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Tuesday,October 27,2020
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HORATIO ALGER
Horatio Alger's stories were popular with American boys a century ago as a guide to how they should conduct themselves, the correct behavior when faced with life's exigencies.  They were inspirational stories of young men, often from humble backgrounds, who overcame adversity through diligence, hard work, and always doing the right thing. Those stories were the guiding ethos for boys of that era, written so they would emulate self-made men like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, who embodied the Protestant Ethic propelling the American Way.
    Korea certainly had more than its share of Horatio Alger success stories propelling the Miracle on the Han, the most famous of them being Jung Ju Young, the founding father of Hyundai.  His now famous bicycle episode, in which he takes a job as a bicycle messenger and then learns how to ride a bike the night before the job was to begin, is pluck worthy of the genre.
    Another impressive Horatio Alger story is President Roh Moo Hyun's early life.  And who better to inspire this generation of Korean boys than Mr. Roh, the son of humble farmers who quit school to help support his family, yet through diligence and hard work passed the national law examination and then climbed to the very top of the greasy political pole.  Hollywood couldn't have scripted a better rags-to-riches saga.
    My curiosity about Mr. Roh and Lee Hoi Chang was piqued near the end of last semester when I chose the presidential election as a topic for student discussion groups.  During those freewheeling discussions the age and class of the candidates were salient issues.  The aging Mr. Lee, the apparent frontrunner at the time, was viewed by many students as representing the established order, a bit of the upper crust, while the considerably younger Mr. Roh was seen as a viable alternative to the status quo, a man who knew first hand the hard side of life that too many Koreans still endure.
    Partisan edginess came to the fore after one student caricatured Mr. Lee as a "mouse," causing another to countered that physiognomic slight by calling Mr. Roh "potato face."  (Potato face made me chuckle because many American boys of my generation whiled away rainy days with a Mr. Potato Head kit, containing all the requisite anatomical pieces to fashion the silly face of our choice on a potato.  It was great fun.)  
    As Election Day drew nearer and I became better acquainted with both candidates, their physiognomy did strike me as representative of the extremes of Korean ethnicity.  Mr. Lee's mien and comportment is that of the urbane gentleman of the old school (Kyunghee High School and Seoul National University, naturally), who is accustomed to getting into the back seat of a black limousine with someone always closing the door behind him.
    Conversely, the map of the Korean peninsula is on President Roh's face.  He is the rustic in muddy rubber boots, the coastal fisherman, the taxi driver, and the man who left the land a generation ago and came to Seoul to do the rough work so that his children would go to university.
    Anyone with a discerning eye knew that the Red Devil phenomenon was much more than just youthful exuberance over World Cup success.  It was Korea's Woodstock.
    A music festival that galvanized young Americans in the summer of 1969, Woodstock defined a generation's image of itself and turned the so-called generation gap into a generational chasm.  The Woodstock generation shouted "no" to the Vietnam War and "yes" to civil rights; and its message of peace, love, and tolerance encouraged the Gay Liberation and feminist movements.  There was no turning back for young Americans after Woodstock.
    There was no turning back for a new generation of Koreans after the World Cup, either.  For the younger voters spoke unequivocally at the ballot box:  Out with the old, Mr. Lee, the authority figure; in with the new, President Roh, the human rights advocate. Gays and feminists certainly welcome this new socio-political order.  They are so very tired of waiting.
    And it's going to be a bumpy ride for Uncle Sam if the current anti-American sentiment -- unleashed by the acquittal of two G.I.s whose "monster" vehicle struck and killed two schoolgirls -- is any indication of the new direction that those voters expect to see President Roh take in his dealings with America.  That President Roh has never visited America only heightens concern in some quarters over his intentions.
    Like most of the "pundits" in Seoul, I was way off when it came to gauging the depth of public resentment over the deaths and acquittal. 
    When news of the tragic accident was reported days before the World Cup Opening Ceremony, I reckoned it would blow over; with all the preparation for the venue I expected Koreans not to make too much of a fuss about it.  I was right, sort of.  And then with the euphoria unleashed by Korea's World Cup success, I reckoned the tragedy would be forgotten.  Boy, was I ever wrong. 
    I began to reconsider my presumption last September when I noticed nascent anti-Americanism on campus, because I've been around university campuses long enough not to underestimate student protests when they spearhead public sentiment, including that of Buddhist monks and Roman Catholic priests and nuns.  When the good sisters take to the streets, it's the kiss of death.  Just ask Ferdinand Marcos.  The last time I can recall seeing Catholic nuns attending protests in Seoul was during the waning days of the Chun Doo Hwan regime.  And we all know what happened to him.
     Unlike the student protests of the 1980s, which were about democracy and blowing off steam, the candlelight protest vigil I happened upon in front of the United States Embassy was more like righteousness indignation. 
     The three events -- the World Cup, the candlelight protest vigils, and the presidential election -- that have galvanized this generation and given it vision were born of the Internet.  All of my students, for example, said they became Red Devils via the Internet; the candlelight vigils in front of the U. S. Embassy were the brainchild of a netizen; and without the Internet we would have President Lee rather than President Roh.
    The Roh campaign's effective use of the Internet to "steal" the election from Mr. Lee is reminiscent of John F. Kennedy's defeat of Richard Nixon in 1960, through a much better understanding of the medium of television.  Kennedy's election was about generational change, too.  That is why he said  "The torch has been passed from one generation to the next." in his inspiring inaugural address, though in Korea the younger generation just went ahead and grabbed the torch during the World Cup, and then emphatically asserted their political power by putting President Noh into the Blue House.

Sherbo  leesj117@dongguk.edu

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