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The Korea Blog: Protest, Korean-Style

The first piece of writing I ever read on Korea had to have been P.J. O’Rourke’s “Seoul Brothers,” originally published in Rolling Stone in 1988. O’Rourke, whose work in many ways inspired me to get into writing myself, back then had the beat of the troubled parts of the world; I first read this particular article in a collection called Holidays in Hell. It opens as follows: “When the kid in the front row at the rally bit off the tip of his little finger and wrote KIM DAE JUNG in blood on his fancy white ski jacket — I think that was the first time I ever really felt like a foreign correspondent. I mean, here was something really fucking foreign.”

O’Rourke had come to Korea to cover the turmoil around the country’s first free direct presidential election. A Korean friend of mine, an economist as well as a fan The Economist, remembers opening up that magazine some time ago and reading an article which began with words like, “South Korea, which became a democracy in 1987…” — words which startled her. She on one level knew, of course, that her homeland held its first genuinely democratic (or close-enough) elections in that relatively recent-sounding year, but it’s one thing to know it, and quite another to have it plainly stated back at you as an acknowledged fact by a respected international news outlet.

History remembers Kim Dae-jung as an icon of Korean democracy, but despite having proven inspirational enough in December of 1987 to get his supporters writing his name in their own blood, he wouldn’t win the presidency until 1998. He ran against the late Kim Young-sam, who would serve as President first, from 1993 to 1998, and they both lost to Roh Tae-woo, President from 1988 to 1993, though rumors of vote fraud swirled around his victory fast enough that O’Rourke had the opportunity to don a helmet against the hail of thrown stones and a ventilator mask against the tear gas (which seems to have constituted a basic element of Seoul’s atmosphere in the 1980s) and make his way into a ward office occupied by enraged student radicals and under siege by the police.

Read the whole thing at The Los Angeles Review of Books.