Monday, December 30, 2013

Why Japan Shouldn't Apologize To Korea (Right Now): Part 1: Why Not?

What the hell, Roboseyo! You were the happy blogger who isn't supposed to hold controversial views!

Bullshit. My views are the ones that make sense to me. After thinking it out. So there, imaginary person I argue against.
Did you even read the post, Mr. Snuffleupagus? (source)

Prime Minister Abe, of Japan, done just goofed. He visited the Yasukuni Shrine, which, in East Asia, is the diplomatic equivalent of shitting in the party punchbowl. (Unilaterally declaring air defense zones is the defense equivalent, but there you have it.) (Analysis on Korea's position in the US pivot to Asia.).

This article came out in The Economist, on USA's frustration over Korea and Japan's refusal to share their toys. Asian Foreign Policy heavyweight Victor Cha wrote in the New York Times about the same thing. The Diplomat asks why Japan's apologies are forgotten. The hair-pulling is on a regular cycle: several times a year, and even more since Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe got in, Korean politicians, or other rabble-rousers call for Japan to apologize to Korea, maybe promising that love-based Asian economic zone is held back only by this. China also feels it is owed an apology, for similar reasons: "Korea and China" could be switched in for "Korea" and the main points of this article would stand more or less unchanged, given that the ball is mostly in Japan's court.

I wrote a term paper on this topic last semester, focused on the Korea Japan situation and I'd like to share some of the things I learned, or concluded, from that.

The basics: from 1910 to 1945, Japan made Korea into a colony, as part of an imperial plan to become in Asia what modern European colonial powers had become in other parts of the world. It went badly for Korea. Along the way, and especially during the Sino-Japanese war and World War II, some horrific things, like torture, human medical experimentation and forcible recruitment of Korean women to be sex-slaves to Japanese soldiers, came to pass.

This series is not discussing those historical facts: those have been documented and debated elsewhere. This series IS discussing the political realities of apologies between these two nations. So if you want to dispute facts. This isn't the blog you're looking for.

Move along, now. source

Got it? OK.

Nopologies: There Have been Apologies before: Background

Next: There HAVE been apologies before (just to pre-empt the Japanners in the comments, here's a list).

The most important, direct apologies were made by Prime Minister Murayama in 1995.

To the comfort women: "On the Occasion of the Establishment of the Asian Women's Fund"

And here's the text of the most famous one: "On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the war's end"
During a certain period in the not too distant past, Japan, following a mistaken national policy, advanced along the road to war, only to ensnare the Japanese people in a fateful crisis, and, through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations. In the hope that no such mistake be made in the future, I regard, in a spirit of humility, these irrefutable facts of history, and express here once again my feelings of deep remorse and state my heartfelt apology. Allow me also to express my feelings of profound mourning for all victims, both at home and abroad, of that history.
Many subsequent apologies have basically repeated the language in this apology.

Here is a series of posts from Ask A Korean! explaining why those apologies have been rejected.
The Murayama apology was made by a progressive government with a weak minority in the Diet, and was controversial in Japanese civil society at the time: after the apology, a string of Japanese government ministers visited the controversial Yasukuni shrine, which honors convicted war criminals along with Japan's war dead, and symbolizes Japan's reluctance to confront and particularly, disown, its colonial past. (NYT: Japanese Apology For War is Welcomed and Criticized) (Apology "Not enough"). It's the same shrine Prime Minister Abe visited in this latest news cycle.

On and off since then, other Japanese leaders have continued to visit Yasukuni shrine, publishing houses have continued to publish textbooks white-washing Japan's war aggressions, public figures have continued to say stupid things about comfort women, and Japan's presiding president considered revoking the 1995 apology, to appease his far-right nationalist supporters. At the grass-roots level, denialist netizens say whatever shit they want pretty much with impunity. So yes, it was an apology, but since there was no break from past behavior, from leadership OR the public, it hasn't come across as very sincere to Koreans.

The question of what WOULD be a "sincere" enough apology is an important one, and we need to have an answer that has broad support among Koreans - enough that asking for more could be seen as unreasonable... to most Koreans. Otherwise that complaint about moving goalposts won't go away, but  incentive for another apology will (if it hasn't already). We also don't want the impression to develop that the aggrieved have more invested in being victims, than in moving on. Some argue that is already the case, and that would be a shame, because Korea and Japan have a lot to gain from a better relationship in areas like economy, diplomacy, and security.

Political Economy

The key to the clickbait title lies in the political economy of international apologies. Political economy is a simple enough idea: in the same way financiers look at incomplete information and make educated guesses about how to profit, politicians choose actions to maximize political gain. A sane politician  won't make an action or comment or support a policy that will clearly cause them to lose approval points, votes, and reputation, (their political capital) compared to their rivals. Given that politicians decide to issue these kinds of apologies, let's ask, what do politicians risk, and what do they gain from apologizing to another country? 

For an apology to be successful, it need to be issued by a country's leaders. It needs to be supported by the population, it needs to be accepted by the other country's leaders, and that acceptance needs to be supported by that population. Those are actually a lot of moving parts already. Things complicate further if both countries have democratic systems, more or less healthy free speech, civil societies, and political oppositions. Things complicate further still if both countries have citizens who can read the other country's language, and even more again if both countries have strong currents of nationalism.


[Update: this used to be a big long thing about two imaginary countries. I'm gonna take a moment to simplify it, because it's about two actual countries.]

Let's imagine three scenarios. Japan's leaders and their people, and Korea's leaders and their people are trying to negotiate an apology that will allow both countries to move forward into better relations.

Scenario A: Strong Apology

This is how you apologize to Comfort Women.
More info here and here. Photo from here.

Or... the way Koreans seem to want it to go:

Swap out Willy Brandt and the gates of the Warsaw Ghetto, and put in Prime Minister Abe at the feet of the surviving Comfort Woman: this apology is everything Koreans have ever wanted. But Japan's political climate is pretty closely balanced: any move by one side is hotly contested by the opposition party.

It's direct and contrite: it expresses responsibility as well as remorse in clear, unambiguous language. It is backed up by substantive action in various arenas: politicians are banned from going to Yasukuni Shrine until the War Crimes display is erected, at which the text has been composed by a joint team of Korean, Japanese and Chinese scholars and historians. War criminals' names are expelled from the shrine, or moved to the new "hall of ignominy." Those same historians and scholars have a free hand to suggest amendments to museum displays, history textbooks, and general school curricula pertaining to the entire colonial period and Pacific War. Japanese lawmakers contact Germany to discuss the ins and outs of Germany's ban on Holocaust denial, with an eye toward a similar law for Japan's internet. The apology and reparations to the surviving comfort women are negotiated with full input from the surviving comfort women and they are compensated out of Japanese government coffers, documented in a way that expresses clear culpability, paired with an apology they helped write.

Japan's ruling party immediately faces a domestic backlash (even Willy Brandt was criticized for kneeling), and the prime minister is crucified in the media and civil society by the usual suspects. "They are humiliating their country in the international arena!" Out come the black vans, a few Korean-owned shops in Osaka get trashed by a few drunk Japanese denialists whose nationalist rage-on is in full swing.

Korean media (of course) covers this backlash (extensively). During the next hotly contested Korean election cycle, one of the parties makes a play for those easy nationalist votes by claiming the apology wasn't enough and promising to overturn Korea's acceptance of the apology.

