A Little Korean Government Arm-Twisting of my Blog on the ‘Sea of Japan/East Sea’ Spat – How Unintentionally Flattering Actually


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Did anyone else get this email below? Who wouldn’t be persuaded by some PR firm hack with no idea about East Asia giving suggestions she doesn’t understand by robo-email? Yuck. Maybe I’m reading it the wrong way – maybe getting yelled at by the Korean government about nomenclature means someone actually reads my blog. Hah!

 

“Dear Robert,

I came across your Asian Security Blog and read your post, “Why don’t Korea & Japan Align?”. Because of your interest in current affairs and issues in Asia, our communications firm is reaching out, on behalf of the Korean Consulate General, to inform you about an issue that you and your readers need to know about. 

The Republic of Korea is asking the US government and map publishers to use the name “East Sea” together with the “Sea of Japan” when referring to the body of water located between the Korean Peninsula and the Japanese Archipelago, over which both Japan and Korea have jurisdiction.  This body of water has been called East Sea for over 2,000 years – you can read the historical background here: http://bit.ly/EastSeaMaps

Why is this important and why should this issue matter to your readers?

* When dealing with matters of diplomacy, a name reflects how a country is viewed.

* Support for Korea’s position is gaining momentum among many internationally respected cartographers and the media. National Geographic, Rand McNally, The Economist, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, and Le Monde have all begun using both names concurrently.

* Other evidence of growing support for Korea’s position includes a vox populi petition to the White House with more than 100,000 signatures, and a vote at an international organization’s recent conference that denied Japan’s proposal to use only the Sea of Japan name.

Will you consider posting about this on your blog? Links to videos can be found at the bottom of this message, plus you can find additional information here: http://bit.ly/EastSea Please feel free to use any of this information found here in your postings.

Thanks, Robert! If you have any questions or need additional information, please feel free to contact me.

Best,

K—————-
Parter International/Tuvel Communications Team
on behalf of Korean Consulate General in New York
——@tuvel.com
—————————-
Video: The Name, “East Sea” – http://bit.ly/Lu5puJ
Video: The World Map is Changing: Korea’s East Sea – http://bit.ly/JJSYIF

——————

I find this ridiculous. Has anyone noticed how non-descriptive ‘East Sea’ is? At least the ‘Sea of Japan’ actually provides some basic geographic information (ie, a sea near Japan), while the ‘East Sea’ could be any sea east of anything else. To demand that the world use that term insists that the rest of the planet view bodies of water from a Korean perspective, which is a preposterous request. The name itself implies absolutely nothing. This is the US Government’s position also.

Should Israel demand the Arabian Sea be changed? Should Pakistan lobby the world to change the name of the Indian Ocean?  I have no idea if I have used the name ‘East Sea’ or not on my blog, but using an internationally accepted name is standard. I find this faux-controversy a fatiguing Koreanism, just like when Koreans insist on telling foreigners how old they are by their ‘Korean age.’ The ensuing confusion does little but gratify Korean insistence on uniqueness. Please, can we just stick to international standards and avoid self-flattering particularisms no one else cares about? Finally, it’s worth noting that there’s also the ‘Korea Strait.’ Should that be re-named the South Strait or something?Because this whole conversation will inevitably provoke a Japanese move on that name in response. Can’t we just drop this?

My Website is blocked in China – Hah! I’m flattered


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I was just in China for a work thing, when I checked the Duck of Minerva (the IR blog where I also write) for something. Turns out the Duck is screened out by the Great Firewall. Even if you go to Google Search Hong Kong, it’s still blocked.

Wow. Who knew even nerdy IR theory and pop culture references posed a threat to CCP rule? Lame. Even more lame – my own website, which gets way less traffic, is blocked too. For sites as small as mine, that’s almost a complement – hah. If only I had readers similarly interested enough to even bother…

Agree with Heinlein’s ‘Citizens vs. Civilians’? then this US Military History is for you: Book Review


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I was asked by a participating member of the H-Diplo/ISSF network to review The American Culture of War. Here is the original link to my review, but it’s off in some far corner of the internet, so I thought I’d repost it here. In brief, I found the book a pretty disturbing rehearsal of right-wing tropes about the military in a democracy, especially from an academic, and there’s no way I’d ever use it with undergrads as Routledge suggests. The underlying moral driver is the ‘chicken hawk’ principle – that those without military experience are not morally qualified to lead DoD and should otherwise defer to uniformed military. At one point the author actually says that, because the US Army ‘distrusts’ Congress, the Army should ‘guide’ Congress. Yikes. Do Americans (and the author) really need to be told civilian authority runs the other way, and that that’s in the Constitution? I find that sort of military elitism democratically terrifying and reflective of the post-9/11 militarization of America that is now the single most important reason, IMO, to end the war on terror.

