the Korean democracy movement reached a dramatic climax in June 1987, the anger over the martyrdom of Pak was compounded by the ultimately fatal injury of Yonsei student Lee Han-yeol by a direct hit from a tear gas canister on June 9, yielding a photograph that has become one of the most famous in recent Korean history. Both of these cases are important and the Lee Han-yeol image especially can be found invoked by many protest movements in Korea since. []
  8. 김흥수 et al 고등 학교 한국 근 현대사 (천제교육 2008 5th edition, 304 and 한철호 et al 고등 학교 한국 근 현대사 2008 6th edition, 277. Interestingly, neither textbooks mention the death of Lee Han-yeol. []
  9. Here is one of the January 15th calls (screenshot) on Facebook for the January 25th protest. I’m only able to get a general gist through Google translation. []
  10. Korea also has its own annual Police Day on October 21, 경찰의 날. Does anyone know if there were ever a protest movement in Korea which chose the day to protest police torture and brutality? []

7/14/2009

Korean War in art

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 7:27 pm Print

"Crimson Harvest" by Gobau
Japan Focus has an article detailing and displaying Gobau’s Korean War art which has a plethora of arresting images. Gobau worked from the Republic of Korea side: North Korean forces are not shown in a good light, but South Korean forces don’t get a pass on their purportedly anti-communist atrocities.

5/11/2009

“Prosthetic Memories”

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 10:10 am Print

Seungsook Moon at Japan Focus has an interesting historiographical essay about the contested life and legacy of Park Chung Hee, who led Korea through the 60s and 70s. The debate is particularly interesting because it parallels discourses which are ongoing in other post-dictatorial societies, including the debates about Stalin in Russia, Mao and Deng in China, Chiang Kaishek in Taiwan, etc. The history itself is fascinating, though I do wish Moon had spent a little more effort mediating some of the factual basis for the competing narratives.

3/20/2009

Dokdo is Korean for “Fifty-Four Forty or Fight!”

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 8:57 pm Print

Apparently inspired by the success of other international publicity campaigns around disputed lands — Tibetan independence, Pakistani claims to Kashmir, the Golan Heights, etc. — some Korean business owners in New York are trying to raise the profile of the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute by publicizing it in English on dry cleaning bags.

This is part of a larger push to broaden Korean diaspora engagement with the homeland and leverage overseas success into diplomatic weight. This includes trying to instill a sense of the importance of the Dokdo issue — as Koreans see it — into second and third generation Korean Americans. I’m not sure what the benefit is to tying Korean American identity to a post-colonial maritime resource dispute instead of … well, almost anything from the panoply of Korean history and culture seems like it would be more likely to succeed in the long term and have greater benefits.

Speaking of generations, the North-South separation has had linguistic consequences over the years. Most of the examples given seem to be in the political realm, terms which have taken on specific meanings within the Kim-cult/juche system. After decades of living in a more or less permanent state of political terror, I would imagine that most North Koreans would be very careful, precise with their language. The culture shock for individual defectors is already pretty severe; the culture shock of reunification in Germany was substantial, though the political system in East Germany was never as thoroughly totalitarian, information was never as tightly controlled.

8/15/2007

Comfort Women at the Japanese Embassy

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 8:39 am Print

A huge number of buses lined the central street that leads up to Kwanghwamun gate (which is no longer there, since it has been deemed a worthwhile expenditure to tear down and move the gate a few meters away from its current “incorrect” position). I have never seen so many of the ubiquitous police buses (there are usually a few dozen every weekend but today I lost count), almost all of which had their engines running, filling the air full of noxious exhaust. Hundreds of idle police officers wandered about. They were ready for protesters.

DSCF1632.JPG

The protest they probably were not very worried about was the hundred or so elementary school children, comfort women, and other supporters who were protesting near the Japanese embassy this afternoon. The children danced in circles holding hands with a few exhausted looking former comfort women while performers sang some beautiful traditional sounding songs and led the children in chants demanding that the Japanese government give justice to the comfort women. A significant percentage of the participants were journalists snapping pictures and filming clips from angles which concealed the small turnout.

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It was a jolly affair and one of the songs sung was beautifully performed. However, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the former comfort women who were dragged around by children and adults alike like participants of some kind of public spectacle.

