Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Death penalty could soon be « reactivated » in South Korea

These days, South Korea is living crucial times that could very well determine the future of capital punishment and how its prisoners are treated for years to come.

These last weeks, the whole country has been gripped by a popular furore against a child rapist-killer. A crime whose victim is a young teenager and which naturally enflames pulic opinion.

Similar to high profile pedophilia cases that became commonplace these last years, with Dutroux some years ago, or more recently scandals involving the Catholic Church in the US or Ireland, or the recent come back in the British medias of John Venables, one of two murdererd of the young Bugler, who is reported to have been found in possession of child pornography (originally a case dating back to 1993 in which two 10 year-old kids had killes a two year-old toddler after having tortured him), South Koreans are presently filled with rage. A rage that could well lead them to put an end to a moratorium on the death penalty that was in place since a previous President Kim Dae-jung came to power in 1998, a man who received the Nobel peace prize for his efforts in trying to reconcile the South with the North and for his historical meeting with Kim Jong-il in 2000. Kim Dae-jung who, as a member of the opposition, had himself been sentenced to the death penalty in 1980 for treason by the authoritarian regime at the time, to be freed in 1982 then have his rights fully rehabilitated in 1987, to finally become President in 1987 (swearing in in 1998).

His usccessor in 2002, Roh Mu-hyun, being himself a Humqn rights lawyer before entering politics, this tacit moratorium on the death penalty began with Kim Dae-jung was prolonged somwhow almost automatically for the duration of his presidency.

With the conservative Lee Myung-bak coming to power in 2007, former president of the construction branch of the Hyunday conglomerate, former Seoul mayor and known populist,all this could change. Even more so after the close deaths of the two previous presidents Kim and Roh, the former due to health problems and the latter after presumably commiting suicide attributed by many to the « harrassing » of the Lee administration for corruption scandals in which members of his family and close aides were allegedly involved (things being what they are in South Korea, prosecutors put an end to the prosecution after he died ; this could seem strange if we consider that justice is supposed to be independant from political power – a sign that some perceive as the proof that the prosecution was indeed politically motivated from the start, otherwise it would have gone on even after his death, because they mainly involved other people rather than himself).

But I’m straying from my subject, even if it is essential to remind the reader who South Korea owes its de facto moratorium on the death penalty to be able to better understand the current complex situation in the country.

So, about a month ago, a 13 year-old middle school student from Pusan, the second biggest city in South Korea and an important harbour in the south of the peninsula, went missing. Two weeks later, her dead body stripped of clothes was discovered in an abandoned water tank. The autopsy revealed she had been raped.

Immediately, police moved to find the murderer, and very soon the name of a suspect, or shall we say THE suspect, a young man already sentenced in the past to jail for rape, is given to the media, without being immediately caught.

The South Korean President, who is everywhere, does everything, takes care of everything and wants to make himself indispensable to the running of the country in its smallest details, speaks in the media to order the police to catch the suspect as soon as possible.

From this moment, it is possible to doubt the sincerity of his intervention, because it is obvious that he could also have contacted the head of the Pusan police in private (which he probably did by the way) without using the medias and that they would have worked at least as well, or even better, without less pressure from the media.

In such a dramatic case, in which a family is davastated by such a horrible truth, the role of a President is not to come forward by using the media and take care of his image, pretending to be close to the people’s preoccupations, but to adopt a more low-profile attitude rather than announce various things to the press at all times to show he’s taking care of the case personally.

Other Heads of States, Korean or not, would probably not have used this kind of situation to advance some parts of their programme or their ideology, some would have shown more restraint.

It is even possible to say that, when seeing how wild Lee Myung-bak’s administration is, it is just as if this crime were a golden opportunity for the party of the President, which makes new suggestions to reform or introduce laws related to the subject almost every day that passes.

First of all, the government proposed to introduce a measure that, albeit not spectacular by its looks, is nonetheless critical because of its implications. Indeed, one of these would simply consist in introduce a retroactive measure for the persons judged guilty of sexual crime on minors.

In practice, pedophiles sentenced for crimes committed after September 2008 have to wear an electronic bracelet 24h/7, but with the revision of the law that is planned, people sentenced efore this date (when this law has been introduced) will also have to wear it.

Even if, at first sight, it would be possible to think that this is not so important, by having a closer look it actually consists in introducing a principle of retroactivity, a practice that is banned from every true democracy, for nobody knows where such a reform could lead.

Today it’s about the electronic bracelet, and tomorrow ? Will someone currently sentenced to one year in jail, have his sentence changed to a 3 years, 5 years, 10 years sentence according to the circumstances at the time of the sentencing, the fluctuations of public opinion and whatever wants the government ? What will be the criteria used to judge whether it is adequate to introduce this or that retroactive measure ? Who will be judged the right person to pass law ? What will be the areas concerned ? What will be the time limit on the principle of retroactivity ?

So many questions, and of course there are no responses, because it goes without saying that the very principle of a law that creates a retroactive effect does not belong to a democratic system, but to a dictatorship, or at least a dictatorial regime.

Talking about which, President Lee does not hide his admiration for the defunct dictator Park Chung-hee, hate and venerated at the same time (assassinated in 1979), and in several occasions he shows this, for example, by putting on a military outfit (something that was not done by his predecessors) or when he decides to organise weekly crisis meetings in the bunker located below the presidential house, so that he can make the public understand how serious is the state of the economy and that he’s got things under control, like a commander in chief leading his troops to battle (that is, if people keep quiet at the back).

His government has well understood all the benefit he could draw from the murder and rape of the young middle school girl, so they launch public opinion surveys on the death penalty, in a context where the people of Korea are stimulated by the media on the issue, surveys that result in (one is tempted to add « of course ») 80 % of the public for the capital sentence ; they put forward propositions to give heavier sentences to pedophiles ; they suggest these « be kept at bay from society » once released (nobody says « how » yet) ; and, last but not least, they propose to execute the 59 inmates currently on death row since they received theor sentence.

