Fire extinguisher

Opposition lawmakers, upon breaking through a door to a conference room at the South Korean National Assembly in Seoul, are sprayed with fire extinguishers by rival politicians inside. More photos >>> (Kim Ju-seong / Associated Press / December 18, 2008)

Lee Jung-hee recalls the precise moment when all hell broke loose -- the tie-yanking, headlocks and neck-wringing, the thud of sledgehammers and, ominously, the sickening whine of a chain saw.

The 39-year-old had witnessed plenty of violent protests in her native South Korea, where rowdy demonstrations are a Saturday newscast staple. These combatants, however, weren't blue-collar workers or student protesters, but dozens of blue-suited national lawmakers.

And they were in South Korea's august seat of government, the National Assembly.

Lee, a first-term opposition lawmaker, was center-stage in the pandemonium, storming a committee room where members of the ruling Grand National Party had barricaded themselves so they could vote without interference from the opposition.

But after a skirmish that seemed a 21st century version of castle defenders pouring boiling oil on the invading hordes, minority lawmakers finally broke through, only to find the room empty. Their political rivals had fled moments earlier through a secret back door. An incensed Lee smashed her colleagues' nameplates to the floor.

"If I had caught the GNP lawmakers running away, I would have shouted, 'You bastards!' " the petite, bespectacled lawyer said later as she poured tea in her office. "My gesture was symbolic, to mark a moment when the values of democracy and the process of reason had given way to chaos."

Welcome to governmental policy debate South Korean-style. Think "Fight Club," not "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

The pre-Christmas melee, much of it caught on camera and broadcast worldwide, has led South Korea into a bout of political soul-searching, prompting many to ask why lawmakers here feel the need to throw punches. At what point in the political discourse, they wonder, does it seem like a rational move to brandish hammers, chisels and power tools?

Bloggers have likened the legislative mayhem to an episode of "Saturday Night Live," with one lampooning the battling factions as the Fire Extinguisher Party (FEP) and the Sledgehammer Party (SP). Polls show a growing public concern at the behavior.

In his weekly radio address after the brawl, a solemn South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said he "blushed with shame" over the incident.

"It was as if the hammer that smashed down the conference room door also pounded the democracy of Korea, as well as my head and heart," he said.

Political scientists say the clash says as much about the growing pains of a young democracy as the feistiness of the South Korean character.

"Korean democracy is only 20 years old," said Kyung Moon Hwang, an associate professor of Korean history at USC. "For decades, Koreans suffered under a military dictatorship. It was a time marked by tremendous political struggle by intellectuals and students. This behavior is a legacy of that era, that resistance of authority."

Others blame what they call a culture of confrontation.

"Koreans are just not that good in engaging in discussion; we're not good at the deliberative democratic process," said Chung-in Moon, a Yonsei University political science professor and onetime aide to former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun.

"One group says, 'My way is right,' and the other says, 'No.' The culture of accommodation just isn't there. So when it comes to politics, people tend to engage in the iron fist."

A recent survey shows that fights among South Korean politicians, listed as "parliamentary disorder cases," rose from five in 2006 to 47 in 2008.

Experts say American lawmakers likewise have seen their share of physical violence throughout history. "Congressmen haven't always referred to each other as 'My gentleman colleague from Nebraska,' " said David Kang, director of the Korean Studies Institute at USC.

"Go back 150 years, and there were duels and horse whippings in the U.S. Congress. Politics were a lot more bare-knuckled. Legislators used to get beat up on their way to vote."