Thursday, May 21, 2020

The Hater's Guide to KBO

Darius I is concerned that Persians are listening to K-pop. (source)

There are a number of different ways to win the Sid Meier’s Civilization game series. Commonly, people go for “conquest victory,” a straightforward military rampage through the adversaries’ territory. But sometimes, you might inadvertently land on the “culture victory” before you are quite finished with the conquest—because as the world is burning, your civilization is the only one putting out movies and live concerts. Even if your cultural products kinda suck in relative terms because you spent all your resources toward building up the military, you end up winning with culture just because you’re the only game in town.

That was the thought that came to my mind when I heard that ESPN began broadcasting KBO baseball. As a lifetime fan of Korea Baseball Organization, let me be straight with you: KBO baseball can be some sloppy shit. You’ve come to the wrong blog if you thought I was going to defend the quality of the KBO play just because it’s Korean. Is it entertaining? Most definitely. Are there some true top-shelf talent among the players? Absolutely. Can it produce some transcendental, sepia-colored sports movie stuff from time to time? For sure. 

Does it also regularly feature some of the most rage-inducing, dumbass dropped balls that make you hold your breath every time there is a routine pop fly? The gifs don’t lie.


Yet you’re here, because you’re desperate. You’re so desperate for baseball that you’re up at 2 a.m. watching AAA-level baseball (that’s being generous) being played in an empty stadium. Because the rest of the world is on fire, and by having a competent response to the coronavirus pandemic, Korea is inadvertently on its way toward a culture victory.

But strike that—you’re not here because you miss baseball. Or at least, baseball qua baseball is not what you miss. What you miss is the baseball experience. What you miss is the experience of being a fan. The quality of the play on the field is secondary to the fact that you belong to a fandom, and have the sense of camaraderie arising from the shared interest. Above all, what you miss is the sweet, sweet taste of sports hate.

Therefore, with a hat tip toward Deadspin (RIP) and Drew Magary, Ask a Korean! presents: The Hater’s Guide to the KBO. Why pick your KBO team based on the dead metrics like number of championships, when the object of your true desire is another group of people who sports-hate the same way you do? Let the hate wash over you, and find the hate-vibe that fits yours, among these fine ten KBO teams.

(More after the jump.)

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Wednesday, March 04, 2020

The Forgotten Neoliberal Man of Parasite

[Spoiler Warning: This post discusses highly granular details of the movie Parasite, and it really wouldn’t make sense unless you watched the movie first.]


Parasite is a story of three families. But if you tried to guess the plotline by reading thinkpieces and analyses about the movie without having watched the movie, you would never know it involved the third family.

To remind ourselves, let us recap Parasite’s dramatis personae. The rich Park family lives in a gorgeous house atop a hill. Its father Dong-ik is a CEO of a tech company. Mother Yeon-gyo is somewhat of a trophy wife, who considers herself to be sophisticated but is in fact oblivious and gullible. They have two children, high school junior daughter Da-hye and third grader son Da-song.

The poor Kim family lives in a half-basement at the bottom of a hill. The movie hints that the Kim family once lived a decent middle-class life, running small businesses like a fried chicken joint and a castella cake store. But at the beginning of Parasite, all members of the Kim family are unemployed; they get by doing odd jobs like folding pizza boxes. The Kim family members infiltrate the Park family home one by one under false pretenses. First, the son Ki-woo fakes a college diploma to get a job as an English tutor for Da-hye. The daughter Ki-jeong pretends to be an art therapist, getting a job to look after Da-song. Ki-jeong then frames the Park family’s chauffeur, and installs the father Ki-taek as the replacement driver for Dong-ik. Finally, the three Kims scheme against the housekeeper Mun-gwang, also driving her out and replacing her with the mother Chung-suk.

Then there is third family that receives little to no spotlight in movie reviews: the Oh family, the husband and wife duo of Geun-sae and Mun-gwang. Like the Kims, the Ohs were also destroyed after their small business failed. They were in the same line of business (the infernal castella cakes,) but they fell even harder than the Kims did. The wife Mun-gwang managed to hold her job as a housekeeper to the Park family, but the husband Geun-sae is less fortunate. Running from loan sharks, Geun-sae hid in the Park family house’s secret basement and lived there for over four years. He was fairly content with his life at the bottom, until the Kims drove out Mun-gwang from the Park family house and disrupted that life. 

(More after the jump.)

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Friday, January 31, 2020

Book Review: A Team of Their Own by Seth Berkman (2019)

(Disclosure: I received a review copy of this book.)

The women’s national team for South Korean ice hockey had a problem: it sucked. As the host country for the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games, the Korean team could qualify automatically. But the team was embarrassingly bad: as of February 2011, South Korea’s all-time record in women’s hockey was 0-15, with the cumulative score of 242-4. In 2012, the International Ice Hockey Federation issued an ultimatum: the team would not receive an automatic qualification unless it improved. As a quick fix, Korea Ice Hockey Association installed an American coach, and searched for any woman hockey player of Korean descent in the United States and Canada who could be naturalized prior to 2018. With an injection of international talent, the team did qualify for the Olympics. Then, just weeks before the Games began, North Korea proposed forming a joint team with the South Korean team as an inter-Korean gesture of goodwill.

