Sarah Avery (dr_pretentious) wrote,
Sarah Avery

No Need To Throw Cold Water On It. Offer It Some Warm Barley Tea, Maybe, But Not Cold Water

It was 1987, a year of student demonstrations, riot police, tear gas. The thing about tear gas in a city in a bowl-shaped valley is that it can only drift so far before the hills turn it back. We didn't have to break the base rules and go see Myongdong Square to get stung. The end to the crackdown was a relief in more ways than I can tell you. The day Chun Doo-hwan--a military dictator, but our dictator, as the saying goes--decided he wanted to retire alive more than he wanted to hang onto office until someone assassinated him, my mother and I walked through the razor-wired gate of our garrison neighborhood in Seoul, into the famous American-fleecing hurly-burly market of Itaewon.

Mr. Kim kept a cobbler's shop in one of the side alleys there, a poorly lit place heated by a wood-burning cast iron stove. There was plenty of neon, plenty of glitz on the big tourist boulevards, but Mr. Kim didn't need any such stuff. He made perfect shoes for imperfect feet. For my mother and me, this was a life-changing thing. We don't have feet so much as trapezoids with toes, almost impossible even in the internet age to fit comfortably. I hope he knew how grateful we were for his artistry.

Never before had he talked politics with us, and probably not with any other people from American military community, though that was most of his clientele. That afternoon, with President Chun having named the day of his departure from office, and the day of elections that, finally, everyone believed would really happen, several cobblers had gathered in Mr. Kim's shop. They had a big kettle of barley tea going on the wood stove, they were puffing on their cigarettes in a state as much of agitation as elation, and from time to time they would put down the shoes they were stitching and gather around a small radio.

We congratulated them on their rising democracy with a degree of joy that I think surprised them. It's hard on the conscience to be brats, spouses, camp-followers, and soldiers of a democracy's army, stationed in support of a military dictator. There was discreet celebration on the base, too, when Chun Doo-hwan resigned.

"And now Kim Young-sam will be president!" said Mr. Kim with tremendous pride. Not that they were related--25% of all Koreans have that family name--but because Kim Young-sam truly did have the most obvious makings of a president among the opposition leaders.

Maybe, we said, but only if the opposition united behind him. If the three big factions kept jockeying for position until election day, they'd leave the field wide open for Chun's handpicked successor to win the vote. And indeed, this is what happened, though it turned out all right on the scale of decades.

But, said the cobblers, surely democracy means the best candidate wins? That was what they'd been hoping for, what their children in college had been demonstrating for.

We considered Ronald Reagan a moment and said, No, often not. You'll have a mess, with disagreements, mistakes, and the occasional scandal, but at least it will really be yours, even when you don't like the guy in office. It will be better than what you had.

None of the cobblers were thrilled with our description of life in a working democracy. It's turned out pretty well for them, though. Well enough that out here, far from the wonderful fact of their success, so many of us have forgotten they ever had a military dictatorship that Korea doesn't even come up when we're looking for ways to balance our cynicism with our hopes for the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and, universe willing, in many more to come.
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