Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Korea-Japan and the End of the '65 System - Part V: the End of the '65 System

[Series Index]

The ’65 System was a flawed one, based on an imperfect set of treaties that papered over the fundamental disagreement between Japan and South Korea. Yet it continued to survive thanks to opportune alignments in the domestic politics of Japan and South Korea. The ’65 System was born when Park Chung-hee, a former officer of the Imperial Japanese Army, replaced the former independence activist Syngman Rhee, negotiated the ’65 treaties, and violently suppressed the Korean people’s objections. It peaked in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when both Japan and South Korea had relatively progressive politics. Even as Abe Shinzo attacked the ’65 System in the early 2010s, Park Geun-hye’s willingness to kowtow to Abe’s demands kept the system running. And above all, the United States was there as the backstop whenever the ’65 System showed signs of wear.

Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump meet at the White House. c. 2018 (source)

By late 2016, however, the good luck would run out. Abe Shinzo continued to lead Japan, well on his way to becoming the longest serving prime minister in Japan’s history. Park Geun-hye was not as fortunate: she was revealed to have engaged in a bizarre corruption scandal involving a daughter of a shaman who claimed to speak with her dead mother. Koreans responded with a massive series of Candlelight Protests that drew over a million protesters for months. In March 2017, Park was impeached and removed, and liberal Moon Jae-in won the following snap election and took office in May 2017. Meanwhile, in November 2016, Donald Trump would be elected as the US president with a healthy assist from the Russian spy agency.

Trump’s election was an inflection point for US foreign policy in Asia, to put it mildly. Trump had little regard for allies, constantly complaining the cost of troop presence in both Japan and South Korea and the imbalance in trade accounts. Yet he maintained perhaps the best relationship with North Korea among all US presidents, putting into doubt the Cold War logic that presupposed Kim Jong Un as the enemy. The Trump administration would pursue policies like the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy in Asia to counteract China’s Belt and Road Initiative, but the administration’s fundamental incompetence meant even a routine maintenance of alliance in Asia was a challenge. 

Moon’s victory, too, was an inflection point: South Korea’s decisive rejection of the conservatives’ dictator-worship politics that sacrificed ordinary people for the dubious prospect of economic development. It was also a rejection of South Korea’s previous ruling class: the former house slaves-turned-oligarchs who owned much of the large corporations and conservative newspapers. Park ended up in prison on corruption charges, along with former Chief Justice Yang Seung-tae and a number of Park’s cabinet members. Moon’s election was followed by a series of policy initiatives that rejected every agenda of South Korean conservatives. Instead of Red Scare, peace and dialogue with North Korea. Instead of chaebol-centered economy, an economy led by growth in wages and income. And instead of backroom deals, an open and transparent process of politics and diplomacy.

(More after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Korea-Japan and the End of the '65 System - Part IV: The '65 System's Decline


The most hopeful case in favor of the '65 System can be stated as the following: it was the politics of the possible. No, the core historical issue of whether Japan's colonization was legitimate was never addressed—but it was not possible to resolve that issue in 1965 at any rate. Why not begin the bilateral relationship with Japan and South Korea, and build a strong tie based on economic and security cooperation? Then later, the strong bilateral tie between the two countries could be leveraged to find true resolution on the historical issues when the wound from history is less raw. 

Until around 2010, with prime minister Kan Naoto's moving statement, this hopeful case seemed to be well under way. But looking back, it was right around this time when the '65 System began running out of runway. As it turned out, Japan's reckoning with history was skin-deep, limited to a small circle of liberals who held the top offices of the government without being able to hold onto the the structure underneath them. The success of Japan's liberals was a flimsy one, only serving to cause a backlash.

Abe Shinzo visits Yasukuni Shrine, in which Class A war criminals
from World War II are memorialized. c 2013 (source)

In reaction to the 1995 Murayama Statement that apologized for Japan’s colonial rule, more than 160 Japanese legislators formed a group called the Alliance of Legislators for the 50 Year Anniversary of the End of War [終戰 50週年 國會議員 聯盟] to oppose the statement. Taking the center stage of the group is a young politician named Abe Shinzo, grandson of war-criminal-turned-prime-minister Kishi Nobusuke. So vocal was Abe against Japan’s recognition of its imperial past, some at the time thought Abe was not looking to be a prime minister in the future, because his stance was utterly beyond the pale. When Kan gave his forthright statement of apology in 2010, Abe cursed at Kan on live television.

