Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Korean democracy and its silent death

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By David A. Tizzard


Today’s young people are incredibly opinionated. They have a whole range of views on gender, nursing strikes, Park Chung-hee, China, Japan, and much much more. What’s interesting is that when you take the time to talk to the young people of Korea, you find that their answers are varied, complex, and defy easy categorization. There is a huge silent majority out there, young adults who vote, study, work part-time jobs, and pay taxes. And yet, you will likely never hear from them.

You won’t hear from them because anyone who doesn’t fit into an easily defined box, anyone who doesn’t represent an existing caricature created by the media to reinforce a political divide and hegemonic control will be ignored. It’s far easier to view all women as feminists, all men as incels, all conservatives as queer-hating bigots, and all democrats as Pyongyang and Beijing sycophants.

But if only the world were that easy. That black and white. Of course it is to people who hold such positions themselves, but for the rest of us who deal in ambiguity and complexity, media appears to be fleeing further and further from our grasp. It has been said that painters who cannot paint gray should not paint. If only the same were true of what we read and watch online.

Paint me a picture

Every journalist that I speak to wants to write stories about women choosing not to have kids. They want to write about those who don’t have a job and are unhappy. I see reporters online asking to speak to people who fit a certain narrative they have already chosen. They are not going out and interviewing random people on the street. Instead they are looking for people who match the story they have already decided to write. A story they are personally attached to. And, perhaps more importantly, one that they believe will give them the most traction online and thus increase their reputation and financial benefits. I’ve seen lots of journalists lose their jobs recently and I feel for them. I am grateful my livelihood is not dependent on these columns because I’m not completely sure I would be able to write the truth every time if my mortgage or rent was on the line.

And so the narratives people write are ones that fit our preexisting notions of Korea as an orientalist dystopia being dragged into the mud by the latest leader struggling to conceal their fascist tendencies. Those writing the stories and those commenting on them are those who are most opinionated, extroverted, and either extremely progressive or conservative. The communist commentators, gripped by a nostalgia for a lost cause, lament our current modernity and progress. Their anger taken out on others and passed on to the next generation. The conservatives rage at anything that’s not in the Bible or from the Yushin Restoration.

That’s why Korea in the media seems to be gripped by a terrible gender war, where everyone’s depressed, and every single person under the age of 30 has forgone having kids. Where every woman hates the conservative party and every “progressive” hates Japan. We also see each newspaper open up at a K-pop section and feature column after column about the latest idol products from an entertainment company containing hyper-sexualized boys or girls living a remarkedly boring and controlled life simply because they think it will generate the most clicks online. Judging by some of the reactions, I think they chose the wrong option.

And then you actually talk to people. Or rather, you listen to them speak.

The fear of democracy

I’ve never lived in a non-democracy. But many in Korea have. There was a time not too long ago when the wrong political opinion could have you not only fearing for your livelihood but also possibly dragged off to Namsam for some “re-education,” a euphemism for torture and, sometimes, worse. The media was heavily censored, excessive nationalism was rife in the newspapers, and education focused on presenting grand narratives that brooked no dissent. You could forgive people for not wanting to speak out in such positions. At the same time, you applaud the bravery and courage of those who did speak up when it was necessary.

Now, however, there are no punishments in Korea for having an opinion on certain things. You can say this or that policy is a load of nonsense. You can lambast the leaders online. And you can meet with whomever you want and read any books you please. But despite this recently hard-earned freedom, a gift that previous generations could at times only of dreamed of, some young people today are scared to talk. Politics is dangerous. Social media is a landmine. Brutal criticism is everywhere.

It’s a psychological prison the youth face today. They have opinions but the media is so polarized it’s hard to know where to stand. How do you say that you think aligning with Japan is a good idea, that shutting down the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family is misguided, that the country needs more doctors, and North Korea’s human rights problems are serious? Does that make you conservative or progressive? Red or blue? And how do you talk about history? How can you say that Park Chung-hee was a dictator who oppressed people’s rights but at the same helped drag the country out of poverty and start catapulting it towards the success it sees today? How can you say that you support women’s rights and want better gender equality but also want to have kids and raise them as a mother?

Confused kids

I think the younger generation of Korea are incredibly bright. They have been dealt a hand that’s both beautiful and disastrous at the same time. They have more personal freedoms, safety and technology than their parents, more access to a world of culture, food and experiences; but at the same time, they will struggle to own a house, and have to deal with existential struggles and ennui resulting from the perpetual present of post-modernity as our past and future recede.

They also realize that the world is complex and gray. That even though they might thing X, they also sometimes think Y should happen. That existing hegemonic political divisions in Korea, created during the Cold War and now recreated across gender and political lines by social media platforms, leave them with little voice. They didn’t want to vote for Yoon or Lee in the last election but that was all they believe they were given. It’s a familiar story in many countries where the political elites fail to represent a meaningful proportion of the population. And so the only way to make people vote is to tell them that this election is the most important in their lifetime. That if they don’t vote a certain way either women will die or the country will fall under the grip of red terror. And so people hold their nose, vote for something they don’t want (or abstain altogether), and the situation continues. And then we are told it continues this way because that’s what people really believe.

Having the continued opportunity to spend time with hundreds of students in Korea every week, to discuss modernity, democracy and politics with them is a blessing. As the weeks go by, they start speaking up one-by-one. Each, in turn, realizing they think something different from the person next to them but that each difference they share is not only important for the future of the country, it shows them how badly media represents the reality they see. How politics and media are pitting them against each other when, truth be told, they would rather be together and find common ground. Democracy doesn’t just die when the young fail to speak up. It disappears when we as adults repeat the same hyperbolic nonsense we see online instead of trying to communicate the gray that characterizes the world and the majority of us living beyond the extreme poles.

David A. Tizzard has a doctorate in Korean Studies and lectures at Seoul Women’s University and Hanyang University. He is a social-cultural commentator and musician who has lived in Korea for nearly two decades. He is also the host of the “Korea Deconstructed” podcast, which can be found online. He can be reached at

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