So goes the story of Seth Berkman’s A Team of Their Own. The events surrounding the Korean women’s ice hockey team was so compelling that a book might practically write itself. The ultimate underdog improves enough to play in the world stage, thanks to a hodgepodge of players from different corners of the world overcoming their differences through the magical power of hockey! But the actual book that emerged out of Berkman’s telling is not exactly the one that might be expected by someone who followed the team in real life. On the first look, Team seems like a feel-good sports story. But dig just a bit below the surface, and a more complex story emerges to challenge the importance of cultural identity and question the purpose of sports.

(More after the jump.)

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Friday, December 27, 2019

Hoya is Looking for a Home

Alright - here is something that is only tangentially related to Korea, but a chance to do some good for a very good boy in his holiday season.

Meet Hoya.

Hoya is a four year old, 40 pound Jindo mix. Hoya is currently in Joondog Training Center at Chuncheon, Korea, receiving training to become adoptable both within Korea and abroad. He is neutered and received all the necessary vaccine shots including DHLPP and rabies. He is very friendly with strangers and understands basic commands like "sit" and "stay." More pictures of Hoya are available at his Instagram:

Hoya is from Masan, Korea, where he was slated to be euthanized. But he was rescued on Christmas Eve of 2018 and has been fostered in Seoul, when he is not spending time in Chuncheon. For the past year, Hoya has been looking for a loving home, either in Korea or abroad. I am writing this post because Hoya's foster mom, who is a friend, asked me personally. I solemnly swear this involves no catch, no sales pitch, no solicitation for money, no BS--I am just trying to help my friend find this dog a home.

Because Hoya has been previously abandoned, we want to make sure he finds a stable, forever home with plenty of love. This means that he should ideally live with a family, or at least a person who can be with him for most of the day rather than leaving him alone for hours. Hoya should live indoors, but should be able to go outside for a walk at least twice a day to use the bathroom. 

Hoya can stay in Korea or go abroad. If you are located in Korea, Hoya's foster mom can bring him to you. If you are abroad, you can come and pick up Hoya, or we can arrange for a travel volunteer to take Hoya to your home.

For all questions and (serious) inquiries, please contact Hoya's foster mom at, or message Hoya's Instagram at @hoya_newfamily. Hope you are in the right situation to give Hoya a loving home.

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Friday, December 20, 2019

Taking K-pop Seriously in the 2020s

Seo Taiji and Boys, c. 1993 (source)


The 2010s is nearly over. What will the 2020s have in store for K-pop?

Modern K-pop began around the late 1980s, fresh off South Korea’s transition into democracy in 1987 and the successful 1988 Seoul Olympics. This means at the year’s end in 2019, modern K-pop is finishing its third decade. Each decade of modern K-pop carried its own characteristics that built up to the Korean pop music that we know today.

The first decade of modern K-pop began in the 1990s, with its bannerman Seo Taiji and Boys [서태지와 아이들] debuting in 1992. In what came to be known as the Golden Age of K-pop, the “New Generation” [신세대] of Koreans—richer, more sophisticated, and more international than ever—set off an explosion of pop culture, creating a pop music scene with a variety of genres and styles including rock ‘n roll, hip hop, R&B and electronica. The first decade of K-pop set the basic contours of K-pop’s artistic bent: a no-holds-barred mixture of genres and styles and emphasis on choreography. Emblematic of this period is Seo Taiji’s Hayeoga [하여가]: an avant-garde mixture of rap metal with guitar and taepyeongso [태평소, a high-pitched traditional woodwind] bridges, to which Seo Taiji and Boys danced.

The later part of this decade also saw the inchoate form of K-pop’s “industrial revolution”: production companies putting together “idol groups,” a highly curated group of good looking young men and women who underwent a rigorous training program to maximize their appeal. Emblematic of this trend was H.O.T., a mass-produced simulacrum of the Seo Taiji experience. Powerful production companies like SM Entertainment and YG Entertainment that tightly controlled its trainees, churning out idol stars like Hyundai Motors produced automobiles. Meanwhile, the Hongdae indie scene began booming in Seoul, and underground hip hop groups like Garion was experimenting with rhymes in the Korean language.

The second decade, beginning around 2000s, was when the “industrialized” K-pop became international. In 2000, BoA debuted almost simultaneously in Korea and Japan, eventually topping the charts in both countries. Recruited at age 12 by SM Entertainment, BoA underwent rigorous training that included singing, dancing and language lessons, all geared toward making her blend naturally into both Japan and Korea. With stars like BoA and TVXQ (who replicated BoA’s model in China,) K-pop began to attract notice as an international phenomenon, although primarily centered in Asia.
(More after the jump.)

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Tuesday, September 24, 2019

On Impeachment Eve

I still need to finish the last part of the Nine Years of Darkness series. But hearing the news that Nancy Pelosi finally greenlighted an impeachment inquiry against Donald Trump, I thought it would be fitting to share an excerpt of writing by Cheon Gwan-yul [천관율]. Cheon, a journalist for a South Korean magazine SisaIn, has been the sharpest observer of the political landscape leading up to Park Geun-hye's impeachment in 2017.