The Constitutional Court of South Korea has recently made her judgment public, last February, on the constitutionality of the death penalty, judging that it wasn’t contrary to the Constitution of the country and that prisoners currently waiting to know what would be made of their sentence could therefore be executed.

During the 2007 presidential campaign, one of the main slogans of Lee Myung-bak, broadcast again and again, was putting forward « the 10 forgotten years » of the two previous presidencies, a period during which many progresses were made toward a greater democratization of the country to make people understand that power was in their hands. No doubt that the exponential growth of the Internet in this perios (1998-2008) largely contributed to a wide diffusion of democratic concepts in the Korean population and particularly among the young generations, thanks to a larger and easier access to information, without having to rely on conservative newspapers that dominate the written press in Korea.

By reintroducing measures to monitor the identity of people online and by taking a harder stance, closer to its core values (nostalgy for the authoritarian regimes dating back from pre 90s years), it seems indeed that Lee Myung-bak’s political party aims to get rid of, at least in part, the heritage of the 10 years that preceded his coming to power. But limit freedoms, give heavier sentences, harden repression and restart the application of the death penalty are not signs that the President, ot his party, have any kind of vision for the future of Korean society.

The « bulldozer », a nickname he received while he was the head of the construction branch of Hyundai, might think a country can be managed like a company, he’s better understand that a Nation, a society is much more than just economic indicators. Current social problems that Korea has to face are a reminder that social issues of a country cannot be dealt with the same way as those of a company.

It is a pity Lee Myung-bak does not understand that using people’s misery for political purposes, in that case the murder of a child, is not ethical (even if that’s what most politicians do most of the time) and that restarting executions of inmates on death row will not lessen, or put an end to, murders or rapes of young children, or adults. It will only result in creating the conditions for a more repressice society towards its population as a whole.

Mourning families do not need some kind of hypocritical help, they probably only want to be left alone. The execution of death row prisoners, if it happens, and the possible introduction of measures that do not belong to a democracy will not bring back their little girl, and will not garanty a rosy future to Korean society either.

La peine de mort pourrait bientôt être « réactivée » en Corée du Sud

La Corée du Sud vit actuellement des instants cruciaux qui risquent de déterminer le futur de la peine capitale et du traitement de ses prisonniers pour les années à venir.

Ces dernières semaines, le pays tout entier a été pris dans un tourbillon de rage populaire à l’encontre d’un tueur-violeur d’enfant. Un crime dont la victime est une jeune adolescente et qui, c’est compréhensible, déchaîne la fureur du public.

A l’image des affaires de pédophilie très médiatisées qui se sont multipliées ces dernières années, avec Dutroux il y a quelque temps déjà, ou plus récemment les scandales à répétition impliquant l’Eglise catholique aux Etats-Unis ou en Irlande, ou encore la récente réapparition sur le devant de la scène médiatique britannique de Jon Venables, l’un des deux meurtriers du petit Bugler, qui aurait été trouvé en possession de matériaux pédopornographiques (à l’origine une affaire remontant à 1993 dans laquelle deux enfants de 10 ans avaient tué un bébé de 2 ans après l’avoir torturé), les Sud-Coréens sont actuellement pris de rage. Une rage qui pourrait bien les amener à reprendre les exécutions capitales qui avaient été connu une pause depuis l’arrivée au pouvoir en 1998 de l’ancien président Kim Dae-jung, lauréat du prix Nobel de la paix en 2000 pour ses efforts de réconciliation avec le Nord et sa rencontre avec le « cher leader » Kim Jong-il en 2000. Kil Dae-jung qui, en tant qu’opposant au pouvoir, avait lui-même été condamné à mort en 1980 pour trahison par le régime autoritaire de l’époque, pour être libéré en 1982 puis réhabilité dans ses droits en 1987, et finalement devenir à son tour président en 1997 (prise de fonction en 1998).

Son successeur en 2002, Roh Moo-hyun, étant lui-même un avocat défenseur des droits de l’homme avant de s’engager dans la politique, ce moratoire tacite sur la peine de mort initié par Kim Dae-jung a vu son existence prolongée de manière pourrait-on dire quasi-automatique pendant la durée de son mandat.

Avec l’arrivée au pouvoir en 2007 du conservateur Lee Myung-bak, ancien président de la branche construction du conglomérat Hyundai, ancien maire de Séoul et populiste notoire, tout cela pouvait changer. Et ce, d’autant plus après la mort rapprochée des deux ex-présidents Kim et Roh, l’un de maladie, l’autre après un suicide présumé que beaucoup attribuent à « l’acharnement » de l’administration Lee sur Roh, pour des affaires de corruption dans lesquelles des membres de sa famille et des proches auraient été impliqués (les choses étant ce qu’elles sont en Corée du Sud, la justice mit un terme aux poursuites engagées après son décès ; ce qui peut sembler étrange si l’on part du principe de l’indépendance de la justice à l’égard du politique – un signe que certains interprètent comme la confirmation que les poursuites étaient bel et bien politiquement motivées au départ, sinon elles auraient continué après sa mort, car impliquant principalement d’autres personnes que lui).

Mais je m’égare, même si rappeler à qui la Corée du Sud doit son moratoire de fait sur la peine capitale est essentiel si l’on souhaite mieux comparer la situation complexe actuellement en cours de développement.

Donc, il y a environ un mois, une collégienne de 13 ans de Pusan, la deuxième ville de Corée et un port important au sud de la péninsule, était portée disparue. Deux semaines plus tard, son corps sans vie dépouillé de tout vêtement était retrouvé dans une citerne vide abandonnée. L’autopsie révéla qu’elle avait été violée.

Aussitôt, la police se mit sur le pied de guerre pour trouver le coupable, et très vite un suspect, ou devrait-on dire LE suspect, un récidiviste ayant déjà fait de la prison pour des affaires de viols, a son nom rendu public dans les médias, sans pour autant être immédiatement attrapé.