I would just add the following update: Both the book and review were written before Petraeus’ resignation, but it should come as no surprise that the text lionizes Petraeus. It is therefore a pleasing schadenfreude for the frightening post-9/11 military hero-worship of the US right to be taken down a notch. Here we go:

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My ‘Korea Times’ Op-Ed on what Korea Needs from its New Prez: Liberalization


ParkBefore President Park’s inauguration, the Korea Times asked me to participate in a forum of ‘foreign experts’ (don’t laugh too hard) on her incipient presidency. We were asked to make one direct suggestion for the new president. Here is the section at the KT website. I know several of the authors, and some of the op-eds are pretty good (too many are shameless pandering though). Unfortunately, my accepted submission was not published in this section, published after the inauguration, and edited far too heavily. (They never told me why; maybe this.)

Anyway, below is the original version of the op-ed, where I basically argue that Korean democracy is becoming a Seoul-based oligarchy of wealthy, similarly-schooled, intermarrying business and political elites  – basically the dark side of Kangnam style. Someone in Korean politics needs to turn this around, or under-40s in this country are going to ‘drop out’ Timothy Leary-style. There’s a quiet crisis of youth alienation brewing, but no one in ‘Kangnam world’ seems to care.

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My ‘Newsweek Japan’ Cover Story on the post-1979 ‘Asian Peace’ & Economic Miracle


Newsweek 3rd coverNewsweek Japan asked me to write an introductory essay for its January 16 special issue on tension in Northeast Asia (cover story to the left). I should have put this up 4 months ago, but I forgot and the arguments are still valid. Anyway, here is the link in Japanese, but I thought it would be useful to publish the original, untranslated version as well. (If you actually want the Japanese language version, email me for it please.)

The essay argues that Northeast Asia has benefited enormously from an ‘Asian peace’ in the last 35 years. All the remarkable growth in China and South Korea (as well as India and Southeast Asia) would not have happened without it. So fighting over some empty rocks (Liancourt Rocks, Pinnacle Islands) is a terrible idea. And for political scientists, the current Sino-Japanese tension is a good test of the hypothesis that economic interdependence brings peace. It’s fascinating to watch China especially try to figure out just how much economic gain to forego in pushing Japan over the Pinnacle Islands.

This was intended for their print edition, so there are no hyperlinks included in the text. Here we go:

“1979 was an important year in modern East Asia. It captures two of the region’s most important trends. It was the year of both the last serious military conflict between two East Asian countries – a Sino-Vietnamese border war – and the start of China’s capitalist modernization under Deng Xiaoping. These moments usefully frame the following thirty-four years: much of Asia has gotten substantially wealthier, and no major conflicts have broken out to upset that upward economic swing. This magnificent regional achievement has catapulted Asia, particularly East Asia, into the center of world politics.

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Korean Foreign Policy Year in Review 2012: So Many Grievances… (UPDATED in response)


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(I updated/lengthened the last section, after the jump, to respond to some of the criticisms made.)

Daniel Tudor, the Korean correspondent of the Economist (full disclosure: we are friends), just wrote a book on South Korea where he argues that Korea, despite all its success, is a discontented society. This is exactly right. (Here is a good review of the book.) Despite growing rapidly in just a generation, and capturing some global profile with things like ‘Gangnam Style’ or well-known products like Samsung gizmos, Koreans continue to have wildly unrealistic expectations of global interest in their small, linguistically unique (and difficult to learn) country culturally similar to enormous China. This generates constant geopolitical disappointment, per Tudor, and outsized sensitivities over foreign criticism – e.g., the widespread urban legend here that no Korean has yet won a Nobel Prize, because the committee is staffed by anti-Korean racists, or read this.

Four events in 2012 really seemed to capture the chip on the national shoulder, which ideally would serve to recommend a little modesty instead of yet more nationalistic grievance (but that won’t happen):

The Olympics: Some KOC official said on TV that Korea needs to ‘improve its Olympic diplomacy’ (whatever that means), even though it won a huge haul of medals for a country so small. India has more than 1 in 7 of the people on the planet, while Korea has .007%, but I guess the fifth highest pull of golds and ninth highest overall was a conspiracy of the Anti-Korean Olympics or  something. What is it with the endless chip on the shoulder? As Evan Ramstad put it, Korean officials once again had to come off sounding arriviste and aggrieved, rather than balanced and modern:

“Even so, a government sports official could be counted upon to again declare that South Korea was at last among the world’s great nations instead of recognizing that it has been there for awhile now. Second Vice Culture Minister Kim Yong-hwan was quoted in local media saying the performance in London meant that South Korea could “join the ranks of advanced nations in terms of sports and culture” and “has leapt into a higher level not only in the field of sports but also in culture and arts.”

