Seoul 2008 offers lessons for New York 2011

By Yu Kun-ha
  • Published : Nov 18, 2011 - 20:41
  • Updated : Nov 18, 2011 - 20:41

The Occupy Wall Street that is happening now in New York resembles a familiar episode that I witnessed in Seoul. As Yogi Berra said, this is like dj vu all over again!

When my long stay in Seoul on a project started in the beginning of 2008, the new administration was elected but had not yet taken the office. The Korean democracy at work allowed a smooth transition to the new government, with befitting joyous ceremonies.

Shortly after the new government was sworn in, some major shifts in policies took place. That was not quite unexpected as the electoral campaign of the new government clearly spoke of key changes vis--vis policies pursued by then incumbent party.

Less than three months into the new administration, crowds began to gather nightly in downtown Seoul. At first those nightly demonstrations were dismissed as the sour losers’ hubris. They were characterized as being disdained by the reality that they lost both the election and the policies they liked.

But the crowd grew nightly. And the nature of the continued protest became more complex, often both narrow for one issue and then all-encompassing about everything simultaneously.

I once asked one of the young professionals with whom I worked at my client, a large Korean conglomerate, about the protest. She went to the demonstration regularly, and I wanted to learn the reasons that so passionately brought a large segment of Seoul to streets every night. Naively I asked, “Is this because the new administration is conservative?” I thought a typical dichotomy between liberalism of the previous administration versus conservatism of the current government was at play.

Her explanation surprised me. She said that was not about liberal or conservative political ideologies. The main motivation had a different dimension. It had to do with the way the new government was making decisions and pushing through policies. That rubbed people the wrong way.

The beef the Seoul protesters had against the government in 2008 was actually with the beef. They opposed importing meat from the U.S. that they thought was being done without enough safeguards against the mad-cow disease. The events in New York have a commonality in that the Occupy Wall Street transcends the traditional liberal-conservative political divide, but the beef now is about the means to buy beef.

The New York protests, now spreading elsewhere in the world, started when the tinderbox of economic despair mixed with frustration was suddenly lid. At the onset, the voices were dismissed. The expectation was that it would die down quickly.

However, not only it didn’t go away, it became a talking topic, not through widespread coverage by the mainstream news media, but unconventionally via social media and online expos.

It is chic these days to say that you understand the outrage and frustration of the protesters. Now that the movement has become contagious globally, the chicer saying is that you acknowledge the pain of ordinary people worldwide.

Figures as influential as President Obama and Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, have acknowledged the underpinnings of the protest. Even those on the opposite spectrum of the political divide invariably unfriendly to causes such as the Occupy Wall Street, have been timidly muted instead of harsh pronouncements.

Modest and decent citizens believe that in Machiavellian ways they are short-changed, with the deafening bravado of the minority won in hidden and destructive financial games fueled by a handful of “greed is good” merchants of the Wall Street pocketing fortunes out of misfortunes of others. That needs to change, not by dismissing that belief but through significant departure from what created this situation.

Patronizing folks by saying they don’t understand the high finance and how beneficial it is for the tiny minority to be super rich and the rest to suffer the consequences of creating that ultra-rich elite, won’t work any longer.

People know that finance is not bad. They just oppose bad financing schemes to benefit the few and hurt the rest. They don’t oppose capitalism; but venturism with the capital that destroys the wealth of many is being protested.

The events in Seoul came to conclusion when the new government changed some of its approaches. For one, they explained very clearly why there was a rush on the beef deal, so that a larger bilateral free-trade agreement with the U.S. could be struck quickly. And, the government backed down on measures that antagonized the population. For that, it steadily gained acceptance and popularity, even from those who took to the streets in the Seoul Spring of 2008.

An approach like that is now needed in New York and elsewhere in this Autumn of Discontent.

By Jahan Alamzad

Jahan Alamzad is managing principal of CA Advisors. He currently lectures entrepreneurship and innovation management at Notre Dame de Namur University, School of Business and Management. ― Ed.