Not being absent

Xi and Putin

“I’ll have what he’s having.”

A few days back it was related in the media that Chinese government-affiliated tabloid and rabble-rouser the Global Times had published an editorial saying:

China will look for past references on how Russia has taken action against Eastern European countries which have deployed the U.S.’s missile defense systems at their borders.

Link.

Woah, right?

Here it is, in black and white:

对于韩国,要明确表达我们反对部署萨德系统,如果韩国不听劝阻坚持部署,中国就有必要参考俄罗斯对东欧国家部署美国反导系统时所做的那些回应。

Link.

So that’s what Xi Jinping meant when he talked about “not being absent“.

When asked if this represented the Chinese government’s position, Hong Lei made vague, generic statements about THAAD being bad for regional stability.

The power of narative, Part 2

I think you'll find it's a bit more complicated than that

Another one for the that’s-just-not-what-crime-does files:

Japan and South Korea recently came to a deal regarding compensation for former South Korean comfort women.

As a result there have been a certain number of think-pieces in the press analysing why it is that Japan has finally decided to do the right thing after all this time, and concluding that it’s probably a result of US pressure. Which makes sense, right? It’s the old narrative that we all know so well from childhood. You drop your sister’s My Little Pony off a bridge in a fit of pique, she cries, you refuse to display any contrition at all, and then daddy comes along and makes you apologise and shake hands and be friends again. That’s how it works, as the media experts have been keen to explain to us:

The fact that it was not was largely the fault of Mr. Abe and his right-wing political allies who kept questioning history and trying to rewrite it. Mr. Abe had earlier expressed remorse and promised to honor his predecessors’ apologies for Japan’s aggression, including on the issue of sex slavery. But he always added vague qualifiers, creating suspicions in South Korea and elsewhere that he didn’t take the apologies seriously. His words this time are more persuasive but he must be careful not to let his right-wing allies undercut them.

Beyond acknowledging its moral responsibility to make amends, Japan had practical reasons to put the matter to rest. Japan-South Korea tensions had gotten so bad that bilateral trade and efforts to work with the United States in opposing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program suffered.

Link.

An unequivocal apology from Japan has been long overdue. Now, more than 70 years after the end of the war, Japan and Korea have decided to “finally and irreversibly resolve” the issue. Japan has declared it is “painfully aware of its responsibilities” and its prime minister Shinzō Abe expressed his “most sincere apologies and remorse to all the women who underwent immeasurable and painful experiences”. Japan will give 1bn yen to a fund for surviving victims (46 “comfort women” are still alive in South Korea today). The South Korean president Park Geun-hye has spoken of “building trust, and a new relationship” between both countries.

Strategic considerations have certainly helped the two countries to reach this point, after decades of strained relations over the wartime record. Japan and South Korea have come to recognise they need better security cooperation in the face of an increasingly assertive China and an unpredictable North Korea – something their mutual ally the United States has wanted to encourage.

Link.

Now, consider that after all this time, as we are heading into 2016, Japan has formally acknowledged and is apologizing for their participation in a shameful  part of history that was largely ignored until now.  Kudos to the Prime Minister and Japan.

Link.

Marvellous, isn’t it? The goodies won, the baddies admitted they were wrong, and now we’re all going to work together to contain China in a US-led coalition, just like in the olden days.

Unfortunately, to quote Ben Goldacre, I think you’ll find it’s a little more complicated than that…

To have a good and memorable narrative, it is necessary that the victims be pure and innocent and good, which has not been the case here. While the comfort women themselves are certainly blameless, the South Korean government has rarely if ever missed an opportunity to act like a dick on the subject. As we’ve discussed here before, the comfort women were, for decades, treated as pariahs and collaborators, until South Korea’s politicians realised there was diplomatic hay to be made from them, and henceforth wheeled them out at every possible opportunity:

After Korea’s liberation in 1945, she said, former comfort women erased much of their memories, like their hatred of “their own parents and Korean recruiters who sold them.” Instead, she wrote, they were expected to serve only as a “symbol of a victimized nation,” a role foisted on them by nationalist activists to incite anti-Japanese feelings and accepted by South Koreans in general.

“Whether the women volunteered or not, whether they did prostitution or not, our society needed them to remain pure, innocent girls,” she said in the interview. “If not, people think they cannot hold Japan responsible.”

