Sunday, February 28, 2016

Keep That Filibuster Going!

2016 is turning out to be an interesting year. Not long into the new year and we were greeted by North Korea's fourth nuclear test, another long-range rocket test, the closure of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a ratcheting up of cross-border tension, talks of (maybe) finally installing THAAD in Korea, and now, a pending anti-terror bill in South Korea that is, as of this writing, being filibustered for the fifth day.

And it's not even March.

I remember watching Kim Dae Jung shaking Kim Jong Il's hand in Pyongyang on CNN back in 2000. Like many people at the time, I sincerely hoped that this was the beginning of a new era in inter-Korean relations and that it was the first step toward eventual reunification. But then it was revealed that the whole thing was based on a lie and everything went to hell from thereon.

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For ten years, during the Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun administrations, when South Korea's policy toward the necrocratic northern regime was one of rainbows and sunshine (pun intended), the relative cordial relationship between Seoul and Pyongyang meant that for the first time in their existence, the conservatives could not use buk-pung, the North Wind -- the real and perceived threat posed by North Korea -- to influence elections in their favor.

When President Lee Myung Bak ended his predecessors' policy of providing near-unconditional aid to the North, relations soured, thus showing the world how much an idiot Kim Jong Il was. He could have kept up his charm offensive and taken advantage of the anti-American sentiment that was present in South Korea at the time and effectively caused a permanent rift between the conservatives and the voters. That North Korean leaders have always been stupid is something that I will eternally be grateful for.

However, even when the North Koreans shelled Yeonpyeongdo, the North Wind was relatively calm. I remember when Park Geun-hye was campaigning to become president, she spoke much more often about "economic democracy" than she did about North Korea and when she did talk about North Korea, she spoke of trustpolitik.

In a few short years, both the Sunshine Policy and trustpolitik have died. Good riddance. It was once famously said that North Korea does not respond to pressure well, but that it does not respond to anything else. Sanctions, displays of military might, thinly-veiled threats of regime change or regime collapse -- these are the things that North Korea understands and takes seriously.

For hawks like me and everyone else who despises North Korea and all that it stands for, recent changes that have occurred in inter-Korean relations have been a much long-awaited gift. However, the conservatives seem to be determined to prove yet again that they don't need an opposition party to make themselves look like idiots as they have once again overreached with this new pending anti-terror bill.

To explain, we have to go back a few days. A few days ago, like everyone else who pays any attention to Korean news, I read that Minjoo lawmakers were filibustering the National Assembly to prevent the anti-terror bill from being passed. Admittedly, I was quite intrigued. I had heard of South Korean lawmakers turning the National Assembly into a barroom brawl on many occasions in the past, but I have never heard of them resorting to something as civilized as a a filibuster to get their point across.

I admit, however, that I did not take the filibuster very seriously beyond my initial surprise and that is because I do not take the Minjoo Party itself very seriously. Many of its members were the same ones who supported the Sunshine Policy and many of them nodded in agreement when President Roh Moo Hyun claimed that the United States was the greatest threat to peace. I also could never feel anything besides revulsion regarding the Minjoo Party's economic platforms (see here, here, here, and here).

However, as the filibuster went on for days thus breaking world records, and as the word itself became the latest imported foreign word into the Korean language, I decided to see for myself what the whole fuss was about. So, after being directed to the National Assembly's website to read the bill by Christopher Green, I could only come to one logical conclusion.

Buk-pung is back and it is back with a vengeance. And as the French would say, merde.

As I read the bill, I thought that the vast majority of it was remarkably uncontroversial. Especially after hearing incredibly disconcerting claims that the North Koreans are planning to conduct acts of terror against South Korea and plans to assassinate South Korean officials, I expected something a bit more shrill.

Instead, most of the bill explained how and what the law would consider to be acts of terror, what a terrorist group is (it's whatever the UN declares is a terrorist group) what is speech in favor of terror, how and when to freeze terrorists' assets, its plans to prevent people who are suspected of having terror ties from entering the country, etc.

They are pretty straightforward and should not and does not deserve any kinds of raised eyebrows. And one cannot but be surprised that such common sense laws don't already exist. But that was the 90% of the bill that didn't hold any surprises. The raised eyebrows came from the remaining 10%.

