One night in 1972, I was having dinner with an American friend and her fiancé at the restaurant of the YMCA in downtown Seoul.
It was a dangerous time. The talk of the town was a constitutional change the government was pushing for so that then-President Park Chung-hee could assume even more power, but the media were under the strictest censorship so no dissent could be aired in public.
I told my foreign guests, “There is no democracy here, and you have to be careful with what you say”.
Little did I know that just behind me sat a man, apparently eavesdropping on our conversation and measuring my head and shoulders with a ruler. My friends, who belatedly noticed him, were so concerned that they called me the next morning to ask if I had made it home without any harm. They thought that I might disappear.
Memories of dictatorship are still fresh in my mind, even though I have not lived a politically active life. The kind of fear engendered by repression is not easily forgotten.
It may seem like we have been living in a free country forever, but South Korea’s democracy is short-lived and fragile. I am only sixty-eight, but I have seen governments rise and fall, people adopt and abandon convictions, and lives soar and succumb to ruin.
Sometimes it is important to remember just what we have gone through.
My parents were married in 1945, the year this country was liberated. I was born the following year and experienced both the Korean War and the ensuing dictatorships. I still associate my childhood with Rhee Syngman, the first president of the Republic of Korea, a man I remember as honourable but very, very old.
Even as a child I did not fully comprehend why under this president opposition presidential candidates kept dying whenever election seasons rolled around. One expired on a train while campaigning, and another was executed on the charge of being a North Korean agent.
Maybe I had no time to understand because I was too busy, just like my schoolmates, practicing the correct way to wave a flag. The president was scheduled to pay a visit to my hometown one day and all classes were cancelled, so we could stand next to the road and enthusiastically greet his motorcade.
Corruption, like propaganda, was everywhere. A popular saying of the day was “You cannot live without a ‘back’”. If no one of importance stood behind you to lend his support, you should say goodbye to skipping military service, getting a great job, and living with several servants to cater to your whims.
Rhee and his Liberal Party were eventually toppled on 19 April 1960, when angry students, fed up with the rigged outcome of his third election to the presidential office, staged a revolution. That popular fervour ushered into power the opposition Democratic Party and Yun Bo-seon, the second president of the republic.
Yun was my uncle’s father-in-law. He had studied at the University of Edinburgh at a young age and lived in Britain for many years. He was a gentleman in every sense of the word and believed that a society could operate on reason and common sense.
Being such a refined man, maybe he did not fully recognize the scale of the chaos engulfing the streets. Everyone was making demands on the new government, and demonstrations by students and citizens were never-ending. The cabinet consisted of indecisive and ineffectual leaders, and no policy was offered to bring the country under control.
It was inevitable that there would be another uprising a year later, but this time by solders holding guns and knives. People could only tremble in fear and obey the orders they were given. School began each morning with an anti-communist song. Catching rats and flies, instead of studying, became homework, in the name of ‘beautifying the environment’. I had to submit rat tails in matchboxes to prove that I was compliant, and joined field trips into the mountains where we caught caterpillars infesting pine trees.
It was all part of the grand “New Village Movement”—called Saemaeul Undong in Korean—that the military regime forced on us. But I accept that it had to happen. It was not a time to praise an abstract ideal of democracy. People wanted a better life free of insects, diseases, and hunger. Order, and industrialization, was necessary.
Because of the terrifying dictatorship, people started to watch what they said, and all those protests stopped. Against the backdrop of stability, the economy began to improve, and world-class companies came into being on the back of the government’s concentrated support. Seeing that it was possible to raise one’s standard of living, many South Koreans, including my youngest brother, worked as if the alternative were death, going as far as Germany and Libya, where they spared no blood and sweat for this country and for themselves.
But I never thought that everything was fine. Demands for democratization and labour and human rights did not dry up, and activists were tortured at the KCIA—a precursor to the National Intelligence Service—or they committed self-immolation. I was working as an intern at a university library in 1970, the year that the poet Kim Chi-ha published his work “Five Thieves” in the influential magazine Sasangye. Because the poem ridiculed those who were living in style under the immoral military regime—notably high-ranking government officials, military leaders, and the chaebol—the state ordered all libraries to pull the issue from circulation and arrested Kim, who was then tortured by the KCIA.
I hid in the stacks to read his words in secret and marvel at his courage, knowing that the consequences suffered by him and his family were immeasurable.
Park Chung-hee was assassinated in 1979, but his death was followed by a new military government, which took over the country by force and violently suppressed popular protests. Countless innocent people died during the Gwangju Massacre of 1980 but demonstrations against the junta did not end, continuing through the 80s. I avoided the centre of Seoul like the plague because teargas spread for kilometres.
It was only in 1987 that Roh Tae-woo, the military’s presidential candidate, announced a return to the system of direct election for presidency. The constitution was amended accordingly, heralding a shift away from nearly three decades of rule by soldier-politicians.
I am a fairly ordinary person. But all this happened during my lifetime, and these memories are indelible on my mind. South Korean democracy was born, killed, and revived all within the span of sixty-eight years that I have been alive. We have transitioned from monarchy to colonial rule to dictatorship to democracy in just over a century.
I say all this to point out that South Korea is a work in progress, capable of great changes in a short period of time. But it is a society that still remembers how, not too long ago, one could be abducted for saying or writing a single wrong thing. It is also a society that recalls the chaos democratic demands can unleash at times.
As a member of South Korea’s older generation who have witnessed the past, I have deeply mixed feelings toward dictatorship. But I also feel ambivalent toward unfettered freedom. I fear extremes of both kinds because I have seen what they can do.
My desire is, of course, that South Korean society will become truly democratic, and that every South Korean will become a mature, rational citizen capable of accepting criticisms and discussing how this place can become better. But I hope that in accusing South Korea of being a less-than-perfect nation, you will also keep in mind how little time we have had to get this far, and how turbulent the recent path of this country has been. We are still living this history.
This essay was translated from Korean.
Cover Image: “Card Stunt for Park Chung-hee” by Baek Jong-sik