Last week I received a surprise photo from my mother, now in her mid-70s, of an uncle whom I had not seen in many years. The picture showed him proudly posing as a participant in one of the recent “Taegukgi rallies” against President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment, this one in Seoul Plaza.
Several things about the picture immediately stood out. First, the backdrop featured the old City Hall building, built by the Japanese colonial government in the early 20th century and thereafter used, until recently, as the Seoul Metropolitan Government’s headquarters.
Second, amid the sea of South Korean flags (Taegukgi) were, of all things, some American flags. Although the Stars and Stripes has appeared often in conservative protests over the years, it was usually to commemorate the Korean War or in support of a position involving the United States in some way.
The American flag’s unfurling these days, in rallies that fiercely contest Park Geun-hye’s impeachment, seems more difficult to fathom. But it also makes sense, as I explain below.
Finally, what struck me about this photo was that it showed my uncle with black hair, although he is now approaching 80 years of age. Indeed, the pictures of these Taegukgi rallies usually show the participants’ hair, when not covered by hats, as almost all dark. Only more close-up photos of their faces confirm that these demonstrators overwhelmingly are senior citizens.
This seems highly symbolic: As if to deny that time has indeed passed, these determined protesters are somewhat stuck in the past, and not only by keeping up their hair-dyeing routine. Whether one hears them in news interviews or speaks to them personally, one cannot help feeling that they are gripped by a fixed view from the days of authoritarianism and colonization.
Colonization here refers not only to the period of Japanese rule, but also to the domination of the United States in South Korea in the decades after liberation. In this system, America served as a model of advancement and source of aid, but also as a global patron of South Korea’s developmentalist dictatorship.
To these elderly citizens today, the U.S. stands first and foremost as the nation’s savior in the Korean War, when the American-led U.N. forces helped South Korea escape conquest by the communists. Thereafter in the 1960s, when the United States requested military support from President Park Chung-hee’s government for the anti-communist side in the Vietnam War, tens of thousands of South Korean troops were sent to Southeast Asia.
My uncle was one of them, and to him and probably the majority of those in his generation, the experience cemented the bond between the United States, anti-communism, South Korea’s economic growth out of poverty and Park Chung-hee. Park had integrated these components into his program for modernization and for the legitimization of his rule, which in the 1970s turned iron-fisted to keep the people in line in the name of industrialization and the struggle against North Korea.
The stunning ease by which some older South Koreans today continue to label any political opponent ― or any (younger) person who seems a dissenter in their stark black-and-white moral universe ― as “ppalgaengi,” or “commie,” is a disturbing reminder of the power of anti-communist ideology from earlier times.
Such a sentiment also drove many elderly Koreans to attach themselves to Park’s daughter when she re-entered national politics in the early 2000s. To them, no amount of evidence to the contrary can shake their faith in Park Geun-hye’s inherent goodness, based on their image of her father and their frozen perspective about what is ultimately at stake: no less than the fate of the country that they, the true patriots, have built with their hard work and sacrifice.
The frenzy with which some of these Taegukgi demonstrators have applied their colonized worldview further testifies to the continuing hold of the authoritarian past, when the threat of physical force and blind subservience to a strong leader seemed the norm. Such behavior includes the shockingly prominent display, along with the South Korean and American flags, of signs in these rallies that say, “Martial law is the only solution,” or “If it’s commies, killing them is fine,” in reference to their political opponents. The readiness to turn to heavy-handed, violent methods, straight from the dictatorship period, also appears in the menacing protests, with even weapons in hand, in front of the private homes of constitutional court justices and of the independent prosecutor investigating the Park scandal.
It is as if the political liberalization and democratization over the preceding three decades, when the rule of law and peaceful tolerance for opposition were supposed to have increased, had never happened. Or more accurately, it is as if the changes were too fast and jarring for mindsets that had been powerfully molded by the country’s turbulent past, during which lives were shaped by more immediate concerns of survival amid foreign intervention, war, poverty and other forms of unrest.
This is why, as much as we need to rebuke those who employ violence and intimidation in these Taegukgi rallies, I am also inclined to view these South Koreans, who include my own family members, with sympathy. They, too, are victims of the past, even if they see themselves as victims of the present.
Kyung Moon Hwang is a professor in the Departments of History and East Asian Languages and Cultures, at the University of Southern California. He is the author of “A History of Korea — An Episodic Narrative”(Palgrave Macmillan, 2010; second edition, 2016).