How to distract 50 million people

Lee Seok-ki is a South Korean politician with a lot of troubles. His PR firm is being investigated for fraud; he’s being investigated by his own party for vote-rigging.

But, right now, no one in South Korea seems to be talking about either investigation. Why? Because he’s gone and done something far worse. He’s insulted the country’s national anthem.

Last month, he sat down with journalists and decided to announce that singing Aegukga – an inoffensive song largely about hibiscus flowers – amounts to endorsing “totalitarianism” because it was chosen by a military government.

The country should have a different anthem, he said, suggesting the folk song Arirang. “Now that properly reflects the sadness and history of the Korean people,” he said.

Lee has a point. Arirang’s a far better tune than Aegukga, dripping in longing:

It also has far more interesting lyrics. It’s sung from the perspective of a woman walking along a mountain pass, reminiscing about an ex. You could easily think of her as longing for Korea itself, until you get to the chorus and she starts cursing the man for all she’s worth. “You who abandoned me here, shall not walk another ten feet,” it goes.

Despite that, Lee’s comments have stirred up an almighty controversy in Seoul, particularly as they’ve been seen as a tacit endorsement of North Korea.

Lee has a history of campaigning for the north, where Arirang is popular, and it’s not a huge step to think of the reminiscing woman as Pyongyang and the horrid ex as Seoul.

The photo at the top of this post (stolen from AP) is of a farmer attacking Lee after shouting at him: “Commie! Why’d you come here?”

I first heard of Lee’s comments a month ago and they seemed so innocuous, and made by someone clearly desperate to distract people from his problems, that I didn’t write about them.

But the anger seems to show no sign of dying down. That says all you need to know about the state of politics and anxiety in Korea right now. I should probably book myself a plane ticket…

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