This, in turn, causes a backlash in Japan: "They were never going to accept any apology" which hurts Japanese politicians supporting the apology in the next election... leading to other politicians seeing an advantage to be gained by promising to walk back that apology. If they win, they walk back that stuff about changing national museums and textbooks, and defang any Holocaust denial-ish laws that were passed. Now there is a backlash in Korea too, agains politicians who accepted that apology. "They're not really sorry, and you're suckers for accepting it."

The deepest bow on google image search. Source
Japan: "We can never bow low enough."
Korea: "Your bow has no meaning anyway"

Stuff like this gets published during the backlash: the apology has been rejected.

Japanese leaders who made the apology lose even more political capital, and frustration grows nationally that even a strong, good-faith attempt to fix things, failed. There is less incentive than ever before for any future apologies, and an increasing political disincentive, given how apologizing led to a backlash against the last folks who did it.

Nothing's settled and nobody's happy. Ill will between the countries has probably increased, as long as civil society in Japan has too strong a faction opposing apology.

TL:DR: The apology that would satisfy Korea's people would lead to a backlash in Japan. That backlash would lead to Koreans no longer being satisfied by the apology anyway.

Scenario B: Weak/Qualified (Non-)Apology - the Nopology

Let's say Japan makes the apology its domestic political climate, with that slim majority, can bear. It issues a cautious apology carefully worded, in order to avoid sacrificing too much face. Japanese leaders are protected from domestic criticism.

But over in Korea:

The apology is quickly derided as insincere and unsatisfying. We've seen this happen. Opportunist Korean politicians line up to criticize it and demand a "REAL" apology (and if South Korean politicians don't, North Korea will be quick to say the South is rolling over like a lapdog or somesuch). Protestors line up outside the Japanese embassy. On the other side, Japanese politicians and civilians accuse Koreans of moving the goalposts, or being implacable: "They don't really care about apologies: they just like to play victim."

Result: The apology is rejected. Ill will between the countries increases. Those attempting the apology lose a lot of political capital, and likely even decline to follow through with it. Those stoking anti-sentiment in both countries gain political capital. Nobody is happy except the rabble-rousers, whose positions are more entrenched than before.

Scenario C: Semi-Weak Apology

Same as Scenario B, except the apology is a little more strongly worded: takes more responsibility, or is backed up with the promise of more concrete action. Not as much as Scenario A, but more. Now, in Korea, there is some support for accepting it. But don't forget that Korea is a democracy with protected free speech, so opposition politicians and commentators, whose job it is to oppose things, still argue that the apology isn't enough.

Because of them, fallout is the same except:
Some people deride the apology instead of everybody; opposition Korean politicians criticize the apology, instead of ALL Korean politicians (some try to take the high ground, and talk about the long view... which might work, but might get buried under emotional arguments when everyone's nationalist juices are flowing, if the opposition's demagogues are at it.)

Once the Japanese public sees the mixed reaction, their reaction is pretty much the same as in Scenario B, and the end result is more or less the same.

The results in these three scenarios are actually worse for relations between Korea and Japan than the status quo: low grade resentment with the occasional flare-up when a dumbass politician or textbook publisher gets punchy.


For now:
  • The kind of apology that would be supported by Japan's public won't wash in Korea.
  • The apology that Korea wants wouldn't wash in Japan. 
  • Half-assed or qualified apologies make things worse. 
  • A full apology shouldn't be attempted until those who would reject even that in Korea, or those who would oppose issuing one in Japan, are small enough minorities that they are politically radioactive, or at least irrelevant. 
There is no point in adding another Japan apology, that Korea will also reject, to the list of apologies that have already been rejected, and politicians have strong disincentives to do so, as it generates public ill will and burns political capital for no benefit.

In the political economy of international apologies, politicians are calculating the above three scenarios, and in none of them does the cost/benefit end in the positive, because pleasing nationals of some other country (who don't vote in your election) isn't worth it unless you can please your OWN country's voters at the same time.

And that is Why Japan Shouldn't Apologize To Korea (right now)

Do I think Japan should apologize? Yes. But only one more time, for the last time, in such a way that everyone is satisfied that it will be the last time.

Part 2 coming eventually.

Some useful readings from the paper I wrote, that informed my logic on this topic:
Cooney, Kevin J., and Scarbrough, Alex.  2008.  “Japan and South Korea: Can These Two Nations Work Together?”  Asian Affairs: An American Review. 35.3: 173-192.
On the troubled relationship between Korea and Japan: a history of attempts to patch things up, and a clear demonstration that domestic opinion can strongly affect international policy and diplomacy.
Glaeser, Charles L., Berger, Thomas U., Mochizuki, Mike M., and Lind, Jennifer. 2009. “Roundtable Discussion of Jennifer Lind’s Sorry States: Apologies in International Politics.” Journal of East Asian Studies. 9: 337-368.
A great panel discussion in which Jennifer Lind raises the point that a badly done apology, or one that isn't seen as sincere enough, can actually worsen the situation between two countries. Charles Glaeser highlights Jennifer Lind's discussion of the lack of other apologies we'd expect to have happened (see upcoming)
Lawson, Stephanei and Tannaka, Seiko. 2011. “War memories and Japan’s ‘Normalization’ as an International Actor: A Critical Analysis.” European Journal of International Relations. 17.3: 405-428.
Contains a very good history of Japanese apologies, and why they were seen as inadequate.

Here is part 2 of this series.
Here is the table of contents.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Kim Sisters and the Ed Sullivan Show

UPDATE: I blanked on the fact Popular Gusts wrote about The Kim Sisters just a few months ago, with some interesting background, including a link to this history of camptown entertainment.

In my Korean Popular Culture class, during our history lecture, the professor mentioned "The Kim Sisters" - a group whose name came up not long ago on tumblr as well. In trying to connect the music being created in Korea during the 1920s 30s and 40s, heavily influenced by Japanese colonialism (Japanese Enka is often mentioned as the musical ancestor to older Korean musical styles like Trot and Bbong-chak) and the US influenced rock and protest songs of the 70s and 80s, the professor draws a line through US military camp entertainment venues, where performers auditioned (echoes of modern Kpop? perhaps, though I think that's a reach), and where performing in the style American soldiers expected, was their meal ticket. A lot of Korea's most memorable performers of the era - including Shin Joong-hyun and Jo Yong-pil, developed their chops on the army bases.

The Kim Sisters came a bit before Shin Joong-hyun and many of the others. They developed an act in the '50s as kids, which became polished enough to garner an invitation to an act in Las Vegas in 1959 (source), and were a big hit in the 1960s, appearing on the Ed Sullivan show 25 times - only 9 acts ever had more. Now Ed Sullivan is kind of a big deal... yet my mother-in-law had never heard of The Kim Sisters.

Their mother was Lee Nan-Young, whose song "Tears of Mokpo" is one of the classic Korean standards: it's like "Someone to Watch Over Me" in that everybody's done this song. You've heard it in a taxi, your mother-in-law sang it in the noraebang, and one of the singers did a version on the latest music audition show.

In the Korea Times interview, former member Mia Kim admits that her group's timing was perfect: "When we started our career in the U.S., there were no Oriental acts as such. We were the first Oriental band that could play Western music and was good at it." They were the right act at the right time.