Abe has had ties with the far-right group Nippon Kaigi, which believes Japan began World War II to defend itself and protect Asia, Imperial Japan’s war crimes like the Comfort Women or the Nanjing Massacre were fabricated, and the Tokyo War Tribunal was illegitimate. The overriding goal for Nippon Kaigi, which Abe shares, is to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution to a constitution that allows for standing military and emphasizes obligations to the society over individual rights. 

There is little doubt that Abe has faithfully subscribed to Nippon Kaigi's mission statement. As the prime minister, Abe questioned "whether Japan had committed aggression" against anyone during the war, indicated he would not uphold the 1995 Murayama statement, and refused to accept the judgment of the Tokyo Tribunal. To top it off, Abe Shinzo visited the Yasukuni Shrine on August 15, 2013, to pay respect to the Class A war criminals on the anniversary of the end of World War II, and again on December 26, 2013. By early 2014, Abe administration was flirting with the possibility of withdrawing the Kono Statement that acknowledged Japan's use of wartime sex slaves during World War II.

(More after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Friday, September 06, 2019

Korea-Japan and the End of the '65 System - Part III: The Rise of the '65 System

[Series Index]

For approximately 25 years, the ’65 System functioned exactly as intended. Japan and South Korea would build a close economic relationship, while the historical issue was in the backburner. For a time, this was possible because South Korea’s dictators Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan muzzled the victims of Japan’s imperialism. But starting in the 1990s, the ’65 System was showing the possibility that it could become more than an uneasy patch-up job.

Japan's student protesters tussle with the riot police in Shinjuku, Tokyo. c. 1969 (source)

Around the time the two countries signed the ’65 treaties, both Japan and South Korea saw an awakening of progressive politics, in tune with the worldwide movement of activism. In Japan, massive student activism broke out throughout the 1960s, protesting the security treaty between US and Japan, Kishi Nobusuke government’s attempt to revise the Peace Constitution, the Vietnam War, and even the ’65 treaties. This generation of Japanese students, in groups such as Zengakuren and Zenkyoto, would mature to form the backbone of Japan’s liberal politics.

South Korea’s path was darker, as it was under a more overtly oppressive dictatorship that made less pretensions of being a democracy. The brief hope of freedom after Park Chung-hee’s death in 1979 was immediately dashed by the emergence of the next dictator Chun Doo-hwan, who massacred hundreds of protesters in Gwangju on May 18, 1980. But finally in 1987, the massive June Struggle would peacefully depose Chun’s dictatorship, and South Korea would successfully transition into a civilian-led government in 1993. Similar to Japan’s Zenkyoto Generation, South Korea’s ’87 Generation would form the mainstream of South Korea’s liberal politics.

The 1990s offered hope. The fall of Soviet Union in 1991 ended the Cold War, and with it, the need to maintain the anti-communist drive that permitted illiberal tactics of Japan’s conservatives and South Korea’s dictatorship. Korea hosted the 1988 Seoul Olympics, showcasing to the world the free and prosperous country rebuilt from war and destruction. By 1990, South Korea was a top 20 economy in the world, ahead of such countries as Sweden and Switzerland. 

Meanwhile in Japan, the Showa Era ended with the death of Emperor Hirohito in 1989. The succeeding Emperor Akihito, who opened the Heisei Era, began his reign with a series of high-profile visits to Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, showing remorse and contrition to the victims of Japan’s Imperialism. In 1993, Japan’s LDP lost its majority in the legislature for the first time in 38 years, leading to the first non-LDP post-war Prime Minister in Hosokawa Morihiro. As Korea was freer and wealthier, Korea’s survivors of Japanese imperialism could speak out—and Japan was ready to listen.

(More after the jump.)

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Tuesday, September 03, 2019

Korea-Japan and the End of the '65 System - Part II: The '65 System

[Series Index]

After An Jung-geun shot Ito Hirobumi in 1909, An demanded he be treated as a prisoner of war, a soldier who carried out an asymmetrical warfare campaign against an enemy general. Imperial Japan ignored the request; An would be tried and executed like a common criminal of Japan.

This would be the consistent theme for the next 100-plus years between Korea and Japan. Korea would insist that it is an independent state, and Japan would refuse to recognize such a claim. The '65 System, which re-established bilateral relationship between Japan and South Korea, never sought to address this gap. In the end, the gap never closed, and led to the '65 System's undoing.