Cheon Gwan-yul (source)

To set the stage first: Cheon was writing this on November 12, 2016.  Trump had been elected four days previous, and the public sentiment against Park's corruption scandal was reaching its peak. Two weeks prior to this date, Park Geun-hye appeared on a press conference to admit that she indeed let Choi Soon-sil, daughter of the shaman who claimed to speak with Park's dead mother, review and edit presidential speeches. The Candlelight Protests had been ongoing for several weeks with an average crowd size of a million or more people. Impeachment was not yet a certainty; Park hinted that she might be open to resigning, and there was real doubt on whether there were enough votes for an impeachment motion.

This writing was a lengthy post on Cheon's Facebook, which I read in real time. (It later became a part of the opening essay for his book on the impeachment.) It was shared more than 8,000 times, and "liked" more than 3,000 times. Since then, I have read it many times over, marveling at how well Cheon Gwan-yul's observations have held up, and how applicable this is to Trump as well. 

Below, I translate the relevant portion.

*                               *                               *

The President Will Not Resign

If the president were the type of leader who considered the future of [her] Saenuri Party or the possibility of a conservative resurrection, she might choose to fall on the sword. Her resignation would turn the tide like few other actions could.

But our president is a highly privatized person. Unlike her predecessor [Lee Myung-bak] who was diligent in pursuing his private interest, she simply makes no distinction between her public life and her private life. (In contrast, Lee had an excellent sense of distinguishing the public from the private, such that he could smoothly transfer resources from the public to the private.) This is a level of privitizing power that we have never seen before.

. . .

To a privitized president, the family business is the only remaining objective. [Emphasis mine.] Minimizing the possibility of ending up in prison; securing the lightest sentences for key figures around her; preserving her wealth as much as possible. These are higher priorities than the party's resuscitation and the future of conservatism.

(More after the jump.)

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Korea-Japan and the End of the '65 System - Part VI: Taking Stock

[Series Index]

The ’65 System is dead—but Americans are slow to wake up to this fact. Much of the foreign policy circles in and around Washington DC still think South Korea and Japan can patch things up quickly and get on as they did before July 2019. They argue: it’s about point-scoring in the domestic politics by stoking the nationalistic passion. Moon Jae-in and Abe Shinzo are being childish over ancient history. South Korea and Japan ought to be natural allies, sharing a common bond as liberal democracies to stand up against the threats of China and North Korea. 

But why would Abe Shinzo or Moon Jae-in need more political points? Abe is the longest serving prime minister in Japanese history with three re-election victories, and Moon is the most popular president in South Korean history whose approval rating at one time was over 80 percent. Abe did not begin the trade war to become more popular with the Japanese, and Moon did not say “we will never lose to Japan again” to become more popular with Koreans. Neither Abe nor Moon is using history to be popular; they are popular because they are focused on history.

Moon Jae-in (left) and Abe Shinzo, c. 2017 (source)

The patronizing suggestion that South Korea and Japan are “natural allies” is likewise ignorant. Of course, in a vacuum, friendship is better than strife. Why not pursue the better thing, when South Korea and Japan both have democratic government, market economy and broadly similar cultures? 

This point conveniently glosses over the fact that neither country considers each other a “natural ally.” In 2015, Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs pointedly deleted the description of South Korea as “shar[ing] basic values with Japan such as freedom, democracy, and a market economy.” In a US-Japan-South Korea trilateral summit in 2017, Moon Jae-in noted matter-of-factly to Trump and Abe: “the United States is our ally; Japan is not.” 

Countries existed in the Korean Peninsula and the Japanese isles for more than 4,000 years; during those 4,000 years, no part of Korea was Japan, and no part of Japan was Korea. Compare this to, for example, India and Pakistan: two regions of a single empire that lasted over three centuries, with democracy and market economy in both countries. Yet India and Pakistan represent two nuclear powers that are closest to going to war with each other. Does anyone tut-tut at the two countries, about how they should be “natural allies”? 

Or consider England and Germany—both advanced democracies, highly developed market economy and broadly similar Christendom culture. (If you scoffed at “broadly similar Christendom culture” covering both England and Germany, just remember that the Japanese and Koreans have the same reaction to the claim that they have similar cultures.) The English head of state traces her heritage to Germany: it has been barely more than a century when the House of Windsor was called the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. So where are all the talking points about the “natural alliance” for England and Germany, as England rushes headlong for Brexit?

The selective manner in which the “natural allies” talking point is deployed to other neighboring countries reveals the assumption behind the seemingly well-intentioned question. American observers insist that South Korea and Japan ought to be natural allies, not because they actually are, but because the United States needs them to form such an alliance that serves the US objectives.

(More after the jump)

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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.)

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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.)

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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

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.

*                                          *                                          *

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 mission 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.)

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Monday, June 03, 2019

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

[Series Index]

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 to be 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.)

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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

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.)

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Monday, January 28, 2019

K-pop in the Age of Cultural Appropriation

“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.


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.)

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