As 2011 came to a close, the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il took the world by surprise (including the CIA which, like the rest of us, only learned of his passing 48 hours later). Given the dearth of understanding about North Korea in the West, the media could only speculate about the future of the new regime in Pyongyang. The usual pundits also took the opportunity to renew their calls for regime change. After all, 2011 was the year when the masses rose up to overthrow repressive regimes; could the same fate be in store for North Korea?
If anything has become clear in the weeks following Kim Jong Il’s passing, it is that regime collapse is not in the cards for North Korea. In fact, since 2008, the world has known of Kim’s failing health. Furthermore, North Korea has experienced succession before: in 1994,Kim Il Sung passed away during an incredibly tumultuous time, domestically and internationally. Kim Jong Il took over the reins of power at a time when the socialist trading bloc had collapsed, essentially eliminating overnight North Korea’s historic allies and trading partners. Not only did it lack critical imports such as fuel to run tractors, North Korea faced a new world in which its historic enemy—the United States— was the world’s sole superpower. North Korea also endured the difficult period of serial droughts and floods, which contributed to the food crisis where up to one million North Koreans are thought to have perished in the famine during Kim Jong Il’s rule.
By all accounts, the current succession is going as planned. On December 30, Kim Jong Il’s son, Kim Jong Un was named the supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army, reflecting the backing of the Military Commission and the Worker’s Party. While Kim Jung Un’s ascendancy won’t likely bring about any significant short-term changes politically, economically, or militarily to North Korea, his reign contains a number of question marks. Little is known about him beyond the fact that he is young, was educated partly outside of North Korea in Switzerland, and didn’t grow up during the Cold War.
What happens in North Korea, however, is also clearly influenced by what happens in Seoul, and the winds of change are blowing strong south of the Demilitarized Zone where grassroots movements are challenging the country’s retrograde neo-Cold War leadership. After four long years under President Lee Myung Bak’s repressive and hard-line policies, 2011 marked the revival of democracy in South Korea thanks to three particularly inspiring developments for peace, economic justice, and anti-corruption.
Korean Spring South
One grassroots movement that is successfully challenging the militarization of South Korea and the ROK-U.S. alliance is the inspiring organizing of farmers, fishermen, and women sea divers of Gangjeong village working relentlessly to stop the construction of a naval base on Jeju Island. If all goes as planned, by 2014, the base will host 20 warships, nuclear aircraft carriers and submarines, and two Aegis destroyers integrated with the U.S. Missile Defense System. And this isn’t just any village on any island. Gangjeong is home to a UNESCO World Heritage site, a UNESCO biosphere reserve, and a government-designated “absolute preservation area” characterized by rare rock formations, abundant and fertile farmlands, pristine fresh and sea waters, and endangered marine life. Although villagers have been waging a nonviolent struggle for nearly five years, 2011 was a turning point in their ability to gain both national and international attention, including major coverage in top-tier media and global peace solidarity.
Using direct action tactics, including using their bodies to block construction trucks and dredging ships, Gangjeong villagers delayed base construction by nearly eight months. As international coverage of their struggle grew, so did the repression by the South Korean government and Navy. Dozens of activists and villagers were beaten, fined and arrested, including Gangjeong village mayor Kang Dok-kyun. Undeterred, the activists and villagers—backed by hundreds of religious, peace, and environmental groups throughout South Korea and internationally—continued to stage daily protests at the construction site.
Good news finally arrived on December 30 when the National Assembly cut 96 percent of the 2012 budget for the naval base. According to Gangjeong activist Sung-Hee Choi, “such a tremendous defense budget cut is unprecedented in the history of the Republic of Korea.” Although this cut heralds a major victory for Gangjeong villagers, Choi cautions that nearly 75 percent of the 2011 budget of 151.6 billion won was not used due to the delay in construction, which the Navy will likely use for 2012 and to justify more funding for 2013.
Another example of inspiring organizing that has sparked a national discussion on the growing inequality in South Korea came from Busan, a port city in the southeast. There, Kim Jin Suk, the country’s first woman welder, staged a one-woman protest against layoffs by Hanjin Heavy Industry and Construction. In January, Kim climbed up a 35-meter high crane after Hanjin announced plans that it would layoff 400 workers. For 309 days, the 51-year old Kim lived in the cab of the crane, surviving typhoons, monsoons, and heat waves.
After 100 days when Kim’s spirit began to flag, thousands of citizens from around the country hopped on hundreds of “Hope Buses” to show their support of Kim’s protest. Riot police used water cannons and tear gas to stop the first wave of 7,000 bus riders traveling on 185 buses.
On November 10, Kim finally climbed down after the company and the union worked out a temporary agreement to reinstate 94 workers within one year, compensation for dismissed workers, and the withdrawal of lawsuits. Kim’s protest reflected the growing anger among South Korea’s middle and working classes who have felt shafted by the Lee administration’s pro-business policies and the systematic dismantling of the country’s social safety net.
A third development in South Korea that has become legendary for raising tough issues of corruption by President Lee and other political leaders is the hugely popular weekly online talk show that launched in April. Named after the nickname given to President Lee by his most vocal critics, “NaneunGgomsuda” (“I am a petty-minded creep”)covers corruption within South Korean politics and the dominance of the conservative, pro-business, and pro-government media. NaneunGgomsuda is the nation’s most popular podcast with approximately six million downloads per week. According to New York Times journalist Choe Sang-hun, “NaneunGgomsuda has emerged as an influential channel of anti-government views.” In December, former National Assembly member Chung Bong-ju, one of the four co-hosts of the show was sentenced to one year in prison for allegedly spreading rumors that President Lee had been implicated in a stock market scandal, a transparent attempt by the political elite to censor the show and intimidate its hosts.
Not only has the podcast served as an influential medium for expressing the outrage of many South Koreans, it played a major role last November in the outcome of the mayoral re-election in Seoul. NaneunGgomsudawas among the first to highlight an attack by hackers on the national election commission website, later discovered to have been coordinated by a ruling party official and aimed at ruining the chances of independent candidate Park Won-soon. In a landslide victory, Park beat the likely frontrunner Na Kyung-won of the ruling Grand National Party. This was a significant win for many reasons. For one, Park is known as the grandfather of modern South Korean civil society for founding many liberal institutions, such as the nation’s premier watchdog group People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy and the philanthropic organization Beautiful Foundation. He now governs Seoul, the nation’s capital with a population of over 10 million people that commands half of the country’s GDP. Furthermore, the election in Seoul is a bell weather of what’s to come in next year’s national assembly and presidential elections.
The changes occurring in South Korea may not only usher in a more progressive regime in 2012 and greater social justice; it will undoubtedly influence the way that Pyongyang chooses to engage with Seoul. It took both North and South Korean leaders to make the sunshine policy possible, though the South Korean leaders got most of the credit.
The popular uprisings in the south will no doubt influence prospects for reconciliation, peace, and the reunification of Korea. These changes on the Korean peninsula present a unique opportunity for the Obama administration to take a constructive approach on Korea for a change, instead of blindly following an unpopular South Korean president whose time is up.
*Christine Ahn is Executive Director of the Korea Policy Institute, a policy and research analyst with the Global Fund for Women and a Foreign Policy In Focus columnist.