Last night, I attended the end-of-year party hosted by my friend Yoon Yong. It was at the Bierhof, a second-floor restaurant just across the street from where I work. Mr. Yoon, who was born in 1939, is head of an NGO called Badkiller. The ostensible focus is exposing corruption in Korean politics, business and education—he sees it everywhere. Mostly, though, he is a right-wing gadfly and rabble-rouser. I have seen him give fire-breathing speeches. Happy when a conservative is in the Blue House, he is angry and dismissive when it’s a liberal. I sometimes kid him about his knee-jerk reactions wherein every person with whom he disagrees is a “Communist.” He reveres Park Chung-Hee, the strongman who ruled Korea from 1961 until his assassination in 1979.
I donated 100,000 won at the door and went in. This was, I believe, the fourth time I have attended one of Mr. Yoon’s December parties so I knew what to expect. The place was packed. Having turned 65 a few days earlier, I was still among the youngest in the group. Most older Koreans, survivors of civil war, deprivation and all sorts of social and political strife, are conservative. They love the USA, fervently so. I was the only foreigner at the party and an American to boot, so you know I got a nice welcome.
I was familiar with quite a few of these people, such as Mr. Yoon’s two brothers and his Badkiller assistant, Mr. Lee. There were others who I only knew by face, but big smiles, hearty handshakes and warm hugs were given. Some who did not know me wanted to talk anyway. For example, a lady named Hwang Sun-Hui came over and sat down. She inquired about my religious beliefs and then started yakking rather passionately. Ms. Hwang abused President Moon Jae-In. Again and again, she called him a “fake president,” claiming that the election he won in May of this year was illegitimate. She spoke about two sets of ballots, scheming by election officials and more, with eyes that intensely searched mine for agreement. If Ms. Hwang was paying attention—and she did not seem to be—she sensed skepticism.
Ms. Hwang had hardly finished before Seo Seok-Koo walked over and introduced himself. He gave me a similar speech (neither of these could be called “conversations” since they were pontificating while I pretended to listen), informing me that he was one of the attorneys of the deposed president, Park Geun-Hye. All of my fellow partiers were dead certain that Ms. Park had been unfairly kicked out of office, feeling outraged by her current state of incarceration; the scandal that led to her impeachment was trumped-up. Speaking of which, these people had great admiration for U.S. President Donald Trump, even hoping that he would meddle in the Korean political scene.
Mr. Seo was followed by Dr. Park Jong-Won, professor emeritus at Kyeonggi University. A well-spoken gentleman, he suggested we get together sometime for an in-depth discussion.
I will take a moment here to state that I like President Moon. Had I been allowed to vote, my ballot would have undoubtedly been marked for him. Although he’s facing some tough issues, he seems to be doing quite well. His current popularity ratings are above 70%, although Mr. Yoon finds ways to discount that. The surveys are faulty, he has told me.
So back to the party at the Bierhof. Mr. Yoon spoke, then invited one person up after another. More speeches were given, and sometimes people would sing an old, romantic Korean song. A lady wearing a hanbok dress waited patiently for her turn to speak and when she did, wow! Forceful, articulate and not the least bit hesitant in stating her views. I applauded along with the others when she finished.
I knew Mr. Yoon would ask me to speak, as he always does. I was prepared, or so I thought. I had brought a Taegukgi, but when I got up in front of the audience I realized it was the flag of Texas, not that of Korea. Faux pas! I posed with it anyway, and numerous people snapped photos. I took the microphone and apologized to the group for using English. I complimented Mr. Yoon and said something about keeping the US−Korea alliance strong before concluding.
Seated at a table with a friendly guy whose name I did not catch, I was drinking beer and eating sausage and a baked potato when I recognized two men across the room: Dr. Choi Woon-Woo and Park Sang-Hae. The former was a professor at Busan National University before being ousted for his conservative political writings and activities, and the latter was a refugee from North Korea who was strongly, very strongly, opposed to the Kim regime. They were the leaders of our trip to Imjingak, at the DMZ, on October 25, 2014. We met ferocious resistance from locals and liberals/radicals, eventually turning back without releasing any balloons meant to go over the border. Dr. Choi, Mr. Park and I had a nice chat amid all the noise and hubbub.
I managed to slip out unnoticed. I have friends who, if they knew I had attended such an event, would disown me. I had come solely out of friendship for Mr. Yoon. As should be clear, I am not a right-winger by any stretch of the imagination, at least not in a Korean context. If nothing else, we could agree that the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” as it is labeled by the Kims, needs to fall and as soon as possible. My aforementioned friends can scoff all they want at this gathering of older, conservative people. But I would urge them to consider the big picture. Here a group of citizens had come together and fearlessly criticized the government. Can’t do that up north.