SEOUL – As Joe Biden assumed the U.S. presidency Wednesday while roughly 25,000 National Guard troops patrolled a city largely empty of the crowds usually associated with the quadrennial ceremony, South Koreans were perplexed to witness the unmatched level of security concerns over the transition of power at the leader of global democracies.
Once a country ruled by army generals for decades, South Korea’s peaceful transition to democracy in 1987 remains among the most successful of small number of cases in the world where American efforts to spread liberal democracy and instill virtues of human rights have been fruitful.
The images of a heavy military presence guarding at the capital’s landmarks, with many troops openly carrying lethal firearms, brought back the long-forgotten memory of South Korea’s military government era for Hwang Un-cheol, a senior citizen in Seoul who grew up in pre-democratic days.
“A country that seriously fears an insider attack by law enforcement officials against the chosen leader on the inauguration ceremony should be deemed as a flawed democracy,” said Hwang.
“This is not the cradle of democracy that we modeled after. I do not recall seeing a fully geared soldier carrying a gun on the streets of Seoul during the shift from military rule to full democracy in the ’80s,” Hwang said. He added that a smooth transition of power should be standard in any mature democracy.
The unprecedented security measures prompted by the Capitol attack on Jan. 6, also surprised Chris Lee, a South Korean international affairs graduate student living in Washington.
For Lee, the violent insurrection by domestic terrorists two weeks before Inauguration Day was particularly alarming, given that America considers itself a beacon of democracy.
“Looking at the servicepeople deployed in every corner of streets reminded me once again of the physical scars inflicted on the nation by the extremists,” said Lee. “The military atmosphere that engulfs the National Mall led many Koreans including me to wonder why a significant group of Americans would not concede to the election losses.”
Ryu Chan-hyeok, a college student in Seoul preparing for the civil service exam, was specifically alarmed at thousands of soldiers flooding the American capital with live ammunition.
“When I saw those armed National Guards on the news, I came to realize once again that the United States is one of the few countries where gun ownership is legal,” said Ryu. “It reminded me of the need for a stricter gun control and I am speaking as a veteran who knows well how dangerous firearms can be when it falls into the wrong hands.”