Korea's Gunless Fight Against Tyranny

The memorial near Sandy Hook Elementary School

Regular readers of this blog are probably well-acquainted with the Korean's aversion to American gun culture. In the wake of the Newtown Massacre and the gun control debate that followed, Andrew Sullivan, popular political commentator and an immigrant from Great Britain, wrote:
Gun violence is one of those things that an immigrant is first amazed by in America. The second thing a non-American is shocked by is the sheer passion of those who own and use guns in this country.
As an immigrant to the United States, I share that sentiment. America’s gun violence, and its love for guns in the face of such gun violence, make no sense to me. To be sure, I understand the recreational value of guns: if you like hunting, for example, I have no objection that you love your hunting rifle. But we all know that the current gun debate is not about hunting rifles--it is about the widespread and under-regulated gun ownership.

Because I so relentlessly advocate for strict gun control, I have encountered equally relentless counter-arguments from gun advocates who would not countenance any regulation of their firearms. From those encounters, I found that every pro-gun argument falls into one of five categories. They are:
  1. Red herring: "Guns are not the problem; violent video games/mental healthcare/racial minorities are the problem."
  2. Legal:  "Gun ownership is a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution."
  3. Public policy:  "More guns prevent crimes."
  4. Pragmatic:  "It is not practically possible to eliminate guns from the United States."
  5. Political philosophy:  "Civilian gun ownership prevents tyranny."
All five of them are wrong, and it is quite easy to show how they are wrong. The first argument is a genuinely dishonest red herring. When pressed, even gun advocates have to admit that guns make deaths happen much more easily and efficiently. Whatever murderous tendencies Americans may have, there is no question that guns provide an easy connection murderous tendencies and actual deaths. A data point here would suffice: suicidal acts with guns are fatal in 85% of the cases, while suicidal acts with pills are fatal in 2% of the cases. (This is why we arm our military with guns, not pills.) And regulating a single category of item makes much more sense than, say, putting every single American through mental examination or pre-screening all video games to make sure none of them is too violent.

The legal argument is also wrong. Here, I particularly delight in exposing the self-made constitutional scholars, since I wrote a lengthy paper about the Second Amendment implications before District of Columbia v. Heller was decided in 2008. To be sure, Heller was a laughable decision. It was a 5-4 decision a la Bush v. Gore, i.e. straight along the partisan line. More importantly, Heller--which was decided only five years ago--was the very first Supreme Court case ever to find that the Second Amendment guaranteed individual rights of gun ownership, even though the Second Amendment has existed for more than 200 years. In doing so, the five conservative justices of the Supreme Court overturned hundreds of years of legal precedents that have held, consistently, that there is no individual right to gun ownership under the Constitution.

But even if we are to treat Heller as the law of the land--and we must, out of respect for the Constitution--the Heller opinion itself clearly leaves room for increased gun ownership control:  “nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on . . . laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.” In short, there is nothing unconstitutional or illegal about, say, banning all assault weapons or high-capacity magazines from civilian ownership. Likewise, there is nothing unconstitutional or illegal about instituting a gun buy-back program, or imposing a significant amount of tax on every gun and bullet sold (as long as the tax is not so great that it effectively acts as a bar to ownership,) or requiring every gun owner to purchase a liability insurance.

Public policy argument is just as easy to dispatch. Numerous studies confirm again and again that having guns at home doubles the risk of homicide. This holds true at an international level as well. Among developed countries, United States has incomparably high gun ownership rates, and likewise has incomparably high rates of both gun-related homicide and ordinary homicide. The developed countries that do have high (but nowhere nearly as high as U.S.) rate of civilian gun ownership have a level of gun control that would be unimaginable in the current-day United States. Switzerland, for example, requires that the citizens keep all their bullets in the army barracks.

The pragmatic argument appears to be sensible in the first blush, but quickly loses its strength in the face of a real world example. After a mass shooting in 1996, Australia instituted a gun buy-back program that reduced the civilian ownership of guns by 20%. In the next 10 years, Australia's firearm-related homicide plunged by 59%, while non-firearm homicides remained the same. What is more, the firearm-related homicide dropped more precipitously in Australian states that had higher gun buy-back rates. (As a bonus, firearm suicides fell by 74%.) In fact, Australia's example shows the hollowness of the "public policy" argument as well. In all likelihood, only law-abiding citizens would participate in a gun buy-back program. Then how is it that gun-related homicide dropped by nearly 60%, when (according to gun advocates) only "bad guys" would have guns?

