Saturday, May 23, 2009

Legends of the fall

Every morning, I wake up, blink blearily two to three hundred times, struggle upright, sometimes easing around Tiki, who's sleeping up against my back under the covers, wade through Tug, who will not stop rubbing against my legs and meowing till I pick him up (and against whom I have to close the bathroom door; invariably I have to reopen it slowly, as it will pass right over his recumbent form), fire up the coffee, fire up the computer, and groggily stare at the screen.

Well, this morning I was greeted by a big scarlet banner on "KOREAN EX-PRESIDENT DIES IN FALL". That is, he fell while hiking in the mountains; it's not a death threat for next September.

I absolutely guarantee that there will be wild rumors swirling. Logic says he probably jumped. (The cops say he left a suicide note, but they have a history of not always telling the truth.) But maybe he just fell. Or... was he pushed? Stories will be spreading quickly, I'm certain; fortunately for me, I won't understand what anyone's saying.

Roh was president from 2003-2008, coming to power trumpeting a certain antipathy to the United States but becoming wildly unpopular when, among other things, he sent Korean troops to Iraq. He fell (sorry) from power in a bribery scandal and probably would have been prosecuted if not for the Japanese-derived legal system, which discourages prosecutors from indictments unless they're certain to get a conviction.

The whole thing is a reminder of something that lurks just under the surface of this seemingly secure democracy: this country has a pretty sinister political history since the war, rife with military dictatorship, coups, a Tianenmen Square-style massacre of over 200 people in Gwangju in 1980, and the torture death of a student protester that led to the establishment of a true republic, just 22 years ago.

Even now I see headlines that the government is demanding that history textbooks be rewritten to be more "fair and balanced" (my words, cleverly chosen to invoke connotations from the US media, heh heh). Riot police practice fending off attacks by bamboo-wielding protesters. Students periodically get their undergarments in a twist about something or other, usually something anti-American. (Shortly before I came over last year, it was the government's reopening the country to US beef imports; I saw restaurant signs saying "We serve only Korean beef.")

The very fact that thousands of us have jobs teaching ESL is because the government determined that Korea needs English to thrive in the international business community. They could change their minds anytime, though I doubt that they will; I suppose there could be another coup sometime, for that matter. Meanwhile, they spend their days (when not having fistfights in the National Assembly) dreaming up ways to make it more difficult to get, or renew, a teaching visa. Some countries run on bribes, this one on red tape.

In rereading this post, it all seems very paranoid; it probably is. None of this affects my day-to-day life, and Korea seems pretty stable these days. I'm just sayin'.

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