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I’m sure well they will sleep soundly after a tiring day with the crowds. I’m sure the representatives of the Japanese government will sleep equally soundly, protected from protesters by a few blocking police buses placed near their back-street embassy location.

6/11/2007

The June struggle in the British newspapers

Filed under: — Owen @ 8:22 pm Print

Over at my own blog I’ve decided to mark the anniversary of the events of June 1987 in South Korea by following contemporary reports from the British newspapers on a day-by-day basis. Twenty years ago today, the real action of the June events was getting under way with serious violence on the streets of central Seoul, and the famous siege of Myŏngdong Cathedral began.

Personally I find something exciting about looking back at an event that happened within my memory (at least I have vague memories of the TV news reports) and seeing it as ‘history’. It is also interesting to see how perceptions of the event here and in Korea may have changed since the correspondents first filed their reports from the scene.

All the posts will be accessible from this link.

Meanwhile, at Japan Focus, Paik Nak-chung has an article on the June Struggle and its legacy.

4/1/2007

Unity is Almost Always a Myth

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 3:53 pm Print

In an otherwise interesting discussion of North Korean defector readjustment and North-South relations in the Washington Post, Samuel Songhoon Lee drops this

In South Korea, a country that withstood centuries of invasions from its Chinese and Japanese neighbors, unity defines survival. And without ethnic diversity or a history of immigration, unity means conformity. When something becomes fashionable here, it can have significant consequences. For example, South Korea has the world’s highest ratio of cosmetic surgeons to citizens, catering to the legions of girls who receive eyelid surgery as a present for their 16th birthday. … The lack of diversity at school makes the young defectors instant standouts — subject to 15 minutes of fame and adulation, then an enduring period of isolation. When their peers ask about their accent — noticeably different from what’s common in Seoul — most students say they’re from Gangwon Province, in the northeastern part of the country.

My second reaction was to note the self-contradictory nature of the paragraph: if conformity is so ubiquitous and nationalized, how can strong regional accents survive? In fact, this is something which I’ve noted with regard to Japan as well: to a large extent, parochialism and immobility (geographic and class) mask diversity because most people don’t experience it within their own society. There’s another factor which is similar between Japan and South Korea: the domination of the media by media created within a single mega-urban community, which tends to assume its own experience and views as “normal.”

But it’s the historical early section which piqued my interest in the first place, of course. Maybe it’s just a word choice thing, but I’d be much more comfortable with the idea that Korea “endured” invasions than “withstood”: the latter implies that they successfully resisted. They didn’t repel the Mongols: they waited until that empire had collapsed elsewhere before rising in revolt. They didn’t repel the Japanese in the 1590s without considerable assistance from China. They were in no condition to repel the Qing, thanks to the Japanese, though they retained their independence. They didn’t repel the Japanese in the modern period at all, though they enlisted the aid of their largest, most powerful neighbors. In one sense — the continued existence of an entity which eventually became the modern Korean states — the term “withstood” is tolerable, but it still implies that Korea was largely unchanged by the experiences, and that wasn’t really true, either.

Then there’s the “unity defines survival” question: for most of Korea’s history there was a pretty sharp divide between aristocratic and commoner, as well as pretty significant unfree populations. I suppose you could argue that it was the unity of Korean elites which defined the cultural survival of Korea, but that still requires believing in some essential element persisting and also that Korean elites were actually unified, which seems quite questionable, especially in periods like the Koryo.

Finally, there’s “unity means conformity” which just makes my skin crawl. I’ll freely admit that it’s an American bias, but it also seems a long way to me from fashion conformity (which is fleeting and faddish) to national unity (which ought to be enduring and based on some kind of fundamental principles). The concept of the nation as sharing culture usually refers to an historical tradition; the idea of the nation as people who share fads is a significant degradation of an already questionable concept.

Addendum: The author of the Post article contact me, as he has everyone who’s blogged about his article, to alert us to a problem, namely that he’d neglected to use pseudonyms and alter identifying information for his students. This raises safety issues for their family members who are still in North Korea, and consequently he is asking that anyone who blogs about the article be careful to avoid identifying his students.

