by Brian Hioe
Parallels with Taiwan
CURRENT PROTESTS in South Korea cannot help but appear familiar for Taiwanese activists, with between 60,000 to 130,000 South Koreans taking to the streets to demonstrate the Park Geun-hye government on Saturday. These were the largest set of protests in seven years and had been planned as a day of action several months in advance. Tear gas and water cannons were utilized, with over fifty protesters arrested. Police have vowed no tolerance for protestors in the future. Controversial were actions taken by police in wading off protestors using buses. This tactic of police was ruled unconstitutional in 2011 for restricting demonstrators’ right to free movement.
What strikes as reminiscent are the set of issues motivating protestors to demonstrate; namely, a right-wing government with an authoritarian past seeking to whitewash its crimes through new high school textbooks that downplay past crimes and whose economic policy will lead to the breakdown of the system of lifetime employment security which previously existed in South Korea. It is argued that the latter will benefit large corporations in making it easier to fire workers.
This has been a matter of controversy in Japan as well, with the breakdown of “regular employment” for company workers in workers had lifetime job security and the rise of temp positions that have made the economic situation for young people entering the work force especially precarious. On the other hand, the former cannot help but recall this past summer’s demonstrations in Taiwan against planned high school textbook revisions that culminated in the weeklong occupation of the Ministry of Education or that Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement also began with demonstrations against changes to the teaching of historical textbooks.
However, with strong parallels between Taiwanese and South Korean history, such as implications with post-war political order in Asian nation-states and a shared history of authoritarianism, it does appear that we may more easily draw parallels between the situations in Taiwan and South Korea. Hong Kong never had a history of authoritarian rule, but Taiwan and South Korea did, and this would seem to be significant in the outbreak of protests in both countries in the past year.
Protestors are demonstrating against new high school textbooks, named “The Correct Textbook of History,” which will be used nationally. Previously, it was that schools were allowed to choose what history textbook to use. Though yet to be written, new textbooks are seen as likely to whitewash the actions of Korean conservatives during the authoritarian period, diminish the importance of the democratization movement of the 1980s, and tone down criticisms of American intervention in Korean political affairs and Japanese war crimes. Park Geun-hye, the first woman president of Korea, is of course, the daughter of military dictator Park Chung-hee, who ruled from 1962 to 1979 until his assassination.
Indeed, if it was a matter of some controversy in Taiwan earlier this year that Chiang Wan-An, the great-grandson of Chiang Kai-Shek, was planning on running for political office as a KMT candidate, it is that the daughter of the former dictator in Korea in fact became president. It is expected that textbook changes would whitewash the period in which Park’s father was military dictator. In Taiwan textbook revisions were pushed for by Taiwan’s KMT ruling party, the former authoritarian party, in the aims of whitewashing its own history and downplaying the Taiwanese democracy movement, as well as to draw Taiwan closer to China by teaching a China-centric curriculum.
Whether in Taiwan or South Korea, this points to the lingering traces of authoritarianism, despite that the international world has largely ruled that both countries are democracies. As has been the object of academic inquiry in the past, both countries have similar post-war histories of military rule, people’s movements which rose up against military rule during the 1980s, and economic prosperity as two of the “Four East Asian Tigers”, in spite of political turbulence.
To look to earlier history, Taiwan and South Korea were previously Japanese colonies and also structurally marked by questions of national division, regarding the split of North Korea and South Korea and the split of Taiwan and China. Within both, there are pro-unification forces that call for the reunification of Korea or China on the basis of different justifications, some culturalist, some Marxist. However, the difference between Korea and Taiwan in this case lay in that “reunification” of Taiwan and China would ultimately be the subsumption of Taiwan into China, where the reunification of South Korea and North Korea would probably be the reunification of two polities under more equal terms—although probably as the internationalized market power between the two, South Korea would actually be the dominant partner within reunification. Some have drawn analogy between this situation and the situation of East and West Germany after the end of the Cold War.
Taiwan and South Korea are also military client states of the United State. Taiwan depends on the United States for arms and for backing in case of possible incursion by China, but the United States keeps Taiwan in the limbo state of “strategic ambiguity,” it ultimately being unclear whether the US would intervene on behalf on Taiwan in case of Chinese invasion and having no treaty obligations to do so. Perceptions often run contrary however, it being commonly thought that the United States does, in fact, have a treaty obligation to defend Taiwan.
On the other hand, American military control of South Korea is very direct. Apart from American bases in South Korea, command of the South Korean military legally reverts to American control in wartime; meaning that in times of war, America would have command of the South Korean military. For much the same reason, within post-war political order in the Asia-Pacific as set up under American auspices, Japan did not legally have a “military” permitted to carry out military interventions until very recently and only a “self-defense force”, instead relying on American troops based on its soil in order to defend it.
Parallels with Japan
WE CAN DRAW parallels between South Korea under the Park administration and Japan under the Abe administration. Actually, if Japan never saw any period of direct military rule as did Japan and Taiwan, it is also to be ever questioned if post-war Japan was truly a democracy given the unquestioned one-party dominance of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). For many years, western observers concluded one-party rule was a sign of some cultural particularity of Japan that Japanese voters were willing to vote in the same party, over and over, again—rather than that this proves precisely the lack of democracy in Japan.
