South Korea’s Feudal Presidency: Ban Ki-moon Returns to Claim the Throne

Politics

Victorious generals of ancient Rome had processions known as triumphus to celebrate their successes abroad. Former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, too, got one of a sort when he returned to South Korea on Thursday, Jan. 12.

He was mobbed on arrival at Incheon International Airport by well-wishers and journalists. A similar scene unfolded when he traveled to Seoul Train Station by subway. Some even awaited him at his home in southern Seoul to offer congratulatory messages or to document the proceedings.

Many Roman generals who achieved fame had no qualms about nakedly displaying their political ambitions. Ban, a man whose tenure as head of the United Nations has made him a household name in South Korea, is expected by the whole nation to try to succeed the disgraced president Park Geun-hye in this year’s election.

The ritual of declaring presidential candidacy adheres to a complex code. On Friday Ban paid respect at the National Cemetery to late presidents and spirits of the war dead. “I have come home after spending the last ten years in service of world peace, human rights and development as U.N. secretary-general,” he wrote in the guestbook. “I will do my best, however meager it may be, for even greater progress of the Republic of Korea,” the message continued, according to Yonhap News.

On Saturday Ban journeyed to his birthplace in Eumseong, two hours south of Seoul. He venerated his father at the latter’s grave. After lunching at a well-known Catholic charity, he formally greeted his mother at her home in the nearby city of Chungju.

Then, at a town-hall meeting that same afternoon, a man, identified only as a “citizen” in the media, prostrated himself before Ban and his wife, as if in the presence of a feudal ruler. In a picture widely circulated in South Korean cyberspace, Ban can be seen smiling benevolently and partly bending over as if to reach out to this man, except someone who appears to be an aide uses both hands to hold Ban back in a gesture of caution.

Park, the sitting president who has been all but destroyed by the Choi Soon-sil saga, awaits the Constitutional Court’s verdict on her impeachment. But her arrival on the political scene in 1998 was no less majestic than Ban’s return to South Korea.

When Park campaigned in Daegu for a seat as lawmaker, following nearly two decades out of the public’s view, the elderly who revered her father, General Park Chung-hee, reportedly kowtowed to her in the streets. When she ran for presidency in 2012, a woman went down on her knees to bow to Park during a campaign visit in Busan just as the unknown “citizen” did to Ban this past Saturday.

Lest I appear to denigrate these spectacles, it must be said that if Donald Trump has taught us anything, it is that politics is primarily show business. And in South Korean politics, rituals amount to more than just a show.

Ban’s carefully choreographed homecoming was designed to telegraph two virtues on his part: loyalty to the state and filial piety, both central qualities as much for premodern rulers as for contemporary presidents. (One might add integrity to the list after the Choi Soon-sil scandal, though it is still too soon to say given the bribery charge against Ban’s brother and nephew.)

In choosing to venerate four previous presidents, in the sequence of burial – Syngman Rhee, Park Chung-hee, Kim Dae-jung and Kim Young-sam – Ban acknowledged the political legitimacy of those leaders as well as that of the Republic. (Now there are questions as to whether he will soon go to the tomb of late president Roh Moo-hyun, who is buried in his own hometown far from the capital; incidentally, Ban was also Roh’s foreign minister.)

To stress his filial piety, Ban appropriately visited his father’s grave and then his mother at her home, casting himself as a dutiful son.

In conjunction with these rites, that a man chose to bow to Ban in such a subservient manner this Saturday underscored the significance of presidency in South Korea as still very much a monarchical institution. It is a perennial but justified complaint of the progressive media that South Korean presidency is jewangjeok or “imperial” in nature. There are too few checks and balances over the powers of the president. The Choi Soon-sil scandal illustrated this fatal deficiency in South Korean democracy.

Park, if all the allegations against her are indeed true, abnegated her responsibilities as leader of the nation and still remains president, the successful impeachment motion against her in the National Assembly notwithstanding. She was able to block investigations of her collusion with Choi until domestic media outlets, notably Chosun Ilbo, Hankyoreh and JTBC, took an active interest in the case and located vital evidence.

And then there is Ban’s conduct, which conforms more to standards of propriety established in the premodern time than anything one might see as crucial to the start of a presidential campaign. (In his defense, Ban is not the only politician who plays by these archaic expectations.)

Now the primary objective for him, not to mention all the other presidential hopefuls, will be to appeal to minsim – often translated as “popular sentiment” but better understood as the hearts of the people – by mingling with the public.

Minsim, a construct that appears as early as in the ancient Chinese philosopher Mencius’s writings, became central to the Korean model of kingship. Mencius wrote, “People admire propagation of virtue. […] To propagate virtue well is to win the hearts of the people.”

That notion, however outdated it may sound, was made a key political concept while South Korea suffered under military dictatorships and leftist thinkers began theorizing on supremacy of people – minjung or literally the “masses” – in a democratic system in an effort at challenging authoritarian rule. In this thinking people are not a “mob,” a “beast” or a “wrathful God” whose whims must be feared, but the nation’s fundamental constituents and, as such, the ultimate arbiters on a ruler’s virtue and legitimacy.

Park Geun-hye irreversibly lost minsim by revealing herself as a leader devoid of virtue. Ban is busy at work trying to win those same hearts for himself. After coming back to South Korea, he has been photographed spoon-feeding an incapacitated elderly woman. He has also sprayed disinfectants onto motor vehicles in a sign that he cares about the seriousness of the avian influenza outbreak currently plaguing the domestic poultry industry.  

What has happened in South Korea between the Choi Soon-sil scandal and Ban’s return is a reminder that in this nation often dubbed a thriving, boisterous democracy, one that holds free elections and massive demonstrations without a hitch, old principles of politics remain a potent force.

That is why talks of constitutional reform have enjoyed traction here. An argument can be made that to effect genuine transition to democracy, and to prevent another political catastrophe like the Choi scandal, the whole institution of presidency must be engineered to resemble something less than royal rule.

Ban, who publicly supports constitutional reform, agreed in an interview: “I think it is better to reform the overall political system” because “transitioning from one administration to another without improving the system in a direction that people desire and that conforms to democratic principles will leave open the possibility that same mistakes will be repeated.” 

But oddly, Ban’s conduct these past few days betrays him more as a claimant to the South Korean throne than a champion of democratic principles.

Se-Woong Koo earned his Ph.D. from Stanford University and taught Korean studies at Stanford, Yale, and Ewha Women's University. He has written for The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and Al Jazeera among other publications.