Japan's Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru signs the Treaty of San Francisco, c. Sept. 1951 (source)

Much of the post-war drama between Japan and South Korea could have been avoided if the United States had resorted to a simple solution: include South Korea as one of the Allied Powers in the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco, which formalized Imperial Japan’s defeat. The Asian countries included in the Treaty of San Francisco all normalized relations with Japan in short order. Japan normalized relations with Burma in 1954, the Philippines in 1956, and Indonesia in 1958, paying war reparations for each round of normalization.

It was the character of Japan’s colonization of Korea that complicated the matters. Japan’s normalization with Korea was going to be a much more daunting task than normalizing relations with the Southeast Asian countries. Imperial Japan invaded the Southeast Asian countries, but it never colonized them. Japan’s occupation of Southeast Asia began in the early 1940s as World War II was unfolding, and lasted only a few years until the end of the war. When the war was over, the Southeast Asian countries—including Burma, Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam—were considered a part of the victorious Allied Powers, participating in the Treaty of San Francisco as signatories. Normalizing ties with these countries only involved actually implementing Article 14 of the San Francisco Treaty: “Japan should pay reparations to the Allied Powers for the damage and suffering caused by it during the war.”

Indeed, the US initially had planned to include South Korea as an Allied Power. But less than two months before the treaty was signed, the US suddenly reversed position—precisely because Korea was a Japanese colony. The US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was concerned that Koreans would upend his carefully planned conference by taking a strong position against Japanese imperialism. Also, Japan insisted that inclusion of Korea as an Allied Power would mean that nearly a million Koreans living in Japan would received status as citizens of an Allied Power, receiving the benefit of the treaty.

(More after the jump.)

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Thursday, August 29, 2019

Korea-Japan and the End of the '65 System - Part I: Colonial Times

Newspaper illustration showing An Jung-geun's arrest after shooting Ito Hirobumi
(source)

The first prime minister of modern Japan was Ito Hirobumi, who took office in 1885. Ito is remembered as one of modern Japan’s Founding Fathers. With an illustrious career that spanned four decades, Ito was the face of Japan to the contemporary world, similar to how late 19th century Germany was remembered as the time of Otto von Bismarck. Ito shaped and molded virtually every corner of modern Japan, setting the foundation of Japan’s modern constitution and the basic framework of Japan’s diplomacy with the world powers. He was also Japan’s first Resident-General of Korea, which Japan made its protectorate in 1905.

Ito died in 1909 at age 68, when Korea’s independence fighter An Jung-geun shot him in Harbin, China.

An was a son of a wealthy landowner in Korea’s Hwanghae Province, which sits between Seoul and Pyongyang. He came from a devout Catholic family and had a baptismal name of Thomas. After Korea became Japan’s protectorate, An formed a volunteer army to fight the invading Japanese forces. Eventually he moved his base to eastern Russia, and successfully killed the chief of Japanese imperialism over Korea.

Until his death, An maintained that he was a prisoner of war rather than an assassin, and demanded to be executed by a firing squad if he should be executed. Japan did not recognize An’s claim that he represented a foreign country, and hanged An as it would have executed any Japanese criminal.

That, in a nutshell, is the modern Japan-Korea relationship.


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Modern Japan began with Meiji Restoration in 1868, when Japan’s political system consolidated under the emperor. With Meiji Restoration, Japan rapidly industrialized and sought to join the ranks of world powers. The first step of doing so was to colonize Korea. The seikanron (征韓論, “the Case of Invading Korea”) debate began in the early 1870s, and gained steam through the following decades.

Seikanron was Japan’s own mixture of lebensraum and “the white man’s burden”. Japan’s conquest of Korea was necessary, the argument went, for the sake of Japan’s security; it was also a humanitarian for the inferior race trapped in the decaying Sinosphere. In 1894, Fukuzawa Yukichi exhorted: “There is nothing better than bullets and gunpowder to destroy [Korea’s] illusion of China-worship.” Because Korea is “always extended toward Japan’s heart like a sharp dagger,” argued Okakura Kakuzo in 1904, “if our adversaries conquer the Korean Peninsula, they can easily advance toward Japan.”

(More after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.


Monday, June 03, 2019

Korea's Nine Years of Darkness: Part VI - The Candlelight


A.  The Choi Soon-sil Scandal

Given how well the Choi Soon-sil scandal came to be known around the world (with a little help from yours truly,) only a brief summary of the scandal would suffice. Park Geun-hye turned out feeble in her mind, and outsourced much of her presidential duty to Choi Soon-sil, the daughter of a shaman Choi Tae-min who became close with Park because he claimed he could speak with Park’s dead mother. In addition to running the country on behalf of the president, Choi Soon-sil used her power as the shadow president to collect bribes, siphon government budget and dole out favors. (For additional detail, please refer to three massive posts that I previously wrote about the scandal: one two three.) 