And we had to spoil the Olympics too, with tiresome Dokdo posturing too (pic above).  That the placard violated the apolitical Olympic spirit is obvoious, but no major Korean figure came forward to denounce that action. *Sigh*

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5 Good Things about Korea you should be Thankful for this Thanksgiving


 

As the great intern-chaser himself once said, ‘I feel your pain.’ One of the things I also miss most about living in Korea is the American holiday season, October – December. There’s a nice feeling of relaxation at the end of a long year, with lots of nice parties, holiday movies and music, culminating in Christmas which was absolutely the center of my life-calendar until maybe high school. Luckily my wife puts up with my nostalgia and makes a huge turkey every year, and we have leftovers for weeks. Awesome. So in that spirit, here are several things you should be thankful here in Hangukistan even though you miss the holidays:

1. There’s very little street crime.

Maybe I say this, because I am an American. But the difference between here and the US is amazing, i.e., fantastic. I remember growing up in the eastern suburbs of Cleveland, and adults telling us explicitly to fill up the gas tank of the car when driving through the city so we wouldn’t have to stop. It was that dangerous. But not here. God, it’s wonderful. Wanna walk home alone, drunk, at 3 am in the middle of the city? It’s perfectly safe.

Five Election-Explaining Clichés I really don’t want to hear this Tuesday


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On Interstate 71, south of Columbus; Ohio’s most famous sign

So it’s election time, which means CNN, etc. will be filled with pundits with only the vaguest credentials – never any PhDs Sad smile – telling you why the outcome inevitably had to be such-and-such. (Retrodiction is so insufferably smug.) And they’ll explain it as if these tired clichés are real insights and not the same flim-flam they pedal every November.

So let me predict the future: here are the five worst clichés you’ll hear Tuesday – the lamest, most recycled, simplistic, and least analytically useful (because they’re so flexible they can explain almost any outcome).

Save yourself hours of Donna Brazile and David Gergen right now; just roll these out at Thanksgiving dinner to impress the relatives:

1. Ohio, or the white, blue-collar voter theory of everything

Every four years the media runs the same easy, generic storyline about my state (Economist 2004, 2008, 2012; FT) that goes something like this: ‘these grizzled veterans of America’s economic dislocation cleave to their guns and religion but increasingly live in suburbs and see their kids work in tech plants outside Columbus or Dayton. The large urban populations of Cleveland and Cincinnati are balanced by the church-going rural voters in the god’s country of southeastern Appalachia…’ Yawn. And it goes on like that for pages. Most of these articles make sure to cite the above picture. And yes, that sign is for real; I’ve seen it. It’s on the same road that leads to the Creation Museum (no joke either – I’ve been there), but thankfully that’s over the river in Kentucky. I guess they go to the dentist even less often than we do.

The thing is, we get all this attention for 3-4 months before every election – but then nothing afterwards. So how much can they can take us seriously as a swing state? In 2004, Rove drove up GOP turnout with the Defense of Marriage Act ballot issue and terrorism. In 2008, Clinton and Obama told us they were going to amend NAFTA and reduce illegal immigration to save our jobs. This year, Romney and Obama promise to defend us against China. If you’re keeping score, that means there should be no homosexual Mexican terrorists driving NAFTA-certified trucks on Chinese tires around Ohio. Ah yes, Ohio, that clichéd, right-wing blue-collar paradise!

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3rd Presidential Debate, Foreigner Version: If you’re not an American, you’re Mentally Ill or something


Warning! The lyrics are explicit – but the movie is hysterical

 

Did anyone else find the third presidential debate just appallingly narcissistic and self-congratulatory? Good lord. Good thing America is around to show you bubble-headed foreigners the way to freedom. I could run through all the offensive, ‘America-is-tasked-with-upholding-the-mantle-of-liberty’ patronizing condescension, but why bother? (Nexon does a nice job here.) I told my students to watch it, and in retrospect, maybe I shouldn’t have. It was so embarrassing, and in class this week I kept trying to explain why we talk down to the rest of the world like this while my students rolled their eyes in disgust.

I keep saying this – running around the world telling people how exceptional and bound-to-lead we are is a great way to alienate the planet and convince them of exactly the opposite – to not to follow us. We’d have a much easier time with the world if we could back off the blustery, Fox News nationalism and actually speak maturely. But Americans couldn’t give a damn about the rest of the world, no matter how much we posture about our world historic role to lead it. Our ODA totals are disgrace for a coutnry as wealthy as we are. We don’t learn languages much. The only time we worry about casualties in the war on terror is when they are own; our clear disinterest for all the collateral damage we have done since 9/11 speak volumes to the rest of the planet.