As it is currently written, the rest of the 10% of the bill calls for creating a new anti-terrorism unit and for it to be placed under the control of the Prime Minister. That all sounds well and good in theory, but the fact remains that the Prime Minister's office is largely a symbolic and toothless one that is hardly independent from the President. In fact, over the past eight years, there have been eight prime ministers.

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The bill also states that the National Intelligence Service will be given the authority to conduct surveillance by wiretapping people's telephones, observing their Internet communications, monitoring their bank accounts and travel logs, and delete Internet posts if the NIS deems them to be "threats to public safety" -- some of it without having to get a court order.

Although Saenuri lawmakers and President Park can claim that safeguards have been guaranteed in the bill to ensure that there is no abuse of power, the fact is that the bill promises to place only ONE person whose job will be to protect people's right to privacy. If that is not a blatant example of tokenism, then I don't know what is.

And therein lies the problem. The NIS has what could euphemistically be called a PR problem. During the presidential election, the NIS was caught trying to meddle in the election process; and during other times there have been corruption charges and arrests, deleted information and suicides, and trumped up evidence. And these are just some of the scandals that the NIS was in the middle of in the past four years. Not forty, but four years! If we go further back in time, the NIS (or the Agency for National Security Planning or the Korean Central Intelligence Agency as it was called once upon a time) has been responsible for a lot of nasty things. President Kim Dae Jung was tortured by them when he was a much younger man!

As the old saying goes, it's not paranoia if they really ARE after you. Considering the abuse of power that we have witnessed even in recent times alone, the further centralization of power in the hands of a small number of spies -- and that's what they are, spies -- who are often protected by the president and even the courts and often have their own agenda -- does not breed a lot of confidence in the public. And I've already seen what the Patriot Act has done in the United States. This is one American import that I can certainly live without!

Though I am still surprised myself that I am saying this, Minjoo lawmakers actually have a valid point. And the fact that Saenuri lawmakers are still pushing for this bill to be made into law without any further compromise goes to show that they care for nothing besides getting reelected. Never mind the public's legitimate fears of their freedoms being taken away! They ought to be ashamed of themselves. Of course, this presumes that politicians are capable of feeling shame.

Of course, I am not under any illusion that the Minjoo Party cares about people's right to privacy either. Considering how badly they have been battered with major defections and loss of party leadership, I am sure that Minjoo lawmakers are desperately trying to do everything they can to shore up votes before the upcoming elections. It doesn't matter who the players are. It's all a game to them.

As usual, I can't bring myself to feel anything besides contempt for every political party and politician involved. But at least this one time, I fully support the filibuster and I dearly hope that this bill dies, again.

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Thursday, February 4, 2016

Movie Review: Trumbo

WARNING: The following blog post contains a lot of spoilers. If you have not yet seen Trumbo and wish to do so without having the plot given away, then do not read this.

When I first saw the trailer for Trumbo a few months ago, I knew that this was a movie that I wanted to watch. But I also knoew that this was not going to be a movie that I'd be able to watch in a theater in Korea.

Now I'm not saying that the Korean government somehow prevented the movie from being shown in Korea. There is no evidence for that. Also, there are many reasons why a movie might not play in theaters in any particular country. However, considering the fact that Korea is a country where ironic tweets can get you into trouble and where a professor can get indicted for merely holding an unpopular opinion, well, it made it all that much sadder that the movie has not made it to theaters here yet. If anyone needs to watch this movie, it's Koreans.

Bryan Cranston plays the eponymous character, Dalton Trumbo, an eccentric and witty screenwriter (whom I discovered only after having watched the movie that he had penned some of my favorite classic movies such as Roman Holiday and Spartacus) who also happened to be a member of the Communist Party of the United States of America.

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Anyone who is familiar with me and my blog already knows that I am a staunch anti-communist. So before I sat down to watch this movie, I already knew that there was going to be a part of me that would feel uncomfortable knowing that the movie's protagonist was going to be a character who held beliefs that I am fundamentally hostile to.

