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Jasmine revolutions have hints of Korea’s past

For many expatriates from Arab countries residing in Korea, “excited” and “happy” are the words they use to describe their feelings about the recent regime changes in Egypt and Tunisia.

“In the beginning, I was very worried about the prospect of this revolution,” said Tawaded, who did not give her last name, a student from Tunisia, who is studying at Dongkuk University in Seoul.

“But finally I was really, really happy,” she said.

Watching the protests while living in Korea seemed to give a sense of hope for some.

“We want Egypt to be modern like Korea,” said an Egyptian in a suit store in Itaewon.

Although Middle Eastern countries and Korea may seem worlds apart by multiple definitions, the popular uprisings that have swept across the Mideast region are scenes familiar with Koreans who had taken to the streets for the pro-democracy demonstrations which culminated in the June 10, 1987 protest.

And like the bud that started the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, Mohammed Bouazizi, Korea had Seoul National University student Park Jong-chul, whose death saw the bud for democracy flourish.

“The two people can be seen as similar when you think of them as the primer that set off the protests,” said Seo Jeong-min, a professor at the Graduate School of International and Area Studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.

Park was detained and tortured to death by the police in January 1987. The belated disclosure of Park’s death rekindled public outrage left over from the Gwangju pro-democracy uprising in 1980, and sparked mass protests throughout the country.

“Park died from being tortured by the police, while Mohammed set himself on fire because of economic hopelessness, but their roles were the same despite the difference in expressions of anger,” said Seo.

Mohammed Bouazizi, forced to sell fruit illegally due to unemployment in Tunisia, fell into despair and doused himself with petrol after having his stand confiscated for selling without a permit. In a country where public protests were rare and former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s rule had lasted 23 years, Bouazizi’s act was enough to send Tunisia and the rest of the Arab world spiraling toward democracy.

And there are certainly similarities between the revolutions nearly 24 years and 10,000 kilometers apart.

“Our people challenged the military-backed authoritarian government and achieved freedom and democracy, and although it is still unsure if Egyptian and Tunisian people will succeed in their struggle to establish democracy, they seem similar,” said Seo.

Many experts agree that the situations in Egypt, Tunisia and even Libya, where rebels are pushing to drive its dictator Moammar Gadhafi out of power, have similarities to Korea’s history.
A group of Korean students rally in Seoul last month in support of the Middle Eastern popular uprisings against dictatorial regimes. (Yonhap News)
A group of Korean students rally in Seoul last month in support of the Middle Eastern popular uprisings against dictatorial regimes. (Yonhap News)

“Libya seems similar to the 1979 situation in Korea, while Egypt and Tunisia seem more in line with the degree and amount of resistance in 1987,” said Choe Young-chol, a professor at Seoul Jangsin University.

And the factors that led to the successful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt were also apparent during the June 1987 protests.

“The reason that the revolution was successful in Egypt and Tunisia is because they have a broader middle class and set of professional groups than other Arab countries. This is similar to the proactive role of the middle class, and the active student protests of Korea’s 1987 pro-democracy protests,” said Jang Ji-hyang, a professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Konkuk University.

However, without the technology that brought the protesters together, the successful revolutions would have been unlikely.

Most experts agree that the conditions in the Middle East were worse than that of Korea in the 1980s.

“Although the freedom of speech was restricted (in 1987), it was much more open when compared to the level of freedom in Middle Eastern societies now,” said Choe.

According to Song Kyung-keun, professor of Arabian language at Chosun University, the income levels and gaps make the circumstances very difficult for democracy, but because of the advancement of technology, they were able to overthrow their governments.

“In my opinion they are actually worse off than we were in the 1980s,” said Song.

And although the situation is still unfolding in Tunisia and Egypt, there are lessons to be learned from Korea’s transition from a militaristic regime to a democratic government.

According to Seo, Tunisia and Egypt have successfully started comprehensive reform, but that can also bring a lot of disorder and chaos, and in order to prevent this, it might be a good idea to review Korea’s process of easing into democracy.

Most experts said the next government will need to juggle several foundations, including raising the standard of living in both economic and judicial terms and developing a firm base for democracy.

According to Jang, democracy is a better system, but the people will need to be patient.

She added that a foreign journalist once said that expecting democracy to bloom in Korea was like expecting a rose to bloom in a trashcan.

By Robert Lee (rjmlee@heraldcorp.com)
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