Friday, December 9, 2016

President Park Geun-hye has been Impeached!

200 votes were needed to impeach President Park Geun-hye. 234 members of the National Assembly voted to impeach President Park Geun-hye.

For the second time in South Korea’s short history, the National Assembly has moved to impeach a sitting president. Until the Constitutional Court gives its voice on whether or not to approve the motion, the Prime Minister will serve as acting president.

If the Constitutional Court approves the motion, it would be the beginning of a new day in South Korea’s democracy. It would be the first time that a sitting president has been lawfully and democratically removed from office - the first peaceful and legal revocation of power. Considering the mounting evidence that are being stacked against President Park Geun-hye, Choi Soon-sil, and corporate leaders, there is a very good chance that the Constitutional Court will agree that impeachment is warranted.

However, this was never just about Park Geun-hye or Choi Soon-sil. This scandal, this impeachment - everything that we have seen for the past month and a half has been far more than just the removal of a president and shadow president. It has been about government power and the corruption that surrounds it. It has been a popular movement to bring about accountability. This is a new day for South Korea
’s democracy.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that rhetoric about justice is where this story will end. Politics will rear its ugly head before too long. In fact, I’ll give it less than a day before it does.

The people’s mood has soured against anyone who has ever been associated with the Saenuri Party. It wouldn’t matter if there was anyone competent or intelligent or who possessed integrity from that party. For now, no one from that party is going to fare well with the people. As a result, the party will be dissolved and be replaced with something else. For now, it’s the Minjoo Party’s time to shine.

When they take over the reins of government, the Park administration’s decision to deploy THAAD missile batteries might be overturned. Relations with Japan may worsen by revisiting the comfort women agreement and canceling the military intelligence-sharing deal. Decisions may be made to once again pour aid toward North Korea. No effort must be spared to fight the next government’s foolish decisions.

But politics can resume tomorrow. For now, we can all catch a breath and celebrate democracy.

대한민국 만세!

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Thursday, December 8, 2016

Movie Review: La La Land

WARNING: The following review contains spoilers. If you have not yet seen La La Land and wish to do so without having the plot given away, then do not read this.

In fact, dont read any other review either. Go to the theater and watch it now. I cannot possibly emphasize more how much I would like people to go watch this movie. Don’t stream it from a shady website. Don’t torrent it. Don’t wait for it to come out on Netflix. Go to the theater and watch it now. You won’t regret it.

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Some of the earliest movies I remember having watched as a child were musicals and from a young age, I knew that musicals were different from other types of movies. They were different because every topic they dealt with - love, longing, hope, family - were made bigger and purer through their dancing and singing. Sure, Harry had no problems telling Sally that he wanted the rest of his life to start with hers as soon as possible, but Gene Kelly had You Were Meant For Me. Gene Kelly wins hands down.

Musicals ensured that I grew up a romantic. Reality beat it out of me. Love fades, the burden of responsibility grows heavier, wrinkles deepen, hairlines recede, waists expand, recessions bring despair, and youthful idealism is beaten and calloused until all that remains is wary cynicism. However, musicals, especially those made famous by Broadway and Disney can and do still serve as a refuge from harsh realities. Unfortunately, musicals have been few and far between. Good ones even more so.

So I went to watch La La Land with the minimal of expectations. All I knew about the movie was the title, the two lead actors, and the fact that it was a musical. Nothing else. By the time the movie ended about two hours later, I could only think of one word to describe what I had seen, heard, and felt. Magical.

For one thing, it won’t be hard for many people to find the lead characters relatable. Mia (Emma Stone) dropped out of college to move to Los Angeles where she works as a barista and she goes to one audition after another only to have the door slammed on her face by rude and uncaring agents, directors, and producers. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz musician who wants to open his own jazz bar so that he can play music as it was meant to be played but in reality is a starving artist who plays Christmas jingles for measly tip money at a family restaurant. That restaurant’s owner, by the way, is portrayed by J.K. Simmons who seems to be paying a gentle homage to a much more aggressive character he portrayed in Whiplash (both La La Land and Whiplash were directed by Damien Chazelle).

The two meet repeatedly through sheer chance that is so ridiculous that it can only be found in movies. They fall in love, move in with each other, they both push each other to find the successes they dream of, they argue when they think the other isn’t living up to their potential, and in the meantime, there are plenty of singing and dancing.

As for the music, what’s odd about the movie is that there isn’t a single song that I would consider an instant classic. There was no single Defying Gravity moment where a single song’s climactic high notes can can leave the audience breathless. I am sure that at least a couple of the movie’s songs - City of Stars, a jazzy tune with a haunting refrain, and Audition (The Fools Who Dream), the movie’s ultimate anthem - will be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song. But it doesn’t seem likely that the songs will have as much longevity or recognition as musical classics go. Also, the two lead actors aren’t the best singers in the world. Had any singer auditioned in front of Simon Cowell singing like that...

