On September 25th 2016, a South Korean farmer Baek Nam-gi died. Knocked unconscious by a police water cannon, Baek spent more than 300 days in a coma. The graphic image of Baek on the floor, soaked with water and tear gas captured national attention. Some media outlets suggested it went to show the sheer degree of regression in South Korean democracy.
The mishap with Baek served to ignite public anger that has been simmering in the light of President Park’s polarizing policy announcements. In November 2015, the government issued an administrative notice for its plan to nationalize the history curriculum to take effect after 2018. This plan was constructed without public consultation, with intentions of beautifying the legacy of her father, Park Chung Hee – the strongman who ruled South Korea for 18 years. Soon enough, this became a focal point of protest among students, scholars and left-wing politicians. This unrest, coupled with protests by farmers angered by the government’s rice price policy led to massive protests, in which Baek took part.
For over 300 days, President Park remained unapologetic to Baek’s plight. If anything, she likened the protesters to ISIS. Conservative politicians defended Park, erroneously citing that US police officers “brutally beat up” civilians who cross police barricades and are perfectly justified in shooting to kill civilians who pose physical threat.
Baek’s case cannot simply be dismissed as a simple mishap. The entire timeline of this event – from its origin, escalation and the aftermath – suggests something so much more about the political landscape in South Korea. It offers much insight into the attitude President Park towards her citizens and what she perceives the role of state to be.
The protest was a natural response to a plan to nationalize the history curriculum, a move antithetical to the global trend to incorporate diversity in the interpretation of the past. It aimed to narrow the modern Korean history into a single narrative and mask the past wrongdoings of the current establishment. There was nothing democratic in the fashion Park pushed for this. Blind to public outcry, the government was hell-bent on soldiering on with what it wanted to do.
When protests inevitably broke out, Park’s government refused to grant permits for assembly to the anti-government protesters, while issuing the same permit to pro-government groups. It is alleged that these groups were also funded by the Blue House to sway public opinion.
After Baek’s death, his death certificate became a source of contention. Baek died in Seoul National University Hospital. His physician noted in Baek’s death certificate that his cause of death was infection, denying the role that the water cannon played in killing Baek. This triggered a petition by 809 students at Seoul National University Medical School. Accusations were also made that the government had a role in pressuring the physician. The administrator at the Seoul National University Hospital was appointed through President Park’s recommendation, after serving as her personal physician. Instead of issuing an apology, the police attempted to forcibly carry out an autopsy on Baek’s body, against the will of his family.
Nonetheless, these political controversies in the arena shroud the real issue at hand. There is something deeply troubling about the way the government justified state violence and treated the life of its citizens. President Park is free to say what she wants to say about the protesters. However, what she cannot do is condone this “eye for an eye” justice imposed on her citizens by her police force. A state’s decision to inflict violence upon its subjects cannot be taken lightly. Carried out of absolute necessity, it cannot be indiscriminate and it should not go beyond its intention. Certainly, Baek’s death was not meant to be and for that, Park should have apologized.
Back in 2013, President Park started with her term with rumors of fraudulent election victory. Last April, she was criticized for casting her ballot while wearing a red coat on the General Election Day, when South Koreans elect their congressmen; red is the color of her conservative party. Many civil groups are still calling for investigation into why the president was missing for 7 hours on the day of the Sewol Ferry disaster, which killed 304 high school students; she was never transparent about her itinerary on the day. Lately, Park has found herself entangled in a cronyism scandal involving a friend of Park, Choi Soon-sil, an unelected civilian who was rumored to have been deeply influential in government affairs. As soon as this scandal surfaced, Park proposed a modification to the South Korean constitution to extend presidential term limits – an attempt to divert national attention from her scandal. A few days later, hard evidence surfaced that for more than two years, Choi edited Park’s speeches, had input on what Park would wear in public appearances, received regular reports on foreign and domestic affairs from the Blue House, and may have swayed diplomacy with North Korea. This scandal instigated protests for several consecutive weekends, which now cumulatively brought together 10 million participants. Park made three public apologies, refusing to take questions from any journalists on all occasions. These circumstances have eventually escalated to her impeachment.
Looking back, Baek’s death was a prelude to this “makjang” – a slang used to denote Korean dramas with laughably surreal and farcical storylines. If only all this drama was merely a soap opera.