The Korea Herald


[Editorial] Politics of hatred

Authorities, politicians must look back, take steps to end violence, hate in politics

By Korea Herald

Published : Jan. 29, 2024 - 05:30

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It is certainly one of the most harrowing beginnings to a year.

Just 23 days after main opposition Democratic Party of Korea leader Lee Jae-myung was stabbed in the neck by a man who approached him asking for an autograph, Rep. Bae Hyun-jin of the ruling People Power Party was struck on the head multiple times by a 14-year-old boy on Thursday.

The boy, born in 2009, reportedly said he was a criminal minor, but he is not, as the Criminal Act exempts only those under 14 years of age from punishment. The juvenile attacker had attended political events and often shared political content in group chats. The middle schooler was arrested at the scene, questioned by police with his parents present and admitted to a hospital early Friday. He has a record of medical treatment for bipolar disorder, and the law allows emergency admissions for a maximum of three days for persons suspected of mental illness with a risk of inflicting harm on themselves or others.

Lee Jae-myung’s 67-year-old assailant, surnamed Kim, appeared markedly tranquil in the days after his crime. While in police custody, he had all of his meals, asked for books to read and read the Chinese historical text “Records of the Three Kingdoms.” When reporters asked him for his motive, he answered simply, “I submitted an eight-page statement to the police. Please refer to that.” Unlike other criminal suspects who keep their heads down, Kim looked straight at media cameras on several occasions. Criminal psychologists have said he seems like an ideologically motivated offender who is sure his crime had a just cause.

The two shocking acts of violence against politicians are not only a grave threat to South Korea’s democracy, but a wake-up call for the widespread politics of hatred in the country.

A constant stream of politicians on both ends of the political spectrum have for years employed crude speech, intense public shaming or demonization of their opponents for political purposes. It has affected much of the country’s population, as can be seen in startlingly vulgar, or even violent, messages in the readers’ comments section at the end of political news stories online.

A myriad of online communities that have flourished over the past two decades, thanks to the world-class breadth and speed of Korea's Internet connections, have served as bonding and breeding grounds for people of similar political beliefs. Political YouTubers have poured oil on the flames, with many of them resorting to theories, speculation and sometimes fake news rather than hard facts as they preached to people who are already “like-minded.”

As YouTube and other social media algorithms show users what they might like, based on their previous choices, avid viewers of political content often fall prey to confirmation bias, or a tendency to search for, interpret, favor and recall information in a way that confirms or backs their prior beliefs or values.

Political polarization is increasingly becoming a worldwide phenomenon, but the existence of North Korea and the memory of the 1950-53 Korean War and its aftermath render the situation in South Korea unique. It is not hard to see people civil in other aspects of life turn emotional and inimical when it comes to politics. More often than not, the use of hateful and violent language is evident in placards held by or actual speech uttered by protestors.

All of that, plus the rising number of South Koreans seeking treatment for mental illnesses, has culminated in the unfortunate attacks on Lee and Bae this month. It is past time South Koreans -- politicians and others alike -- look back and think about the true meaning of democracy. It is time those in power act like they understand it. Surely, none of us want to pass on such politics of hatred to the next generation.

Heading toward the general election in April, authorities must take all measures to prevent any sort of violence including those committed by minors, and lawmakers should put their heads together to find a way out of this sad and unhealthy state of politics, instead of using hate and anger to rally support from their existing supporters.