Despite that, however, the movie works. The songs might not become instant classics, but instead of relying just on the songs (the lyrics) to move the plot forward, the movie also focused on dance choreography and the music itself. There is a scene where the two actors literally dance among the stars and not a word is said between them. What words can one use to adequately describe a feeling like that? And toward the end of the movie, the two opening notes of City of Stars better convey the characters’ emotions than most songs ever could.

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The movie could have had a mawkish happy ending. But it veered away from that. Depending on one’s fortitude, the ending can be described as being anything from bittersweet to downright heartbreaking. The movie takes its own advice and instead of going for the likable, it goes for the truth and by doing so, the movie goes from being good to great.

And what is the truth? The truth is that everyone has a dream, but most dreams end up broken and scattered on the ground, which is all the more reason so many people do whatever they can to not end up on that boulevard of broken dreams. But there are costs to pursuing one’s dreams and oftentimes one of those things that people have to give up is “the fairy tale ending.”

As the final credits roll, one realizes that the movie was not so much a story about two star-crossed lovers, but rather an ode to everyone with “a dream as foolish as they may seem.”

2016 was a disappointing year for movies. La La Land pushed hard against that and buckled the trend. It was beautiful, well-crafted, romantic, bittersweet, heartbreaking, and honest. It is the best movie that I have seen all year. Perhaps even the best movie that I have seen in a good long while. Here
’s to hoping for more movies like this!

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Friday, December 2, 2016

Populism and Nostalgia: Now it's the Progressives' Turn

Considering President Park Geun-hye’s dismal approval ratings, her electoral win for the presidency back in 2012 seems like more than a distant memory. However, in order to understand how her successor is going to become the next president, it is important to understand how she won in the first place.

We cannot discount the facts. There were many things that favored her victory in 2012. The two biggest factors that favored her were that South Korea is a conservative country and also an aging one. The latter is easy to explain. Older voters tend to prefer conservative leaders. The former can be gleaned from the fact that since 1987, four out of the six presidents were conservatives.

However, those factors alone may not have been enough to have guaranteed Park’s victory. In fact, Park, who for all intents and purposes led a less than remarkable life during her years in “exile” since her father’s assassination, may never have even been able to return to politics in 1998 had she not ridden a wave of nostalgia from older voters. Her repeated invocations of “the second Miracle of the Han River” and “the new Saemaul Movement” during the campaign were deliberate attempts to stoke this sense of nostalgia for a time when rapid economic growth and dizzying changes were the norm - never mind the dictatorship!

As for the claims that she would be a dictator (laughable as they are now seeing how she turned out to be grossly incompetent rather than anything so respectable as a dictator) she was able to brush it off with two simple words - economic democratization. Her presidency was supposed to be the start of a new type of conservatism - one that continued to focus on economic growth as set forth by President Lee Myung-bak while at the same time hijacking the progressives’ most important rallying call of social and economic justice. Compassionate conservatism, if you will. Whether or not her campaign promises were at all realistic is another matter entirely.

In short, populism and nostalgia for a whitewashed past are what helped to propel Park Geun-hye into the Blue House.

“Dictatorship? What dictatorship? Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative!
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With Park’s recent statements about her willingness to resign if the National Assembly “minimizes the confusion and vacuum in state affairs and ensure a stable transfer of power,” it seems all but certain that one way or another, she will not be able to complete her single five-year term as originally scheduled. Due to the unprecedented levels of disapproval that she is currently facing from the general public, despite the fact that South Korea is a conservative and aging society, it seems that there is a very good chance that the progressives can retake the Blue House in the next presidential election.

However, the progressives cannot take anything for granted. Should Ban Ki-moon return from the United Nations next year and run for president (possibly after establishing a new party seeing how tainted the Saenuri brand is), they may fail to capture the Blue House yet again. For that very reason, just like Park Geun-hye won the election four years ago by riding on a dual wave of populism and nostalgia, the progressives are going to try to do the same but with their own twist.

But just as nostalgia that propelled Park Geun-hye into the Blue House was based on whitewashed history, the nostalgia that the progressives will ride will be based on whitewashed history, too, as it will carefully steer away from remembering the incompetence of Roh Moo-hyun’s presidency. However, there is no better time to cherry-pick memories of President Roh. That is because as ineffective as Roh Moo-hyun was as president, he was an entirely different beast as a campaigner and much of the rhetoric that he employed back then would be more than welcomed by many voters today.

For instance, not long after getting elected president, Roh Moo-hyun said:

“My fellow citizens, it is said that if everyone shares the same dream, that dream becomes a reality. A society that is run on common sense and where everyone plays by the same rules. A society where each person’s station in life will be determined by the sweat of his own brow. That is the new Republic of Korea that we all dream of. Let us work together to make that dream a reality.”

