Reporting from Seoul — Kang Ki-kab sighs. Life in Seoul, away from his family and the homestead he calls the Farm That Loves Soil, has proved a lonely existence for South Korea's unlikeliest politician.
He misses the simple chores, like milking his 90 cows and harvesting his sweet Korean plums.
He sits in his legislative office, hands clasped calmly on his lap, a monk-like anachronism with a wispy white beard and a flowing cream-colored robe tied with a large bow.
"Our ancestors wore these, why can't I?" he asks.
He strikes a pose.
"Isn't it elegant?" he says. "When I tie these strings, I have a moment to myself. It's good for my mental health."
Kang, 56, seems the very image of earnest serenity, a kind of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" meets David Carradine circa "Kung Fu."
But then you ask about the Table Dance.
After a member of the legislature's security detail accidentally broke Kang's finger while dispersing a January 2009 sit-in, Kang threw a very public tantrum. He jumped onto a table in front of one of the National Assembly's top administrators and, depending on who's telling the story, hopped about apelike or stamped like a child.
Then he overturned the table and stormed away to kick at the barricaded office door of another political opponent, and later chained himself to the entry of the legislature's main chamber.
"My critics may call it a show, but I desperately wanted to make a point about the country's wrongheaded direction," he says."When people refused to listen, I was angry -- I was outraged."
Kang, one of South Korea's first politicians to rise to national office from the working classes, symbolizes voters' growing resentment of business as usual in the capital. Many are disenchanted with a government run by male-dominated intellectual elites and hyper-successful entrepreneurs with little sense of what it's like for middle-class families coping with rising prices and stubborn unemployment.
Like former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Kang emerged on the national political scene as an unknown from the hinterlands. Like Palin, his plain-spoken approach has charmed many voters.
He envisions a South Korea less dependent on U.S. military power, and he is against sending troops to Iraq and Afghanistan. He also wants to create a wider social safety net. He revels in his status as the consummate outsider, a politician who survives nicely, thank you, without the campaign contributions and old-boy connections most of his peers rely on.
"People like him as this unrepentant anti-modernist," says David Kang, director of the Korean Studies Institute at USC. "He represents this folksy Norman Rockwell view of politicians. He represents a Korean history that probably never existed, but still has its appeal."
Even as comics and the media lampoon him and colleagues privately wince, Kang Ki-kab insists on being himself, a fiercely independent country soul who says he entered politics to help protect the nation's farmers, a social outsider who feels trapped in the big city.
But before going home, he says, he has a mission to complete.
"I'm tired of watching politicians ignore the lower classes and cater to the rich, and I want to do something about it," he says. "In that way, I'm walking with the cross on my shoulder, like Jesus did."
Nobody expected Kang to win a second term in 2008 when he faced off against a ruling-party big shot and close friend of President Lee Myung-bak.
But the peasant's son from rural South Gyeongsang province, about as far as you can get from South Korea's seat of power, pulled off an election day stunner for his Democratic Labor Party.
Kang refers to himself as a political David prevailing amid Goliath-sized odds.
"I threw eggs and broke rocks," he says. "I always think I can win."
After his reelection, Kang was investigated on accusations of campaign irregularities, including defaming a rival candidate, but a judge imposed a fine rather than pursue criminal charges, preserving Kang's hard-won victory.
The former protest organizer for the Korean Peasant League first ran for the legislature in 2004, promising to aid the nation's lower classes -- the peasants, fishermen and farmers. In a national arena full of scrappy fighters, the father of four quickly stood out for his parliamentary antics and thirst for publicity.
Kang has waged at least six hunger strikes; the longest lasted 31 days. Most were attempts to focus attention on the plight of rural South Korea. Lacking subsidies, more than a third of farmers and their families have left the countryside for the city, he said.
To help fund his causes, Kang says, he returns nearly two-thirds of his $7,000 monthly salary to his party.
"He really is a true believer. It's clear that he's not in politics for the money," says Andy Jackson, a columnist for the Korea Times. "He is sincere. His problem is that he is a little too sincere.