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Korean Man Fights the System with a Crossbow

One of the stereotypes about Asia that persists is that Asian cultures aren’t confrontational; Asians, the old view holds, are indirect, say ‘yes’ when they mean ‘no’ to save face and so on.

All we can say is that these people don’t know Korea very well. Take Kim-Myung-ho, a South Korean math professor, who isn’t happy about the way he was treated by the South Korean judicial system. The New York Times provides a good synopsis:

The fight is rooted in Mr. Kim’s firing by Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul in 1996. He sued for wrongful termination, and Judge Park ultimately rejected that claim. After months of picketing courthouses and sending hundreds of letters of complaint to the Supreme Court, Mr. Kim said he lost all hope of justice and decided to deliver the judge “a shock.”

So on the evening of Jan. 15, 2007, Mr. Kim confronted Judge Park as he was about to take an elevator to his apartment in Seoul. “You call that a verdict?” Mr. Kim said, aiming his loaded crossbow at the judge.

Yes, you read that right—a crossbow. And the incident touched a nerve in Korea, making Mr. Kim something of a folk hero.

Via Meadia takes no view on the justice of the verdicts in the various cases in which Mr. Kim has become embroiled, but the South Korean judicial system is widely seen as arrogant and closed off. Judges are part of a tight fraternity; they have a lot of respect for themselves and feel that they are part of a natural meritocratic elite. In their own no doubt objective and well researched view, judges are smarter, more righteous and more sophisticated than those members of the great unwashed public who appear before them; the public increasingly takes note.

Crossbow Kim’s popularity in Korea points to an important global trend: People all over the world are no longer willing to accept the power of unelected hierarchies of experts. Democracy isn’t just a matter of elections; it is about reducing the power of elites over the masses. The college educated, the credentialed, the blue blooded, the well connected: in many countries these groups have enjoyed huge status that ultimately derives from the enduring power of pre-modern and even feudal ideas and values.

As modernity advances, old hierarchies are flattened and deference to authority wanes. Korean tradition was Confucian, dynastic and hierarchical; many of the attitudes rooted in national culture persist in sometimes contrasting ways in both the North and the South. In the South, improvements in education and economic development and the arrival of foreign ideas (like Christianity, a religious faith which almost half the people in South Korea now profess) make South Koreans more self confident, more determined to be heard.

Suggestion to South Korean judges: lose the arrogance. Fast.

This drama also shows that Korean culture, North and South alike, can be very confrontational, particularly when it comes to emotionally intense conflicts. Those who natter on about Asian indirection and passivity don’t know Korea very well.

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  • FredR

    From the article:

    “Until this year, all judges were selected based on their scores on an annual written examination, regardless of formal education, and then prepared for the bench at a government training center.

    “Because judges aren’t elected and we don’t have a jury system, the public has no power of oversight,” said Kim Dae-in of the Good Law group. “The whole system is vulnerable to corruption and mistrust.”

    A blind examination process was one of our big innovations to reduce corruption. Democratic accountability often just means a spoils system, and using degrees over test scores as your selection criteria strikes me as more and not less feudal.

  • BigFire

    In many Asian society, implicit class structure still exist. Judges and bureaucrats exist in the government class, and they ARE different and expected to be treated differently.

  • Gary L

    Machiavelli (The Prince, Chapter 9) enunciates one of the eternal verities of every society and culture: “…the people do not wish to be ruled or oppressed by the nobles, and the nobles wish to rule and oppress the people..”

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    Korean culture has always been more pugnacious than Chinese or Japanese culture, and with many decades now of exposure to the superior (There is no arguing with success) American culture, the Asian “face” culture has been mostly replaced by the more civilized “seeking the truth” culture of the West.

  • Rob L

    Haha.. Asians will act differently when with other Asians than in front of Europeans/Americans to project a better image.

    That being said we Koreans have been known to show our emotions closer to the surface than our Japanese neighbors.. you’ll know when you’ve pissed off a Korean but a Japanese? Good luck!

    Stereotypes.. yes, and there are exceptions to the rule. Nonetheless I’d say Koreans are more likely to wear their hearts on their sleeves.

  • Corlyss

    I never quite believed the stereotype applied to Koreans. Not since my 10th grade history teacher remarked that “the Koreans are Asia’s Italians.” I do believe the stereotype applies to the Asian powerhouses, the Chinese and the Japanese. They are entirely too docile for their own good.

  • Drew Young

    Crazy to think this actually happened. What a move for a math teacher to pull- just goes to show one person can make a big impact on the system. I just heard there is a movie based on this story called “Unbowed”, and it’s being shown at the Look East Film Festival in LA this month. Hoping they did justice to the true events, and it’s definitely worth checking out. If you happen to be in the Los Angeles area the last weekend you should go- I’m working with the festival, and really excited about this opportunity to share Mr. Kim’s story with the American public.

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