That leaves us the "political philosophy" argument--the idea that we need guns to overthrow tyranny. And this is the real reason why I write this post, to address this risible argument.

(More after the jump)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Of the five arguments against stricter gun control, this "political philosophy" argument is personally the most grating. It is not just that the argument is wrong; the other four arguments are wrong as well, but they do not grate me as much. People are often wrong, and with enough facts and data, they can be shown wrong. This is a process that we go through all our lives, and peace of mind would be difficult to attain if this process unsettles you.

To me, the political philosophy argument is grating not because it's wrong; it is because the argument is absurd. A typical American gun advocate simply has no idea what it’s like to live in an actual, real-life tyranny, because America is the oldest and strongest democracy in the world. (And it is quite telling that the sub-population of Americans who did experience real-life tyranny, e.g. African Americans, are nowhere to be found among contemporary gun advocates.) Because American tyranny only exists as a fantasy, American response to the potential coming tyranny is also fantastical--thus, we have such risible statements as "there would have been no slavery if African Americans had guns" or "there would have been no Holocaust if Jews had guns." Yet the true believers can go on saying these absurdities for one simple reason: it is particularly difficult to have a counter-example that is "within all fours," as lawyers like to say. 

But there indeed is such a counter-example. South Korea suffered under tyranny for 40 years, then achieved freedom without resorting to armed revolt. But before they did, South Koreans tried an armed revolt first. That's the story I would like to tell here.

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Although North Korea grabs all the headlines for its totalitarianism, it is lost on most people that, for the first few decades of its existence, South Korea was not much better than its northern brethren. The current Republic of Korea (South Korea) was established in 1948. Although nominally established as a democracy, the country was not fully democratized until 1987.

In the four decades between its birth and full democratization, South Korea would undergo three fascist dictators. The first one, Syngman Rhee (who was also South Korea’s first president,) ruled for 12 years by rigging elections at first, then later declaring himself to be the lifetime president. A popular protest overthrew him and established a democratic government. (Rhee fled to Hawaii, where he died.) That democratic government lasted a year and a half, until the second dictator, Park Chung-hee, rolled into Seoul with tanks to depose the democratic government. He, too, rigged elections and declared himself to be the lifetime president. Park proceeded to rule the country for 18 years, until he was assassinated. Amid the chaos that followed, the third dictator--Chun Doo-hwan--again rolled into Seoul with tanks and anointed himself to be the president. He ruled for 7 years, until 1987.

When I say Rhee, Park and Chun were fascists, I literally mean the term “fascists.” They were real, true fascists who commandeered the Korean economy and fattened their own coffers. (Chun was found to have collected more than a billion dollars during his seven-year reign into his slush fund, a staggering sum for South Korea of the 1980s.) They held up newspaper editors at gunpoints and dictated what the newspapers should say. If the Korean people criticized their rule, they were beaten, tortured and killed. If a leader emerged in the opposition, they jailed and/or assassinated the leader.

Yet today, South Korea boasts the most robust democracy in East Asia. In 2013, it is virtually unimaginable that South Korea would backslide into another round of military rule. South Korean democracy is operates efficiently enough to foster its world-class businesses. South Korean democracy creates peaceful resolutions to fractious political issues in accordance with the rule of law. In its quarter-century history, South Korean democracy already experienced two peaceful transitions of power--conservative to liberal, then again to conservative. 

What is more, South Korean democracy serves its essential function: check the excesses of power in accordance with the rule of law. In 1996, the democratic Korean government successfully prosecuted Chun Doo-hwan to life in prison. When the sons of presidents Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung were alleged to have received bribes, Korea’s justice system investigated them and put them into jail. When president Roh Moo-hyun in 2004 was alleged to have violated election laws, he was impeached. Korea’s press serves their rightful role as the watchdog, being independent (albeit with commonplace journalistic slants,) loud and activist.

