Sunday, November 20, 2011
Ahn Cheol-soo: A New Voice Grips South Korea With Plain Talk About Inequality and Justice
By CHOE SANG-HUN
SEOUL, South Korea — Two days before Seoul elected a mayor last month, an unassuming man slipped into the campaign headquarters of Park Won-soon, an independent candidate. Amid flashing cameras, the man, Ahn Cheol-soo, a soft-spoken university dean who had earlier been seen as a contender for mayor himself, affirmed his support for Mr. Park, entrusted him with a written statement and then left.
“When we participate in an election, we citizens can become our own masters, principle can defeat irregularity and privilege, and common sense can drive out absurdity,” said Mr. Ahn’s statement, an open appeal to voters that quickly spread by way of Twitter and other social networks. “I’m going to the voting station early in the morning. Please join me.”
It was a pivotal moment in an election whose outcome has rocked South Korea. In a country where resentment of social and economic inequality is on the rise, and where many believe that their government serves the privileged rather than the common good, Mr. Ahn’s words — “participate,” “principle,” “common sense” — propelled younger voters to throw their support overwhelmingly behind Mr. Park, the first independent candidate to win South Korea’s second-most-influential elected office.
Nearly 30 percent of the voters who backed Mr. Park on Oct. 26 did so because of Mr. Ahn, according to an exit poll jointly conducted by YTN, a cable news channel, and the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.
Mr. Ahn’s charged comments on themes like inequality, the middle class, the despair of the young and “businesses with a soul and a goal nobler than just making money” are prompting comparisons here with the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Yet, after setting off what stunned politicians called a “tsunami,” Mr. Ahn retreated from public view, declining all requests for interviews. Nevertheless, he remains South Korea’s hottest political star.
His name has attracted those who are disillusioned with the existing political parties. This month, 25 younger lawmakers from President Lee Myung-bak’s governing Grand National Party, responding to the party’s loss in the mayoral race, demanded that the president apologize for “arrogance and disconnectedness.” Recent surveys have found that if the next presidential election were held today and Mr. Ahn were a candidate, he would win.
Politicians have called on him to declare whether he intends to run in the December 2012 presidential election, but he has kept silent. Mr. Park said recently that he did not know whether Mr. Ahn would run, but added, “The fact that he once dreamed of running for Seoul mayor makes it clear that he is disappointed, and in despair, over the country’s politics.”
Although one newspaper columnist has accused him of spreading “the virus of demagoguery,” to his fans he is “Dr. Ahn,” a medical doctor who became an expert on computer viruses and is now ready to turn his healing powers to politics.
“Like Spider-Man, once you have the power, even if you don’t like it, you have to accept the responsibility that comes with it and act accordingly,” Mr. Ahn, a science fiction fan, told the weekly Sisa Journal last year.
The Ahn Cheol-soo phenomenon speaks volumes about why many Koreans often react with distrust to initiatives trumpeted by the political and corporate elite, like the contentious free-trade agreement with the United States, and why Mr. Lee, while winning the admiration of President Obama, is often regarded by his own people as out of touch.
“Professor Ahn represents the people’s aspirations for change,” said Kim Hyung-joon, a political scientist at Myongji University.
Champion of change is a new addition to Mr. Ahn’s unusual résumé. When he was a young medical doctor, Mr. Ahn, now 49, worked for seven years in his spare time to develop what became South Korea’s first widely used antivirus software.
In 1995, he quit medicine and founded AhnLab, the country’s most successful software company. When he retired as its chief executive in 2005, he donated millions of dollars’ worth of shares to his employees. (Many South Koreans see a telling contrast between that gesture and the actions of a parade of well-known businessmen who have been caught breaking the law to channel wealth to their children.)
On Nov. 14, Mr. Ahn said he would donate half of his 37.1 percent stake in AhnLab to charity. His donation, worth about $130 million, would be used to help “the children of low-income families whose opportunities are limited because of social and economic inequality,” Mr. Ahn said in a statement.
In June, Mr. Ahn became dean of the Graduate School of Convergence Science and Technology at his alma mater, Seoul National University. After the election, he resigned as director of a research institute when the governing party, citing his political activities, threatened to end government financing for it.
