Last Saturday, the Jongro area police chief was attacked by a mob of unruly protesters. Superintendent Park Geon Chan was punched in the face and had his insignia ripped off as he requested an end to illegal protests taking place at Gwanghwamun. Is this a trivial incident? Absolutely not. It was an extremely serious incident, and one emblematic of the state of the Lee Myung Bak regime and the whole country.
The fact that a police chief could be roughed up in this way shows that South Korea is a country in which people are prone to getting caught up in ‘revolutionary fervor’. They are clumsy words, certainly, but if they are misdirected it is because the protesters’ behavior seems to lack any particular aim. In saying that they possess this revolutionary fervor, I refer to their perception that an alternative authority exists, one which is fundamentally at odds with the state, and one which possesses a true mandate to rule. The protesters see the current state as illegitimate and, if they had their way, would punish those responsible for their ‘crimes’.
All the evidence you need that this attitude exists in South Korea can be found within the violent mob of protesters calling the police chief a ‘traitor’. Given that it is a word specifically used to refer to high treason, it is not a designation handed out flippantly. It is a word that implies culpability for the worst crime one could possibly commit against his or her country. The violent mob clearly demonstrated that they consider themselves to be some sort of defenders of the state, and that the police chief is little more than a traitor to it. To put it that way makes it seem as if the whole world has been flipped upside-down. What happened on Saturday was the result of revolutionary fervor finding its cause in the minds of a few protestors who, rather than choosing to engage in simple policy discussion, instead chose to deny the validity and legality of the state altogether.
Having said that, the government cannot avoid its share of the blame. Are the authorities really going to pass off what happened as a mere ‘incident’? For their part, the police have of course already pledged to conduct a ‘rigorous investigation’, but that is not enough; we must understand what role the state itself played in giving rise to this incident in the first place.
The current government has a fundamental problem understanding its own role in this. Lee Myung Bak has this problem, and so does his Public Administration and Security Minister, Maeng Hyung Kyu. The two of them have absolutely no idea, and no conception of just how serious this incident was.
The right to express one’s opinion peacefully and in accordance with the law is guaranteed by the constitution, and the state is bound to respect those rights. But when a group of vigilantes get it into their head that they can punish anyone they identify as guilty of high treason according to their own set of rules, then the state needs to use all its powers within the law to put a stop to that. If it does not, then it has already abandoned its legitimacy. So, where does that leave this us? We are eagerly awaiting the response of the Lee Myung Bak administration.