Le président sud-coréen, qui est partout, fait tout, s’occupe de tout et veut se montrer indispensable à la gestion du pays jusque dans ses moindres détails, intervient dans les médias pour ordonner à la police d’arrêter le suspect dans les plus brefs délais.

Dès cet instant, il est possible de mettre en doute la sincérité de son intervention, car il est évident qu’il aurait tout aussi bien pu contacter le chef de la police de Pusan en privé (ce qu’il a d’ailleurs probablement fait) sans passer par les médias et que la police aurait fait son travail tout aussi bien, voire mieux, avec moins de pression médiatique.

Dans une affaire aussi dramatique que celle-ci, qui voit la vie d’une famille dévastée par la découverte d’une si horrible vérité, le rôle d’un président n’est pas de se mettre en avant et de soigner son image de dirigeant proche des préoccupations du peuple en utilisant les médias, mais plutôt à adopter une attitude discrète au lieu de faire des déclarations à la presse à tout bout de champ pour montrer qu’il s’occupe personnellement du cas.

D’autres chefs d’Etat, coréens ou pas, n’auraient probablement pas mis à profit ce genre de situation pour essayer de faire avancer des parties de leur programme ou de leur idéologie, certains auraient fait montre de plus de retenue.

On pourrait même dire que, à voir à quel point le gouvernement de Lee Myung-bak est déchaîné, on a l’impression que ce crime est du pain béni pour le parti du président, qui s’en donne à coeur joie pour suggérer jour après jour un nombre record de propositions.

Tout d’abord, le gouvernement a proposé de mettre en place une mesure qui, bien que n’étant pas spectaculaire dans sa mise en place, l’est néanmoins par le fond. En effet, l’une d’entre elles consisterait ni plus ni moins à introduire une mesure rétroactive pour les personnes condamnées pour délit sexuel sur mineur.

Concrètement, les pédophiles condamnés pour des crimes commis après septembre 2008 doivent porter un bracelet électronique 24h sur 24, mais avec la révision de loi projetée, ceux condamnés avant cette date (où cette mesure a été introduite) devront également le porter.

Même si à première vue on pourrait penser qu’il n’y a pas de quoi fouetter un chat, à y regarder de plus près cela revient effectivement à introduire un principe de rétroactivité dans la loi, une pratique qui est bannie par toute démocratie qui se respecte, car nul ne sait où pourrait amener ce genre de révision de loi.

Aujourd’hui, cela touche au bracelet électronique, et demain ? Un condamné purgeant une peine d’un an de prison en ce moment même verra-t-il sa peine transformée en une condamnation de 3 ans, 5 ans, 10 ans, suivant la conjoncture, les fluctuations de l’opinion publique et le bon-vouloir du gouvernement ? Quels critères seront utilisés pour juger s’il est adéquat d’introduire telle mesure rétroactive ou telle autre ? Qui sera jugé apte à légiférer ? Quels domaines seront concernés ? Quelle sera la limite temporelle de rétroactivité ?

Autant de questions auxquelles, bien entendu, il n’y a pas de réponses, car il va de soi que le principe même d’une mesure de loi créant un effet rétroactif n’appartient pas à un système démocratique, mais bel et bien à une dictature, ou tout le moins à un régime autoritaire.

A ce sujet, le président Lee ne cache pas son admiration pour le défunt dictateur Park Chung-hee, hait et vénéré tout à la fois (assassiné en 1979), et met bien des occasions à profit pour l’afficher lorsqu’il s’habille en treillis militaire pour certaines occasions (ce que ses deux prédécesseurs ne faisaient pas) où encore lorsqu’il décide d’organiser des réunions hebdomadaires de crise dans le bunker situé sous le palais présidentiel, histoire de bien faire comprendre au public à quel point la situation de l’économie est grave et qu’il a les choses bien en main, à l’image d’un commandant en chef menant ses troupes à la bataille (à condition qu’on se taise dans les rangs).

Son gouvernement a bien compris tout le bénéfice qu’il pouvait retirer du meurtre et du viol de la jeune collégienne, en menant des sondages auprès du public sur la peine de mort qui, dans un contexte chauffé à blanc par les médias, serait (« bien sûr », serait-on tenté de dire) favorable à 80 % à la peine capitale ; en proposant des peines plus lourdes pour les pédophiles ; en suggérant « qu’ils soient gardés à distance de la société » une fois libérés (on ne précise pas encore comment) ; et, last but not least, en proposant d’exécuter les 59 condamnés à mort en attente dans les prisons coréennes depuis leur condamnation.

La Cour constitutionnelle de Corée du Sud a récemment statué, en février dernier, sur la constitutionnalité de la peine capitale, estimant que celle-ci n’allait pas à l’encontre de la constitution du pays et que les prisonniers actuellement en attente de l’application de leur sentence pouvaient donc être exécutés.

Pendant la campagne présidentielle de 2007, l’un des principaux slogans de Lee Myung-bak, matraqué à longueur de journée, mettait en avant les « 10 années perdues » des deux présidences précédentes, au cours desquelles de nombreuses avancées ont été effectuées dans le sens d’une plus grande démocratisation du pays pour faire comprendre au peuple que le pouvoir était entre ses mains. Nul doute que l’explosion de l’Internet dans cette période (1998-2008) a grandement contribué à une large diffusion de concepts démocratiques dans la population coréenne et particulièrement chez les jeunes, grâce à un plus large accès à l’information, s’affranchissant des quotidiens conservateurs qui dominent la presse écrite en Corée.

En réintroduisant des mesures renforçant les contrôles d’identité en ligne et en adoptant une ligne plus dure proche de ses valeurs de base (nostalgie du système autoritaire datant d’avant les années 90), il semble bien que, effectivement, le parti de lee Myung-bak ait pour objectif de se débarrasser, du moins en partie, de l’héritage des 10 années qui ont précédé sont arrivée au pouvoir. Mais limiter les libertés, accentuer les peines et la répression et relancer l’application de la peine de mort n’est pas le signe que le président ou son parti aient une vision pour le futur de la société coréenne.

