Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Body Politic

"There was a dream that was Rome. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish, it was so fragile." - Gladiator

It would be remiss of me if I didn't mention that there was an election going on in South Korea at the moment. But I'm afraid my approach to Korean politics is dictated by my experiences back in my own country, where aside from an A-Level in Government and Politics and spending my formative years analysing politicians' every word in the media, I eventually found myself elected to public office in the minor leagues of British political life serving as the full-time representative of 9,000 people. Even after I'd decided that living and breathing politics 60 hours a week while trying to avoid death threats wasn't what this Computer Science graduate wanted out of life, spurning opportunities for advancement and deciding not to run for another term, I couldn't help analysing everything that happened in my country as we march relentlessly towards our dystopian 'Children of Men' style future society, and reaching the the same conclusion as a large number of other reasonably intelligent British people - that I'd rather be living somewhere else.

Which is all to say, that my approach to my understanding of Korean society is conflicted; on the one hand my Korean language studies and increasingly long exile here demand that I know what's going on in the society beyond my direct experiences, but with the paradox being that I've long since come to the irresponsible conclusion that ignorance is bliss, and the longer I am oblivious to Korean society's wider problems the longer I will be happy. I can't avoid the realities in my face such as the poverty and homelessness, but switching off the local politicians is easy. So I make few apologies for my blissfully ignorant view of the election, and urge you to enjoy it while you can, because I suspect by the time the next set of elections roll around in a few years - if they're still having them then - I'll be able to give you chapter and verse on who's planning what and why, as well as the the degree of absurdity of their platform.

What we have, or rather had, then, are twelve candidates for President - or ten more choices than you usually get if you live in that bastion of democracy, the United States of America. And much like America, where precedent has previously dictated that all candidates must be white male millionaires, Korea's identi-kit candidates are all middle-age 'ajeossi' Korean men. Given that, in this homogeneous society, the only probable alternative is a middle-aged 'ajumma' Korean woman, you could argue that diversity has not been done such a disservice, but then with twelve candidates, the statistical improbability of not having a single woman running for the top job tells you its own story.

The English language TV network Arirang, which claims to give viewers a contemporary and accurate look at Korea - but which even the right-wing newspaper Joong-Ang Daily has accused of being a pro-Government propaganda mouthpiece aspiring to North-Korean levels of censorship, has covered the election in a predictably bland way. Or at least, you could call it bland - there's something about its whitewashed feel that gives me a queasy feeling in my stomach. But they did run a piece focussing on a couple of the minor candidates - in a field of twelve candidates there are bound to be some more esoteric policies. One candidate advocated large social security payments for Korea's increasingly greying society - winning him some support among that constituency - though the question of how this would be paid for was left hanging in the air - and the other's platform seemed to consist entirely of being proud to be Korean, and while I doubt this is a controversial plan here the small size of his accompanying campaign team along with shots of him cutting a lonely figure riding silently on the Seoul subway (where you're not allowed to campaign by the way), were excruciatingly embarrassing. And something cynical at the back of your mind tells you maybe that was the point. So while I've been willing Arirang to give me a deeper understanding of Korean politics in easily digestible sound-bites, I suppose it's never going to happen.

In any case, I gather the field of candidates has narrowed somewhat from the original twelve as back-room deals are done and alliances formed, but as I've been struggling to keep up with the news of late for various reasons, I'm not clear on what developments have occurred. Each candidate has a number from 1 to 12 and to an extent campaigning has been centred around these prominently displayed numbers - making it somehow feel even more like some kind of Formula 1 Grand Prix event. But even though this certainly makes it easier to follow when Candidate 9 drops out of the race, I still don't understand which number politician is still in the running, who's in the lead, and who's limping towards the pits.

Meanwhile, there are also elections going on for the 273 seats in Korea's National Assembly, so even far away from the capital here in Busan the days have regularly been interrupted by campaign Bongos being driven around imploring people to vote for particular national candidates. Which makes a change from the constant drone of 'yangpa, yangpa' which is otherwise impossible to escape from in my apartment block. I dream of the day when I'll be elected to the local council on the back of a policy banning the sale of onions. Intriguingly, according to the Kyodo News agency, 16% of Korea's National Assembly candidates have criminal records including "violations of the National Security Law, fraud, adultery, acts of violence and bribe taking." which perhaps just goes to show that stereotypes sometimes exist for a reason. That you end up reading such allegations from a Japanese news agency may or may not be coincidence. Whatever the realities of such convictions, I have to say that driving around with a bunch of half-naked girls shouting your praises on the back of a Bongo would not be an image I would want to be associated with as a middle-aged male political candidate for so very many good reasons. Disturbingly though, I've seen this with my own eyes here, where apparently, it's perfectly fine.

I actually ran in to one of the local candidates, a Number Six model no less, while loitering in my favourite area of Busan, Nampodong, a couple of weeks back, giving an impassioned speech to a crowd which was motivated enough to clap but didn't quite have the feel of the Nuremberg Rallies about it either. I did consider shouting out from my position lurking in the shadows of a building entrance (old habits die hard) '외국인은 집에 가라!' - 'foreigners go home!' - as a social experiment to gauge the reaction, but wisely thought better of it at a fairly late stage in the plan. Sadly though, in a way I do look forward to the day that I can understand these speeches sufficiently to stand near the front of the crowd listening intently to the grand visions of those who would seek to represent - or govern - others, while meanwhile idly speculating as the possibility of a foreigner getting elected to public office in Korea... oh no. Still, as I've yet to violate National Security Law, commit fraud, adultery, acts of violence or take bribes, perhaps I wouldn't stand much of a chance.

Yangpa, yangpa.

Korean keywords: 정치, 선거, 투표, 선거하다, 불신하다

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