In a photo circa 1979, Choi Soon-sil, Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak are
sitting in a row at a function. The hold that Choi has had over Park
was an open secret within South Korea's political circles for decades. (source)

The most remarkable thing about the Choi scandal was just how many people already knew about her. As early as 2007 when Park Geun-hye first ran for president, the US Ambassador for Korea noted in a diplomatic cable: “Rumors are rife that the late pastor had complete control over Park's body and soul during her formative years and that his children accumulated enormous wealth as a result.” Facing off Park in the primaries, Lee Myung-bak made her association with the cult leader Choi Tae-min as a campaign attack point, noting how every organization in which Park Geun-hye was involved included relatives of Choi Tae-min. 

There were even attempts to expose Choi Soon-sil in 2014, full two years before the scandal truly broke. Park Gwan-cheon, a presidential aide who was not connected to Choi, was conducting an internal investigation to check the rumors that someone with no official position with the Blue House was interfering with the presidential affairs. He discovered Choi and blew the whistle—to no avail, as the Blue House managed in short order to turn the issue into how the aide Park improperly leaked presidential records. During his investigation, the aide Park gave a statement to the prosecutors that would later become infamous: “Do you know the order of power in Korea? Choi Soon-sil is at the top, followed by [Choi’s husband] Jeong Yun-hoe, and the President is merely the third place.” The entire affair was like a strange and improbable gas leak: the stench was everywhere, and people kept lighting matches, but somehow, there was no fire. 

The scandal did blow up in the end; it took a trigger that may as well have been carefully engineered to piss off the maximum number of Koreans. It was revealed that Choi’s daughter Jeong Yu-ra received a preferential treatment to gain admission to the prestigious Ewha Womans University—and nothing upsets Koreans more than college admissions chicanery. As the Blue House scrambled for a response, the final straw came: cable TV network JTBC discovered Choi Soon-sil’s Galaxy Tab that contained confidential presidential documents with Choi’s mark-ups. The next day, Park Geun-hye gave a press conference, admitting she gave the documents to Choi for her review. Park’s approval plummeted to 5 percent, rendering any support for her to a statistical error. 

Meanwhile, a crowd of more than a million holding candles began filling up the Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul. 

(More after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

How to End a Forever War


Young Korean girl with her brother on her back during the Korean War, c. 1951
(source)

North Korea and South Korea were never not at war, practically speaking. Less than two years after two governments were officially established in the Korean Peninsula, the two Koreas began the internecine Korean War in 1950. The war technically never ended, as the armed conflict only ended in a cease-fire in 1953 rather than a peace treaty. A Korean born in 1950 is 69 years old today. That means most Koreans—51 million in South Korea, 25 million in North, and 7.5 million scattered around the world—have never spent a moment of their lives not at war. 

Shortly after the end of World War II in 1945, two young colonels in the US military—Dean Rusk (the future Secretary of State) and Charles Bonesteel—grabbed a National Geographic map lying around them, and simply drew a line through the 38th Parallel. The Soviets would occupy north of the line, Americans the south. Rusk later would recall that the line “made no sense economically or geographically.” By late 1948, what appeared to be an informal and temporary division of the Peninsula became official and indefinite. North Korea’s Kim Il Sung invaded the South in 1950, and three years of hellish war ensued, killing millions. The United States came to the aid of South Korea; China did the same for North Korea. After the fighting ended, the Peninsula remained divided along the Armistice Line, which roughly tracked the 38th Parallel—the arbitrary line of division that never made any sense. 

Out of the ashes of the war, two mirror images arose. Nominally, North Korea was a communist country in the Soviet and Chinese sphere of influence, while South Korea was a capitalist country in the US sphere of influence. For about 30 years after the war, however, the two Koreas looked rather similar at the ground level. In both Koreas, dictators took power, purged political opponents and massacred civilians suspected of being too friendly to the other Korea. Both Koreas operated gulags that imprisoned political dissidents. Both Koreas turned themselves into a permanent garrison state, staffed by conscripted men. Both Koreas pursued rapid industrialization to support the garrison state, aided by their respective global hegemon—US and USSR/China. It was only in the late 1980s that the two Koreas truly began to diverge, as South Korea democratized and North Korea was left in the wilderness as the Soviet Union fell. 

