Korea's Tear Gas Lawmaker Is Now a National Hero

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A week after a South Korean lawmaker set off a tear gas bomb in a parliamentary session, police there haven't brought charges against him and some in the country are hailing him as a hero. The lawmaker, Kim Seon-dong, represents the opposition Democratic Labor Party, which opposed the passage of a free trade agreement with the United States. On Wednesday, local media noted that police there had yet to charge or even investigate Kim for the gas attack. Many in Korea are happy for that, as they see Kim and his tear gas as comparable to those who fought the Japanese in World War II. As one English-language Korean columnist pointed out, opposition politicians have little recourse in Korea's government, which is dominated by a single party on both a legislative and executive level. In a way, he's Korea's one-man version of Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party combined.

After the outburst last week (that's a red-eyed Kim at left being led out of the chambers afterward), the Wall Street Journal reported that "because the incident occurred in parliament ... prosecutors or the police can only launch an official investigation if parliament presses charges against Mr. Kim." The ruling Grand National Party said it would hold Kim responsible, but it didn't specifically threaten to press charges. And so far it hasn't. Working from a Korean-language news report on Munhwa, one of the nation's four major broadcasters, Asian Correspondent blogger Nathan Schwartzman reports that "no investigation of him has even begun and criticism of the police is mounting," and that "many are calling the delay by prosecutors an example of abuse of the law." Civic organizations have called for such an investigation, but the National Assembly has not, Schwartzman reports, and so even though Kim clearly broke the law, it doesn't look like he'll face consequences.

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The lack of action could have to do with Kim's growing popularity since his outburst. Many in Korea saw the passage of the free trade agreement as railroaded, and after Kim set off his tear gas bomb, he became something of an opposition hero. The news site Asahi Shimbun reports that "since the tear gas incident, Kim has attended a number of meetings opposed to the FTA, where he was mobbed by other participants wanting to shake his hand and offer encouragement. On social networking sites, Kim has also been likened to those who fought against Japan's colonial rule." Kim himself has made that comparison, and it's working for him, reports the Yon Hap news agency:

Kim likens himself to the independence movement martyrs Yoon Bong-gil and An Jung-geun, who risked their lives to kill members of the Japanese imperialist government. He now stands at the forefront of unlicensed antigovernment and anti-FTA demonstrations. Fellow party members and liberal forces regard him as a hero. He is bombarded with tweets praising him. A poll showed as much as 23 percent approved of a pardon of Kim’s action as an inevitable measure to block the unilateral passing of the FTA bill.

The Yon Hap editorial is nominally critical of Kim's action, but it states as a matter of fact that the FTA bill was railroaded, and suggests the ruling party's paralysis when it comes to pressing charges against Kim stems from its awareness that it passed legislation that many in Korea didn't want. Korea Times columnist Andrew Salmon took a similar line, pointing out that under Korea's unicameral government, in which the parliament and the Blue House (their version of the White House) are dominated by the same party, opposition has no legitimate voice:

I am not suggesting that the ruling party’s railroading of the FTA bill through the Assembly was undemocratic, given their majority. It was. And I applaud the party for doing something rare in domestic politics: Ignoring uninformed and emotive populism and acting responsibly in national interest.

But under the existing setup, the opposition ― who let us remember, represent a significant proportion of the electorate ― are powerless. There is no appeal; parliamentary votes are final.

There's not a direct parallel to be drawn to the United States, but there is certainly a similarity in that those who feel under- or unrepresented will lash out. Here, we generally do it through obstructionist political measures such as filibusters or dissenting votes. But as the local coverage suggests, Koreans now find themselves with fewer legislative options to reject policy, and sometimes a tear gas grenade starts looking like a legitimate choice. It certainly got Kim and his party some attention.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.