So instead, here is the debate foreigners heard:

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Pop Music Brings a Lot More Readers than Social Science: Follow-up on ‘Kangnam Style’


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Now THAT is Korean art – the Seokguram Buddha; I’ve been to see it 3 times

The Internet has slapped down my arrogance. I told myself I wouldn’t write about k-pop, but that post on ‘Kangnam Style’ drove so much traffic, even the Daily Beast, to my site and twitter, that here is a response to all the comments. It’s kinda of depressing how my posts on Asian political economy or what-not get little traffic and a lot of yawns, but K-pop brings huge numbers. It’s like those Facebook posts on something you find interesting that no one bothers to look at, but put up a pic of yourself blotto on a beach, and everyone ‘likes’ it.

1. I am not sure K-pop is really ‘family-friendly,’ as one of my commenters argued. I hadn’t really thought about that, but I guess it’s nice to have light, fluffy lyrics instead of gangster rap or Robert Plant screaming that he’s ‘your backdoor man.’ But if you watch the performances and look at the appearance of these ‘bands,’ it is highly sexualized and teasing – and that is obviously far more important the music itself, which just comes from a music machine. These band members can’t play instruments, but they do look like sex symbols and swing around on poles wearing leather boots like strippers. (*sigh* you see why I wanted to avoid writing about k-pop?) Is that what you want the kids watching? What kind of signal does that send?

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‘Kangnam Style’s Irony is Missed b/c of the Publicity Wave


yeah, it’s pretty hysterical, especially when you get the underlying social critique

 

I try to avoid K-pop on this website, because I find far too many foreigner websites in Korea focus on the silliest, shallowest elements of what is around us – probably because the language is so hard, and so Korean pop culture is the easiest for us to understand. But I keep getting asked, and it is huge hit, so here’s a sociological overreading:

1. Thank god ‘Kangnam Style’ shows a level of irony, self-awareness, humor, and creativity that K-pop normally lacks. That alone is enough to value it, given how shallow, idiotic, and pre-packaged most Korean pop is. K-pop is wasteland IMO. Try this or this, and see how long you before you cringe from the sheer mawkish inanity of it all. Then read this and this (that second one is a little raw), if you still don’t get it. And to their credit, I find most Koreans will admit that K-pop is fairly embarassing non-art if you push them about it. It should also be noted that traditional Korean music is often superb, rich, and authentic; we listen to it at home.

Anyway, none of these carbon-copy ‘k-bands’ like the Wonder Girls or Girls Generation or whatever would ever get considered for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (I’m from Cleveland, so I thought I’d add that little plug). K-pop slavishly copies from the boy-band/girl-band model that began in the US 20 years ago and crossed-over to Japan. The hair, the synched dance-moves, the gratingly cutesy presentations, the insipid teen love-story lyrics, the spontaneity-crushing over-choreography – it’s awful, corporate faux-art. None of them can play an instrument; they are recruited solely because they’re hot, and the music-machine does the rest. Bleh…

Mix Munedo and the Kardashians in the Korean language, and you get K-pop.  Korea desperately, desperately needs to de-MTV-ize/de-idol-ize its music scene and get some raging, slovenly, wacked-out desperado-rockers like Meatloaf or Janis Joplin who care about music instead of bling. Instead, it’s hideous, so-repetitive-I-can’t-even-tell-the-difference-anymore synth-pop even Duran Duran would be embarrassed to release, all controlled by corporate hacks with no interest in deviation and who are persistently rumored to sexually exploit their young charges. Like almost everything else in the Korean economy, the music industry desperately needs deconcentration and innovation.

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Guest Post: Dave Kang – “Confucian North Korea”


I am on break for the summer, but I am happy to open this space to a good friend and excellent scholar on international relations theory and Asia – David C. Kang, a professor of international relations and business at the University of Southern California and director of its Korean Studies Institute. Regular readers will know that I cite Dave’s stuff a lot. If you aren’t reading him, you should be: here is his Amazon page.

Confucian North Korea

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Figure 1. Korean Worker’s Party symbol

It is easy to caricature North Korea as a “bizarre” “land of no smiles” full of brainwashed robots. In the past few years, North Korea has become somewhat prominent in popular culture either as a salacious joke or a freak show of a country. (And yes, I refuse to give you too many links to articles I think are misinformed caricatures). The trope of North Korea as a nation of automatons, grimly marching through each day is very powerful.

It is absolutely true that the regime itself is horrific and reprehensible, and engages in systematic human rights abuses. Indeed, the people of North Korea are the most direct victims of the ruling regime. I am totally for regime change, or a regime that modifies its ways and introduces economic and social reforms that improve the lives of its people. However, wishful thinking has gotten us nowhere, and rather than simply sit back and laugh at North Korea or call it names, perhaps we might explore why the regime has survived as long as it has.

