Thursday, July 12, 2012

It's the Election, Stupid!

When something happens like the July 5th arrest of Ro Su Hui, the vice-chairman of the ‘South Korean section’ of the “heavily left-leaning” (at best) Reunification of the Fatherland Union (RFU), it is easy to simply criticize the South Korean government for what appears at face value to have been a ridiculous overreaction that handed North Korea a propaganda victory.

It is certainly the case that by arresting Ro as soon as he crossed the Military Demarcation Line at Panmunjom, the South Korean government did exactly what the North Korean government will have wanted it to do. There is also little doubt that Ro, a balding, mid-60s, died-in-the-wool pro-North figure, will have received a briefing in Pyongyang prior to his return during which he will have been instructed to resist his inevitable arrest and ensure, as did happen, that he would be wrestled to the ground and handcuffed. That he was tied up with a length of rope before being led away was, perhaps, an unexpected bonus.

While all this was playing out, Chosun Central News Agency (KCNA) fulfilled its side of the Faustian bargain made with Ro (who now faces at least 3 years behind bars, if precedent be any guide) by capturing footage and still images of the debacle, not to mention of the couple of hundred colorful hanbok-wearing ‘civilians’ who had been bussed into the de-militarized zone especially to wave the flag of the unified Korea and cheer him off. This was then published in Rodong Shinmun and via the Chosun Central News Agency over a number of days, where it was spun in order to illustrate the anti-unification stance of the evil Lee Myung Bak administration.

In every way it was a classic North Korean stitch-up, one that everyone who was looking the right way must have seen coming. But that is also why, if you were one of those who found yourself shaking your head and asking what the South Korean government and security forces thought they were doing by offering such a propaganda slam-dunk to Pyongyang, you know you are getting it wrong. In this case, the truth is that, while it may be hard even to understand, much less to applaud, such a massive over-application of force actually plays quite well with certain constituencies inside South Korea, and that is the point.

Keen defenders of the nation state burn effigies of Ro Su Hui on public streets

In other words, it was actually a very calculated move, one whose purpose was actually nothing to do with inter-Korean relations. The point was simply to galvanize the conservative voter base (see above for image of only slightly extreme voter sample).

An op-ed in the Donga Ilbo, a conservative daily newspaper with solid links to the Saenuri Party, illustrates the point beautifully.

“We cannot simply ignore these groups that are, as North Korea’s tools, a threat to the very existence of liberal democracy,” the piece proclaimed breathlessly on the 6th, the day immediately after Ro’s arrest. “The police must raid the offices of the RFU and immediately detain all related officials. These are unavoidable measures for the defense of the law and the nation state.”

In fact, most of the people who were shocked by his arrest would not have voted for the Saenuri Party anyway, and most of the people who were pleased by it were virulently anti-communist Saenuri Party voters. These people applauded, and had it reconfirmed for them that only the conservative party is in the business of protecting the nation state. Job done, votes secured.

Meanwhile, this was fine with the remainder of the populace, by far the largest proportion overall, because they simply didn’t care.

International observers of North Korea have a tendency to forget this last demographic, and the broader fact that underpins it; South Korean people do not, by and large, ever give a second thought to North Korea. Put it another way; almost everyone under the age of 40 with whom I tried to pursue this issue from July 5th to July 11th needed me to tell them who Ro Su Hui is before they were able to give me an opinion.

This being the case, what does the conservative government in power have to lose by its actions? Such preposterous arrests may be detrimental to inter-Korean relations in the long term, but since when was liberal democratic politics a long-term endeavor? Much less in a country with a one-term limit!

In South Korea right now, winning this December’s election is all that matters, and that is the reason why Ro was trussed up like a serial killer. Perhaps regrettably, it actually makes perfect sense. We'll just have to wait for December 19th to see whether it has worked.

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