South Korea lawmakers: Reaching across the aisle with a sledgehammer
By By John M. Glionna
Jan 28, 2009 | 12:00 AM
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."
Brawling among South Korean politicians is also not new. In 2007, lawmakers battled over a move to impeach then-President Roh. Politicians dived into the crowd like fans in a mosh pit. One was carried out on a stretcher.
In neighboring Taiwan, legislators' public battles have included wrestling, shoe-throwing, tie-pulling and the hurling of microphones, lunch boxes and books. A politician once tried to eat the draft of new legislation to stop a vote on the issue.
Although both nations feature developing arenas of free speech, South Koreans are fretting over the image their lawmakers present to the world.
"Many believe that it reinforces the notion that South Korea may be part of the First World economically, but remains politically backward," Hwang said.
The political antipathy has paralyzed the National Assembly, where legislators were able to muster votes on fewer than 300 of the 2,600 bills introduced in the most recent session.
"Many fighting politicians really do believe that if they lose their battle, democracy itself will be in danger," said Andy Jackson, a political columnist for the Korea Times.
Most South Korean lawmakers, he said, would rather fight than switch their votes: "The attitude is that if you're not fighting, you're not trying. So you pull off the gloves and you go at it."
The morning of the sledgehammer battle didn't start well.
Ruling party officials had heard rumors that they might be barred from their planned committee vote on afree-trade agreement with the United States, so several spent the night near the assembly building in case opposition politicians tried to stop them from showing up to vote.
Hwang Jin-ha, a GNP legislator who oversaw the committee vote, said officials secured the conference room in anticipation of an attack. "We shut down the door to prevent violence," he said.
Clearly, that tactic failed.
In an effort to delay the vote, opposition legislators and their aides fought past security guards to hammer through the door, shattering windows, only to find their way blocked by a mountain of furniture.
That's when the defenders inside reached out through the shattered door to attack with fire extinguishers, unleashing a volley of powder in the faces of their assembly colleagues, bloodying one man.
"As they punched the door with a hammer, we were upset inside. Democracy was missing. Talks with them will never take place, no matter how much they are whining and using violence," Hwang Jin-ha said. "What are we to do with reckless violence from small parties that act like gangs?"
Investigators are still looking into who fired up the chain saw. So far no one has taken responsibility for using it to help break through the door.
The battle over the committee room caused $16,000 in damage, and lawsuits over assaults and property destruction have been filed by both sides.
But many opposition lawmakers say the moral victory was worth the cost.
"We had to get inside that room," said Park Woong-du, an aide to Democratic Labor Party Chairman Kang Ki-kap, who faces criminal charges for his role in smashing the door and verbally abusing rival lawmakers. "Whatever happened, whether it was a fight or a debate, we had to get inside. For us, democracy was on the line."
But the battle could have political consequences. GNP lawmakers, who hold 172 of the 299 assembly seats, are seeking legislation to punish assembly violence with a mandatory three-year jail sentence, forcing offending politicians to give up their seats.
Opposition leaders call the proposal another outrageous attempt to bully minority politicians.
And in the wild world of South Korean politics, many fear the debate over anti-violence legislation could itself lead to fisticuffs.
For Lee, hard feelings remain.
This month, the mother of two found herself on the front lines of another political free-for-all when 200 armed security officers stormed a human blockade formed by minority party politicians in the rotunda of the assembly building.
Dozens were injured, including Lee, who was hospitalized after being dragged by guards. She said she was trying to protect a political party poster that security personnel had ripped down.
Several lawmakers have since expressed remorse for battling with the guards and fellow politicians, but Lee remains defiant.