Link.

Moreover, while Japan has made repeated attempts to apologise and compensate the victims, the Korean government has always found a reason to reject the attempts. In one particularly glorious episode, former comfort women who accepted compensation from Japan were vilified by South Korean politicians and media. The political capital that can be made from the peculiarly South Korean brand of victim nationalism being of more value to politicians than either compensation or apologies. Why accept a deal when all you’ll get out of it is the same apology you’ve heard a million times before plus a bit of cash for some old ladies that you never actually cared about to begin with? Much better to go on stoking the fires of xenophobia. As the Hankyoreh puts it: “the perpetrator must keep their head bowed until the victim is satisfied”. And if the victim is never satisfied, then so much the better. (We’ve covered the particular Japanese and Korean cultural traditions surrounding apologies here. Long story short, in Japan refusing to accept an apology makes you look – if anything – worse than the original offender. In Korea you can quite happily crow over the person doing the apologising until you get bored or arrested, which ever comes first.)

In fact, rather than this deal being the result of a decision by the Japanese leadership to own up to historical crimes, it is the product of South Korea’s decision to finally accept one in a very long series of apologies.

US pressure was involved, but it was US pressure on South Korea. There has also been increasing pressure on the Park government from the domestic press – frightened of a rising China and increasingly tired of the US alliance – to be less inflexible in its dealings with Japan.

 

 

Rise of the felines

We’ve covered feline subversion here before. To a certain extent, it’s unsurprising: the internet loves cats and trolling, so it was only a matter of time before they were brought together. Here, for example, or here or here.

The trend effectively undermines the cute cats theory of censorship by combining apparently innocuous cat pictures with political satire.

The latest incidence comes from Seoul:

Park Sang-hak, head of Fighters for Free North Korea, and a defector activist who launched leaflets to the Northern side, admitted that he removed tore down a poster on a university campus for “praising” Kim Il Sung.

Park, who is currently studying at Korea University’s graduate school of policy studies, said he damaged the poster and reported it to the local police for praising the North Korean national founder.

In recent days, the controversial poem entitled “All Praise Kim Il Sung” has been circulating on Korea University’s campus, in the context of protesting against limits on freedom of speech.

The poem, originally authored by Kim Soo-young in 1960, gave the work its title to make the point that even distasteful speech must be allowed in order to foster freedom in South Korean society.

“This is not a poem. Is it reasonable to praise dictator who start the war?” Park told NK News, when told that the poem’s purpose was not to praise Kim Il Sung but serve as social commentary.

The student who designed the poster was present when Park damaged it.

“I was embarrassed rather than angry. He threw my paper down and trampled it,” she told NK News, on the condition of anonymity.

The poster is credited to “cat,” and reads: “I am a cat. Dear judge, I wrote this. Don’t arrest my owner. I will bite the police if you make a phone call to the campus.” The “cat” byline has become a popular online in South Korea for when people leave negative comments about the authorities.

The student wrote with her left hand to simulate a “cat’s writing” and intentionally made typos.

“I attached it at about 1 a.m. to maintain anonymity,” she said.

“I intended to show self-censorship, which implies the highest level of oppression. At the same time I wanted to respond in a cheerful way, against this violent situation.”

After the incident, she attached follow-up note which reads, “Please return my writing. I can write it again,” with a footprint of a cat.

Link.

Cats and free speech in Korea

Cat free speech protest Korea

Want to see something heartwarming and a tad bizarre?

Hyundai driving home to North Korea

You may have seen the recent reunions between North and South Korean families in the news. It’s usually presented as a heartwarming story, which it is, with certain caveats:

  1. The North picks participants based on regime loyalty, coaches them on what to say and spies on them during the reunions.
  2. The North knows that this is an emotive issue for the South, so will put a stop to family reunions whenever it’s unhappy with the way relations are going, which is usually.
  3. Reunions used to take place in Seoul and be accompanied by exchanges of letters, but the North put a stop to this because it didn’t want its citizens finding out how much better life is in the South.
  4. Most of the participants are extremely old and when they bid farewell after the reunions they know they will never see one another again. Around half of the people who have applied to participate have died before getting the chance. Some of the attendees selected for this year’s round of reunions were too sick to make it. The South Korean MoU did not bother to select replacements.
  5. Despite all this, over half of separated families do not want to meet anyway. It would be awkward and the younger generation knows nothing about their North Korean relatives.
  6. When families do meet, things aren’t always particularly harmonious.
  7. The South Korean Ministry of Unification is frequently accused of not particularly caring whether reunions happen or not (see point 4), to the extent that many families have given up on official channels and prefer to pay illegal brokers to set up reunions with their family in the North.
  8. For years South Korea (supposedly the good guys) treated people with relatives in the North as potential spies anyhow, only relenting when the government realised they could be used for playing politics with. (Yes, just like the tale of the comfort women…)

Anyhow, that aside, Hyundai has some new virtual test drive software that it’s promoting at the moment, and it’s decided to do so by taking a North Korean guy living in South Korea on a virtual drive around his home town:

Hyundai Motor Company has put together a video documenting a project that allowed an elderly man, long separated from his home in North Korea, to drive back to his place of birth through the use of virtual reality.

The story, called “Going Home”, revolves around 88-year-old Kim Gu-hyeon, who in the spring of 1947 left his home in the north, six years before Korea was divided, and headed south.

Though the 6-minute short film doesn’t explain why he left, Kim felt a great sense of guilt for having left his home and having never being able to return –to never again see his mother and his family.

He is one of 66,000 North Koreans currently living in South Korea –many of whom, like Kim, have been away from their place of birth for more than half a century.

The creative and engineering team at Hyundai visited Kim at home Seoul and had him write down his original home address and describe his hometown in as much detail as possible as they set about recreating it for a virtual drive. After

Hyundai’s attention to detail produced Kim’s hometown landscapes including streets, pedestrians, traffic cops, wild flowers and even mist on the river –all restored in 3D inside a specially designed car.

As our regular readers will know we refuse to give away endings –you have to watch the incredibly touching conclusion for yourself.

You can watch the video at the link. I won’t spoil the ending, but get a box of tissues ready.

Interestingly, it is probably much easier to do this for a North Korean town than a South Korean one. South Korea is has extremely restricive rules regarding satellite imagery of the country, while Google Earth remains one of our main sources of information about the North.

It’s also interesting that – despite the positive reunification message at the end – Hyundai’s marketing guys appear to have a far more realistic view of the two Koreas’ future than pretty much any of the politicians involved in deciding it. While the latter still obsess about German-style reunification, to the increasing disintrest of the voters, Hyundai’s ad guys have posited – for the sake of this clip – a future where the two Koreas remain separate but allow free travel across what is now the DMZ (look for the “Inter-Korean Transit” area at the beginning of the VR section).

Bonus fun round: this is not the only heartwarming incidence of a North Korean encountering VR technology. Check out this picture from Choson Exchange of one of its workshop participants playing with an Oculus Rift headset.

More from Kim Jong-pil

Kim Jong-pil

We’ve praised Kim Jong-pil’s wholly absorbing and sadly overlooked memoirs in the JoongAng Ilbo before.

Today’s chapter, covering Kim’s detention in the aftermath of Chun Doo-hwan’s seizure of power, is another humdinger.

As you read this, bear in mind that as a KCIA bigwig, all of this action is taking place inside a facility that he himself had used to imprison and question (and, regrettably, it must be presumed, to “question”) suspect individuals in the past.

Interrogations at the Army Security Command, which doesn’t exist anymore, were usually done on people accused of spying for North Korea. Sometimes they were directly ordered by the president. On the night of May 17, 1980, a high wall surrounded the security command when I was taken there. People on the outside were not supposed to be able to look in.

As armed soldiers with M16 rifles pushed me through the door, I realized this was the direct handiwork of Chun Doo Hwan, who took over the military. “A usurpation of power in which the leader of a majority party is being arrested without any due process is taking place,” I thought to myself. “Chun must be behind all of this.”

As I was dragged from my home, I thought about the night of May 16, 1961, the day of the revolution [coup]. At the time, no one in the revolutionary force had any fear because we put our lives on the line for the revolution. As my days behind bars went by, many thoughts filled my mind. I vowed to keep my integrity as a former prime minister, a senior member of the military and as a person who had risked his life for a revolution for Korea. I thought about the life of Napoleon Bonaparte, who was sent into exile on a distant island after his defeat in the battle of Waterloo.