And there were parts of the movie when I did shake my head a bit. The first moment was early on in the movie when Trumbo explains to his young daughter that if she were willing to share her Ham and Swiss Cheese sandwich with a schoolmate who didn't have any food, that made her a communist. Obviously, in this scene, a father was taking pains to explain to his very young daughter a political opinion that he held. So, the scene would not have made any sense if Cranston's character gave a speech about the virtues of Das Kapital. However, it is obvious that this is more than just a father explaining what communism is to his young daughter. Rather, it was the filmmakers attempt at explaining what communism is to the audience. And as a member of the audience, I felt insulted.

The other moments were when the anti-communists, the bad guys – a meatheaded John Wayne (played by David James Elliott), a vicious Hedda Hopper (played by Helen Mirren), and a slimy J. Parnell Thomas (played by James DuMont) along with other extras – were treated like two-dimensional stock villains. Was John Wayne's anti-communism a result of a him trying to compensate the fact that he did not fight in the Second World War? Was Hedda Hopper really trying to preserve American democracy from what she thought of as a threat that millions of American soldiers were fighting against or was it her way of getting back at a movie industry that forsook her because she had grown old? What about J. Parnell Thomas? Was he simply looking to gain more political power for himself or might there have been other reasons?

None of that was given much attention. That being said, I don't think that the filmmakers ought to be judged too harshly for glossing over the villains. After all, the move itself lasted for about only two hours. So it was obviously impossible to explore every individual's inner psyche. This wasn't the fault of the filmmakers but rather the fault of the medium itself. And that, I think, is all the more reason why I think television shows are becoming increasingly more popular among the audience than movies.

One thing that I think is important to mention, however, is that no one who has ever watched this movie could ever say that Trumbo is pro-communist. Aside from the first scene I mentioned and the brief scenes that Louis CK was in, there was no talk whatsoever about communist ideas. In fact, the whole idea of Trumbo being a communist was made quite silly when Cranston appears in one scene holding a bottle of champagne in each hand exclaiming We're rich!” after he sells the rights to Roman Holiday to Paramount Pictures.

If anyone watched this movie hoping to see a stirring defense of communism, they would have left feeling utterly disappointed. The fact that Trumbo was a communist was treated as though it were a mere coincidence.

In fact, Trumbo himself is probably not the first candidate that even genuine communists might choose to represent as his/her ideal hero because like Louis CK says in the movie, Trumbo talks like a radical but lives like a rich guy. Had Trumbo been a contemporary figure, I have no doubt that many people today would have treated him much like the way people treat Sean Penn (who really deserves to be treated like an idiot).

Not your grandfather's communist!
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No, the movie was not a defense of communism but rather a defense of individual liberty – especially the notion that people are free to think whatever the hell they want.

It simply does not matter what an individual thinks. The only person whom that should be important to is the individual himself. Trumbo was a communist, perhaps an imperfect communist, but he was a genius screenwriter who was able to make movies seem like magic.

That led to another theme of the movie – what a rational individual can produce with his own mind. Just like how Mel Gibson may be a racist (or maybe he is only when drunk) but he is an amazing director and actor and how Ayn Rand may have been an unpleasant harpy but she was an intellectual titan to reckon with, what truly matters is what one is able to bring to the table. Trumbo brought with him a Midas Touch. Every movie he made, even the bad ones, were made terrific because he worked on them.

What does it matter what the individual thinks in his own time when the work that the individual produces is so good that it practically loved by so many?

The fact of the matter is that what people think in the privacy of their own minds do not matter to the State. It is not something that the State should ever be concerned with. So long as people are able to produce works of beauty, and even if they don't, what does it matter what they think in the privacy of their own heads?

However, to this day, the State does remain concerned with such things. When people's lives can be made miserable over a newspaper column, it is obvious that Trumbo's fight is not over.

I don't know if Trumbo will ever be played in Korean theaters. But knowing the rate of piracy that goes on in the country, along with the rate of independent caption making that goes with pirated movies, I hope that millions of Koreans do get to watch this movie – legally or illegally. Preferably legally, of course.

For God knows that one thing that Koreans need, among many things, is the freedom of thought.

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