In short, South Korea is a free country--although, only a quarter century ago, it was not. And Korean people managed to achieve this peacefully, without resorting to guns.

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I have told this story enough times to know that, right around this point of the story, the gun advocate would interject: “But you never know what would have happened if Koreans did have guns. If Koreans had guns, the dictatorship may have fallen in 10 years or 20 years instead of 40.” But actually, Koreans did try the armed insurrection option first.

The second dictator, Park Chung-hee, was assassinated in October 1979. But the Korean people’s brief hope for democracy was almost immediately dashed, when Chun Doo-hwan rolled into Seoul with tanks in December 1979. For the first few months afterward, Chun attempted to co-opt the democratization activists into his faction, hoping that the activists would support the military’s role in politics. But Korea’s democratization activists soon saw through Chun Doo-hwan to be as much of a dictator as Park Chung-hee. In early May 1980, the activists resumed their demands for democracy and protests in the streets. In response, on May 17, 1980, Chun Doo-hwan declared martial law nationwide, dissolved the National Assembly and arrested 2,699 opposition leaders and democratization activists. Pursuant to the martial law--which is really no law at all--Chun Doo-hwan sent the military to all major cities to quell any organized opposition to his ascendance. One of the objectives of the military was to drive out the students from college campuses, traditionally the epicenter of democratization movement.

In the southwestern city of Gwangju, the sixth largest city in Korea which many of the democratization movement leaders called home, the protesters took a stand. On the morning of May 18, the day after the nationwide martial law was declared, some 800 Jeonnam University students gathered outside of the gates of their campus in Gwangju, and demanded the paratroopers who were guarding the gate to step aside, so that they may attend their classes. The paratroopers beat the students with billy clubs; the students responded by throwing rocks at the paratroopers. Students then retreated into the city; the paratroopers gave chase, and began indiscriminately beating any Gwangju citizen who got in the way.

Paratroopers beating Gwangju citizens, on May 19, 1980.
The next day, Gwangju was in a full-blown rebellion with tens of thousands of protesters, as regular Gwangju citizens, enraged by the paratroopers assault on the city, joined the student protesters. The military government sent reinforcement, with orders for a more brutal crackdown. Paratroopers were now armed with bayonets, and went on a beating and stabbing rampage across the city. They would kill the first Gwangju citizen that day; a thirty-year-old deaf man was dead from brain hemorrhage after having been beaten from the paratroopers. The fight continued the next day, with the protesters setting up barricades and raining rocks upon the paratroopers. The events would take a fateful turn at around 11 p.m. on May 20. At the Gwangju train station plaza, the paratroopers opened fire to the protesters. Three protesters died on the spot; dozens more were injured. Having learned that the military government was ready to shoot and kill civilians, the citizens of Gwangju began to arm themselves.

This scene might warm the heart of an American gun advocate. Indeed, this scene may as well be the exact type of romantic image that the “we-need-guns-to-fight-tyranny” folks have been dreaming of. Because the citizens of Gwangju were able to raid the nearby military armories, they were armed with military grade weapons, including walkie-talkies, assault rifles, M2 machine guns, hand grenades and TNTs. The citizen militia even had KM900 armored cars (!) as they raided an automobile plant in Gwangju that manufactured armored cars. What is more, Gwangju’s citizen militia actually knew how to properly use these weapons. Because nearly every Korean male served (and still serves) two years of mandatory military service, Gwangju’s citizens did not face a deficit of disciplined organization against the incoming military government’s forces.

In fact, the entire city of Gwangju organized with discipline. Although there was no police or any other law enforcement, there was no looting or disorder. Although every man was armed, there was no robbery. The citizen militia took over the local granary and distributed food in an orderly fashion. Those with medical training volunteered to tend the wounded; people lined up to give their blood. Womenfolk delivered food, ammos and messages to the militia in the forward positions. Most importantly, just like they learned in the military, the armed citizens of Gwangju fortified key buildings of the city, and waited for the advance.

Women of Gwangju preparing rice for the civilian militia. Photo taken on May 22, 1980.
(For more photos of the Gwangju Uprising, visit the official online photo archive here.)

