We are really enjoying our new camera. I have become obsessed with taking extreme closeups of Lindsay. She isn’t crazy about it. This is one of her in front of a Vietnamese boat the Korean government caught trying to smuggle in some Vietnamese people. According to the plaque in front of the boat the people were promptly sent home.
Speaking of Lindsay, I am not sure if any of you know this, but she has been putting together a monthly newsletter for internationals living in Gwangju. Our recruiter came up with the idea for advertising his business and for Lindsay to do what she does best. It really is worth seeing. Check it out:
Also if you are thinking about coming to Korea or your school in Korea is in need of teachers contact our recruiter Dan Henrickson. He has an informative website and a good track record with placements in South Korea.
Anyway, I wrote a story for Lindsay’s newsletter this month. I am going to cut and paste it here.
Mr. Kim took another drag from his cigarette clearly flustered by my question. “I am thinking so much,” he said, “but I am having a hard time saying it.” We stood in an alleyway a few blocks away from Chosun University in Gwangju, where a mere twenty-eight years ago, students rebelled against the government of Korea in the name of democracy. I had questioned Mr. Kim about the recent presidential election in South Korea, a topic that seemed to touch many natives of Gwangju.
Mr. Kim, a new friend of mine, fears that democracy in Korea is threatened. He believes that current president Roh Moo-Hyun has done 50 years of work for Korea in five years. But his feelings about Lee are far different. “I fear what he will do,” Mr. Kim said, remembering the authoritarian regime of his youth where dissent was punished.
About a week later, I sat in Tapgol Park in Insadong of Seoul while reading the Korea Times. A middle-aged Korean gentlemen asked me to help him with a sentence that emphasizes to another in English not to lose touch. (“Is it ‘Don’t let me lose touch with you’ or ‘Don’t make me lose touch with you?’”) I turned our conversation to politics, curious to see how his reaction would compare to Mr. Kim’s.
This gentleman, Mr. Sung, from a suburb of Seoul, lit up at the thought of Lee in office. “He will do a much better job than Roh,” Sung said, emphasizing his distaste for Roh with a facial expression that looked like he had forced down a bitter pill. “Like what?” I prodded. “Well,” Sung thought about what he was going to say, “He will be much harder on North Korea.” He continued, “Koreans, well most Koreans,” Sung quickly corrected himself, “are very excited about Lee.”
I feel very lucky that my year in Korea fell during an election year. The vans with loud speakers snaking through my neighborhood and the dancing campaigners downtown gave Gwangju a festival-like atmosphere seen once every five years. While Lee emerged early as the favorite, few people in Gwangju had anything nice thing to say about him. In fact, his campaign photo had been stripped from the row of twelve near an apartment complex in my neighborhood. This is when I heard about how regionalism influences how some Koreans vote.
Since the end of the Korean War, South Korean voters have usually voted for the president based on where that candidate is from. Koreans feel that natives of their region will look out for their best interest. But this year the importance of the growing Korean economy also played a huge role in the election. Despite Lee’s questionable business practices at Hyundai, Koreans seemed unreservedly impressed with his successful track record as a businessman and mayor of Seoul. This makes one wonder if the younger generation of Koreans are beginning to view Korea as a whole more than as individual regions.
Not only did the economy play a huge role in the elections, but Korea also showed an increased apathy toward the election. Sixty percent voted this year, showing a sharp decrease from the 70 percent that voted five years ago. Despite Korea’s record low turnout, it was hard to find anyone who did not have a strong opinion on the candidates. Even my sixth grade English class became very passionate when I turned our science class into a political forum. These kids hurled what I could only assume were Korean insults back and forth during our discussion. Out of about twelve kids, only one vehemently defended Lee against his classmates.
Regardless of what got Lee elected, the election provided a great deal of entertainment to me, a foreigner in Gwangju happy to see the political process of another country. From my conversations with Koreans to the campaigning and even the fight that broke out in Parliament days before the election, I witnessed a country passionate about their government and also got to see a new democracy at work.