The early 1960s was also the time when the Japanese song "Sukiyaki" hit number one in the USA (1963)... so maybe there was something in the air... it was well before the Beatles brought Indian culture into hippie culture ('68), and at first google, the early 60s was a relatively quiet time for Asian-Americans, especially compared to the black civil rights movement (Rosa Parks kept her seat in 1955 and MLK met President Kennedy in 1960, around the time The Kim Sisters were putting bums in Vegas seats)... so it's hard to fit their invitation to perform in Vegas into a framework other than putting Orientalism on display -- at least from the demand side. However, getting on Ed Sullivan once ain't chopped liver, and they were invited 25 times - clearly more than a novelty act could ever muster. It would be worth further investigation.

And I really don't mean to take away from what they had going, The Kim Sisters were incredibly talented performers, able to play 20 different instruments between them, and if you watch the videos, able to sing very much in the style of Western pop groups of the time, which is interesting in its own way: the way the sisters balance their Oriental-ness (tossing a few Korean words into a song) with their very Western vocal and performance style, actually reminds me of current Korean acts trying to make it in the US, working to hit that exact balance of being similar to US pop, but not too similar, and different... but not too different. (Do we sing in English? Do we powder our skin paler or apply bronzer? Do we apply eye make-up to look more round, or more slanted? Do we change our dances? Do we harmonize with intervals from Korean music or Western music? Do these people even know what Gangnam is?) The Kim Sisters couldn't completely escape the pressure to put their Asian-ness on display: the b-side of their single "Harbor Lights" was a song titled "Ching Chang," written by E Shuman and M Garson. Sigh. I haven't been able to find the lyrics or a recording of the song online yet.

(image from here)

Watch the sisters. Just watch them. I'm interested in the subtexts of their performances - the fact they were partly chosen, as per the interview, because "there were no Oriental acts as such" ... but also because they 'could play Western music and was good at it" (and they really were). The way The Kim Sisters perform Korean-ness is interesting, and could be contrasted with, the ways The Wonder Girls, Psy, Rain, or Lee Byung-hun choose to emphasize or de-emphasize their Korean-ness, in order, themselves, to hit that right balance of different, but not too different, that is necessary for a pop act to distinguish itself, and the balance between foreign and maybe exotic, but not other, that a foreign act must strike.

Here are some of their performances from Youtube.

With Lee Nan-Young, the mother of the two sisters, and aunt of the third member.
Note the make-up emphasizing their darker skin and eye shape, and that their mother doesn't solo in English, but dresses in American styles.

Contrast that with the way she moves, dresses and stands in a live performance of her most famous song, admittedly downbeat compared to "Michael Row The Boat Ashore" above, but still:

They play instruments in this one, and dance in unison.. but the way they move is pretty clearly modeled on Western pop girl groups.

Goin' Out Of My Head

Starting in Hanbok, with traditional instruments, and then stripping it off to sing in English... interesting images.

And to contrast with more recent efforts to "make it" in America...

A very interesting study would be to compare the versions of Kpop videos for different audiences: what do the changes from The Korean Version of Bring the Boys Out to The American/English version show us about their company's expectations of the American market, or their perception of their members' strengths for the new market.

This is another video where the version marketed to American audiences is different from the one sold to Asians (a version which still features some white actors though).

The difference between the versions of "Bar Bar Bar" by Crayon Pop, meant for the domestic, and then the utterly unnecessary one for "global" audiences is interesting too... and kind of clumsy. I might write that up in more detail later.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Arguing On The Internet

How you think you look

(Jet Li vs. Donnie Yen in Hero.)

,br /> (Tony Jaa in The Protector, one of the greatest martial arts movies in the last decade, basically a long string of Tony Jaa storming into rooms and shouting "WHERE IS MY ELEPHANT?" and then kicking everybody's asses. Includes this amazing continuous shot sequence.)

(The Raid: Redemption. If you ever thought, "the hammer fight scene in Oldboy is awesome... I wish there were a whole movie of that!" then this movie will complete you. If that sounds horrific to you, avoid it.)

What you think your next comment will do

How you actually look

What your next comment will actually do

I am by no means innocent of this. I Have Important Things To Say!

Oh. Except Burndog, who looks like this.

Comments disabled on this post. I'm not interested. Nor should you be. But no, for the record, I'm not talking about you.

Aw what the hell, comments enabled anyway. Just for fun.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Korean Mothers are the Best, you Know: Facepalm

The Korea Times came out with a howler of an article recently, mistakenly using the headline "Tips for Keeping Partners from Cheating" on an article that was clearly meant to be titled "How to Suffocate Your Partner and Poison Your Relationship With Mistrust." This is a far cry from its 2009-10 nadir (setting the record straight, and alien graveyards), but still. My response on Facebook was sarcastic, but basically: 1. Don't trust your partner? Find another.  2. Partner asking for your passwords? People usually extend to others the amount of trust they deserve themselves. Memo for everyone: possessiveness and obsessiveness aren't cute and charming. They're creepy uncomfortable suffocating and insulting.

Not to be topped (bottomed?), The Korea Herald ran an article by Dr. Kim Seong-kon, a longtime contributor there, titled "Korean Mother: A Cultural Icon" - now, Dr. Kim has been writing an article a week for a very very long time, so maybe we have to forgive the occasional stinker, but this one went over the line.

Kim suggests "the Korean mother" as a cultural icon for Korea - a symbol of Korean culture, or essence, or somesuch. Nothing terribly wrong with that, though compared to the examples he gives, like Japanese samurai, which only Japan has, choosing something every living person necessarily has seems odd.

Kim describes the sacrificial and nurturing quality of Korean mothers, name-checks "Please Look after Mother" by Shin Kyung-sook, compares Korean mothers to birds that feed their babies while they starve, and even points out how Korean mothers are different from the mothers in his anecdote, AND in this one TV show he saw, which is enough to satisfy a scholar these days, I guess. (Peer review, here I come!)

[Update: Smudgem writes a thoughtful response to the article, that includes some nice words about this post: thanks!]

Asia Pundits raises a number of objections to the article - asking whence Korean teen suicide, if Korean mothers are so great (but acknowledging the issue is waaaaay more complex than that), and in what way trundling kids off to hagwon until 8 or 10pm is different from sending kids to their rooms early in the evening. Asiapundits also outlines the pressure Korean moms often put on kids to get into a good school -- even using the threat of violence to bully kids into studying harder. The article is worth reading. The top comment (as of now) below that post mentions "stage mother superficiality" - making parenting decisions based on what the other moms in the sewing circle will think, rather than what's best for the kids, which happens, I suppose (elsewhere as well of here, of course).

Newer blogger Wangjangnim weighs in a little more emotionally, with his best point being that Dr. Kim's description of Korean mothers is a not-too-subtle disguise for a series of normative statements about gender roles that are a generation or two out of date, and which also fix the acceptable standard for motherhood ridiculously high. (Meanwhile, Chosun Ilbo English headline this morning: "Actress Park Si-yeon Happy to Focus on Being a Mom" -- still waiting for a major daily in Korea featuring a headline, "Famous and Accomplished Woman Happy To Focus on Career For Now" with a positive write-up). Wangjangnim also mentions (though briefly) overseas adoption, which has created a whole bunch of Koreans who are alienated from their Korean moms.