The LDP would see challenge in the late 2000s with the rise of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). But the failure of the DPJ to distinguish itself from the LDP on key issues as American military bases in Okinawa or the post-Fukushima nuclear issue has led to the return of de facto one party rule by the LDP. Japanese voters have largely concluded that if both parties were just about the same anyway in terms of political program, they might as well go with the older and more established one. The resurgence of the LDP would be what allowed for Abe’s political turn around to become prime minister of Japan after an earlier stint running from 2006 to 2007.
Like Park, Abe is the scion of a political family, his grandfather being post-war prime minister Nobusuke Kishi, the so-called “monster of the Showa period.” Though obviously not a military dictator in the mold of Park Geun-hye’s father Park Chung-hee, Kishi was a minister in the Japanese imperial government deeply implicated in Japanese colonialism in China with the attempt to prop up the puppet state of Manchukuo in Manchuria. Kishi’s crimes were largely forgiven after the war, with America turning a blind eye to justice for past Japanese crimes committed during wartime in order to prop up Japan as a strong counter to communist China during this time.
Actually, if we are point to the role of the US behind setting up post-war order in the Asia-Pacific, in the post-war period, Kishi was never against American military presence in Japan in the post-war period. Kishi rather argued for its maintenance as one of the architects of the ANPO security treaty with America. Park Chung-hee, too, was not against American military presence in South Korea.
So, too, of course, with dictators are Park Chung-hee in South Korea or Chiang Kai-Shek and Chiang Ching-Kuo in Taiwan, whose autocratic rule the US turned a blind eye to or attempted to whitewash. And with the both Abe and Park governments today, we see concerns with resurgent authoritarianism on the part of Japanese and Koreans, with crackdowns and restrictions on freedoms of speech and press in both countries in recent years in the name of curbing anti-patriotic sentiment. This is probably more direct in South Korea than in Japan, with restrictive Internet censorship and Left political parties dissolved in the name of anti-Communism, as we saw with the breakup of the United Progressive Party, although of late we see the silencing of the press in the name of defending state secrets in Japan.
But paradoxically, Abe and Park governments have been attempting to minimize historic tensions between both countries in order to ally against the threat of rising China, the Park administration attempting to downplay attempts to call for justice for wartime comfort women used by Japanese imperial troops given Abe’s refusal to apologize on the comfort woman issue. Abe and Park met recently in Seoul to try and build closer relations between the two countries.
Conciliatory gestures made by Park towards China in the past year aside, South Korea still fundamentally remaining firmly within the orbit of American power, it may be that both leaders would wish to draw their countries together in order to counter the threat of rising China. To this extent, the US has also played a role in hoping to smooth over relations between South Korea and Japan in order that they can play a role as allies in its Rebalance Towards Asia. Preceding the Park-Abe summit, for example, we saw visits of Park and Abe to America to meet with Obama. If one wants to lay accusations of American imperialism at its doorstep or not, it would seem the US has no problem with former autocratic parties coming back to power if it would mean countering China—regardless of whether this is Park in South Korea, or Abe in Japan.
IT APPEARS TAIWAN differs from South Korea and Japan in the sense that the former party one party regime seems on its way out, rather than secure in power. Despite the massive protest we have just seen in South Korea, Park’s Saenuri Party does not seem like it will lose power anytime soon. Park’s term runs until 2017, South Korean presidents serving five year terms. Although the Abe government’s reinterpretation of Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, understood as forbidding the waging of war by the Japanese government, also saw large-scale protest against it—particularly from Japan’s young—Abe has a little over more than three years left in office.
On the other hand, Taiwan’s former one-party regime, the KMT seems on its way out of power with the probable victory of Tsai Ing-Wen. This may just be an accident of electoral cycles, that Taiwan will be having presidential elections in 2016. But of course, it is in the present that it American imperatives lean towards taking a stronger stance towards China, which may warrant Taiwan’s inclusion in the Rebalance to Asia rather than its exclusion, it is Tsai’s DPP rather than the KMT which would take a less conciliatory stance towards China.
However, Asia has in the past year seen a series of large-scale protest movements whose causes ultimately stem from the rise of China. We see this quite directly with Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement or Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement, the latter of which, again, also began with concern over the teaching of history in high school textbooks with the attempt to instill “patriotic education” and a sense of Chinese identity in Hong Kong’s young. If Japan’s demonstrations against the reinterpretation of Article 9 do not have to do directly with China, this is by way of the Abe administration’s attempts to unbridle Japan’s military because of the threat of China. So in some sense, we can view this year’s past student movements as having to do with responses direct or indirect to the rise of China. We can see this also in South Korea, if the Park administration’s actions are also in part motivated because of the specter of China.
Demonstrators in central Seoul this Saturday. Photo credit: Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji
Regardless, there are also some differences. Noticeably, the role of labor in present protests in South Korea seems to be stronger than the role of labor in recent protests in Taiwan or Japan. Some have pointed to the labor movement in Taiwan as stillborn, given that labor was cracked down in the name of anti-communism during the authoritarian period. Much, too, with South Korea. Yet it would be that labor groups were not substantial actors during the past summer’s Ministry of Education occupation or the Sunflower Movement of the past year, which were largely student-led. Demonstrations in Japan against the Article 9 revision, too, seem to be largely student led. Though the same labor groups which have been conducting demonstrations on and off since the 1960s are likely present, it is student groups who have captured the attention of the public and in that way are driving protest forward in both Taiwan and Japan.
But Asia’s past year seems to have been a year of protest. And we see this now in South Korea.