Le « bulldozer », un surnom donné à l’actuel président lorsqu’il dirigeait la branche construction de Hyundai, a beau penser qu’un pays peut se gérer comme une entreprise, une Nation, une société, est bien plus qu’une série d’indicateurs économiques. Les problèmes auxquels est actuellement confrontée la Corée au niveau social sont là pour lui rappeler qu’on ne peut résoudre les problèmes sociaux d’un pays de la même façon que ceux d’une compagnie.

Il est regrettable que Lee Myung-bak ne comprenne pas que l’utilisation de la misère du monde à des fins politiques, en l’occurrence un meurtre pédophile, ne soit pas éthique, (même si c’est ce que fait quotidiennement la plupart des hommes politiques partout dans le monde) et que la reprise des exécutions de condamnés à mort ne viendra malheureusement ni réduire ni mettre un terme aux meurtres ou aux viols d’enfants ou d’adultes. Cela aura pour seul effet de mettre en place des conditions pour une société plus répressive à l’égard de sa population en général.

Les familles endeuillées n’ont pas besoin d’une aide hypocrite, elles souhaitent probablement juste qu’on les laisse en paix. L’exécution de ces condamnés à mort, si elle a lieu, et la mise en place éventuelle de mesures n’ayant rien à faire dans une démocratie ne leur ramènera pas leur fille et ne garantira pas à la société coréenne des jours meilleurs.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

La Corée est-elle un Etat indépendant (Post Scriptum)

Comme pour confirmer mon précédent post, des officiers/généraux à la retraite ont récemment protesté à propos du transfert du contrôle des armées à venir en écrivant une lettre au président sud-coréen, dans laquelle ils disent que les années à venir seront trop instales pour se permettre de changer l'organisation de l'armée.
En résumé, comme tout le monde attend que Kim Jong-il, le leader nord-coréen, cède le pouvoir à l'un de ses fils (ou le pouvoir pourrait être une dirigeance collégiale) au cours des 5 à 10 prochaines années, changer cet accord avec les Etats-Unis serait trop risqué pour la sécurité de la Corée.


Même si les spécialistes de la Corée de Nord pensent que la succession du Nord "pourrait" se produire dans cette période, premièrement, rien n'est sûr, et deuxièmement, même si cela devait arriver, que diront-ils 'une fois que' cette succession s'est faite ? A coup sûr, ces même personnes nous sortiront un autre argument de leur chapeau, comme quoi la situation est encore instable, que les élections américaines approchent, que la crise économique a un impact négatif sur les relations intercoréennes et que, avec la fin du monde de décembre 2012 à l'horizon (le calendrier Maya) il vaudrait mieux ne prende aucun risque, bla bla bla...

Ce que je veux dire c'est que, quelles que soient les circonstances, certains Coréens (du Sud) seront toujours opposés à une passation du pouvoir, comme celle sensée se produire en 2012 (au fait, avant la fin du monde maya). Cela confirme la conviction bien enracinée qu'il est plus sûr pour la Corée de ne pas être indépendant à 100%. De cette manière, les Américains, la Chine, ou quelque autre grande puissance que ce soit, devra prendre ses responsabilités et venir en aide à la Corée.

On pourra penser que c'est dur de dire une telle chose. Mais non, pas du tout. Je suis juste dur avec ces ex-généraux qui veulent que la Corée reste soumise à une grande puissance pour bénéficier de leur protection et pour ne pas prendre leurs responsabilités.
il semble que ces généraux pensent sur un mode qui était dominant dans l'ère Joseon, où la Chine figurait au centre et les pays environnants devaient faire montre de respect à son égard.

Mais nous ne somme plus au 19e siècle, les Etats-Unis ne sont pas la Chine et les Américains ne perçoivent pas du tout les relations diplomatiques ou les alliances militaires sur ce modèle, donc nos ex-militaires feraient bien d'aller voir ailleurs s'ils y sont; parce que, dans tous les cas, la Corée du Nord ne va attaquer personne, que ce soit dans un futur proche ou lointain, il n'y a donc aucun risque de guerre si les responsables, des deux côtés, se comportent de manière raisonnable.
Même si un pays est à la fois fermé et une dictature, cela ne signifie pas pour autant qu'il soit fou.

Is Korea an independant state ? (Post scriptum)

As if to confirm my previous post, some retired military officers/generals recently protested wartime control transfer with a letter to the Korean president in which they claim the coming years are going to be too unstable to afford changing the current organization of the army.
In short, since everybody expects Kim Jong-il, the North's leader, to step down in favor of one of his sons (or it might take the shape of a common leadership) in the next 5 to 10 years, changing this agreement with the US would be too risky for Korea's security.


Even though analysts of North Korea think the North's succession "might" happen in that timeframe, first, nothing is for sure, and second, even if that were to happen, what about after the succession has taken place ? For sure, these same people will come up with another argument about the situation being still unstable, the US election coming up, the economic crisis having a negative impact on North-South relationships and the end of the world of december 2012 quickly approaching (i.e. Mayan calendar) we should not take the risk to blah blah blah...

What I mean is, whatever the circumstances, some Koreans (South) will always oppose a potential handover, such as the one that is supposed to take place in 2012 (before the Mayan's end of the world by the way). It only confirms the deelply seated belief they have that it is safer for Korea not to be 100% independent. This way, the US, China, or whatever superpower it happens to be have to take their responsabilities and help out Korea.

Some people might think I'm being harsh. But definitely no. I'm only being harsh toward these ex-generals who want Korea to remain submissive to a bigger power in order to get protected and not take their responsabilities.
These generals seem to think with a mindset that prevailed in the Joseon period, where China was at the center and surrounding countries had to somehow pay their respects.
The thing is, we're no longer in the 19th century, the US is not China and Americans don't envision diplomatic relationships or military alliances on this model at all, so these ex-military had rather take care of some other business, because, in any case, North Korea is not going to attack anybody anytime soon, so there aren't actually any risk of war if the people in charge on both sides act reasonably.
A closed and dictatotial regime is not synonymous with lunacy.