Both AsiaPundits' mention of teen suicide, and Wangjangnim's mention of overseas adoption, as presented, are probably unfair "Yeah but what about this!" reactions. Both reduce very complex issues into pot-shots in a conversation about something else, far less than these two issues deserve. (Honestly, though, adoption sprang to my mind as well during my kneejerk-rage reaction phase.) Neither of those fraught and complex issues are fair to lay solely at the feet of Korean mothers: both require far-reaching discussions of Korean society. There are other little digs one could make -- my facebook feed featured a funny wisecrack about the prevalance of car seat use, for example. Moms in Korean dramas notwithstanding, I have several main problems with the article:

First: When I try to talk about an entire country of over 50 million as if it's a single, undifferentiated mass, my commenters give me hell. Essentializing an entire culture is always fishy territory, whether it's a foreigner or a Korean holding the broad brush. Korea is a pretty big, complex thing: big enough, and complex enough, that you can find evidence to validate any bias or agenda you bring to it, from the fuzziest of happy purrs, to the bitterest of angry yawps. This gets us no closer to the bottom of things.

Second: There are tons of moms in Korea who don't fit the rose-tinted profile Dr. Kim offers. Hell, if Doc Brown and Marty McFly skipped back in time and showed this article to a seventeen-year-old Dr. Kim, I bet he wouldn't recognize his own mother in it. Nostalgia does that.

Next: for Koreans whose moms were less than ideal, or for Korean moms who aren't living up to Dr. Kim's standard, I'd hate to compound their hurt or guilt, by making them feel like their family issues also problematize their bona fides as Koreans. In my first year here, I dealt with panic attacks from a kid whose mother would beat him for bad scores. I had another kid in my second year who had internalized her mother's verbal abuse so completely I never heard my brightest student of the whole year say a positive thing about herself; she came to class with bruises sometimes, too. I've dealt with moms whose kids' accomplishments seem more to be baubles for boasting to their friends, than for their kids' own benefit. They were all Koreans. I know someone who had a (brief, doomed) engagement with a man whose parents had dropped the guillotine on OVER THIRTY previous prospective fiancees. But those three anecdotes, as well as the mom I saw on a Korean drama that my mom-in-law likes, who is a manipulating, selfish badword, don't mean all Korean moms are like that, any more than Kim's anecdotes and TV reference mean American moms are all deficient.

Dr Kim: "But those mothers don't typify REAL Korean motherhood!"

No true Scotsman would do such a thing!
The "NO True Scotsman" fallacy: Justifying funny pictures of men in kilts since the Internet

There are also tons of moms outside of Korea who do all  the things Kim describes. Tiger parenting? Pressure to succeed? Sacrifice for kids? Emphasis on education? Those ring a bell to more than Korean kids, as does every other behavior (good or bad!) you name when you describe a stereotypical, or an idealized Korean mother. Except maybe making kimchi, which not all Korean mothers do anymore.

The book thing: Kim points to "Please Look After Mother" as an example of Korean motherhood... now Gord Sellar has problems with that book; I myself found it touching at first, but trying too hard, and finally reaching maudlin territory. I have doubts that the author set out to write a book about Korean motherhood; I find it more likely she was trying to write about her mother. The conversation about whether or why any piece of Korean culture that finds success outside Korea's borders is quickly labeled "representative" of Korea is a long one, and off point here, except that I find it frequently spurious, especially because the designation is usually post-hoc. Except for D-War.

(Source) Common sight at night in drinking districts.

For that matter, how can Kim claim Korean motherhood is unique if the book became a New York Times best seller? If a book becomes a best seller, it's fair to say that means it's struck some kind of a chord with readers. If a book resonates, that means an audience can relate to it... which means all those Americans buying the book must have connected to the portrayal of motherhood in it at least a little, since the book is about nothing else... the success of that book SHOWS that Korean motherhood isn't as unique as Dr. Kim claims it is, doesn't it? If Korean motherhood were totally singular among world cultures, it stands to reason that the book would only have been successful in Korea, and not found a mass audience outside of it.

Finally, I just find it tiresome that Kim gives into that all-too-common impulse, where one seems unable to talk about a great Korean thing, without comparing it to a foreign thing that isn't as good.

Nobody has to tell me that Gyeongbokgung is in more harmony with nature than Beijing's Forbidden City, for me to be impressed by it. In fact, bringing up the Forbidden City mostly reminds me how much smaller and less fancy Gyeongbokgung is, how much more famous the Forbidden city is. Telling me hamburgers are shit does nothing to impress the health benefits of Korean food, except show me that someone has an inferiority complex, and is a bit petty, and doesn't understand American food: the Korean correlative to hamburgers is something closer to ddeokbokki than bibimbap. And it isn't necessary for American mothers to be told they suck, before we can properly celebrate Korean mothers. If it is necessary, that's a shitty kind of patriotism.

This type of argumentation is tone deaf if the author is appealing to anybody except Koreans themselves (of course he's writing this to Koreans... why in English? is the real question) Picking USA (and Japan, the other standby), again and again, as the points of comparison to show Korean superiority, also betrays a type of colonized thinking, because why USA and Japan? They're the two countries who have most recently dominated Korea politically and/or economically, so they're the two burrs in South Korea's saddle, when it comes to national pride and perception of national sovereignty, that's why. Showing that Korea is culturally superior, even with less economic or military clout than USA or Japan, is simply a tacky ploy at restoring a Korean pride somebody imagined has been damaged.

But the fact that pride is always measured against these countries over others, reveals that the Koreans who write articles like Dr. Kim's (which, to be clear, is a subset of Koreans - not the whole lot) still haven't gotten over the period when Korea was colonized: they can't leave that scab alone, and simply celebrate what Koreans are: these ones have to get a dig in. Using those specific measuring sticks to show Korea's better, unintentionally underscores that Korea was well bested by them in the past.

Korea has enough kit now that it would be utterly possible to celebrate its culture on its own terms -- between the Korean Wave, the achievements of Korean businesses on the world stage, OECD membership, Ban Ki-moon, Psy, and Storm Shadow, the growing popularity of Korean food and the medal standings of the last few Olympics, there's enough there to stand without comparisons. But compare they do (some of them), and it comes across badly every time. (Example: Why Korea Sucks at Marketing Itself. Discuss.)

Lee Byung-hun as Storm Shadow. Making Korea's national status look goooood.

Given his output, we have to expect Dr. Kim will write a clunker from time to time. But this one was over the line.

I'm glad you had a good Chuseok weekend with your mother, Dr. Kim, it shows. But please try to express your love for your country and your mother without shitting on other countries and their mothers, and next time ideas are thin, maybe take a week or two off from your column over pinching out a turd like this one.

Funny footnote: I have some history with Kim Seong-kon - a letter to the editor in response to his article was the first time I ever sent writing of mine to a publication other than my university's poetry journal. You can read it here.

Special note for commenting: let's try to keep this comment discussion more nuanced than just telling everybody how horrible Korean moms are, OK? There are horrible moms and great moms in every country.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Tumblr Feminists: So What?

This is a re-worked version of a post I wrote last month. If you read that one, don't bother with this one. I don't like editing posts after people have already left comments, so instead of just editing that one, on the advice of a friend, I'm putting this one out as the version of record.