*                    *                     * 

The term “forever war” came to be in common usage as it became evident that the US-led war in Afghanistan and Iraq had no realistic end in sight. Ordinarily, a war ends by defeating the opponent, who evidences its surrender through a document of some sort—as Imperial Japan did with the Treaty of San Francisco following World War II, for example. In contrast, the post-9/11 War on Terror was not declared against a country, per se. The Authorization for Use of Military Force, passed by Congress on September 14, 2001, authorized the US president to “use all necessary and appropriate force . . . in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States”. Some have argued that this authorization has led to the longest war in US history, nearly 18 years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. 

Koreans, however, would scoff at the idea that 18 years is “forever.” As of 2019, the United States has been at war in the Korean Peninsula for 69 years. The US has over 28,000 soldiers spread across 15 bases in South Korea, as well as the war time operational control authority over the South Korean military. The US presence has driven North Korea to paranoia, as it vividly remembers the fact that the US military dropped more bombs across North Korea than it did during World War II, killing more than the Germans and the Japanese who died during the Great War. To ensure its survival after the fall of Soviet Union, North Korea began developing nuclear weapons to fend off any temptation of an attack. And until very recently, there was no indication that the Korean War would end any time soon. 

(More after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.


Monday, January 28, 2019

K-pop in the Age of Cultural Appropriation


I.
“We created them, we taught them how to speak and think, and when they rebel they simply confirm our views of them as silly children, duped by some of their Western masters.”
- Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (1993)

This being the internet, I will state my conclusion first, in the vain hope that it would be impossible for the reader to miss the point of this post:  the idea of cultural appropriation is inapplicable to K-pop, because applying the concept of cultural appropriation ignores the historical context in which K-pop arose and developed.

It would make sense to discuss why stating this conclusion became necessary. Recently on the New York Magazine / Vulture, I, with a co-author, published an article titled: A Brief History of Korean Hip Hop. To my knowledge, it is the first article on a major English language publication that attempted to outline the history of Korean hip hop, a significant force in the global pop culture today. While the article was on the whole well received, two significant objections were raised: (1) the article did not refer at all to the idea that Korean hip hop engaged in a cultural appropriation of African American hip hop artists, and; (2) by arguing that “BTS no longer refer back to American hip hop and worry about how their music measured up to the original[,]” as they “had plenty of precedents within Korean hip hop itself[,]” the article did not give proper credit to the real influence of American hip hop that is affecting the Korean hip hop artists today.

Speaking only for myself and not my co-author, I did not include either point in the article because they are baseless and wrong. As to the first objection, the idea of cultural appropriation is inapposite to K-pop; below, I will explain further why this is the case. The second objection is a simple misread, as the point of the article was not that BTS (or any other Korean hip hop artist) ceased to look to US hip hop altogether, but that they stopped using US hip hop as the golden standard to which they must measure up. Yet both objections are related, in that they stem from the same source: ignorance about the historical context in which K-pop emerged, and the imperial arrogance that thinks Korean hip hop has no existence outside of the US influence.

II.

Registration card for Korean musicians to play for a USFK club.
(Source: 신현준, 한국 팝의 고고학 1960 at p. 27)

Once again, conclusion first: K-pop is a product to imperialism by the West, and in particular the United States. Understanding this feature of K-pop must be the foundation of all intellectual endeavors assessing various aspects of Korea’s popular music.

On some level, this conclusion should be obvious. Clearly, K-pop is not indigenous to Korea. Western music did not arrive at Korea until late 19th century, through the typically hegemonic route: Christian hymns. Since then, the Western, and in particular American, influence over Korea would only grow stronger. At the end of World War II, two low-ranked US military officers* would divide the Korea with an arbitrary halfway line along the 38th Parallel, and the US came to occupy the southern half of the peninsula.

(*The two officers, one of whom was the young Dean Rusk who would go onto become the Secretary of State for John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, knew so little about the country that they used a National Geographic map that they had laying around. Rusk later admitted the 38th Parallel “made no sense economically or geographically.”) 

The division led to the Korean War, millions of Koreans dead, and even more American soldiers being stationed in South Korea. At one point, there were more than 200,000 American GIs in South Korea—roughly the population of Pittsburgh today.

(More after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.


Monday, December 31, 2018

Goodbye 2018, and Happy New Year 2019!



It was a big year for me, although you wouldn't know it from the blog. But in real life, my career made big strides and I produced more writing than ever. Oh, and there is now TKDaughter2 in addition to TKDaughter1. That seems important.