Is Korea an independant state ?

In a few years, South Korea should get the total control of its army back.

What is that supposed to mean ? Isn’t Korea a sovereign state able to manage its army as it wishes according to the circumstances and the required needs?

Well no.
At least not yet.

At the moment, the ones who control the South Korean army in case of war are not the Korean military but the US.

It is hard to believe that South Korea regained control of its army in time of peace only in 1994. Before that date, this control belonged to the Americans.
More recently, in one of his speeches, on the 15th of August 2004, Roh Mu-hyun, the previous South Korean president (now deceased after committing suicide in march of this year), mentioned how important it was for South Korea to own an independant military, in order to get his country free from any military interferences from the US, and to develop a partnership with the Americans where the US would be allies but not able to dictate anything to the Korean army.

So, South Korea got the control of its army back in time of peace in 1994, and this should happen on the 17th of April 2012 in time of war.

Since Korea and Koreans are both a complex country and people, the decision of the president to put an end to this military control by the US was met with strong opposition by a certain category of people, namely the old generation for whom the United States are synonymous with protection and without whom South Korea would have fallen into the hands of the communist North.

Of course, a country does not need to cede the control of its army to forge a strong alliance and be assured to get the protection of a super power – after all, it is the case of numerous US or Russian allies – but this is apparently not what seem to think some Koreans, who fear that getting back this control (a very legitimate demand) – be perceived as a weakening of their army by foreign preying eyes.

The transformation of the Korea-US alliance worries even more so some Korean supporters of the US that it represents only one part of the changes brought by the late president. Indeed, the soon to come relocalization of an important American base that is located right at the centre of Seoul (approximately the size of New York's Central park !) to Pyeongtaek, about 65 Km south of the capital, is an additional element to worry about for those who think that their country is weakening its defenses in case of an eventual North Korean attack.

The same people worry that such a move might be the sign of an American withdrawal from the peninsula that could potentially lead to a higher risk of war. As a matter of fact, by moving its troops out of range from the ‘killer box’ that is Seoul, Americans would make sure they would only have a low level of casualties in case the South Korea capital is bombarded, and would therefore be less hesitating in engaging the North head on, and less able to prevent another start to a war that never officially really ceased (only a ceasefire was signed in 1953).

It is important to know that Seoul is within range from the North artillery (not missiles, just plain artillery) and that an armed conflict would result in a real carnage in terms of civil casualties, among the more than 20 million residents of Seoul and its surroundings.

It might seem surprising that such a debate, about an element so essential to any country’s sovereignty, can exist in the first place, for what can be more symbolic of the independance of a nation that the control of its army ?

Given the fact that the present alliance between South Korea and the United States is the direct heritage of the Korean War (1950-1953) resulting from the Cold War, and since this war is technically still going on, we might be tempted to see the origin of such worries from the South in the Civil war that took place some 60 years ago.

But that would be ignoring several centuries of Korea's history, for which Koreans are extremely proud.
In fact, if we look closer, we can note an essential element in the thousand year history of the Korean peninsula, that is the fact that for a large part of its recent past, or even less recent, Kore was denied independence.

The Korean peninsula was occupied by Japan from 1910 to 1945, an extremely important period during which Korea temporarily ceased to exist in the world of international diplomacy, and which is at the origin of disagreements with Japan until today. For example the issue of the surrounding seas (the « Sea of Japan » instead of the « East Sea », or vice-cersa) that are currently visibile on numerous world atlases.

The period that preceded Japanese occupation corresponds to the Yi Dynasty, or Joseon period, embracing more than 500 years, from 1392 to 1910.
Even if during this period it is not really possible to challenge the fact that Korea was an ‘independent country’, it is also true that Koreans themselves acknowledged China’s dominance in the region, and paid an annual tribute to the Middle Kingdom, as a sign of submission, and expected China to protect them in case of trouble and a benevolent attitude toward the Hermit Kingdom, like that of a big brother taking care of his youngest sibling ; this is an image and a role fulfilled by China during the Japanese invasion of 1592-1598, during which Chinese sent numerous armed forces to help out the Korea army, and contributed to the weakening of the Chinese army, which would soone have to face the Mandchu invasions that were around the corner.

But even without going back so much in time, it is possible to notice a characteristic that seem to characterise a large part of recent Korean history, that is the fact that Korea has rarely been a really independent country, be it on the material (Japanese occupation), or psychological level (position of vassal vis-à-vis China for hundreds of years).

Therefore, it should not be surprising to see the unwillingness of some Koreans toward their government wanting to develop a more independent policy. For those, independence is synonymous with both insecurity (who will help Korea in cae of trouble ?) and unknown (what are the implications ? You have to decide on your own).

In short, Korea struggles to free herself from a schema of submission printed in its history during the past centuries. It is legitimate to ask whether Korea will be able to develop a more independent line of policy that would aim to reach a more egalitarian relationship with the Americans. That is not something easy, but since Korea has recently become part of the club of rich countries, and since its pop culture has recently experienced extraordinary success throughout Asia, therefore becoming particularly influential in the region, one might start thinking that it is possible that Korea will eventually realize she has to play a role on the international stage, partly freed from the ubiquitous American influence. It is only for her to assert, after a pause of several hundreds of years, the unique character of its culture and its own vision of the world.

But before this can happen, Koreans must be persuaded of their ability to free themselves from external influences and to act independently from other great powers. This process, if it ever happens, will probably need great many years.

La Corée du Sud est-elle un Etat indépendant ?

D’ici quelques années, la Corée du Sud devrait reprendre le contrôle de son armée dans sa totalité.

Qu’est-ce que cela veut dire ? la Corée n’est-elle pas un pays souverain en mesure de diriger son armée comme bon lui semble selon les circonstances et les besoins qui se présentent ?