Removed: a bunch of stuff about gendered spaces, which I blundered through last year, and, on the advice of said friend, which I'm going to leave alone until I have the tools and background to write on it more credibly. To sum up: I got it wrong before, perhaps got it less wrong with that last post, and I'm still working on getting it right.

Last week I came across a new term in my internettings: "Tumblr Feminist" -- this is a very obnoxious description of what that is (and the phrase's possible origin). This is the search of "tumblr feminist" on Reddit, where I came across the term. And the reddit thread "Explain Like I'm 5 What a Tumblr Feminist is" has this as the "top" (most upvotes) comment - a pretty good at-length description - and for its "best" comment (highest ratio of upvotes), a concise one:
"The perception is that tumblr users are passionate but not very informed on gender issues, so the term is used derogatively."

Tumblr feminist probably fits in a category with pejoratives like "armchair quarterback" and "slacktivist" and "Randroid"... but the term, strikes me as mean-spirited - more than those others.

To be clear now, not every feminist on tumblr is a "tumblr feminist," just like not everybody linking events and causes on facebook are slacktivists (some back the "likes" up with action). The term seems reserved for the bottom rung or two of the hierarchy of disagreement (source), and not writers and thinkers who ply in the top section of the pyramid, those who've done their background reading, invested time and thought into making a meaningful contribution. But then, the term is not clearly defined, which makes it more useful for name-calling -- moving goalposts is an easy way to avoid taking responsibility for making generalizations.

The term "tumblr feminist" set off alarms right from the start. Google tricks (a keyword timeline search mostly) confirmed my suspicion: "tumblr feminist" was probably coined in that obnoxious youtube clip above: the first time that exact word combination appears is the month he published it. Subsequent mentions up until last month, when I suddenly came across it four or five independent times, had that same tone: contemptuous, and originating almost entirely in men's rights-type forums. It ventured outside of those realms mostly in response to comments or potshots from within it.

Since the start, the term has been used as a "straw man" (straw person) to whom people have ascribed the views they want to argue against -- basically, the Men's Rights folks have been using "tumblr feminist" the same way Fox News uses "the liberal media" or "the gay agenda" as a boogeyman. And that'd be the Men's Rights folks who use that flag to mostly act like sexist pricks, not the group that are said to exist, who have done all the same gender studies reading as feminists have, but are picking up the stories and issues on the male end of the gender spectrum. (As a side note, that latter group might do well to find a different name for themselves that doesn't confuse them with the former group. Perhaps one with enough jargon, or long enough, that online misogynists find it cumbersome to co-opt.)

In the last month though, people outside of Men's Rights forums have been using it in name-calling exchanges, in "am I really a TF?" "why ____ is a TF" or "I'm not a TF because" type blog posts. It's gained a little traction. Personally, I don't like that: labels are useful for introspection -- asking myself "is there mansplaining in this blog post/comment? Am I gaslighting?" But this label has been weaponized from the start, and using labels as weapons leads to defensiveness (follow-up with gaslighting), or anger (follow-up with tone policing) to derail conversations.

Along with its troublesome origins, my other problem with the term is this:

Every topic on the internet draws responses ranging from knee-jerk reactions to clear, informed reasoning, and discussion on every topic features too much knee-jerk and not enough clear, informed reasoning. Every single one.

Naturally, the same is true of women's issues. Writing that lacks clarity, rigor, or perspective? That's about 70% of the entire internet, isn't it? (That statistic is made-up. It might be more.) "Tumblr feminists" may or may not be an actual thing, but I know for sure I haven't heard a satisfying reason why they should be singled out over everybody else also using the internet less like this...

(Plato and Aristotle, by Raphael)

and more like this...
(Statler and Waldorf, by the Muppets)

or this.

Everybody's using the internet this way. Lots and lots and lots of men do. Every discourse has a few worthwhile voices and a lot of noise and people simply out of their depth. So if the group that becomes a target for derision is a subset of feminist writers (though if the term becomes common, wanna bet it remains reserved only for those feminist writers it originally applied to?) and they're simply acting the way most people (most men included) on the internet act, it's time for a motivation check. Does the simple existence of the term automatically indicate feminists, or women online in general, are singled out for persecution? Not all by itself, though given the term's origin (first yellow flag) and patterns of sexism on the internet (Food for thought.  --Patterns which trace right back to the origins of the internet, when the photo used to test compression algorithms was part of a playboy centerfold) it'd be worth looking into. A cursory look around suggests that we might be onto something.

To tie this to Korea: it's like the __ __ 녀 or "ladygate" videos (more about Korea's online misogyny at Koreabang and Yonhap News): after a while, it stops seeming like a coincidence that every viral video about shameful public behavior features a woman behaving unacceptably, and we have to ask what's behind the singling out of women for shaming. You think men never fight, smoke, or act out drunk on subway cars? (You've never been on line 1, have you?) Yet it's the women doing the above whose videos go viral. Weeeird. Or maybe not.

I remember my first blog posts about Korea culture... they're painful to read, and full of mistakes and signs that I was way out of my depth, talking about stuff I didn't really know much about. My enthusiasm far outstripped my understanding. I got better: I learned more, and my comments got more moderate and thoughtful. I'm glad I didn't get too badly bullied, shamed, or disparaged, back there during my starting point... that would've sucked. If I had been using my blog for emotional catharsis, I hope nobody would have mistaken my writing for attempts at elevated discourse: that mismatch of expectations leads to misunderstandings, and people forget that not everybody who writes on the internet is actually doing it for an audience. I hope that as so-called "Tumblr feminists" use the internet to sort through, hash out, and ripen their ideas about gender issues, or just to vent pent-up emotions that their everyday life doesn't let them, their readers are as patient as mine were, or are discreet enough to look the other way, rather than singling them out for bullying and disparagement, the way a phrase like "Tumblr feminist" does. The internet is big enough, and there are enough people writing thoughtful, well-reasoned things about gender issues, that we don't have to seek out the "tumblr feminists" to pick on them, do we?

No. No. Nope. No, we don't.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Flash Mob? For Whom?

You should read some very important views on some very important topics. I'm No Picasso has summed up what's wrong with the video where two very nasty boys harass a woman, and the way people have been talking about it, pretty well. And everybody should read The Korean's takedown of "The Cockpit Culture Argument" (based on Malcolm Gladwell's chapter of "Outliers" AKA the only thing a lot of people know about Korea, that can be made into a talking point right now), regarding the Asiana crash in San Francisco.

I may have something to say here about culturalism, once I've processed some of the stuff from one of the classes I took this semester. But today... flash mobs. Because why not.

This is a flash mob. This is one of the first flash mobs. The NYC Central Station "Freeze"

I've always liked flash mobs. It seems like a cool thing to have happen, to break the monotony of your day. I love imagining the people who encountered it, going home and telling the story. "And then suddenly, like 300 people in street clothing were dancing along to The Sound of Music in the subway station!

Improv Everywhere did some of the early ones. Another I liked:

Here are probably the two best flash mob videos.
Beethoven's 9th in Spain:

Sound of Music, in an Antwerp subway station:

(The Hallelujah Chorus is a pretty famous one, too)

On Reddit today, I saw a link to a "Flash Mob" where a group of classical instrumentalists played a rendition of "Arirang," and then the Korean national anthem, in a public square in insadong, one of the popular streets in Seoul for tourists to vist, and one of the first four places your new Korean friend will take you if you just got off the airplane.