Mr. Ahn’s interviews, and the lectures that until recently he gave on campuses across South Korea, reveal Mr. Ahn to be not only a mentor whose talks have inspired younger Koreans, but a social critic whose pointed criticism of the country’s big businesses has struck a deep chord.
“Bill Gates wouldn’t have become Bill Gates if he were born in South Korea,” Mr. Ahn likes to say, accusing Samsung, LG and other major corporations of creating “zoos” and “a realm of predators and lawlessness” where, he says, they have shackled small entrepreneurs with slaverylike contracts.
He took on a national icon: Lee Kun-hee, the chairman of Samsung, whose elitism, analysts say, epitomizes South Korea’s national strategy of letting big business drive economic growth, in the expectation that society as a whole will benefit. Mr. Lee famously said, “We need talented people who can each create livelihoods for 10,000 people.”
“What he failed to add,” Mr. Ahn said in an interview this year with MBC TV, “is that if someone keeps those 10,000 livelihoods for himself and takes more from others, then he’s no help to society, where all of us must live together.”
Such remarks tap into what is arguably the biggest public grievance in South Korean society — and, potentially, a political tinderbox.
President Lee, a former Hyundai chief executive, campaigned in the 2007 election on what he called his “747” vision: the economy would take off like a Boeing 747, giving South Korea a 7 percent economic growth rate, a $40,000 per capita income and the world’s seventh-largest economy.
The economy did grow, though not spectacularly. And many Koreans complained that the 747 of growth had only the rich on board. While big businesses reaped profits, often achieved in part by moving jobs abroad, smaller businesses that supplied them earned less and less.
Older Koreans grew up believing that young people, if they worked hard, could climb high even if their families were poor; the classic example is President Lee himself. But young Koreans tend to see diminished opportunities in a country where the rich can afford private tutors for their children while others struggle to pay skyrocketing tuition and the poor are shut out altogether. Sociologists have sounded alarms about antiestablishment hatred boiling in cyberspace.
“In a way, the current system is worse than the old military dictators,” said Kim Ou-joon, who produces a weekly podcast that satirizes the government and is downloaded by millions of South Koreans. “The dictators beat students, hurting them physically. Today’s ruling class destroys young people’s self-esteem by threatening their livelihood. It humiliates their soul.”
In August, Mr. Ahn told the newsweekly Chosun that many of the students who seek his advice break down, crying in despair.
“A lack of justice is a serious problem,” he told MBC TV, explaining why the book “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?” by the Harvard political philosopher Michael J. Sandel became a No. 1 best seller in South Korea. “If we let this problem balloon, the tremendous social pressures can explode.”
Before the Seoul mayoral election, some polls showed Mr. Ahn potentially running far ahead of Mr. Park, but on Sept. 6 he announced that he would not run and would instead back Mr. Park. “The expectations people have had for me are not solely for me,” Mr. Ahn said. “Our society’s wish for change was merely expressed through me.”
If Mr. Park was the great beneficiary of Mr. Ahn’s popularity, the hardest hit has been Park Geun-hye, a leader of the Grand National Party and the daughter of Park Chung-hee, the country’s president from 1963 to 1979. Until Mr. Ahn came along, she polled higher than any other potential candidates in the 2012 election to succeed Mr. Lee, who by law cannot run again.
“She’s suddenly become a symbol of the status quo — old times, old age, old ideas,” said Hahm Sung-deuk, a political scientist at Korea University.
But he questioned whether the halo surrounding Mr. Ahn would survive an actual political contest. “People want a fresh face, and the first face they see is Professor Ahn’s,” Mr. Hahm said. “If Professor Ahn jumps into actual politics, much of the mystique and aurora surrounding him will evaporate, too.”
In an interview with the daily Chosun Ilbo in August, Mr. Ahn’s wife, a university professor with whom he has a daughter, said she saw “little chance” of Mr. Ahn entering politics.
Still, in one of his lectures to students, Mr. Ahn said: “You can’t find out how fast the river is flowing by sitting on the banks and watching. You have to take off your shoes and socks and jump in.” ◦