Et bien non.
En tout cas pas encore.

Dans l’état actuel des choses, le contrôle de l’armée sud-coréenne au plus haut niveau en cas de guerre est entre les mains des américains.

Aussi incroyable que cela puisse paraître, le contrôle des forces armées sud-coréennes en temps de paix appartenait aux américains jusqu’en 1994.
Puis, plus récemment, lors d’un discours prononcé le 15 août 2004, c’est Roh Mu-hyunn, le précédent président de Corée du Sud (maintenant décédé suite à son suicide en mai de cette année), qui a fait mention de l’importance pour la Corée du Sud de posséder une défense indépendante, afin d’émanciper son pays de la tutelle militaire américaine, en développant un partenariat avec les Etats-Unis où ces derniers joueraient un rôle d’allié dans pour autant avoir droit de regard sur l’armée coréenne en tant que telle.

La Corée a donc récupéré le contrôle de son armée en temps de paix en 1994, et devrait le récupérer le 17 avril 2012 pour une situation en cas de guerre.

La Corée et les Coréens étant un pays et un peuple assez complexes, la décision du président sud-coréen de mettre fin à ce contrôle militaire a rencontré de vives résistances de la part d’une certaine catégorie de la population, principalement la vieille génération, pour qui les Etats-Unis sont synonymes d’allié protecteur de la péninsule sans qui le Sud serait irrémédiablement tombé aux mains des communistes du Nord.

Il n’est bien sûr pas nécessaire de céder le contrôle de son armée pour nouer une alliance forte et d’être assuré de la protection d’une grande puissance – après tout, c’est le cas de nombre d’alliés des Américains ou des Russes – mais ce n’est apparemment pas ce que pensent certains Coréens, qui craignent que la récupération – fort légitime au demeurant – de ce contrôle ne soit perçue comme un affaiblissement de leur armée pour des yeux extérieurs malveillants.

La transformation de l’alliance militaire américano-coréenne inquiète d’autant plus certains supporters coréens des Etats-Unis qu’elle ne représente qu’un des volets des changements apportés par le défunt président. En effet, la relocalisation prochaine d’une importante base militaire américaine se trouvant en plein centre de Séoul (d’une taille équivalente à Central Park) à Pyeongtaek, à environ 65 kilomètres au sud de la capitale, alimente les craintes de ceux qui pensent que leur pays est en train d’affaiblir ses défenses face à une attaque éventuelle des Nord-Coréens.

Les mêmes s’inquiètent qu’un tel déménagement soit le signe d’un désengagement américain dans la péninsule qui pourrait déboucher sur de plus grandes probabilités d’un conflit armé. En effet, en mettant hors de portée ses troupes de la ‘killer box’ qu’est Séoul, les Américains s’assureraient ainsi des pertes réduites en cas de bombardement de la capitale, et seraient alors moins hésitants à engager de front le Nord, et à empêcher le redémarrage d’une guerre qui n’a jamais officiellement cessé (seul un armistice a été signé en 1953).

Il faut savoir que Séoul se trouve à portée de canon de l’artillerie du Nord et un conflit armé ferait un vrai carnage parmi les 20 millions de résidents de l’agglomération séoulite.

Qu’un tel débat portant sur un élément clef de la souveraineté même d’un pays puisse exister peut sembler étonnant, car en effet quoi de plus symbolique de l’indépendance d’un pays que le contrôle de son armée ?

Etant donné que l’alliance actuelle entre la Corée du Sud et les Etats-Unis est l’héritage direct de la guerre de Corée (1950-53), issue de la Guerre Froide, et sachant que cette guerre est techniquement encore en cours, on pourrait être tenté de voir l’origine des craintes sud-coréennes dans la guerre civile qui a eu lieu il y a maintenant presque 60 ans.

Mais cela serait ignorer les siècles d’histoire de la Corée, pour lesquels les Coréens ne se lassent pas de vanter leur pays.

En fait, à y regarder de plus près on s’aperçoit d’une chose essentielle dans l’histoire millénaire de la péninsule, c’est qu’une grande part de son histoire récente, voire moins récente, peut être caractérisée par une absence de réelle indépendance.

La péninsule coréenne a été occupée par le Japon de 1910 à 1945, période capitale pendant laquelle la Corée avait temporairement cessé d’exister au niveau des relations internationales et qui est encore à l’origine de désaccords avec le Japon de nos jours pour, notamment, l’appellation des mers environnantes (exemple : ‘mer du Japon’ à la place de ‘mer de l’Est’ ou vice-versa) figurant actuellement sur de nombreux atlas dans le monde.

La période précédant l’occupation japonaise correspond à la dynastie Yi, ou la période Joseon, au choix, s’étendant sur plus de 500 ans, de 1392 à 1910.
Même si au cours de cette période on ne peut remettre en cause le fait que la Corée était un ‘pays indépendant’, il est également vrai que les coréens eux-mêmes reconnaissaient la primauté de la Chine dans la région et lui présentaient un tribu annuel en signe de soumission, et attendaient de la Chine protection et une attitude bienveillante à leur égard, à l’image d’un grand frère veillant sur le cadet ; une image et un rôle d’ailleurs rempli par la Chine, notamment au cours de l’invasion japonaise de 1592-1598, au cours de laquelle les chinois avaient envoyé de nombreux renforts, affaiblissant ainsi son armée face aux invasions mandchoues qui n’allaient pas tarder à pointer le bout de leur nez.

Sans remonter plus avant dans le temps, on constate très vite un élément qui caractérise une grande partie de l’histoire coréenne, à savoir que la Corée a rarement été dans une position de pays indépendant que ce soit au niveau matériel (occupation japonaise) ou psychologique (position de vassal affirmée vis-à-vis de la Chine pendant des centaines d’années).