It was alright. Here it is. It's a great tune.

But I'm having trouble calling it a flash mob. Wikipedia makes a distinction between a "flash mob" and a "smart mob." Here's a working definition of a flash mob I've written, based on the entirely subjective metric of which videos I saw on teh internetz and though "this is described as a flash mob, and it's awesome."

A flash mob is...
1. an organized group action
2. in a public place
3. where ordinary people do something surprising and a little extraordinary
4. that has been planned and maybe coordinated beforehand
5. and then everybody goes about their day.

Bonus points for:
1. People not involved in planning it can join in (watch the Antwerp DoReMi again-  people have jumped in without knowing where to step next)
2. including people under age 13 or above age 45
3. a video shorter than 4, preferably 3 minutes, unless it's friggin' awesome!
4. that "what on earth is going on?"/"wait a minute... I live in a musical?" feeling at the beginning, as apparently random people somehow seem to know the steps, or pull musical instruments out of their jackets.

Negative points for:
1. the number of people involved who appear to be professional performers. Also, music stands.
2. that general stink of being staged by PR people
3. any agenda other than "let's give the people in [this place] something to talk about when they get home from work" ... and the more obvious that agenda is, the more points you lose.
4. having a space cleared out before it starts. Feels like it was planned, and that's anathema for that "what on earth is going on?" feeling I mentioned.
5. Being this. Thanks for ruining flash mobs forever, FOX.

So... flash mobs now:

Wikipedia calls agenda-driven flash mob-like activities a "smart mob" -- if you're too clearly trying to sell me something, if your political demonstration involves apparent passers-by doing a choreographed dance or a freeze (while holding signs and slogans), or if they're clearly professional dancers (again, about the music stands), or if it was run by any business, but especially one larger than a community theater... sorry, kids. I'm not sold, and you're a smart mob, not a flash mob.

I wanted to make rule number 3 there hard and fast... no selling shit... but googling around revealed that the Antwerp Do Re Mi, and the Spanish Beethoven were both sponsored too. With a light hand, in the Antwerp case, but the Beethoven video does kinda finish with a corporate logo... so I realize that this "flash mob" thing has a fuzzier definition than I'd like. But here go those criteria, for the "This Is Arirang" video:

The "This Is Arirang" project was planned by a bunch of Korean student organizations (listed at the end.) According to the video description, "This is Arirang Project was designed with the aim to let foreigners know the Korean folk song, 'Arirang' and the 'Korean national anthem'"

Nothing wrong with that at first pass. Run by students is better than "run by a mobile company"(as slick as the T-mobile liverpool flash mob was)... though I can't help wonder why a bunch of university students care so much that foreigners know about their folk songs. Somehow I would have liked the video more if its purpose were to celebrate a beautiful song (cf Spain's Beethoven, the possible inspiration for it), rather than being to perform a beautiful song for "foreigners." Who cares if foreigners know/like arirang? The way "foreigners" are constructed in Korean promotional efforts is often problematic for various reasons, and the fact Korean culture becomes constructed as a performance of "Korea" for foreigners, bothers me sometimes, when Koreans should be doing the things Koreans do because it's meaningful to them, because it's beautiful, or fun, or connects them to who they believe they are in the world. There's a big difference between that hottie who dresses up because looking nice is nice, and the one who does it to fish for compliments.

Because, to steal from an old riddle, if the Arirang played, and no foreigner heard it, would it still be a beautiful song?

Yes. Yes it would. And it doesn't need foreigners to say "ooh! What a beautiful melody!" before Koreans can celebrate it, love it, and sing it. For their OWN damn benefit.

I was going to do a part of this blog post where I complained that flash mobs never really caught on in Korea -- even though Korea would seem like the perfect breeding ground for an absolute flash mob craze:
a culture of people who like doing things in groups (check)
everyone has a cellphone camera (check)
everybody already knows a set of dance moves and steps because of popular kpop songs (check)
one of the world's most wired populations (check)
a youth population prone to grab onto fads and run them for all they're worth, if so inclined (check)

I was going to complain that given the above, there are surprisingly few flash mobs in Korea.

Except I would have been wrong.

Now, many of these fail my own nitpicky criteria for a flash mob, because they're for a poltical cause,  promoting a Kpop single, they're not in a public space, or they're too obviously staged. But then again... some of my favorite flash mobs fail one or more of those criteria, so I've got to be more forgiving.

The dokdo shuffle in Busan is unaccompanied by English or notKorean text, limiting its effectiveness in swaying world opinion... but whatever (and the dokdo song is awful -- it sounds like one of those songs that politicians blast from their flatbed trucks during election season, or a ghastly revolutionary chant repurposed). However, the airport flashmob is clearly in the true spirit of flash mobs - and I like that it ends with "Sunny" -- because that song has become a cultural touchstone in Korea ('cause of this, great, movie). Shilling for Kpop happens. Meanwhile, the WonderGirls video "Like This" has the feeling of a flash mob, and it worked in this case. This is probably my favorite flash mob that I've found so far.

So... Flash mobs happen in Korea. And they're not all lame (though some are) and I don't know WHAT to make of this.

As for flash mobs in the Korean news: well, they're popular enough to have been made illegal. Hankyoreh on that. And must be registered in advance. Wouldn't have happened if they'd been used for fun instead of for statements. But then again... I'll never begrudge someone giving a damn about the political situation in their country. Even if it means no Do Re Me song when I walk by Chunggyecheon.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Survey 2: Survey for Multi-ethnic Koreans in Korea

Hi everyone. As part of my ongoing work studying and writing about multiculturalism in Korea, I've created a pair of surveys. The data collected is anonymous, and it will be used in future work about multiculturalism in Korea.

Right now, I'm focusing on "multi-racial" or "multi-ethnic" Koreans -- people living in Korea who have one, but not two, Korean parents. I've looked before, and will be looking at other groups of various types of Korean heritage, at different times.

This is a survey for multi-ethnic people.
Do you have one parent who is Korean, but not two?
Do you live in Korea?
(Or did you live in Korea for a significant amount of time?)

Please take ten minutes to fill out this survey: it'll help me a lot. Or take 20 minutes and answer the optional questions, too.

If you have friends who are multi-ethnic Koreans who do, or have, lived in Korea, please send this link on to them as well. (Or if the embedded form below isn't working... click on this link)

Survey 1: Parents of Multicultural Korean Children

Hi everyone. As part of my ongoing work studying and writing about multiculturalism in Korea, I've created a pair of surveys. The data collected is anonymous, and it will be used in future work about multiculturalism in Korea.

Right now, I'm focusing on "multi-racial" or "multi-ethnic" Koreans -- people living in Korea who have one Korean parent, and one non-Korean parent. I've looked before, and will be looking at other groups of various types of Korean heritage, at different times.

This is a survey for the parents of multicultural children.
Do you have a kid?
Was one parent Korean, but not both?
Do you live in Korea? (Or did you live in Korea for a significant amount of time?)
Please take ten minutes to fill out this survey: it'll help me a lot.

All survey data is anonymous.

