TRY as we might, it’s impossible to avoid Korea in the news. In the last couple of days, we have seen Malaysians stranded in North Korea return home safely while South Korea’s former President Park Geun-hye has just been arrested on corruption charges.
Questions might be asked about the value of diplomacy. There is speculation about the price Malaysia paid to free our innocent civilians there. Looking at the happy faces of the nine Malaysians who returned home, who can say it’s not worth it? Would we want them to continue to be held hostage by an unpredictable regime?
Despite the enormous differences in political culture and economic might, there are more similarities between the two Koreas in the past than one might imagine. Both Park and her North Korean counterpart Kim Jong-un grew up in positions of privilege and power as the children of dictators. Kim’s lifetime has seen the North ruled under the iron first of his grandfather Kim Il-Sung and then his father Kim Jong-Il. Park was a child when her father Park Chung-hee seized power in a military coup in 1961 and she even served as First Lady prior to his assassination in 1979.
Now, however, the paths are flagrantly skewed. What’s going on in North Korea would be farcical if it wasn’t so dangerous. It’s good that the path of diplomacy helped save our citizens but it must never be forgotten that North Korea behaved like a rogue state with scant respect for Malaysia. To carry out an unnecessary personal assassination on our soil and then attempt to bully us into submission, before progressing on to blackmail, well it’s unconscionable. North Korea is one of three major Asian nations east of Afghanistan that I haven’t visited but I’ve certainly cancelled whatever ambiguous thoughts I once had of visiting the nation. Not until the regime has fallen that is. And given its nuclear threat, I’m going to be, on my being outlived by the Jong-un family business.
What’s heartening about the South Korean situation is the application of the rule of law. The people of South Korea seem aware that aside from the volatile North, one of the greatest threats to the country fulfilling its vast potential is corruption. And nobody, it seems is immune. We have seen leaders of vast business empires and prominent politicians under the cosh for it. Former prime minister Lee Wan-koo stood down in 2015 because of it, former presidents Chun Doo-hawn and Roh Tae-woo were convicted in August 1996 of treason, mutiny and corruption and originally sentenced to death, although they were later controversially pardoned.
Former president Roh Moo-hyun even won the presidency on the back of an anti-corruption campaign, yet in December 2008, his older brother Roh Gun-Pyeong was imprisoned for influence-peddling and in April 2009, his former secretary Chung Sang-Moon, the former secretary of Roh Moo-hyun was also arrested. As the investigations tightened around Roh’s neck, he threw himself off a mountain in May 2009, killing himself.
So where to next for the South? The Saenuri party that Park led has already renamed itself the Liberty Party Korea and attempted to rebrand itself but there are signs that the Korean people are sick of a familiar scenario. In fact, polls indicate that Moon Jae-in, a former human rights lawyer and political partner of Roh Moo-hyun will canter to an easy victory at the presidential elections due to be held in May.
While it’s traumatic times on both sides of the 38th parallel, it’s clear just how much the South is trying to evolve beyond a country that simply hands the keys to power to the next generation. Conversely, it remains to be seen if the Kim family will ever push its luck far enough for a real power to intervene and topple the regime.
Star Online news editor Martin Vengadesan wonders in what direction the winds of changes will blow.