In addition to extensive repression and selective bribery, what is widely overlooked is that the North Korean dictatorship is built on deeply traditional Korean cultural and Confucian roots. In fact, the best way to understand both the regime and its people is to remember that North Koreans are Koreans more than anything else. Far more insightful than any other description such as “communist monarchy,” North Korea is identifiably Korean, and there is a coherent internal logic in much of its way of life. As a result, the regime is more stable and enduring than commonly thought. (The arguments I make here have been made much more cogently by Bruce Cumings and Suk-Young Kim, among others).

Take a look at picture at the top of this page, which is a photo of the official emblem of the Korean Worker’s Party. Although the hammer and sickle are easily recognizable as signs of all Communist Parties from the Soviets to the Chinese Communist Party and others (Figure 2),

Figure 2. Flag of the Chinese Communist Party

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North Korea is unique in that there are actually three symbols. What is that middle symbol in Figure 1?

1. Candle?

No. Wrong. C-

2. Paintbrush?

Warmer. What kind of paintbrush?

3. A calligraphy brush they used in olden times to write Chinese characters?

Yes!

It is a Confucian scholar’s brush – perhaps the most direct and vivid symbol of traditional learning, culture, and scholar-elite rule in Korea since the 9th century Silla dynasty first introduced an examination system for selecting government officials.

This is pretty remarkable. The Communist Party everywhere has stood for an utter rejection of the past and tradition as feudal and oppressive, and the basic message from Stalin to Mao has been to destroy the past and totally rebuild society. Yet the North Korean regime, rather than attempting to erase the past, has grafted itself onto traditional Korean traits, and reached back to some of the most traditional iconography possible: a hierarchic and elitist symbol of education, with all the other Confucian connotations that go with it: a ruler who embodies both the country and the “mandate of heaven,” an emphasis on centralized political control, and a clear set of hierarchical relationships that create harmony.

What about the role of women? Figure 3 is prominently displayed in Pyongyang, and depicts a generic and heroic “Mother,” fighting against the Japanese.

Figure 3. “Mother” in Sea of Blood

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What is interesting about that painting? As with the KWP symbol, it might strike the viewer as somewhat odd that she is wearing traditional Korean women’s dress (“hanbok,”or “choseonot as they call it in North Korea). Compare this with the standard depictions of revolutionary Communist women from China or the Soviet Union – they are all in drab “Mao jackets” that reject and depart from any traditional and feudalistic tendencies (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Chinese revolutionary women

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But in North Korea women have been presented with an image that emphasizes their Koreanness – a traditional dress that is far more common in Pyongyang and North Korea than in South Korea. The regime explicitly is telling North Korean women that they are a link to a way of life that is Korean, and the way they dress is the most obvious manifestation of that link.

What about the “cult of personality” and the rise of the grandson? Surely that’s bizarre, right? Not really, in a traditional Korean context. The Confucian emphasis on family places the father as the head of the family. Kim Il-Sung simply placed himself as father of the country, and grafted an authoritarian state onto the existing social and cultural roots. Leadership by a powerful family makes sense in a Korean context. Korea is a clannish country, and the family is the basic building block of social, political, and economic life.

The best way to understand the role of families is by comparison with contemporary South Korea. The foundation of Korean life in both North and South is the clan. For example, most major business conglomerates are family-run, and often the grandson of the founder is now in charge. This is the case even of the biggest companies in Korea. In addition, it may appear to outsiders that Korea is a country with only three last names (Kim, Park, and Lee, hahaha). But all those Kims are actually divided up into dozens of different clans, each connected to a hometown, each with extensive family lineage records, and each vividly distinctive to other Koreans. Thus, there is Kimhae Kim, Seoul Kim, Kyongju Kim, etc. So powerful was the clannish nature of Korea that until 1998, members of the same clan could not legally marry, even if they were separated by tens of generations. Similarly, Kathy Moon has recently argued that the blather over Kim Jong-un’s marriage is mostly misguided: “For Koreans on both sides of the 38th parallel…Unless one is married (and with children), one is not fully an adult. In both Koreas and in dynastic cultures, those pieces are supposed to come in the same box, to be pieced together into a coherent puzzle.” Thus, within a Korean cultural context, multigenerational leadership in North Korea and family as the building block of society is common sense.

Why does this matter? Because the story the North Korean regime tells itself and its people is aimed at domestic audiences, not at international audiences. They are telling a story that — however warped and corrupted — resonates deeply and instinctively with Koreans: North Korean are the true Koreans, and are the only ones remaining true to the essence of being Korean. South Koreans have been corrupted and forgotten who they are. The Kim family is leading the fight against external oppressors such as Japan and America. If the people must endure some hardship in order to maintain a Korean way of life, that’s a small price to pay.