The city would remain free for one week. On May 27, 1980, the paratroopers, escorted with tanks, overran the provincial office of Gwangju, the citizen militia’s last holdout. The entire episode--later termed Gwangju Democratization Uprising--claimed more than 600 lives, including eight young children under the age of 14. More than three thousand Gwangju citizens were injured; nearly 1,600 people were arrested, and were tortured for days, months. The trauma from the arrest was so great that more than 10 percent of those arrested committed suicide after release.

*               *               *

Does freedom require civilian gun ownership? If your answer is yes, here is a follow-up question--why is it that so many oppressed people around the world, who are keenly aware of their oppression and are doing everything to fight for freedom, are not clamoring for the right to civilian gun ownership? American democracy is the envy of the world, the ultimate model for the emerging democracies. How is that none of those emerging democracies have guaranteed a right to civilian gun ownership, even as they emulate American democracy?

This was also the case for the South Korean democracy, which was explicitly modeled after the American one--after all, the first constitution of South Korea was practically written by American attorneys and legal scholars. Korea’s democratization activists enthusiastically called for all the peculiar features of America’s democracy to be incorporated into Korean democracy, such as freedom of speech and press or the checks and balances of the three branches of the government. 

But not civilian gun ownership. In fact, South Korea has been one of the most gun-free societies in the world from the beginning of the republic, through the military dictatorships and as a democracy today. This is not because Koreans are effete sissies who are irrationally afraid of guns. Nearly every Korean male serves his military duty, during which he constantly handles weapons. Indeed, as a society, Korea may have a healthier “gun culture” than the U.S., since everyone who is likely to handle firearms undergoes a rigorous and proper training. Yet, even in the face of the murderous tyranny, Koreans did not even consider the possibility of demanding civilian gun ownership. Why?

Because Koreans understood that freedom is a social movement. Freedom is not a piece of golden fleece that a bullet-spraying, Rambo-like hero can snatch off from a mythical beast. (Indeed, only someone who never truly experienced tyranny--i.e. majority of Americans--would think this way.) Your ability to fend off one or two lackeys of the dictatorship who are coming to arrest you means nothing, when the dictatorship can easily send one or two dozen more. As we could see from Gwangju, even a whole city organized and armed is no match for the tyranny that is able to bear down the rest of the country’s forces upon that city. Freedom in a society happens when, and only when, that entire society demands freedom. When the entire society earnestly demands freedom, even the most murderous tyrannies are rendered powerless.

Only seven years after the massacre in Gwangju, South Korean citizens would prove this point. On January 14, 1987, a student activist Park Jong-cheol was killed while being waterboarded under police custody. The Chun Doo-hwan dictatorship initially attempted to cover up the death. But on May 18, 1987, at the seven-year memorial mass of the Gwangju Uprising held in Seoul, Father Kim Seung-hoon revealed that Park in fact died because of torture. Another round of protest erupted across Korea. On June 9, 1987, Yi Han-yeol, another student activist was fatally wounded by a tear gas shell while marching in the ensuing demonstrations.

Citizens of Seoul march in the June Struggle, with a giant photo of Lee Han-yeol in memoriam.
Korean people have had enough. Over the next three weeks, the country would erupt in waves of protests, at a scale never seen before. The Chun dictatorship deployed 60,000 armed police to crack down the protests, but the police was overrun by the sheer number of the protesters. The protesters were no longer just college students; they were priests in robes, high school students in uniforms, white collar workers in suits. The protesters asked the drivers to show their support for the movement by waving white handkerchief out of their windows while honking their horns as they passed by the protesters. It was an incredible scene: the streets of Seoul were a cacophonous din of white, with every car pressing down on its horns and waving a white handkerchief.

The protests crested on June 26, when more than 1.3 million Koreans marched for democracy in 37 cities across the country. Three days later, Chun Doo-hwan capitulated and issued a statement promising direct elections and transition to true democracy. In December 1987, South Korea would hold the first free and fair presidential election in the republic’s history. Thus, Koreans achieved what Mahatma Gandhi achieved in India, what Martin Luther King Jr. achieved in America--they defeated tyranny without guns.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.