During his exile on Saint Helena, an island in the Atlantic off the coast of Africa, a governor attempted to humiliate him. Napoleon warned him that he wouldn’t live long if he tried that again. Napoleon’s determination to maintain his integrity inspired me in confinement.

The room I was taken to was on the second floor. I later learned it was the biggest room in the building. From one window, I could see the Han River. The questioning began a day after I arrived. An interrogator showed me a list of my assets and asked how I managed to accumulate them. Their intention was to accuse me of corruption.

I told my interrogator, “Hey, I carried out the May 16 revolution and was the head of the intelligence agency and prime minister. I know you have to do what you are told to do by your chain of command. You don’t really need to ask anything of me. Do what you are told to do. All I have to do is sign some papers at the end of the day, right?”

(continues)

Read the rest here. It’s worth it for the third-to-last paragraph alone. (Also: check out the awesome retro newspaper front page that uses both hanja and hangeul in its headlines.)

“The atmosphere there is strange”

Kim Jong-pil

Over recent months, I’ve slowly become addicted to the JoongAng Ilbo’s serialisation of the memoirs of Kim Jong-pil: founder of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, descendent of an Indian princess and all-round nasty piece of work. Most of the messed up stuff that happened under the Park Chung-hee regime, he had a hand in.

Nevertheless, his tell-all autobiography has garnered practically no interest in the West beyond a handful of Korea specialists. Read it here. It’s worth your time.

In any case, today we arrived at an event that even people with no interest in Korean affairs should probably have some vague memory of: the assassination of Park Chung-hee by Kim Jae-gyu, chief of his own security services.

And it’s surprisingly poetic. Most of the rest of the book has tended towards grumbling and self justification, but the passage on the death of Park is terse, numinous and evocative.

If you want to brush up on the background to the affair, see the Wikipedia page here, otherwise, jump straight in:

Demonstrations against the Yushin Constitution in Busan and Masan, South Gyeongsang, just ten days before President Park Chung Hee was killed on Oct. 26, 1979, deepened the strife between Chief Presidential Security Officer Cha Ji-cheol and Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) Director Kim Jae-gyu.

At this time, Park’s day began with a briefing by Cha. Chief Presidential Secretary Kim Gye-won and KCIA Director Kim Jae-gyu could talk to the president afterward.

As Cha was always up first, KCIA Director Kim couldn’ get a leg up on Cha. Cha often brought up ideas, Park gave directions and Kim would follow through on the orders. If Kim did good job, Cha got the credit. Of course, if anything went awry, Kim was held responsible.

On Oct. 25, 1979, in a meeting called to discuss the demonstrations, Park scolded Kim.
“What is the KCIA director doing?” he asked. “You failed both in intelligence activities and your initial response.”

Kim Jae-gyu told Chief Presidential Secretary Kim, “This is all the work of Cha and I’m going to do something.”

On Oct. 26, I was having dinner with presidents of media companies at a restaurant in Hannam, central Seoul. Some of them talked about an event earlier that day that Park attended. It was a celebration of the completion of construction of a seawall at the end of Sapgyo Stream in Asan, South Chungcheong.

Agriculture Minister Lee Hee-il, who escorted the president on the helicopter to visit the seawall, said Park looked as happy as a kid on a picnic and he seemed to have forgotten the demonstrations.

The first task Park took on after the May 16 revolution, or coup, in 1961 was to get end borit gogae, the time of year when people ran out of rice and have to live on barley. He understood the pain of hunger as the son of a poor farmer. That was why he liked building dams and developing new types of rice.

He delivered his last speech at the seawall on Oct. 26.

“Land development is the driving force of national power,” he said. “The seawall around Sapgyo Stream will provide a better life for farmers and prevent floods and droughts.”

As I dined with the media company presidents, one of the guests said a weird thing.

“Today, three helicopters carrying the president and his aides landed in the yard of Dogo Hotel in Asan,” he said. “The landing surprised a pregnant deer and it died after being hit by a rear propeller of one of the choppers.”

This gave me an ominous feeling. Then Police Chief Son Dal-yong called me.

