Sunday, February 23, 2014

Bitter, Sweet Seoul: my Two Favourite Videos about Korea

When I saw this video, just made by some guy, it struck me as doing a better job, and making Korea seem more attractive, than almost every official tourism promotion I'd seen.

Other than a few seconds of footage taken in Japan, I think it's pretty much perfect. And wouldn't it be nice if some percentage of the Korea Promotion budget were simply set aside to find people who make beautiful videos like this, and to offer them free, all-expenses one or three-month trips to Korea, in order to make one really really great Youtube video. Or four.

What we have next, coming out just recently, is as good.

Famous filmmakers Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) and Park Chan-gyong, have done something lovely.

They took crowd-sourced footage -- anyone could submit -- and hammered together a one-hour (plus change) video that I actually recognize as the Seoul I live in: the ones that's beautiful and ugly and funny and wild and loaded, loaded, loaded with life.

It's probably too long to grab casual viewers, but for anybody who lives in Seoul, who loves Seoul, they will deeply appreciate this video, which ultimately amounts to a gentle, knowing love-letter to one of Asia's most interesting cities.

Garbage collectors, crosswalks, breakneck motorbike delivery boys, urban gardeners, and yogurt ladies in yellow, runaways and street food vendors, mountains and crowded streets. I love this video, because the decision-making mucky-mucks who come up with junk like this appear to have finally stepped aside and deferred to the ones who have, you know, actual artistic talent. Now, perhaps that's because the makers of this video are award-winners and such... but it's a start.

I wish the video the greatest of success.

Read more about it here. And at the Wall Street Journal's Korea blog, "Korea Realtime." And of course, watch it, silly!

Friday, February 21, 2014

Five Things About the UN Report on North Korea And Two About The Future

At long last, North Korea headlines contain neither the words "Nuclear" nor "Dennis Rodman.” The UN has released a report. Along with this video.

Powerful stuff.

You can read summaries of the UN’s new report… going so far as to compare North Korea to the Nazis. (SummarySummaryOriginal source A call to action with no specifics [reminds me of the video below].) Some of the best-known talking heads haven’t weighed in yet -- please put links to them in the comments when they come out, because I'm very interested.

The contents of the report are grim. Even the summaries are, but if you follow 
North Korea sources like LINK, you knew about this. Three minutes of googling will do it. "Born and Raised in a North Korean Concentration Camp"

The following bullet points, then, are some things I’ve learned, or thought about, that seem relevant in light of the latest report. I may be wrong about any or all of them, because nobody knows dick-all about North Korea, compared to any other country in the world, but feel free to let me know how wrong I am in the comments!

1. The UN doesn't have the power, resources, or consensus to actually do something about these findings, and with Russia and China on the security council, won’t until North Korea openly attacks someone, or slips into actual chaos. An intervention would risk the UN having a failed state on its hands, and that’s messy. A failed state on someone else's hands? Messy… but buck-passing and finger-pointing are how politicians get their exercise. The “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine sounds nice, but it’s toothless right now.

2. Kim Jong-eun has seen that video of Saddam Hussein’s hanging. This report reminds him he probably faces a crimes against humanity charge if his country opens up to the international community. Big disincentive, that. With this, the chance he’ll do desperate things to hold power increases. Counterbalancing that… he’s also doubtless seen that video of Muammar Gadaffi being found by his angry former subjects, and not even surviving to face the ICJ. So...


3. Beyond that endgame, this will change nothing in North Korea. Pundits have been heralding the regime’s fall since Kim Il Sung presided, always incorrectly. Maybe the execution of Jang Song-taek really was the Kim regime's last card to play… but we’ve been guessing wrong about which card is the Kim dynasty’s last for a generation now. The analysts look like Mr. Bean in church.

4. Sunshine didn’t work. Sanctions don’t either. For everybody who thinks it’s time to finally get tough with North Korea… pull your heads out of your asses. To begin with, North Korea has alienated itself from the world so severely already that it now has nothing to lose from continuing with the histrionics. To boot, its leaders use the world’s hostility to ensure internal stability, and you know what? The “tough love” posture from abroad works great for consolidating domestic power. The Nork propaganda machine gets to keep proclaiming a state of perpetual existential threat, which continues to justify the military first policy and all manner of deprivations. To everyone arguing that unconditional aid propped up an evil regime: maybe. But there is more than one way to prop up an evil regime and unremitting hostility and alienation creates conditions which lend North Korea’s leadership more legitimacy and a stronger mandate than they would otherwise have in the eyes of its citizens. And revolution will begin and end with those citizens, and effective policy needs to be geared toward that fact, not towards the emotional satisfaction of getting payback for all those bad things they did.

5. Outside of North Korea, this report is a good thing, because of positioning: the UN won’t do anything directly, and not much will change in North Korea, but it will make it much much harder for those South Korean politicians who want to talk past North Korean human rights issues. It will put China further in the wrong when it supports North Korea rather than pushing for change there. This report tightens the screws on anybody who still wants to ignore or trivialise the human rights crisis going on, and shines a harsh spotlight back where the attention should be, even though Dennis Rodman and nuclear testing sell more papers.

What’s next?

