Following historic talks on Friday between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, residents of Seoul took to the downtown streets Saturday afternoon for a peaceful demonstration of their contempt for the newest overtures toward peace on the Korean peninsula.
Many of the protesters regard Moon Jae-in as a communist sell-out. Jae-in’s ties to North Korea go to parents originally from that part of the peninsula.
The recent Saturday march, like so many in downtown Seoul for months now, are an outstanding example of a collective will on public display without disorder or violence.
This is quite amazing - for South Koreans, a very conservative people who value civility and long-standing tradition, can also become vocally passionate about perceived injustice and - as Americans say: “go off the chain.”
There is no media coverage in South Korea of these near-weekly demonstrations. This is forbidden by an understanding of the ruling elite. South Korea may boast that it is a democratic republic, governed by the rule of law - with a three-branch government like the American system. … and then there is reality, like in any political system.
Whether President Moon Jae-in is the man of the hour with a pragmatic vision of the future, a communist lap dog of the Chinese, or just an inept grifter like the current American President, this peninsula is a tinderbox … and a perfect example of how geography is destiny.
There is the growing power of China to the left, plus the bitter memory of Japan to the right, and what that country did on the Korean Peninsula from 1910-1945.
“Trying to make some sense of it all,
But I can see that it makes no sense at all,
Is it cool to go to sleep on the floor,
'Cause I don't think that I can take anymore
China to the left of me, Japan to the right,
Here I am, stuck in the middle with you.”
- Stuck in the Middle With You (Rafferty and Egan)
Steelers Wheel (1972)
We tell ourselves - and each other: “Let it go. Forgive and forget. What’s past is past, and what’s done is done. You can’t push the river. One love.” All these platitudes are meant to direct us toward a better light … a better world. Yet after a time, these viewpoints are just banal bumper stickers. The truth is some things cannot be forgiven and forgotten, neglected and assigned to the dustbin of history. Justice is often a slow train coming.
The Koreans cannot forgive Japan for essentially overthrowing the 700-year-old Joseon dynasty, assassinating the last queen and rounding up thousands of young Korean women to be sex slaves for the Japanese army … not prostitutes, but sex slaves.
The Chinese cannot forgive Japan for one of the most wretched atrocities ever conceived, and this is what’s known as The Rape of Nanking in January, 1938 - when the Japanese army raped Chinese women in front of their husbands and sons, mutilated their bodies and then decapitated the men.
Now the Japanese and at least the South Koreans fear China, which has dusted off Japan’s military playbook and has taken control of the South China Sea with artificial islands that are military bases.
And then there is the wild card of North Korea, which fears the United States - and rightly so.
To say that the Korean War occurred 1950-1953 is not true at all. The war has never ended officially. In 1953, both North and South Korea signed an armistice to end hostilities - perhaps the longest time-out in recorded history. Yet during that three-year period at the beginning of the 1950s, President Truman called off General Douglas MacArthur from invading China, and instead chose to limit our UN-backed involvement to the Korean peninsula.
In this period, the American military dropped more bombs on North Korea than our combined effort against both Germany and Japan in World War II. For the past several years, the American military has been building up Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek - about 35 miles south of Seoul - and safely out of range of North Korean artillery. This is the largest U.S. military installation in the Pacific.
The facility - still under construction, is huge beyond belief. Never mind America’s crumbling infra-structure, a public school system that excels at mediocrity, a growing prison population, and once proud cities like Detroit and Chicago reduced to “poverty tours,” or “killing fields.”
We must have a first-class military base in South Korea to preserve our way of life, while Wall Street racketeers and the Sean Hannity’s that abound fleece the middle-class that carry the tax burden in American society.
What to do about Kim Jong-un? He is a third generation sociopath who knows how to manipulate and exploit people. Jong-un is not going to abandon his nuclear weapons. His father made similar offers - but always reneged. How many times can we accept a pledge of reform from the unfaithful lover? Some times leopards really cannot change their spots.
The Moon Jae-in controlled media in South Korea promotes optimism for a better future. After all, if Germany could re-unite, so can Korea.
Yet the demonstrators in the recent march through downtown Seoul want Kim Jong-un dead, and they hope President Trump will come to the rescue. This isn’t happening. Trump helps no one but himself.
Many of the people in the near-weekly protest marches are Korean War veterans. If not, they certainly came of age in Seoul when the city lay in ruins after the war - and they worked impressively to make this a world-class city. And this is a happening place with the impact of K-Pop - which goes beyond music and influences fashion, Korean TV soap operas, a new Wave cinema, a word-class subway system, and street food that can’t be beat.
In a sense, the South Korean protesters represent the three-generation cycle of social change. The first generation re-builds society as a result of war or revolution. Their children embrace the goals and standards of the new society, and enjoy a measure of achievement and prosperity the first generation could only dream about. By the third-generation - the grandchildren, the history that accounts for a First World standard of living is an abstract concept, boring stories told by old people.
The grandchildren of the protest marchers don’t understand why this peninsula is divided; don’t believe that North Korea is one vast prison camp; and why 20,000 American troops occupy their country decade after decade after decade.
During these Saturday afternoon marches through downtown Seoul, the protesters move orderly along a designated path that leads past Myeongdong - a trendy shopping area across from the Lotte Department Store. The police arte out in full force - and a particularly young group of policemen stand along the path at curbside.
The policemen are college-age Koreans who are fulfilling their 18-month obligation of national military service - and the protesters are old enough to be their grandparents.
There are always Korean spectators along the curbside - yet the majority of people are tourists, primarily from China.
For several years, Chinese women have been flying to Seoul for “shopping therapy.” And most of it happens in the Myeongdong area of downtown Seoul.
China may be the world’s factory - yet most Chinese cannot afford all those “Made-in-China” products that might be readily available in the stores of Beijing and Shanghai. It’s actually cheaper for Chinese consumers to fly to Seoul - or Guam, or even Honolulu to buy shoes and other clothing items actually made in China.
Needless to say, the invasion of Chinese housewives into Seoul department stores and shops carries over into hotels and restaurants. The infusion of Chinese money into the South Korean economy is very substantial.
A flight from Beijing or Shanghai to Seoul is around 2.5 hours, and a one-day shopping spree is easy enough. But - for the Chinese, a trip to Seoul represents a brief taste of freedom. There is no internet censorship in South Korea.
And for the Chinese, to witness peaceful demonstrations - especially by the geriatric crowd, must be a source of endless fascination … so this accounts for why so many of the spectators are Chinese.
There’s also a fair share of Americans who are tourists in Seoul - and not tied to the U.S. military in any fashion. They’re also drawn to the older South Koreans advocating both the assassination of Kim Jong-un and the imprisonment of President Moon Jae-in.
Americans may kvetch about Trump and his sordid life, gun violence, same-sex rights, the legalization of marijuana, how to make house payments and still save money … but most are content to fondle the TV remote control, surf dubious websites or blather about dry swill on Facebook.
Meanwhile, older Seoul residents keep takin’ it to the streets, demanding positive changes.
One wants to be optimistic about “peace in our time,” but then Neville Chamberlain is still the poster boy for being a hundred-proof fool at Munich in 1938.
A year later Germany invaded Poland, and it was back to the killing fields of Europe.