This is one reason I tend to think an Arab Spring or uprising is not likely. Questions of imminent demise overlook the fact that North Korean dictatorship has grafted itself onto deeply traditional Korean culture roots. As a result, the regime is much more stable than some may think. For some people of North Korea, conditions may become so horrific that they choose to try and leave. But far more remain, and they remain not because they are brainwashed and not only because of repression. Many stay because North Korea is their home, where they grew up, where their family and friends live, and it is what makes sense to them.

MBC brings Multicultural Panic to Korea


Xenophobia so sloppy and racist, Glenn Beck himself would blush…

I came late to this controversy, but it merits some quick comment given just how creepy the above vid is.

This ‘report’ was shown in primetime on Korea’s largest TV network, on a holiday when people would likely be home with family (and was then rebroadcast until the explosion of response halted it). While xenophobia is fairly common in the Korean media, this is so nasty – especially at this very late date in the long, tiresome ‘Korean women dating western men’ discussion – that it has gone viral in the expat blog world of Korea. It even got into the Wall Street Journal.

I rarely blog about this sort of thing. As an IR academic, domestic politics and sociology aren’t really my area, and I don’t really see myself as a ‘k-blogger’ or whatever. I don’t like blogging about identity politics in Korea, as I think it is prone to recycled stereotyping that tells us little. And I have broadly argued against our (foreigners) participation in the Korean multiculturalism debate, because it’s their country and they themselves need to decide what they want from us. It’s their choice.

But this is the nastiest race-baiting – primetime, slap-dash unprofessional, on a major network, for a general audience – I’ve seen in my time here. (Full disclosure: my wife is Korean). Casual racism is a widespread problem in Korea, as any foreigner living here can tell you. Wide-eyed kids shamelessly point at you like you are a martian; people stare at your body hair; grade and high schoolers giggle and smirk; the old ladies glare at you on the subway; average folks on their cell phones will pause their conversations to remark, ‘hey, a foreigner just walked by me!,’ as if it’s some kind of major event in their day (presumably they think I can’t understand that, or maybe they don’t care?). It’s all fairly fatiguing (read this for a good example), and that’s for white westerners. I can’t imagine being from Southeast Asia or an LDC here. In fact, Cambodian import brides have been so badly abused, the Cambodian government made it illegal for its citizens to marry Koreans. (This hugely embarrassing and deeply disturbing restriction was scarecely reported by the Korean media.) And when the Korean race hang-up gets wrapped into sex, it breeds genuinely disturbing levels of xenophobia, especially for an OECD/G-20 country that really ought to know better. Hence this vid.

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7 things I don’t like @ being an Academic


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It’s grad school acceptance season, so here are a few thoughts if you are considering the PhD plunge. Try this genre also on the Duck of Minerva, where I also write. Enjoy your last summer to read as you choose, without following a peer reviewer or a syllabus. Such lost bliss… 

Generally speaking, yes, I like being an academic. I like ideas and reading. I like bloviating at length. The sun is my enemy, and exercise bores me. I would really like to be a good writer/researcher. Including grad school, I’ve been doing this now for 15 years, so clearly I could have switched. I am committed. But there are at least 7 things I didn’t see back in my 20s when I had romantic ideas that if I got a PhD, I’d be like Aristotle or John Stuart Mill – some great intellectual with real influence on, what a Straussnik once called to me, ‘the Conversation,’ which I took in my heady, pre-game theoretic youth to be this (swoon).

1. It’s lonely.

I didn’t really think about this one at all before going to grad school. In undergraduate and graduate coursework, you are always very busy and meeting lots of people. You live in a dorm or fun, near-campus housing, you have lots of classes, you hit the bars on the weekends, you go to department functions. Girlfriends/boyfriends come and go. So even if you didn’t like 9 of the 10 people you met, you were meeting so many, that you eventually carved out a circle and did fun stuff that kinda looked like the 20-something comedies you see on TV. But once you hit the dissertation, you are suddenly thrown back on your own, and you really re-connect, or try, with your family, because they’re the only ones who’ll put up with your stress. You spend way too much time at home, alone, in a room, staring hopelessly at a computer screen. You don’t really know what you’re doing, and your committee, while filled with good, smart people who are almost certainly your friends, can’t really do this for you, even though you try to push it off on them.

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Oliver North Threat-Inflates for the next ‘Modern Warfare’: a new Low for the Military-Industrial-Entertainment Complex


Video Games as the Fear-Mongering Pop Adjunct of America’s post-9/11 ‘forever wars’

 

Even tea-partying righties should be pretty shocked at this shameless, exploitative (and wildly inaccurate) manipulation of Americans’ post-9/11 paranoia as a marketing gimmick. And you thought 24 was off the air. Well here’s the video game version, all designed to scare you s—less – for cash. When the Homeland Security Department terrified the country 10 years ago by telling us to buy ducktape and sheetwrap, at least they had public safety goals, however confusedly, in mind. But this pseudodocumentarian ‘they’re-everywhere!-no-one-is-safe!’ crap is just to shill some video game. Bleh.

