Still the Unloved Republic
B.R. Myers

On a website called Sino-NK, Steven Denney, who in 2013 called South Korea a “nation that trusts the state,” has described an East Asia Institute study as “further evidence that South Korea is not the Unloved Republic.” Since his article makes no mention of the Choi scandal, I assume it was written quite a bit earlier than October 28, when it was posted.

The evidence adduced hardly justifies such a rosy conclusion. Apart from the fact that the EAI leans conservative, and thus has an incentive to constate a rise in patriotism under Saenuri rule, its studies have so far indicated that pride in Korea derives largely from such things as K-Pop’s standing overseas, the success of Korean athletes and exporters, and so on.

If we have learned anything from Trump’s victory, it’s that “expert” surveys should not keep us from drawing our own conclusions from what we see and hear around us every day. Has the Republic of Korea ever been more obviously unloved than in this year of “Hell Chosun”? Has the constitution ever been regarded by more South Koreans as an anti-democratic force, an obstacle in the way of the sŏngnan minsim, the Angry Popular Mood? If I may be allowed an anecdotal point: Never have so many of my students expressed a wish to emigrate after graduation.

Although Denney calls me a polemicist, his take on this matter is the contrarian one. The section of my published paper on “North Korea’s State Loyalty Advantage” (2011) in which I referred to South Korea as the “unloved republic” accords with a long-held consensus in political discussion here. Left and right agree that the ROK does not elicit as much loyalty from citizens as most other democratic states do.

That’s where their agreement ends, of course. The left sees the problem in the illegitimacy of a republic whose premature establishment cemented national division, and which compounded that sin by neglecting to “purge” former pro-Japanese elements. Any official efforts to counter the general lack of state spirit are vigorously opposed on the left as signs of state-chauvinism or kukkajuŭi. Hence the campaign against standardized history textbooks, a campaign which many Koreanists in the West (who are oh-so-quiet about the scandal in their own ranks) felt they had the moral authority to support with a petition.

On the South Korean right, on the other hand, the lack of patriotism (as opposed to nationalism) is chalked up to brainwashing by “North-obeying” (chongbuk) educators and journalists. In my opinion Syngman Rhee and Park Chung Hee deserve more of the blame; in the republic’s formative decades they let demonization of Kim Il Sung take the place of state-building. I like reminding conservatives that it was Roh Moo Hyun who inserted mention of the Taehan minguk into a pledge to the flag that had hitherto demanded loyalty only to the race and homeland. And it was under Lee Myung Bak that people had to start going to work on Constitution Day, meaning that the ROK no longer has a true republican holiday in the calendar.

When reading poll results about patriotism, one must keep in mind the vagueness of the name Taehan minguk. In English it is translated as Republic of Korea or South Korea, names which to us foreigners denote the state as a political entity distinct from its northern neighbor. To most people here, however, Taehan minguk conveys that sense only when used in contrastive proximity with the word Pukhan (North Korea).

Ask South Koreans when the Taehan minguk was established; more will answer “5000 years ago” than “in 1948,” because to them it is simply the full name for Hanguk, Korea, the homeland. That’s all it meant to most people who shouted those four syllables so proudly during the World Cup in 2002. (The North’s killing of six ROK sailors that same month was generally ignored.) The majority of South Korean elementary schoolchildren who recently said they would choose to be born again in the Taehan minguk explained their answer with reference either to its long history and beautiful traditions or to its climate and scenery. Only 23% of those who gave that answer did so “because it is a free and democratic state” (kukka). I suspect that’s more than would have given such an explanation ten years ago, but it’s still less than one in five (19.8%) of the total of children polled.

Use of the terms minjokchuŭi (nationalism) and minjok (nation) is also a complex affair. Despite its constant Japan-bashing and prioritization of ethnic grievance over state security, the South Korean left tends to use the word nationalism as a pejorative — especially in discussion of multiculturalism, of which it approves. Someone who is asked by a pollster whether he is prouder of the Taehan minguk or of the minjok therefore knows which answer is better, more progressive-sounding. In all likelihood he is not prouder of the republic than of his Koreanness. One should be wary of polls on this issue that were not conducted precisely and clearly.

Having learned nothing from the Arab Spring, Western media still take it for granted that peaceful street demonstrations must be liberal-democratic in inspiration. Journalists covering the current crisis in South Korea would do well to pay more attention (as Michael Breen has done) to the ochlocratic nature of much of the sloganeering: “the people are above the constitution,” and so on.

Americans saw Watergate as a threat to their republic. They countered by following constitutional and legal procedure to the letter. In Korea, many people appear unwilling to separate the political system from the wrongdoings of politicians. There has thus been a further deterioration of basic standards of civility in National Assembly hearings; indifference, in discussion of Park Geun-hye’s wrongdoing, to the distinction between the illegal and the inappropriate; and growing talk of the need to reverse decisions made by all branches of government during her presidency. That includes calls to overturn the convictions that put Lee Seok-ki and Han Myeong-suk in prison.

This is not to imply that Park’s die-hard supporters have any more state spirit than most of her detractors; if they did, they wouldn’t still think she has done nothing to warrant impeachment. No one who respects the  constitution and the rule of law would shrug off the charges against her the way these people do. As with the left’s defense of Han Myeong-suk, to say nothing of its beatification of Roh Moo Hyun, there is a general sense here that while corruption is always regrettable, it’s scandalous only when the other side is involved. A lot of state-building remains to be done.