Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Kim's Convenience, RIP


It's been announced that the Canadian sitcom Kim's Convenience is ending after its fifth and latest season, but to me, the show ended around Season 3. TKWife and I dutifully carried on with the show through Season 4, but in truth, we both knew we were going through the motions for the sake of expressing solidarity with North America's Korean diaspora. 

How could we not carry on? TKWife's family is the real life version of Kim's Convenience. My in-laws have owned a liquor store in Washington DC for decades. The first episode of Kim's Convenience - the Gay Discount - had put us on the floor. In that episode, which was also the show's pilot, the patriarch of the family showed mild discomfort with gay people while working at the store. After the father Appa was called out for it, he institutes a "gay discount" during Pride in order to dispel any claim of bigotry.

To us, this was not a sitcom but a documentary. My elderly in-laws are devout Evangelical Christians and they are certainly not comfortable around gay people. Yet Pride Parade is an unofficial holiday at the liquor store, because it is bar none the year's best sales week. Have you ever seen extremely conservative Korean elderly couple, grinning from ear to ear with genuine happiness upon seeing a battalion of gay men in risque clothing? It's high comedy, and now the world saw what we see each year.

The Gay Discount episode, to date, is among the most brilliant portrayals of the contradiction in our Korean diaspora lives that I have ever seen. We are coded as POC, and assumed to fit into the liberal side of the politics along with Blacks and Latinos. But our lives in reality don't map neatly onto the typical racial politics. When the expectations that our society has of us don't match our actual behavior, something's got to give to mend the rupture. Either we awkwardly change our behavior or the people around us awkwardly change their behavior, and hilarity ensures.

Unfortunately, the first episode was the peak of Kim's Convenience. None of the other episodes managed to capture the pilot's brilliance, while some were pockmarked with low moments. The character of Nayoung - the Kim family's cousin from Korea visiting Toronto - was genuinely offensive and racist. While Kim's Convenience broke new ground in the mainstream television by showing Korean Canadians as ordinary, everyday people, the Nayoung character from Korea was a grotesque caricature, with ridiculously dyed hair, high-pitched falsetto voice and jumpy mannerism. I saw more than a few Koreans in Korea quit the show immediately upon seeing the character: "So that's how gyopos see us? They're normal and we're some kind of freaks?"

Fueled by the good memory of the first episode, TKWife and I persevered. But doing so required turning off parts of our brains and deliberately overlooking things that would never happen in a Korean diaspora family in North America, like the first generation immigrant parents speaking English to each other and with their best friends who are Chinese and Indian. I know expectations are different between a lighthearted sitcom and an arthouse movie, but it still seems worth noting Minari won an Oscar with the movie being acted out almost entirely in Korean. Plus, there is an under-explored comedy gold mine in the way in which diaspora Koreans strategically deploy their home language and English. Why not push the envelope further?

In fact, the show missed an even greater opportunity that could have pushed it to an entirely new level. Kim's Convenience could have built a whole season just based on the Kim family's church life, where the cross-currents are the fiercest between the Kims' POC status and their genteel Christian sensibilities. When Pastor Nina character appeared in episode nine, I had thought to myself - oh shit, they did it. They put a Black woman pastor at a Korean American church. I held my breath in anticipation: how will the Kims react? Where are they trying to take this? 

As it turned out, they didn't take it anywhere. Pastor Nina's race and gender never became a plot device, as if it was a perfectly common and everyday thing for a Black woman to be the lead pastor of a Korean church full of first generation immigrants. Why put Pastor Nina character there, if she was going to be treated like a pastor who is a Korean man? The show had five seasons to capitalize on the contradictions of desiring a safe space in a new land and the new land's demand for diversity and inclusion, and it never did.

