The Business of Politics in Korea: Understanding the Radical Left in Korea by Tom Coyner

The recent knife attack on U.S. Ambassador Mark Lippert came as a shock to many. But for those people paying close attention to Korean society, this sort of thing was unfortunately almost expected. There are many lone wolves out there, created by historical, social and political factors.

Assailant Kim Ki-jong was almost a walking stereotype of his generation of leftist radicals. He comes from the oldest fringe of the “386 Generation” that spent their youth in successfully demonstrating for genuine democracy for South Korea. But their success carried costs. While many people from this group were eventually granted university degrees, many did not really study from credible sources.
Much of the blame for their ideology-weighted ad hoc studies can be attributed to the overly censoring past military governments.

Even fair and balanced analyses of socialism, Marxism and communism were prohibited. During those heady days of demonstrations and teargas - and before the Internet - students’ source of political material often consisted of circulated mimeographed papers of questionable origins and doubtful intellectual honesty. Since the classrooms under censorship were devoid of honest, structured discussion and debates, this generation often uncritically accepted anything that was banned as being the truth, when in fact much of it was propaganda, some of it originating from Pyongyang.

To this day, many Korean educators point out that much of the thinking that plagues Korean public opinion that is both anti-establishment and uncritical can be traced to the 1980s. While most of this generation of demonstrators moved on into the roles of employees, entrepreneurs, spouses and parents, there is a substantial group that had been initially unwilling and is now unable to move out of the narrow constraints of being dedicated political activists.

Like other Asian societies, such as Japan, it is difficult for the individual to take a high profile position and later reverse him or herself. Asian societies are too tight-knit to allow people to do political U-turns. Furthermore, political activists of whatever persuasion start out and sometime remain part of political groups where it becomes treasonous to recant one’s perspective. In other words, when an activist changes radical direction, such as to moderation, he or she damages the integrity of the in-group that has fostered and supported the activist. So the activist is reinforced by a society that doesn’t forget and by a small circle that doesn’t forgive.

Under these circumstances, these individuals are forced to forge ahead, often in extreme directions, as part of their intellectual and political growth. Furthermore, these diehard activists take on some kind of idealistic martyr-like identity as they live in near poverty. The truth is that most of these proletarian activists come from rather bourgeoisie families. Only after expending their inheritances and relatives’ support do they actually live the lives they purport, at which times it becomes incumbent upon them to try to establish some kind of political group that acts as a financial support mechanism for paying for their daily expenses.

To attract followers and financial subscribers, ageing activists must develop a charismatic agenda. Needless to say, agendas for moderation and accommodation do not attract dues-paying members. When these activists come into late middle age, they often reach a state of pathos. They look around and find that their circles of friends have shrunk largely to just some other older diehards plus perhaps gullible young people who make up an unstable of group followers. Usually, graying activists have largely alienated their families, they are usually single and without children.

[In Asian terms,] they are truly alone and almost isolated outside of contrived political events. Attempted assassin Kim represents the older elements of the “386” demographic. That may suggest that has the majority of that group approaches his age, we may see again, similar acts of personal desperation expressed in violent political actions. So, what to do? In a democracy it is impossible to preemptively arrest people via profiling. But some things can be done to mitigate these coming mini terrorist events.

First, South Korea needs to maintain its current gun control laws that reduce these acts to relatively minor attacks. God forbid if Kim or Ji Choong-ho, who made a similar attack on Park Geun-hye, had had access to a pistol.

Second, both major political parties need to turn down the rhetoric. It’s fine that Kim Moo-sung of the Saenuri Party and Moon Jae-in of the New Politics Alliance for Democracy paid their respects to the injured American ambassador. But both parties have been too quick to try to leverage political points and thereby cause needless political polarization that only encourages extremists on the left and the right to act irrationally and sometimes dangerously.

Third, educators need to stress more critical thinking as part of their classroom education so as to reduce the likelihood of a next generation of alienated activists. Also, teachers may do well to counsel their students to reach out to their alienated uncles and aunts.

Finally, while there may be a need to increase undercover protection of VIPs, such people must be easily accessible to the public for a democracy to function. Should there be an overreaction of any kind, then the terrorist will have succeeded, even if VIP isolation may have not been part of the original intent.

by Tom Coyner
*The author is a long-term resident of Korea and author of two books on doing business, including “Doing Business in Korea: An Expanded Guide.” The author is, also, a Senior Advisor for IPG. 
Article, originally, appeared in the Joonang Daily on March 11, 2015