If you have friends who are parents of a multi-ethnic Korean kid, please send this link on to them as well. (Or if the embedded form below isn't working... click on this link)

Friday, May 31, 2013

Your daily (monthly) cute.

So here are two very cute videos of Babyseyo I made this month. Because I've been writing papers and things and not writing blog posts.

Yes. I refer to myself in the third person when I talk to Babyseyo. It's because I want him to grow up to be a professional wrestler.

You do not have to think my kid is as cute or brilliant as I do... and to help you keep your judgment friendly, I've made both videos less than two minutes.

His favorite song is Gangnam Style. When he wants me to play a video on my computer, he does the horse dance, which is as much "baby sign" as we've done.

I've been studying North Korea, and have some interesting things to write about that.

I'm also writing about multiracial/multi-ethnic Korean-ness this semester, and you'll see something about that soon - perhaps before today is through.

Love you all my lovely readers,

Monday, April 08, 2013

Here's How We can Defuse This North Korea Thing

I heard a rumor that North Korea's going to do another Nuclear test.

Here's how we can use that test to defuse this whole North Korea thing: Right here.

NK claims victory. The rest of the world moves on to some other story.

China starts working its behind the scenes influence in North Korea to make sure little Kim falls in step (because nobody else has enough influence in North Korea to make anything happen up there) and we can all go home.

As we all know, the best way to disarm a shit-talker is to let them feel like they've made you back down, when actually you've decided to ignore them.

Saturday, April 06, 2013


Well, not long ago, I got quoted by "The Voice Of Russia" in an article about how unaffected many expats are about North Korean posturing.

And my family might well be worried about what's going on over here, so it's time for a few comments. Buckle up. This might get lengthy.

I came to Korea in 2003, shortly after NK expelled UN Nuke inspectors from North Korea (leading to this great satire of UN impotency in the Team America World Police movie). Since then, we've had regular threats, missile tests (including one the Monday after I returned from a weekend trip to Geumgang Mountain Resort in North Korea), more missile tests, even a successful missile test, a disputed nuclear test, and then a pretty successful one.

And every single time, the western media does this.

How far out of the norm is this?

You know how if your friend who never calls you in distress, buzzes you up and goes "Hey. I'm not sure who to call, but I need someone to help me talk my way through something." ... well, you drop everything, because it's really unusual for your stable friend to be batty like that.

But you know that other friend who sends you two text messages a day saying "I can't take it anymore. Call me please before I do something rash!" ... you know how after a while you start ignoring those messages, because they're coming twice a day, and they're always something dumb like "My shoes came untied during my morning jog" and when your friend DOES have a serious incident, they show up at your door looking like a mess and forego the messages anyway? Those messages get easier and easier to ignore, don't they?

Well that's where South Korea is with North Korea. And maybe your attention-starved friend starts jacking up the intensity of those meaningless text messages -- saying "I swear I'm going to kill someone" rather than just "FML This is too much" ... you know it's the same song and dance, just with slightly different steps... so it remains easy to hit that "ignore" button. Because North Korea doesn't announce it when they ARE going to attack. Yeonpyeong Island and the sinking of the Cheonan came without warning.

So is this an abnormally provocative bit of bellicosity? Yeah. It is. And the reason is because nobody's biting, and giving North Korea the kind of attention it wants. And by attention I mean unconditional  aid. They keep having to come up with more and more meaningless bluffing gestures to show how serious they are.

But when North Korea talks tough, the image in the South's mind is more like this:

Than this:

Because South Korea knows they and the US military could reduce North Korea to this

if they wanted to.

Fact: Reddit is more excited/upset about North Korea than South Korea put together.

So you're Saying This Happens More Often?

Here are the times when North Korea threatens annihilation on South Korea and its allies:

1. Every time a new president comes in (in order to get them to back down and show who's boss)
2. Every time USA and Korea do the Eagle Foal Joint Military exercises
3. Pretty much every spring, when there's a bit of dead time before planting season
4. Whenever the UN, or some other country or group of countries, or an important world leader criticizes them (my favorite of these incidents)
5. When the presiding Kim's balls get itchy
6. When things are getting a bit unstable at home, an the leadership needs to galvanize the people against an external threat, in order to distract them from being inadequately provided for by their leader

Now, 1, 2, 3, and 4 definitely apply, I'm going to take the liberty of saying 5 does, and it's hard to know just what's happening in North Korea, so number six might apply, too. The North Korea histrionics cycle is a bit worrisome the first few times, but then after realizing it's just noise... it stops being so worrisome.

Point three: The Dog and Pony Show

Because we can't see what's going on inside North Korea, it's easy to forget this important fact:

A country's foreign policy is a performance for several audiences, including the international political community, the international business community, and domestic publics.

Leaders and populations of countries that are allies and rivals, as well as international watchdog groups and institutions, watch how a country's leadership behaves. Things like human rights, UN contributions, and goodwill or aid efforts are performances for the international community.

The performance might be calculated and cynical, for example the HIV testing case currently before the Commission for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (read more here) makes it look like South Korea never had intentions of following the convention. Other examples are strings-attached aid or the kinds of interventions that impinge on another country's sovereignty. (Hey everybody! Let's bring freedom to a country with shit-tons of oil!)

FTAs and certain types of regulations and measures are performances for international finance markets. They mean to attract international investment, and can also be a mere performance. For example, signing a Free Trade Agreement, but stirring up a national health panic in order to poison the market for a certain country's beef, before it arrives in stores, is one way a country can cynically go through the motions of opening up economically, while still protecting their markets. (Not naming any names.)

Another, perhaps the most important audience, is the domestic population: they're the ones voting for or against you, and the ones who could take to the streets and Gaddafi your ass if they're mad enough about the way you've been leading them. Most of the stupid nationalism undermining relationships across east Asia (every land claim dispute, Yasukuni Shrine, history book controversies, demands for apologies) passes for politicking in East Asia because it's a certain type of performance for a domestic audience of voters who want to feel like their leaders will vigorously defend their country's interests and national pride (not in that order). Every country suffers from a little frog-in-a-well myopia.

When domestic populations have a problem with their leader, the best way to get people to stop shit-talking their leaders, is to find someone else for them to shit-talk. Domestic groups are a bad target because they're within voting and striking distance. But a foreign baddie probably won't overthrow you, because most countries don't like going to war. And a foreign baddie can't vote against you. And if you speak a language the foreign baddie doesn't speak, you can say a lot of stuff and count on most of it not getting translated, or pick and choose what gets translated in order to enhance the performance for the home crowd.

A foreign baddie is the perfect way to deflect discontent, when you're not keeping your promises to the people you're trying to lead.

So North Korea continues to play the part of global internet troll, saying inflammatory shit to get a reaction (aid). And like a troll, if you ignore it, they'll stop trying.

And no matter what the world does, NK's propaganda machine can spin it.

  • World gives aid: world pays tribute to Kim Jong Un, in fear of his power
  • World doesn't give aid: Kim Jong Un is trying to help his people, but the baddies are being so mean to North Korea that your spring food rations won't be coming.
  • World doesn't go to war with NK: world fears us
  • World does a few surgical and devastating attacks to key NK targets: guess why your spring food rations have been diverted to the military...

By controlling all the information within the country (to some degree) the Tubby One (or the generals pulling his strings) can spin this sequence of provocations and responses however he want, and they're getting lots of footage of really famous world leaders talking about North Korea, which can be edited to tell whatever story they like.

