My father-in-law went down to vote in the cold dark at around six in the morning today and was, like, the fifth guy in the neighborhood to do so. Five hours later my wife went to vote and reported that she’d had to wait in line, which had never happened before; as in America, high turnout is expected to favor the liberal candidate, Moon Jae-in. But both of these plucky Koreans voted proudly and openly for Park Geun-hye, the conservative and grandmotherly daughter of the great dictator, Park Chung-hee, whose near two decades (1961-1979) of absolute power resulted in the prosperity of modern Korea. The question is whether this wealth was worth the price of filling Korean jails and labor camps with protestors and covering the streets with the wounded and the dead. Something like half the country says yes, while the other half disagrees.
Korean democracy is deceptively similar to democracy in America, and largely seems to have been modeled on it. Those same protestors who were beaten, killed, or thrown into jail fought for the American-style polling stations and even the debates and rallies we see now on TV, but there the similarities end: it’s impossible to walk outside right now for any length of time without running into pickup trucks blasting music and pre-recorded speeches for one candidate or the other, with vast TVs in the back playing images of either the ajumma who smiles as though her mouth is stuffed with old dentures or the handsome ajoshee who strongly resembles a newt. Sometimes these trucks park at intersections and teams of middle-aged women assemble to dance like chaste churchgoing cheerleaders in front of them, their ranks occasionally boosted by the presence of multiple bear mascots that belong more properly in theme parks. Political ads in America are stupid, but not this stupid.
This feature is ridiculous and obvious, but there are a couple of things the Koreans do better than their American counterparts. For one, voting day is a national holiday; for two, there is no electoral college (whoever gets the most votes wins); for three, everyone receives an information pack in the mail on all six candidates, whose faces are plastered at this very moment across the country in equal numbers. Third party candidates still have no chance of winning, but at the same time they get far more exposure than their American counterparts; one communist and probable stooge of the North Koreans, a woman with terrible teeth who looks to me like an excitable librarian (Yi Jong-hee), even took part in two of the presidential debates and spent the entire time lambasting Park Geun-hye, who was so taken aback that she could hardly respond. Think of Barack Obama metamorphing into Clint Eastwood’s empty chair at the first debate, but with a librarian-like Mitt Romney expounding on the evils of huge corporations and the need to care more about workers, ordinary folks, and our brothers and sisters up north, who aren’t prone to violence in the slightest; they’re just misunderstood.
I’m what Mitt Romney would call a severe liberal, but if I could vote, I would vote for the conservative: both of the leading candidates would seem to be clueless, obviously prone to corruption or rabble-rousing—with Park posed to re-enact Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, and Moon quivering at the thought of handing this entire country over to Kim Jong-un—and uninspiring. But when it comes to the liberals and conservatives in Korea, everything is mixed up and reversed. The conservatives are much less xenophobic (appointing a Philippine actress to the legislature, providing free daycare to the children of mixed-race parents), but still slaves of big business (Yi Myung-bak, the current president, was the CEO of Hyundai Engineering, and has done his very darndest to run the nation as though it is just one big ole conglomerate, sacrificing the environment to the economy on countless occasions); the liberals want to break up Samsung and Hyundai while at the same time footing the bill for North Korea’s blossoming space program (and the last president, a liberal, turned the entire country against himself before jumping off a cliff and miraculously transforming into a beloved saint); both parties have proven themselves time and again to be totally corrupt and incompetent, but for me, I’ll take my corruption and incompetence without forking over my tax dollars to the vast armies of orcs and cave trolls who have been massed along the Northern side of the border between the two Koreas for six stalemated decades—thank you very much.
At the same time it would be more interesting if the liberal underdog, Moon Jae-in, were to win, because I’ve never personally experienced the bullshit from the liberal side of Korean politics, having only acquainted myself with the bullshit from the conservatives, and I’m curious to see how Mr. Moon would pretend to solve the myriad ills currently plaguing Korean society. There are so many to choose from, I hardly know where to start: there’s inflation, wage stagnation, and the real estate bubble; the famous Gangnam district (population: 527,641) in Seoul is worth more than the entire city of Busan (population: 4,399,515). Then there’s joblessness, and the lack of welfare directed toward both the young and the old, with members of both groups throwing themselves in front of trains and off of high-rises in ever-increasing numbers. These are probably the most important issues facing the country today, and, assuming Kim Jong-un does not decide to unleash his army of darkness on us, they will probably be even more severe than they already are five years from now.
The voting is going to end in about thirty minutes, and the results should be tallied in five or six hours.