A la lumière de ces informations, il n’est donc finalement pas étonnant de constater les réticences de certains Coréens en ce qui concerne la volonté de leur gouvernement de développer une ligne affichant une plus grande indépendance. Pour ceux-là, indépendance est synonyme à la fois d’insécurité (qui viendra en aide à la Corée en cas de pépin ?) et d’inconnu (quelles en sont les implications ? Il faut se prendre en main).

En somme, la Corée a du mal à se libérer d’un schéma de soumission imprimé dans son histoire au cours de plusieurs centaines d’années. On peut se poser la question de la capacité de la Corée à développer une ligne plus indépendante qui aurait pour but d’entretenir une relation plus ‘égalitaire’ avec les Américains. Ce n’est pas chose facile, mais étant donné le récent statut de pays riche de la Corée du Sud et sa non moins récente influence à travers toute l’Asie à travers sa culture Pop, ses séries télé et son cinéma, on se prend à penser qu’il est possible qu’elle réalise finalement qu’elle a un rôle à jouer au niveau international, libérée en partie de l’influence américaine omniprésente, et qu’il ne tient qu’à elle à affirmer enfin, après une parenthèse de plusieurs centaines d’années, le caractère unique de sa culture et de sa vision du monde.

Mais il faut d’abord pour cela que les Coréens soient persuadés de leur capacité à s’émanciper et à agir de manière indépendante du bon-vouloir d’une autre grande puissance. Un processus qui, s’il se produit un jour, demandera probablement encore de nombreuses années.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Abortion in Korea

Abortion is more or less forbidden in Korea.

First of all, a few words. My apologies to all those (too rare) people who were following this blog in the past. This interruption was due to several factors, of which the main one was linked to the writing of my MA, about cohabitation in Korea. In the future, I will do my best to update it more regularly. We’ll see if I succeed in this or not.

Let’s start now with today’s particularly polemical topic.
Why abortion?
I’d be tempted to say: why not? But somehow it would not be enough.
In fact, I’m interested in this topic because I think that the legalization of abortive practices are the sign that a society has reached a certain stage when it comes to power relationships between the genders. In other words, the absence of an effective right to carry out an abortion is the indication that women lack certain freedom as to the right to control processes in their bodies, and the sign of the symbolic control of women’s bodies by men.
Therefore, it’s possible to learn a lot about a given society by observing this society’s abortion practices.
Make no mistake. Abortion is almost always a traumatizing experience—an experience that can only be imagined by men, without being able to feel it in their own body—but we observe that in general the women, the couples, who intend to have an abortion will have it whatever the circumstances, with or without a legal framework. Legalizing abortion practices is not meant to promote abortion but to help people who find themselves in such a situation, so that the whole process be less traumatizing. Furthermore, we can also observe that, as in this article, the absence of freedom to abort is not synonymous with few abortions, we can logically conclude that the legalization, or not, of abortion is often related to ideological views that correspond to a certain vision of the world, often not in sync with the reality on the ground.

So, as I was writing a few lines above, abortion is more or less forbidden in Korea.
More or less?
Well. Somehow. Although it is not possible to say that it is illegal, the conditions under which it can be performed are very restrictive. This implies that in reality, it is only possible to have an abortion in a few situations.
What are these situations?

Sections 269 and 270 of the Korean penal code, dating from 1953, were strictly forbidding abortionm but was amended in 1973m by article 14 corresponding to the “Mother and Child Health Law”, authorizing it in the following circumstances: first, when the foetus presents mental or physical disabilities; second, when one of the parents suffers from an infectious disease; third, when the pregnancy results from rape; fourth, when the pregnancy results from a relation with blood or matrimonial relatives unable to marry by law; and fifth, when continuing the pregnancy could endanger the life of the mother. In all other cases, abortion is illegal and can be punished by fines or even imprisonment.

But it does not mean that abortions are rare in Korea.
On the contrary.
In fact, it even seems that Korea has one of the highest abortion rate in the world.
Given the fact it is illegal, it means that the only available official figures are based on abortions that have been registered under the right legal conditions (because a medic/gynecologist carrying out an abortion outside of this legal framework can have his license suspended for several years, on top of possible fines or theoretical jail sentences). In other words, they do not correspond to reality, and the only way to have an idea of the scale of these practices is to refer to various estimates.

If we look for information on abortion in Korea, we systematically find an estimate that indicates 1.5 million abortions per year. It is only an estimate, but that can be found very frequently, included in some “university” schoolbooks, so it cannot be ignored.
If we search a little bit more, we find other estimates. Some of them, even more alarming, mention 2 million abortions per year. And the ‘lowest’ of these estimates stands at about 350,000.

To give you a rough idea of what this represents, we can compare these figures with other countries. In France, with a population of about 62 million, the total number of annual abortions stood at 210,000 in 2006. In Japan, with more than 127 million people, this figure stood at 320,000 in 2003.
The Korean population stands at more than 48 millions. I let you calculate the number of abortions in proportion of the population.

Even if we take the lowest estimate, we realize that Korea has a particularly high number of abortions in comparison with France and Japan.
The question is: which one of these estimates is right?
We can wonder about the huge variations between different estimates, because between 350,000 and 1.5 or even 2 millions, this is an incredible difference. How credible are these data ? That’s the problem. We can see that such variations has probably ideological origins implying the ones in favor of abortion and the ones against it (or, as our American friends would put it ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life; a use, and manipulation of language that would almost be funny (with the insistence shown by the Americans to systematically use a wording refusing to use negations – let’s be positive!!!) if the subject was not so essential) whose goal might be to shock by exaggerating figures.

It is interesting to note that anti-abortion laws, which intend to reduce such practices, seem to be having very little effect, or not at all. For, how can we even realistically imagine that an eventual legalization of abortion would result into a rise in numbers given the already sky-high figures that can be observed ?