Here's a look back at the most popular AAK! posts of 2018.

Most Popular Posts of 2018 (All-Time Posts)

1.  Counting in Sino-Korean [Link]
2.  Becoming a Doctor in Korea [Link]
3.  World's First Alt-Right, from Korean Politics [Link]
4.  Meaning of Korean Last Names [Link]
5.  Gift Ideas for Koreans [Link]

Most Popular Posts of 2018 (Written in 2018)

1.  Busan, as Depicted in Black Panther [Link]
2.  Shin Jung-hyeon, the Most Influential K-pop Artist [Link]
3.  Another One for Tiger Parenting [Link]
4.  Nine Years of Darkness under Conservative Rule Part IV, the Darkest Moment [Link]
5.  Reasons to be Hopeful about North Korea [Link]

Experiencing the big changes in my life in the past year made me realize how much I love writing--and it is all made possible because readers like you keep reading my stuff. My heartful gratitude for reading this humble blog. Truly, it is you who make everything possible.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

The 2019 NK News Stuff is Here (With a Discount Code!)

As long time readers may know, this humble blog has shared long time friendship with NK News, the finest source in English to get the news about North Korea. One of the proudest moments of running this blog was inspiring NK News to begin Ask a North Korean!, an honest and revealing look into the country that is so opaque from the outside. And now it's a book, written by former Economist correspondent Daniel Tudor! (Amazon link for the book here.)



Here is one way you can support NK News: buy their merchandise at www.nkshop.org. As NK News usually does every year, there is a gorgeous 2019 calendar of North Korea pictures. New this year is a set of travel posters involving North Korean destinations: Pyongyang, Kaesong, Wonsan, etc. Although it's difficult to travel to North Korea today, with the improving relations among US, South Korea and North Korea, one can look at these posters and dream.

For readers of Ask a Korean!, NK Shop gives a special 20 percent discount on all merchandise by using this code: tknknews20.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

The Misplaced Props in Pachinko



Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is a good novel, fully deserving the rave reviews it has received thus far. But Pachinko is not merely good; it is important. Deep, literary exposition about Korea in English has only just begun in the last few years, but with books like Han Kang's The Vegetarian and Kim Young-ha's Your Republic is Calling You, there are now a solid stable of Korean novels in English that give a look into contemporary Korea. Yet Pachinko's subject—Zainichi Koreans—is a one that even novels originally written in Korean rarely broach, which makes Min Jin Lee's work not only good, but important. The hardship that these diaspora Koreans experienced because of Imperial Japan’s occupation of Korea, World War II, Korea’s division and the Japanese society’s discrimination is an important story that deserves to be told.

All this is to say: what follows in this post is not at all about the novel’s merits, but about my own peculiarities, and if any part of it seems like a criticism, it only comes from a place of love.

One peculiarity of mine is I greatly care about the mundane aspect of human lives. Indeed, I think the connotations that the word “mundane” carries—small, insignificant, unimportant—are exactly backwards. Most of our lives are spent in the mundane: eating, sleeping, fighting boredom at work, sitting in our room. Even if we experience the most dramatic day of our lives, the mundane returns the very next day as we must continue to wake up, eat, work, and sleep. Many find these things boring, but I do not—because like gravity, the mundane is what makes our lives possible by keeping us on the ground.

I deeply believe that the mundane, in fact, must be the most important aspect of our lives. Our everyday is not merely white noise that fills the gap between the exciting events worth remembering. What we eat, how we sleep, what we put in our homes, how we entertain ourselves—these are the most important things of our lives, for the simple reason that they are most of our lives. The expanded version of this proposition is how I understand history as well: the most important things in history is how people spent their mundane hours, eating, working and living. The events that are usually considered historically important—like a war, for example—are so only insofar as they have the power to radically and massively alter the shape of those mundane hours.

This is one of the reasons I rarely read fiction. Why read made-up stories, when there is so much fascinating mundane to learn about? The few fictions that I do find interesting are the huge tomes that relentlessly focus on the mundane. For me, the best part of Les Miserable was Victor Hugo’s 15,000 word description of the Paris sewers, so vivid that as you are reaching the story of Valjean carrying Marius through the sewer, you would marvel at the majesty of its architecture even while wincing from its smell. Pak Kyongni’s Land, a massive 16-volume epic about Korea in the late 19th and early 20th century, was an unstoppable read for me because of Pak’s placement of all the mundane things in the small town of Hadong—not only minor characters, but also every animal and plant that makes an appearance—serves to push the story forward with a greater weight than a simple succession of dramatic events could possibly do.
(More after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Saturday, July 07, 2018

Save the Tigers


(source)

Here’s the story of my immigrant family. We came from Korea to the United States in late 1997. I was 16 years old, my brother 14. Immigrant life was hard. Our immigration lawyer was a crook, stealing most of our family’s money while leaving us with an uncertain immigration status. We lived in a succession of shitty little houses, dealing with nasty landlords who never repaired broken fixtures in time. 