By Season 4, the show was a wreck that attempted to be the lesser version of The Office and Friends. going through the awful sitcom death spiral where everyone dates everyone simply because the showrunners ran out of ideas. The show meandered through the least interesting part of the Kim family's world, namely the rental car shop where the Kim family's son Jung works. The show is called Kim's Convenience, but nothing really happened at the convenience store anymore. There will be a spin-off of Kim's Convenience based on the character of Shannon, the white love interest of Jung who also works at the rental car shop which only begs the question: why does the ground-breaking Korean Canadian show insist on going to the least Korean space within the show and focus on the least Korean character?

Only recently did we come to learn that none of the writers for the show was Korean, and the sole Korean Canadian presence Ins Choi, who originally created the concept for the show, was not very involved. The stars of the show are mad as hell at the way it ended. For my part, I'm mostly sad about the unrealized potential of the pilot.

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

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Asian America after the Atlanta Shooting

Even though we were together, each member of my immigrant family—father, mother, me, and my younger brother—went through his or her own individual journey of immigrant life. Only recently have I come to appreciate how remarkable my mother’s journey was.

Born in 1952 and growing up in a small city in Korea, she faced the ambient sexism of the time that demanded that women be uneducated and obedient housewives. My mother overcame that prevailing current of her life with outstanding intellect and flinty determination. In a time when higher education was a pipe dream even for most Korean men, she left home and attended a teacher’s college on a full scholarship. There, she learned English, and won a grant that put her in a study abroad program in New Zealand, in all likelihood making her the first Korean woman who visited the country from her small town. Unlike most of her peers, she was college educated, internationally sophisticated, and had a successful professional career as a teacher at a prestigious private high school.

Our immigration was her idea. She saw that her two sons were chafing at the restrictive Korean school system, and wanted us to be in a freer atmosphere. She was unafraid to move to an entirely new country at 45 years old, well into her middle age. But our migration was ill-timed: the East Asian Financial Crisis in 1997, and our unscrupulous immigration attorney, wiped out much our family’s net worth. We lived in a series of crappy little houses in Southern California, dealing with nasty landlords who never fixed any broken thing. My brother and I would wait for a once-a-week special from the neighborhood McDonald’s, when it would sell ten hamburgers for 99 cents. For years, that was the only treat we could have, because cheeseburgers were too expensive.

Our run-down life deeply wounded my mother’s pride. In our early days in the US, she spent days in a cold-burning rage because a well-meaning neighbor lady suggested that my mother should find work, and the Korean supermarket nearby was hiring a cashier. Cashier, my mother spat the word with contempt, as if she was firing a spent chewing tobacco into a spittoon. Do I look like a cashier? When our fancy furniture and dinnerware finally arrived from Seoul after months of shipping, my mother made a point of serving tea to the neighborhood lady in our nicest tea set, just to make clear that despite her current conditions, she was simply not the type of person who worked at a supermarket.

Instead, my mother did what she does best: she studied to be a teacher, again. At age 48, she passed the exam to earn the teacher’s credential for the State of California. She began as a substitute teacher, then was hired as a full-time teacher, teaching Korean in high schools throughout the Los Angeles County. By the time she retired, she was teaching at the magnet high school in our town, the one for which my brother and I were too stupid to attend. We would joke that, in our immigration that was done for the sake of education, mom was the biggest winner of our family.

All this is to say: my remarkable immigrant mother would refuse to be associated with the Korean American masseuses who were killed in Atlanta last week.

*                                                    *                                                 *

On March 16, a deranged racist attacked several Asian American owned spas in the Atlanta metro area, killing eight. Six were Asian American women. The killer claimed that he was a sex addict who wanted to “eliminate temptation”—a claim that’s not only disgusting but also bitterly ironic, because those spas were not brothels, nor were the murdered women sex workers. The four Korean American victims, who were masseuses and helps at the spas, were aged 74, 69, 63 and 51. The shooting served as a terrible allegory of the increasing amount of violence that Asian Americans have been facing in the past year: an act of violence occurring at a racialized space (an “Asian massage parlor”), targeted against the most vulnerable demographics, namely women and the elderly.

(More after the jump.)