I agree with analysts who hold that any fundamental change to the North Korean state must come from the North Korean people. Without them, it will have no legitimacy, and any intervention without the consent of the citizenry would be fought against with the intensity of three generations of Kim Il Sung-scented brainwashing. The question is not “What can the world do to help North Korea” but “How can the world empower North Koreans to demand a different kind of country for themselves.” Thinking of the issue in those terms creates a very different set of policy and aid priorities than reacting to the histrionics of the the Grand Mucky-muck On Top.

And a final thought: the one that haunts me.

I liked Paul Whitefield’s reflection (LA Times) on how hollow the words “Never again” - referencing the holocaust - ring now. With the Nazi concentration camps, almost nobody actually knew about them. Almost everybody could defend themselves with “We didn’t know.”

With North Korea, we knew. We knew and we knew, and we ignored it. And this is what haunts me about North Korea’s condition: that one day, the surviving North Koreans will confront the world, and ask, “Why didn’t you do anything?” The media used their country’s condition to sell newspapers and ad space, but ignored mass starvation and concentration camps. South Korean politicians cynically used North Koreans' lives as a political wedge issue. No apology will be enough. With Auschwitz not even gone from living memory, we have let this happen again, to our shame as a species.

But this report is also an opportunity, because finally, though far too late, we are actually talking about it. Let’s hope something comes out of that. I’m not holding my breath.

Update: The Korean Foreigner has written a reply to parts of this article, titled "Moral Duty To Help North Koreans?" (his answer is none)

Monday, February 10, 2014

Clickbait, and self-othering

While you're waiting (with bated breath, I'm sure) for part 2 of "Why Japan Shouldn't Apologize To Korea (Right Now)," I'd like to pass on a few things I've enjoyed reading... in clickbait headline form, just because:

You wouldn't believe how many links in this roundup are exactly the ones I wanted to tell you about!

This blogger investigates a racially charged controversy over the name of a chicken dish, and does something nobody else even thought of doing!

This will be the best Groove Magazine article about Korean racism towards blacks you'll read all day!

Popular Gusts researched the history of blackface in Korea. What he found will blow your mind!

You won't believe what happens when "Drifting Sapphire" sends identical teaching resumes to recruiters with a black photo and a white photo! Go read how she designed the experiment.

And one bit of food for thought:

I followed the conversations at Ask A Korean! about what he calls "culturalism" with great interest, and will probably write about it at more length sometime in the future.

The Korean defines culturalism, in this 2007 blog post, as follows "the impulse to explain minority people's behavior with a "cultural difference," real or imagined" and fleshes it out in his post-Asiana Malcolm Gladwell post.

This tendency to focus on cultural differences is interesting to me, because of all the conversations I've had where someone will tell me what Japanese people are like, what Koreans are like, and what Canadians and Americans are like.

It's also especially interesting to me that people look at their own groups through that lens. Koreans will tell you what Koreans are like, and how Koreans think. Americans will tell you what Americans are like, and what they think. And not just to get away with stuff (playing the 'culture' card, though that happens). I've done it myself.

The Korea Herald recently published this example, by Kim Seong-kon, whom I've dressed down before. The title: "Is Korea a Strange, Enigmatic Country?"

The funny thing about this article is that, according to the Korean's definition of culturalism -- basically using culture as a magic handwave to escape having to look further into an issue -- this article is culturalism to the nth degree. Dr. Kim asks a bunch of questions about Koreans -- Why does this happen in Korea? And suggests that the answer is that Koreans are a strange, enigmatic people: if I did the same, I would clearly be accused of culturalism. "Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, Koreans gotta give spam sets at thanksgiving" doesn't cut the mustard. But what about when a local does it? If he published this article in Korean, would he be scoffed at for his "how do magnets work?" credulity?

It's just a miracle, I guess. (warning: bad language)

Or would Koreans nod their heads knowingly and murmur "Yes. We are truly inscrutable to foreigners, perhaps even to ourselves." That he is writing in English suggests a foreign audience... does that change things, and make it more or less forgivable to do that same magic hand wave?

Acting as if Koreans (or Asians in general) are beyond comprehension to westerners (either because we're too advanced, or too unrefined - whatever) strikes me as a kind of performance: Koreans' lives make sense to them, more or less. No Korean waves their hand at their neighbor or relative's behavior and says "it's because they're Korean" unless there's a foreigner in the room. So why put on this pose of mysteriousness for the gaze of foreigners who are imagined to be judging Korea from afar? (Or am I making too much of the article being written in English when I suggest that?) What does it mean that the attitude encapsulated here seems to reflect the same attitude old orientalists had toward Asians? How strange that old white writers once wrote about Asians being inscrutable, and those same sentiments are now being echoed back out of the mouths of Asians themselves, for modern Western audiences!

To be fair, as time goes by, I hear less and less often that jung, or han, or "the Korean national character" cannot be understood by foreigners. But what would be the motivation, or origin, of this kind of self-othering, or self-essentializing? Is it a legacy of colonial mindsets? Is it self-flattery, pure and simple? Are they acting out an orientalist's fantasy to attract tourist dollars, or cultural capital? I have some thoughts, and a bit of a reading list to work through, but I'm interested in hearing what my readers think.

Comments are open. Be nice.