My brother and I waited for the once-a-week special from the neighborhood McDonalds’, when it would sell ten hamburgers for 99 cents. (It was one dollar and seven cents after taxes.) Ever bought a hamburger from McDonalds’, because a cheeseburger cost too much? (Ten cheeseburgers were $1.29.) We would bring home those shit sandwiches, and our mother would improve them by taking them apart and sliding in the cheap vegetables from the Korean market. Our parents had to adjust from a comfortable upper middle class life in Seoul to that. My father was in a constant state of simmering rage, ashamed that he could not provide for us in California like the way he did in Seoul and fearing we might lose our immigration status because he was duped. My mother, a smart and proud woman, cried all the time. 

Things worked out in the end. My parents threw away their lives that they have built for decades and came to the U.S. for the sole purpose of giving my brother and me a better path of education. Knowing this, we ensured that our parents would accomplish that mission. Both my brother and I entered school knowing minimal English, but we picked it up quickly. We both benefited from the University of California systems, which gave us excellent education and a good diploma. I am a lawyer at a big law firm, my brother an engineer at a big tech company whose name you’ve certainly heard of. People around us say we’re successful.

*                                    *                                    * 

Right now, there is a confluence of two major education policies that involve claims of discrimination against Asian Americans. With New York high schools, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan would eliminate the entrance examination for the city’s magnet schools and instead have the schools take the top students from each of the city’s middle schools—a move to bring in more black and Latino students in place of Asian students. At Harvard, a lawsuit filed by an Asian American group claims Harvard’s admission has marked Asian applicants as scoring low on the “personality” category, taking fewer Asian American students as a result. 

I’ll be honest: I don’t find these debates all that important. Obviously, I think education is important. It’s just that I am not at all convinced marginal improvement on one’s high school or college changes one’s life in a meaningful way. If you insist that I state my position, I’d give a lukewarm, split-the-difference answer: keep the entrance exam with New York high schools, but it’s also fine for Harvard to maintain an informal racial ceiling against Asian Americans for the sake of diversity. This is mostly based on practical considerations. College is the time for the young adult to leave the home, and a student who narrowly misses out on Harvard surely has a dozen other comparable options around the country. On the other hand, if a New York high school student misses the cut for one of the magnet schools, the drop-off might be significant, and it would require the entire family to move to a different city to mitigate the drop-off. My attitude probably stems from the fact that I neither attended my town’s magnet high school nor an Ivy League college, but feel that my life worked out mostly fine. But given this obviously anecdotal basis, I have no strong commitment to my position. 

What I do find interesting, however, is the debate underlying the admissions debate. The way in which each Asian American draws her battle line usually relates to how she processes the current reality of Asian Americana: a group with all-abiding dedication to education, such that it produces a wildly disproportionate number of high-status professionals such as doctors, lawyers and engineers—what people might call “successful” professions. This leads to the Model Minority stereotype, with the implications that Asian Americans do not face discrimination and that other racial minorities too can overcome and be doctors and lawyers and engineers. 

The Model Minority stereotype is bullshit, and deserves to be slammed. But I have seen a curious streak among many Asian Americans: in the process rebelling against the Model Minority, they also rebel against the importance of academics and the idea of “success” in assessing career paths. Asian parents care too much about schools, they say. The hard work of rote-learning and test-prepping produce uncreative automatons. The focus on being a doctorlawyer is a sign of vulgar materialism that chases after prestige. When Yale Law School professor Amy Chua spoke of "tiger parenting," she faced a firestorm of criticism, much of it from Asian Americans who saw tiger parenting as a backward attitude of their parents' generation that finally gained a name by which it can be reviled.