And Oliver North?! Good lord – the guy violated the appropriations clause, the Logan Act, and who knows how much other statute, and should have been in jail next to Frank Colson. Yet this guy is credible for the (apparently) largest entertainment franchise in the world now? Wow. H/t to Kotaku: “What does this say, then, about the market for a game like Call of Duty? Does Activision really believe its core market is so full of gun-crazy, right-wing types that it feels entirely comfortable employing Oliver North as someone to help sell the game?”

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The US will not ‘Pivot’ much to Asia (2): We don’t really care @ Asia


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That is my Asian pivot.

Here is part one, where I argued that there is no constituency in the US to support an Asian pivot besides the some business people.

2. Connected to the first point is that Americans don’t know much about Asia. Of course, it’s true Americans don’t know a lot about the world generally. We are a superpower, so we don’t have to know about others; others have to know about us. That’s why ‘they’ learn English, and we think Urdu is a country in the Sahara. We are geographically far away, so touring Europe or Asia is very expensive. We don’t (need to) speak foreign languages. But beyond that general ‘ugly American’ stuff, I think Americans are particularly ignorant about Asia. Asia is the most culturally different social space in the world from the US I can think of, with the possible exception of central Africa. Latin America, Europe, Oceania, and Russia are all in, or close enough to, Western Civilization that what we learned in high school civics classes can apply. They look like us (kind of); they eat like us, their languages are fairly similar (Indo-European roots); they dress like us; they worship like us. The tribal cultural gap (how others eat, dress, talk, worship, look, write, etc.) is not that wide .

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The US will not ‘Pivot’ much to Asia (1): We don’t really Want to


Asia According to USA

I pulled this image from here.

So the US pivot toward Asia is all the rage in foreign policy  now. Obama and Secretary Clinton genuinely seem to believe in this, and there good reasons for it. Briefly put, Asia has the money, people, and guns to dramatically impact world politics in a way that no other region can now. But I think the US Asian pivot won’t happen much nonetheless, because: 1) Americans, especially Republicans, don’t care about Asia, but they really care about the Middle East (a point the GOP presidential debates made really obvious); 2) Americans know less about Asia than any part of the world, bar Africa perhaps; 3) intra-Asian soft balancing (i.e., almost everyone lining up informally against China) means we don’t really need to be that involved, because our local allies will do most of the work; 4) we’re too broke to replicate in Asia the sort of overwhelming presence we built in the Middle East in the last decades.

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Korean Nat’l Identity (2): 4 Simultaneous Sociological Transformations


In part 1, I tried to offer some comparative national cases (France, Israel, US) by which non-Koreans can get a handle on Korea. Today, I thought it would be useful to use some conceptual, rather than national, benchmarks. I can think of at least four sociological conflicts through which Korea is moving simultaneously, and hence make it such a boisterous place to live:

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Korean National Identity (1): Comparisons to Israel, France, and the US


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Part two is here.

I get lots of questions from Western readers about this or that aspect of Korea in comparison. We don’t really know about Korea too much, but Americans often use it as an example for some larger political point they want to make. Here are a just few examples: 1) Obama: SK is kicking our butt on education and tech; 2) Obama: SK is an example of a country that modernized but didn’t westernize; 3) Michael Crichton and Amy Chua: SKs and other East Asians are work robots who will take over America and cost your kids a job; 4) John Bolton: Long-suffering SK gives us an excuse to stomp on NK.

Of these, I really think only the second is valid. A few years here can rebut the others without too much trouble:

1) Korea has huge educational problems that Americans don’t really know about. After taking insanely difficult tests in high school in order to place into a good universities, Korean college students often slack and party as a ‘reward.’ Too much of university here is about building the informal social network that will carry you through your professional life and not actually clamping down to do the work. Korean students are also not the readers that college education demands, which is why they often struggle in US graduate programs. And far too much of K-12 is focused on rote memorization, so plagiarism is a huge problem. Also, in case you ever wonder why Korea is so wired (which Koreans love to brag about), recall that Koreans live in very dense urban clusters, frequently in high rises. These are very cheap to wire, compared to the far more diffused American population and the high expense of the US ‘last mile.’ (That said, my broadband here is awesome and is about to get even better.)