So What are they Doing/Saying in South Korea?

Well, they're not rushing supermarkets and buying up all the non-perishables they can find. Canned goods are still available. They're going on picnics and commuting to work and looking for the best place to catch spring blossoms, which are just now reaching Seoul.

Meanwhile, South Koreans don't talk much about North Korea at all. They're aware of what goes on, but they're about as interested in talking about it as your family's interested in talking about the alcoholic uncle who gets drunk and wrecks every family event.

When Koreans do talk about North Korea, it's messy.

North Korea is a wedge issue in South Korean politics, like gun control or abortion in the USA: as with discussions about gun control, you might have an edifying conversation about it, but in many cases, discussing North Korea is like discussing certain events and characters in Korea's history: the way you talk about it is more a way of signaling your political alignment than an attempt to really hash out the nuances of the situation.

When North Korea comes up, both sides fall into the truisms, slogans and commonplaces of their political party, if it’s discussed at all in South Korea’s politically partisan media. Because Park Geun-hye is a newly inaugurated president, what I’ve seen of the media in South Korea is presenting this ongoing story with a strong angle of “How is the new president going to respond?” (so far, with more tough talk). The local media usually reports on North Korea with a jaded “here we go again” tone. The international media is the group that gets excited and worked up at every repeat of the cycle, not the local media. Locals don’t find the story new or exciting - it doesn’t sell papers here the way it does internationally - because it’s been the same story so many times before.

So what happens next?

North Korean leadership has backed itself into a corner with all this tough talk... but the leadership knows it's hopelessly outgunned. Problem is, North Korea's people don't necessarily know that, which makes the situation a bit less predictable. The world response -- censure and bloviation -- is probably encouraging North Korea to posture more, in order to gather more footage of world leaders talking about North Korea, for propaganda purposes. North Korea will eventually run out of symbolic gestures -- moving military vehicles around, fueling and moving them, making statements, cutting the few remaining points of contact between North and South, and coming up with more and more bellicose ways of saying "No this time we're serious! Nobody better mess with us!"

The stakes are higher because of North Korea's successful nuclear and satellite tests, but the basic outline of the relationship is unchanged, and the fact of China's fading support for its erstwhile ally, means that North Korea's on a weaker footing than ever before.

Until now, China benefited from having North Korea kicking up dust in East Asia, because every eyeball fixed on the Kim dynasty, was an eyeball not fixed on China's human rights record, its political prisoners, its newly aggressive, bullying brand of foreign relations, or its epic housing bubble. However, North Korea's behavior has gotten so indefensible, that the cost of backing the Kim dynasty is finally, truly outweighing the benefits. That's bad for North Korea.

Where should I get information about North Korea?

A few things:
1. don't trust any foreign "expert" who doesn't speak and read Korean (including me) very far
2. don't wholly take the word of South Korean experts or (especially) politicians, who were raised and trained inside South Korea, or speaking to a Korean audience, because of the way North Korea is a wedge issue here, so many South Koreans aren't really talking about North Korea when they're talking about North Korea -- in the same way U.S. Americans often aren't actually talking about abortion when they're talking about abortion.

My favorite North Korea commentator is Andrei Lankov, and if there's one Must-Watch North Korea video, it's this one, which actually has the expertise and the perspective other commentators usually lack. If Andrei Lankov is worried, I'll get worried. Till then...

So if you only click on one link, make it this one.

What Will Happen Next?

Kim Jong-un has painted himself into a corner, and something will happen before he can ratchet down the tension he jacked up. It'll probably be some shells dropped on an evacuated village, or a bit of posturing somewhere along the DMZ, or a boat wandering across the Southern Limit Line and shooting a few rounds across the bow of a Korean warship and scampering away. I hope South Korean leadership keeps a back door open for Kim Jong-un not to go to war, when he does something he now pretty much HAS to do, to save face, while also not looking like a wimp.

Long run time: What should South Korea, USA, and the World Do about North Korea?

In the longer term, belligerence and standoffishness have two effects:
1. estrangement and unpredictability
2. increase in Chinese influence in North Korea

That doesn't get us anywhere we haven't been multiple times before.

The fact is, as long as the Kim regime is in charge, we're probably going to see the same blackmail-for-aid thing continue. And North Korea will keep playing the same game, counting on the four (in USA) and five (in Korea)-year election cycle to bring in a whole new set of chumps for them to manipulate.

If North Korea is to change, it will be because North Korea's people demand it, and gather up the mobilizing strength to back up their demand. We might be closer to that than we think... but until the revolution, the thing that will speed it up will not be belligerence and estrangement, which more likely causes them to band together in support of The Tubby One.

Contact and engagement, meaningful interaction with North Korea, until affinity, trust, and even kinship develops between North and South Korean publics, will help North Koreans become receptive to other ways of imagining their country. Increase of contact across the border, even if it's expensive, even if we have nothing to show for it, for a while, will increase the rest of the world's ability to reach, and mobilize, the people in North Korea who could become leaders of a sea change in that country.

Until the Kim dynasty is dislodged, I don't think they're abandoning the military first policy. And some aid will be diverted to the military. Can't be helped for now. However, if contact between ordinary North and South Koreans increases, communication will lead to new ideas being introduced to younger generations of North Koreans, new truths about how things are in the south. A different point of view.

As of now, those ideas are impossible to plant, because there's so little of any kind of contact. An Arab Spring type uprising can't happen in North Korea, because not enough of them have enough access to modes of communication and contact with the outside world. That's no good. Anything that increases that access is a good thing. And if increasing contact leads to accusations of being Kim Jong-un's running dog, so be it: it's become clear that the Kims are only interested in Threat/Aid/Thread/Aid, and regime preservation, so may as well try to open other venues for contact that will outlast the Kim dynasty and might be a catalyst for change. Get satellite cellphones into the country, and radios that pick up other stations. Invite North Korean students to institutes of higher education around the world. Push for more ways to tour North Korea and make contact (however meager) with North Korean people. Blanket the country with radio signals, not just with psychological warfare messages about the inevitable doom of the Kim dynasty, but with music and entertainment and stuff from the world outside, that makes North Koreans start thinking the world outside might not be a bad place.

North Korean leaders are going to break promises. Some of the aid money and materiel will not go where we want it to go. But more of it WILL go to the right place. Even if the trust building exercise only goes one direction, if that allows us to make more contact, with more North Koreans, and further break the stranglehold the Kim family has on what information North Koreans take in, the sooner North Koreans will start thinking about different ways they might be led, and start thinking about the choices they can make to make their country become what THEY want it to be. There are cracks in the machines of the North Korean state -- Korean drama dvds and news are leaking across the border, and people are starting to realize what a shit condition their country's in.

From here, some patience, and a commitment to engagement, even when it seems unhelpful, will, in MY opinion, lead to an actual change in North Korean society, if not leadership, eventually. It's a long game, that takes more patience than a four-year or five-year election cycle allows in US and Korean politics, and that's one of the reasons North Korea's survived this long: because every new president changes course, and North Korea has been manipulating that inconsistency expertly, so far.

More reading: "Will Seoul Go Nuclear?" (North Korea's saner than you think, and other misconceptions) (how NK manipulates its own image)

K. I'm going to bed.