During my Korean adventures, I had the occasion to meet several Korean women with whom I could discuss the subject. I could get the confirmation, first-hand—from women having carried out an abortion—that terminating a pregnancy in Korea (in Seoul) was very easy, practiced in most hospitals, and relatively affordable (300,000 wons a few years ago, which is about 170-180 Euros at today’s exchange rate, but rather 250 euros at the time (maybe about $250))
For information, we need to be aware of the fact that public hospitals are pretty scarce in Korea, most of them are private, clinics, whose tend to focus more on profit that public ones. Abortion is therefore practiced entirely illegally et without any link with the Korean social security system (except in the rare cases that are done within the legal framework).

Abortion is common that a Korean woman—who had had an abortion herself—was adamant in saying that aborting was legal. Even when I heavily insisted she did not ‘believe’ me when I was telling her it was simply not the case, that it was illegal, except in a few situations.

This story made me realize how common abortion was in Korea. For how else would you come to think that it is legal unless the whole process leading to terminating a pregnancy is ordinary? Those who have seen the Romanian movie “4 months, 3 weeks, and 2 days’ about clandestine abortion will understand what I mean. Illegality usually leads to clandestine and dodgy conditions, but it is not the case in Korea. We observe a total opposition between theory, law, and the way its application, its practice.
A recent study, form 2003-224, led among female students indicated that 36.3% of the sample did not know that abortion was illegal !! Is that even imaginable? It looks like it is, and it’s probably due to a political will to not talk to the public about this topic. Abortion is simply one of numerous taboo subjects in Korea. One among so many others…

It’s also very interesting to note that there are very few people sentenced for having violated abortion laws. Jurisprudence shows that abortion is only very rarely punished (45 cases in 1990, only 5 sentenced). And there’s a reason for it! If there really are as many abortions as estimated, judging several hundred thousand people would just be impossible. And you would still need to catch them anyway.

But this split between theory and practice does not seem to incite the Korean government to change anything in this matter. Lee Myung-bak’s government is far too demagogical to start going against anti-abortion lobbies and possibly damage his family man image.

As a result, Korean women have no other choice than having a ‘semi-clandestine’ abortion (in fact, these abortions are only clandestine by name (as far as authorities are concerned) since they are carried out in a hospital) until a possible revision of the law; when it will have become so obsolete (which it already is) that politicians will have no other choice than to eventually officialize a practice already widespread in society.

A 2003 survey with people in their 20s and 30s confirmed these practices and the discrepancy between public opinion and the law. It indicates that 72.1% of women and 65.4% of men could carry out an abortion depending on the circumstances (that is, other then the ones presently authorized by law); and another 2003 survey with the general public finds a rate of 73.7%.

Of course, a possible legalization of abortion goes hand in hand with a proper sexual education and efficient contraceptive means, which is probably not the case in Korea these days. I might come back to these points later in a different article.

As to who practices abortion, studies show that most are married women, and that the first reason that is given is failure of contraception in almost 60% of the cases. We can wonder how these figures are obtained given the sensitive nature of the subject…but since in Korea, the only persons supposed to have sex are married couples, such results might be unavoidable, even if the reality on the ground about sexual practices of the young population are probably different.

There’s one very important reason that leads Korean couples into having an abortion. This reason is the vital importance, still today, of having a son. Korean society is generally considered as being the one most influenced by Confucianism. To make a long story short (because once you start talking about Confucianism it’s hard to stop, and it’s not he aim of this post), a family lineage is transmitted through the eldest son (patrilineal descent), who will be in charge of practicing the ancestors’ rites (of his own family) when his father passes away.

So, to perpetuate both the family lineage and Confucian rites, a son is necessary. Women do not take part to them, only from afar, by preparing all the required food for them to take place. A family without a male descendant will be unable to take care of the well-being of the ancestors’ spirits (and, as a result, also of the livings’, because they can behave with evil intentions is not taken care of properly – which is an important source of work for shamans in Korea, so that they quiet down unpleased spirits), and runs the risk to see its branch die away. This would be an unbearable situation for many Koreans, because the family lineage is almost a sacred concept, and at the origin of proud or shame (illustrious ancestor = proud; bad ancestor = shame)

As a consequence, we can logically expect some influence on the number of abortions regarding female foetuses. And we do observer this directly by having a look at the number of annual births over time, and particularly when looking at the proportion of male and female births. For the first babies born in a couple, we observe the following evolution: in 1981, there were 107.1 baby boys for 100 girls, but if we look at the fourth child this figure rises to 112.9; ten years later, in 1990, the rate for the first child is 116.5 and 209.5 for the fourth child, which indicates about twice as many boys as girls for the fourth child. This rate has fallen since, but is always in favor of baby boys (in 1007, 106.2 for the first child, and 119.1 for the fourth).

In other words, since such an imbalance cannot statistically exist in nature, its origin is to be found in the abortion of female fetuses. We should note that gynecologists obstetricians are still forbidden nowadays to let know the sex of the baby to the parents, because of the higher risk of abortion when the foetus is female. That’s in theory, because it’s similar to what can be seen for abortion practices, on the ground everyone (the medics) behaves more or less as they please. It goes without saying that the high abortion rate in Korea is not the preferred topic of Korean politicians, and that it’s somehow taboo. This is not a very good sign for those who hope for a decline in the number of abortions.
Of course, such a decline has first to go through better sexual education and better psychological and material conditions when it comes to contraceptive techniques and practices. But it probably also has to go through changes in gender relationships and in a different vision of everything that has to do with sex, a traditionally taboo topic in Korea. I should come back to this topic at a later date, in particular contraception and sexual education.

Those who want to have an abortion will always manage to have it done, be it in good or bad conditions. Criminalizing abortion not only fails to reach its objective (we can see this with the case of Korea), a decline in the number of abortions, but also implies an excessive feeling of guilt from the part of the often distressed mother, and possible negative consequences for her health during such a procedure.
All societies that legalized abortion never intended to incite women to abort, but to make this experience less painful, physically and psychologically, and to officialize practices widespread among the public. When might Korea make it legal? Since everything goes fast in Korea, you never know, but in any case, not with the present government, who has other fishes to fry and is very unlikely to go against its own electors.