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

Tuesday, December 01, 2020

Rescuing Our Parents from the Conservative Brain Rot (and Introducing The Blue Roof)

Diagram by "National Alliance for Tunnel Security", claiming to show 
the configuration of North Korean tanks under the Gyeongbokgung Palace
in Seoul, infiltrated through a secret network of underground tunnels.

Dear Korean, 

Help! I need a recommendation on people/show/clips or anything in Korean that can counter all the Fox News parroting Korean news that my mom watches all the time on YouTube. If they’re a Christian, that would be a bonus since most of the videos she watches are sent by church people and thus she thinks are truth. 


Dear Rim,

I'm sorry to say I can't be very helpful. If I knew the solution, I would be consulting political parties around the world how to unscrew the people's minds warped by the conservative online media, which is more of a systemized disinformation campaign rather than journalism. To be sure, there are good and popular liberal Youtube channels and podcasts that cover Korean news. (Allileo by Yu Si-min comes to mind.) But it would be pointless to recommend them, because your parents will never watch those commie channels. The problem is not the lack of good and rigorous material; the problem is the deliberate refusal to seek the truth.

I am writing this post primarily in order to let the world know that your problem is very common among younger Korean Americans. Virtually every day, I receive emails from people in your exact situation - asking for resource on how to reverse the brain damage caused by our parents' destructive Youtube habit. The rotting of our parents' minds in fact began much earlier, because Korea faced the problem of the conservatives' institutionalized disinformation campaign earlier than the United States. Before any American could contemplate the possibility of Russians putting up fake Facebook posts to sway US voters, the conservative Lee Myung-bak administration from 2007 to 2012 was using Korea's spy agency to run a domestic psy op generating millions of message board replies and fake tweets. Among older Koreans, it is an accepted truth that President Moon Jae-in secretly hoarded a 1,000 tons of gold (to a point that an armed robber attacked Moon's office before he was the president, looking for the gold) and North Korea has 1,620 tanks hidden under Seoul through an elaborate network of tunnels.

The issue became much more visible recently as the disinformation campaign went international. A few years ago, I was bewildered that second generation Korean Americans, whose politics in the US was firmly within the mainstream, began parroting some wild-ass talking points about Korean politics - then I realized they were getting all the Korean politics news from their parents who were undergoing the brain rot. But in the past year or so, the second generation Korean Americans began noticing that something was off: even if they knew nothing about Korean politics, they could tell something was wrong their parents started saying COVID-19 was not real. This issue became more visible to the younger Korean Americans because South Korea's conservative Youtube channels would pick up the bullshit from US conservative media, such that the parents started spouting a more recognizable form of bullshit.

After getting hundreds of questions and requests similar to Rim's, I did come up with one response: with a team of like-minded people, I started a website/newsletter that focused on South Korean politics. If you follow me on Twitter (@askakorean), you probably already know about The Blue Roof: www.blueroofpolitics.com. We started TBR for many reasons, but speaking for myself, one of the major reasons was because there needed to be some kind of a resource for Korean Americans who are dealing with their parents' Youtube habits. I have no grand hope that this will be the silver bullet; your parents likely will not be persuaded to read TBR's coverage of South Korean politics. But at the very least, you can have some frame of reference with which to gauge how far off course your parents have gone.

Again, I am sorry I cannot do more for this truly serious problem. But I can guarantee that our team at TBR is producing a high quality publication. The site only three months old, but we count among our subscribers virtually every international media outlets with a presence in Korea as well as many diplomats and academics. And atoning for my sin of very infrequent posting on this blog, I am committed to producing TBR every week without fail. It might not get your parents off the right-wing Youtube channels, but at least you will now be able to hold a conversation with them.

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

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.)

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

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.)

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

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.)

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

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: https://www.instagram.com/hoya_newfamily/

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 clara.thepalm@gmail.com, or message Hoya's Instagram at @hoya_newfamily. Hope you are in the right situation to give Hoya a loving home.

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

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.)

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

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.)

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

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)

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

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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