Whereas Roh gave the people a sense of hope for a society where everyone plays by the same rules, Chung Yoo-ra, Choi Soon-sil’s daughter, became modern-day Korea’s Marie Antoinette when she said something quite different. She said to her peers:

“If you are dissatisfied with your station in life, try blaming your parents instead of demanding that those with rich parents give you whatever you want. Having money is a skill, too. If you don’t like where you are in life, change it. But seeing how you’re so busy trying to tear down others, how do you expect to succeed in anything you do?”

Never mind Ms. Chung was able to live a life of luxury thanks to her mother’s money. There is nothing wrong with inheriting anything. However, the fact remains that the money that allowed her to live the way she pleased was not earned honestly, but was looted by her mother who used her political connections to become a racketeer of near-legendary proportions. In an age of unbridled and unapologetic cronyism and nepotism, nothing sounds so sweet as Roh Moo-hyun’s call for justice and equality.

The man who could do no wrong...
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A skilled orator who never shied away from addressing the public directly, Roh was the very opposite of an aloof and authoritarian leader - what Park Geun-hye is often (and justifiably) accused of being. So much so that during the height of his unpopularity, he proposed to hold a national referendum - a vote of no confidence - on himself to see just how much the public trusted him! What political leader holds votes of no confidence against himself?

Not to mention that he was an outright populist who imposed a “tax bomb” on homeowners. Although his tax policies, which were later declared to have been unconstitutional, did no favors whatsoever to help to grow the economy, in today’s political climate where many Koreans speak of noblesse oblige like as though it were some kind of religious dogma, any contemporary politician who promises to go after “the rich” will likely be cheered as a hero.

At a time when many are openly calling Saenuri lawmakers accomplices in the Park Geun-hye/Choi Soon-sil scandal and are demanding they resign en masse along with President Park, Roh Moo-hyun
’s rhetoric would once again be welcomed with open arms. During his time in office, he refused to compromise with the Saenuri Party (or the Grand National Party as it was called back then). He was also a gifted orator who never hesitated to abandon protocol to speak directly to the people and a firebrand who promised to work toward building a more just society.

However, it has to be remembered that he was an ineffective leader and many have called his presidency a failure.

At a time when the public’s anti-American sentiments were threatening to tear up the US-ROK alliance, instead of trying to calm things down, Roh once famously asked a rhetorical question - “What’s wrong with being anti-American?”

Furthermore, he went on to say that the United States, South Korea’s most important ally, was the biggest threat to peace in Northeast Asia.

When he wasn’t abusing this most vital of alliances like an unwanted child, he was making a fool of himself by proposing to the Japanese government that the Sea of Japan be renamed the Sea of Peace. Or he was telling Kim Jong Il that he would be willing to redraw South Korea’s western maritime border aka the Northern Limit Line according to North Korea’s wishes in order to “draw a peace and economics map to replace the security and military one,” which would have been capitulation in all but name.

Finally, the greatest flaw of his presidency was the fact that this supposedly moral and upright man eventually felt compelled to kill himself when his family was investigated by state prosecutors on corruption charges.

...turned out to have done a lot of wrong.
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However, none of these facts are important. At least not for those who seek to exploit his memory for their own political purposes. Yes, Roh Moo-hyun’s presidency was a failure in so many ways, but it is easy to paper over his flaws. For one thing, the amount of money that Roh was investigated for, about US$5 million, is a paltry sum of money compared to the amounts of money that were pilfered by other former presidents/shadow president. Yes, he deliberately jeopardized the alliance with the United States at every opportunity he got but he was the one who initiated talks with Washington to create the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement, which turned out to be America’s second largest FTA deal. And the Hankyoreh has already been pathetically defending Roh’s attempt to surrender the NLL for years.

But it might not even be necessary to defend Roh’s record seeing how extremely unpopular Park Geun-hye has become. All that the progressives may need to do is to echo his words and rhetorical flair, his style, sing that old song about a just society, and most importantly, repeat ad nauseum that they are not Park Geun-hye. Never mind that Roh was unable to deliver on many of his promises and much of it was due to his own incompetence.

The next South Korean president is going to be a progressive. Even if Ban Ki-moon runs for president and wins, he is not exactly known for being a conservative. And especially considering how the conservatives were willing to take a left turn on economic policy back in 2012 (not to mention Trump’s populism that helped him to win the US presidential election), it’s clear that conservative economic principles as they were set forth by Reagan and Thatcher are no longer sacrosanct for conservative politicians. So there is more than a plausible chance that there will be a marked increase in populist rhetoric and campaign pledges regardless of the political party that the candidates will hail from.

As for nostalgia, the conservatives do not have any left to exploit. Park Geun-hye squandered what little good will that people had for her father, Lee Myung-bak remains a polarizing figure, Kim Young-sam left office with higher approval ratings than Park Geun-hye currently enjoys but that’s not saying much, and the rest were thieving autocrats. But the progressives can and they will.

Moon Jae-in is already doing whatever he can to get ahead of the pack. So is Ahn Cheol-soo. Others will soon follow suit. As the race gets more heated, one should not be surprised to see the ghost of Roh Moo-hyun hovering around wherever they go.