3) As for Crichton and Chua, gimme a break. America’s inability to balance its budget, control its imperial temptations in the developing world, fix its K-12 schooling mess, reduce hyper-inequality and high crime, etc. are the reasons for US ‘decline.’ Asians like the Japanese, Koreans, or Singaporeans don’t have some magical growth formula. I will agree that East Asians are better ‘socially disciplined’ (crime here is mercifully low), but not the way Amy Chua’s ridiculously racist domestic fascism would have you think. I’ve been here close to 4 years, and I have never seen anything like what Chua describes in the Korean side of my family. As for the ‘Asians-as-work-robots’ idea so popular in the US in the 80s and 90s, once you’ve experienced the East Asian post-work business culture of hard drinking and debauchery, you know that’s bunk too. I have seen enough Korean ‘salary men’ lean out taxi windows on Friday night to vomit while the driver waits complacently to know that the whole ‘Asian values’ schtick is a fraud.

4) Bolton: I resent the way neo-cons manipulate SK unhappiness about national division to suit pre-existing ideological preferences for regime change and US military activism. This is cloying, pretended sympathy in service to American, not Korean, goals; that’s extreme bad faith. I have noted before that SK want nothing to do with ‘Axis-of-Evil’ talk.

Given this mediocre record of popular comparison, here are a few comparative classifications of SK with countries western audiences might recognize better. Compare and contrast is a basic social science method. And comparative politics in political science is always looking for similarities among states on which to build generalization. So here are the ones that have leapt out to me:

1. Like Israel, Korea is a barracks democracy striving for international normalcy. Both are democracies but under long-term siege. Both would like to join the global economy, get rich and be normal, but can’t. Both struggle to maintain civil liberties in an threatening environment with inevitable slippage. Korea, for example, blocks internet access to NK websites; in Israel, Israeli Arabs can’t join the military. Both are trapped in partial or incomplete states. Korea is half a country, and Israel’s borders are up for debate. Both are too militarized for a democracy, but still, they are doing a really good job balancing a huge military role in society with democratic freedoms. By comparison, look at simlarly over-militarized democracies like Indonesia, Pakistan, or Turkey.

2. a. Like France, Korea has aloof, farily corrupted political class in a too-cozy, corporatist relationship with business. Both also have weak political parties and weak legislatures. So voting doesn’t really make much difference; political participation looks for other avenues.  As a result, both have a vibrant street protest tradition. Working for serious change within the system feels pointless because of an entrenched, circulating elite, toothless opposition, close party-state relationship, and a bureaucracy rather insulated from popular pressure. So when Koreans and French are most angry, they turn to extra-parliamentary means. They march on the streets. Immobilist, scandal-ridden politics channels real political grievance onto the streets.

b. Also like France, Korea is extremely centralized on the national capital. Seoul dominates Korean life, vacuuming up talent, wealth, and prestige from around the country. The goal of just about everyone is to go ‘up’ to Seoul, whether for school, the best jobs, or the best cultural life. You even see it among the expats. Even we foreigners in Busan say we wish we had a Seoul gig! And, as Paris does to the provinces, the rest of Korea is impoverished by this.

c. Finally, both Korea and France are semi-presidential systems. Both have a tradition of a megalomanical ‘father of the nation’ who created a super-presidential post above ‘grubby’ politics. In France, de Gaulle directed the ship of state from a constitution he set up for his own personal benefit as the living embodiment of France. In SK, Park Chung-Hee did the same thing. In both countries though, political institutions are weaker than you’d think because of their ‘great man’ origins. Eventually a succession must occur – no one lives forever – and both France and SK have struggled to tame the office of the president and build more routinized, democratic institutions open to the public. To date, France has succeeded better. Korea remains a very presidentialized semi-presidential system. Ironically, that may help Korea, because the rise of the prime minister in French semi-presidentialism has effectively created a bifurcated executive, particularly when the PM and president have different party affiliations. In Korea, the reduction of the PM to essentially the first cabinet minister has helped unify its executive.

3. The cultural gap between the West and East Asia is wider than the between the West and Latin America, Russia, or even the Middle East. In terms of food, music, religion, and language, the differences are far greater. So it is therefore all the more surprising how Americanized Korea is. English is everywhere – in the schools, on street signs, music, TV. Its institutions, especially military ones, are heavily patterned on the US; until 1981, the Korean version of the CIA was even called – the KCIA! Today there is still the K-FDA. Koreans watch lots of American TV and film. They eat our fast food and junk food (and are getting heavier for it). And they are beginning to pick up the American culture wars. They fight increasingly over stuff like abortion and the death penalty as we do. Korean evangelicals (yes, they are here too) even say that God has a special mission for the US no less! (Now that really is brainwashing.) My own personal guess for why Korea is so Americanized, is that if Korea can close the cultural distance between it and the US, the US is more likely to honor its alliance commitment and fight for SK. In other words, cultural Americanization is a national security strategy to reduce the ‘otherness’ of Korea to average Joe American, in order that he will agree to fight here. Kinda smart if you think about it.

Don’t push any of these analogies too far, but Obama mentioned Korea five times in the 2011 State of the Union, so I thought this might help.

Continue to part two.