3/26/2007

Remixing Tagore

Filed under: — Owen @ 8:15 am Print

This story in the Korea Times about Rabrindranath Tagore’s poem ‘The Lamp of the East’ caught my eye. In the South Korean nationalist imagination this poem has a remarkably important position as a sort of ‘external legitimator’ for Korean independence. But according to the KT, the version that appears in many of the nation’s high school textbooks has, shall we say, been remixed and enhanced:

…the poem titled “The Lamp of the East” seems to have been over glorified to the point where it has taken on a life of its own, spawning hundreds of different versions with stronger words and longer passages to boost nationalistic sentiment.

More specifically, it seems that an unrelated passage has been taken from Tagore’s poetry collection Gitanjali and added to his original poem about Korea published in the Dong-A Ilbo newspaper in 1929:

“The version of the poem that combines excerpts from Gitanjali has been widely spread for a long time and it is often mentioned by politicians and even newspaper columnists. There are even some literary schoolbooks that list the variation as the original version of `The Lamp of the East,”’ a high school history teacher in Seoul, who asked not to be named, said.

According the Wikipedia article about him, Tagore himself was not exactly the model independence fighter and was almost killed by Indian expatriates while staying in San Francisco in 1916 because of his apparent lack of devotion to the cause of Indian independence. In fact, from a strictly nationalist point of view you could say that he sounds a bit like Yi Kwangsu – a mixture of the good and the dubious. Interestingly enough the very comprehensive article doesn’t mention Korea once, so it would seem that the significance of Tagore for Koreans is not necessarily matched by the significance of Korea to Tagore and his legacy. Actually, one wonders whether it was in fact the strong impression made by the Koreans that Tagore met in Tokyo (Dong-A bureau chief Yi T’aero and poet Chu Yohan) in 1929 that moved him to write his famous-in-Korea poem as much as his feelings about a country he was never able to visit.

There are many fascinating aspects to this literary-historical episode: the creation of historical memory and national identity; the fundamentally non-self-contained nature of nationalism and its need for external legitimation; and questions concerning the malleability and authenticity of a literary text (especially when in translation). But perhaps what intrigues me most of all, is who actually came up with the idea of remixing Tagore’s poem in the first place, and why did they feel the need to do so.

In case people are interested, I’ve transcribed below the original text (with original han’gul spellings and hanja preserved – the jpeg was not too clear so I hope I’ve rendered the spellings correctly) of Chu Yohan’s translation of Tagore’s poem that appears in the picture of the Dong-A article provided by the Korea Times:

일즉이 亞細亞의 黃金時期에
빗나든 燈燭의 하나인 朝鮮
그 燈불 한번다시 켜지는 날에
너는 東方의 밝은 비치 되리라

English original:

In the golden age of Asia
Korea was one of its lamp-bearers
And that lamp is waiting to be lighted once again
For the illumination in the East.

For the sake of comparison, the extra 11 lines added from Gitanjali song 35 and included in the version of the poem known to many Koreans are below the fold.
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7/19/2006

Feuding clans

Filed under: — Owen @ 7:28 pm Print

There is a fascinating article in today’s International Herald Tribune on Korean family grave sites, feng shui and the long-running feud between the Yoon and Shim clans. Recommended reading with an interesting twist in the tale for people who are interested in the whole issue of what constitutes history, tradition, heritage etc and what preserving these things actually means. Here’s a taster:

In ancient Korea, grave site disputes were the most common cause of lawsuits. Among those disputes, the Shim- Yoon quarrel is the most famous unresolved case, partly because it involved families that each produced several queens and numerous ministers at the royal court.

Yoon Gwan, who expanded Korea’s northern territories, died in 1111 and was buried in this hill. But the tomb was lost as continuous wars ravaged the country and his family’s power declined. When Shim Ji Won, the prime minister, died in 1662, his family buried him in the same hill.

The feud erupted in the mid-18th century when the Yoon clan, with its influence on the rise again, rediscovered the general’s grave – as it turned out, only meters downhill from Shim’s.

Petitions and clashes followed. King Young Jo presided over a hearing in 1764 and ordered the clans to respect the two graves as they were. But the families continued to bicker, vandalizing each other’s tombs, and the irate king punished the 70-year-old patriarchs of the rival factions by flogging and exiling them. One of them, a Yoon, died from the effects of the beating. Animosity only deepened.

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