I was in a taxi in Seoul a couple of weeks ago, stopped at a red light, when a guy on a motorbike pulled alongside and started shouting at no-one in particular.
I couldn’t catch all that he was saying, but judging from the posters stuck to his back and adorning his bike, it was probably connected to the scandal swirling around President Park Geun-hye.
The posters were in Chinese characters except for the title that identified the motorcyclist in English as “World Captain.” I guessed this gentleman had an important message for earthlings along the lines that good things will happen to those who accept him as a leader.
“There are a lot of people like that in Korea,” the taxi driver said as the lights changed and the captain sped off.
“It seems like there’s been one for a while in the Blue House,” I said.
“You’re right,” he answered. Then he thought for a moment and added, “Oh, I am so embarrassed to be a Korean.”
This wasn’t the first time I’d heard this sentiment in connection with what’s being called Choigate, named after the president’s confidant Choi Soon-sil and allegations of corruption.
The scandal has generated fury among Koreans, but when foreigners enter the picture, anger turns to embarrassment. People feel that, once again, after all the hard work to gain respect in the world, some idiot has come along and made us look bad.
But Koreans who feel this way are being too hard on themselves. In fact, their thinking is all wrong.
First, outsiders understand political scandals well enough to know that they are the work of individuals, not an entire people. Choigate would only reflect badly on Koreans if it were typical and all Koreans were known to be corrupt.
Second – and this is the more difficult argument to make in the present climate – the scandal is good for Koreans.
The crisis itself does not damage the international reputation of Koreans and does not diminish any admiration that people feel for Koreans. That is because a crisis of itself does not cause this type of perception damage. How you handle a crisis is what counts
Here’s why: apart from a few Marxists on western campuses, and a bunch of cynics, tyrants and extremists, all people want democracy. It is the best system we’ve come up with do far that allows people to be ruled effectively, have a say in who does the ruling, and be free to get rid of them next time around.
The full experiment with universal suffrage is well into its second century. South Korea is a young democracy but it is already a standout model for other Asian countries. In just six presidential elections, opposition candidates have won twice.
With each new administration, democracy, in terms of the expansion of rights and the improving of governance, has moved forward. But – and here’s the “but” – with the last two presidents, that progress has stalled.
Ex-President Lee Myung-bak may have done a good job shielding Korea from the global financial crisis and President Park Geun-hye may have good relationships with world leaders, but both of them unwound freedoms.
Lee jailed people for drawing cartoons. Park blacklisted 9,473 artists, most of them for the sin of voting for an opposition candidate.
These cases catch the flavor of the attitude these two most recent presidents demonstrated towards the ideas of democracy and freedom. They see them as gifts that can only be bestowed when North Korea is no longer a threat.
That this is the excuse of the self-inflated power-holder is clear in that their abuses have nothing to do with security and all to do with stamping on critics who hurt their feelings. In that context, the scandal is very timely. It allows democracy to get going again.
In fact, I would suggest that the timeliness is what makes the activities of Park Geun-hye and her friend Choi Soon-sil scandalous and not the activities themselves.
I say this because, so far, we have seen nothing from this scandal that previous presidents, with the exception of Roh Moo-hyun, did not engage in – favors for and abuses by family/friends, shakedown of chaebol, breaking of internal Blue House regulations etc. (the possible exception is the part that has yet to be proven and may not be illegal and that is the shaman influence).
The hundreds of thousands on the street calling for the President to step down are sending a very clear message that Koreans will no longer tolerate presidents who posture as humble but look upon the people and the spirit of the democracy with contempt and let their family and friends milk the system.
Whether the President will step down, whether she will stay in office but hand over some or all of her powers to a Prime Minister remains to be seen.
But whatever happens, Korea’s democracy will be strengthened. And that is something that Koreans should be proud of, not embarrassed about.
Michael Breen is an author and columnist based in Seoul. His latest book, The New Koreans, will be published in April.