Typical is the attitude shown by attorney Ryan Park in his recent op-ed for the New York Times. Park tut-tuts at Chua’s tiger parenting as “fanatical parenting choices,” saying the second generation Asian Americans are “largely abandoning traditional Asian parenting styles in favor of a modern, Western approach focused on developing open and warm relationships with our children.” The second generation parents, according to Park, “are striving to cultivate individuality and autonomy in our children in a way that we feel was missing from our own childhoods.” Park then concludes: “I aim to raise children who are happy, confident and kind—and not necessarily as driven, dutiful and successful as the model Asian child. If that means the next generation will have fewer virtuoso violinists and neurosurgeons, well, I still embrace the decline.” 

My eyes gently roll. 

(More after the jump.)

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Saturday, June 02, 2018

This Time Will be Different

So—a lot happened since I posted last in late April! The U.S.-North Korea summit was on, then off, then on again. 

Now that the summit is back on, so is the familiar chorus singing: “we’ve seen this all before.” The chorus points out North Korea promised to denuclearize, then lied, cheated and reneged on the promises, repeatedly for the past 25 years. North Korea previously put on the show of taking down a cooling tower of the Yongbyon nuclear facility in 2008, and the demolition of the Punggye-ri nuclear testing site last month is also likely to be a sham, to the extent that North Korea claimed the demolition shut down the testing site irreversibly. 

North Korea previously put on a grand show demolishing
the cooling tower of the Yongbyon nuclear facility in 2008 (source)

The historical facts are, of course, undeniable. They all really happened. But it is a bit too much for the critics to argue that nothing will ever change when it comes to North Korea, as if North Korean behavior is the laws of physics. That simply cannot be true; the future never looks exactly like the past. It is entirely unreasonable to claim that time will pass but nothing will ever change, as if our world in 2018 is exactly the same as the world in 1994 or 2002 or 2007. History serves as a guide only to the extent that we can discern how the present is different from the past. Saying this time will be different is not naivete; rather, it is a rational conclusion based on noting the many differences between the past and the present. 

When it comes to North Korea, there are essentially four players divided into two camps: North Korea and China in one, South Korea and United States in the other. Each one of the players is in a different situation compared to the past, and so is each camp collectively. 

What’s different about North Korea? Here’s an obvious one: they are all but finished with building nuclear weapons and long-range missiles that could reach the United States. It has been amply established that North Korea sought the nuclear weapons and missiles as a form of deterrence against the attempts to overthrow the Kim regime, now in its third generation with Kim Jong Un. There simply is no “first use” option for North Korea that does not immediately turn it into a radioactive wasteland in a massive counterattack by the United States and South Korea. Prior to 2018, North Korea had enough reasons to cheat from its agreement: the payout for cheating was a better, more complete deterrence in the form of nuclear-tipped ICBMs. But now, the nuclear-tipped ICBMs are complete, bringing North Korea to peak negotiating position—which is a major reason why Kim Jong Un came out to talk in January 2018. It would be an overstatement to say North Korea has no incentive to cheat. But compared to 1994 or 2002 or 2007, it has much less incentive to do so. 

(More after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Inter-Korean Summit

International relations is supposed to be a high-minded discipline. It is politics at the highest level, as the world knows no higher power than a national sovereign. The politicians in the international relations are often elevated beyond the banalities of governance, having transcended the pedestrian worries about keeping the road free of potholes. They are considered “statesmen,” the titans of humanity that set the rules for the world we live in. All kinds of abstract theories proliferate about how states, through their statesmen, think and behave.

Then we come to a moment like this, that suddenly breaks us out of the spell of those theories, and makes us realize this is all human endeavor, whose foundation ultimately is one man speaking to another.

Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un's tea time, broadcast live to the world. (source)

Plenty of history was made in the inter-Korean summit on April 27. It was the first time that a North Korean leader stepped foot on the South Korean territory. It was the first inter-Korean summit that was televised live. It was the first inter-Korean summit in which North Korea put denuclearization as a topic for negotiations. It was the first inter-Korean summit in which wives of Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un—Kim Jeong-suk and Ri Sol Ju, respectively—met each other to dine together.

So it may be a bit of a letdown that the substance of the Panmunjeom Declaration—the first joint statement between the leaders of the two Koreas—seems a bit thin. It’s not nothing, to be sure: the two Koreas agreed to cease all hostile acts, engage in a mutual reduction of forces along the demilitarized zone, and set up a “peace zone” in the Yellow Sea so that civilian fishing there could resume. The two Koreas would establish a liaison office in Kaesong, North Korea, and link together rails and roads. Separated family meeting is set for August, followed by Moon Jae-in’s visit to Pyongyang. Most importantly, the two Koreas will work toward denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and a peace treaty that formally ends the Korean War that technically is ongoing.

(More after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.


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