“The Blue House doesn’t look normal,” he said. “It looks like something happened and I think you should go.”

“Did North Korea send another spy to the Blue House?” I asked.

“I don’t think so,” he said, “but .”

When I arrived home, I got another phone call from Park Seung-kyu, senior advisor to the president on civil affairs.

“Where have you been? Please come as soon as possible,” he said. I could hear him sobbing.

When I asked what happened, he just said, “The President seems to have been killed.”

I arrived at the Blue House around 10 p.m. and there was no security guard at the entrance. It reminded me of the May 16 revolution. When the revolutionary army went into Army Headquarters, no military police were there because they ran away.

I was certain something serious had happened. The bodyguards, who swore allegiance to the president, probably ran away in fear of rioters with guns when they heard the president was killed.

Senior Advisor Park greeted me and said, “They say the president was fatally shot at a dinner with Kim Gye-won, Kim Jae-gyu and Cha Ji-cheol.” He said he heard that from Chief Presidential Secretary Kim Gye-won. Park didn’t know precisely what happened.

At around 3 a.m., I was in a small room on the first floor of the Blue House that the late First Lady Yuk Young-soo used to receive guests. The room was rarely used after Yuk was killed in 1974. Two tables were placed next to each other and were covered with a white sheet.

President Park’s daughter Geun-hye, who’s Korea’s current president, went to the Armed Forces Seoul Hospital to bring Park’s body back to the Blue House. The body was delivered in an ambulance. I directed the body to be placed on the tables.

Park, who was only five-foot-one, was shot twice in the chest and behind his right ear. It was seven hours after he was killed. The wound in the back of his head was still leaking and Geun-hye wiped it with a white towel.

I took a closer look at the body. The eyes were closed and his lips were dark. His face looked calm and clean. Except for the gunshot wound behind his ear, Park looked just the same as when I saw him last, nine days before. But he looked like a small child. I never felt Park was that small when he was alive. His death was unreal to me.

I was suddenly reminded of the dead body of John F. Kennedy. I don’t know why I thought of that. Perhaps because Park’s body seemed so unreal to me. Theodore Sorensen, a speechwriter of Kennedy’s, looked at his body as it was taken to a hospital in Dallas, Texas, and said, “I never imagined him so big, even bigger than the bed. He was such a giant.” Kennedy was six feet tall.

Park and Kennedy were both born in 1917. Park met Kennedy in the United States on Nov. 14, 1961 when he was chairman of the Supreme Council for National Reconstruction.

They shared a challenging spirit. Park visited Washington, D.C. again on Nov. 25, 1963 to attend Kennedy’s funeral.

I heard about Kennedy’s assassination in Buyeo, South Chungcheong, which I represented as a lawmaker. I called Park and said, “Mr. President, we’d better go to the funeral.” Park replied, “I was mulling over it. Ok, let’s go.”

Presidents and high-ranking government officials around the globe were there, and Park walked with French President Charles de Gaulle, who’s six-foot-five, and the difference in their heights was impressive.

The feeling I had was quite different from that of Sorensen when he looked at Kennedy’s body. Park was always a giant in my mind. But his body looked unbelievably small that day. He had big shadow, but the body looked light without his soul.

Link.

Heavy artillery is just how they show their love

Fifty shades

There has been plenty of analysis speculating on why North Korea chose to kick things off this time around, but the best interpretations I have found… No, strike that… The only good interpretations I have found have been in the Korea Herald, suggesting – albeit in an oblique manner – that creating an urgent confrontation was the only way that North Korea could return to the negotiating table without losing face:

Koh Yoo-hwan, a North Korean studies professor at Dongguk University, said that Pyongyang was resorting to its signature brinkmanship diplomacy based on meticulous consideration of Seoul’s reactions.

“I think the North has once again resorted to brinkmanship tactics — creating a crisis through limited attacks and trying to bring about a change in the current (deadlock) in its favor,” he said.

“The offer of dialogue appears to have come as the military gaps between the two Koreas remain big, particularly when the South Korea-U.S. combined military power poses a burden on it. The provocations might have been conducted based on careful calculations and meticulous planning.”

http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20150823000452

But it may be more accurate to think that the North has acted under a careful plot to mix provocative acts with calls for dialogue for the purpose of stopping the South’s propaganda campaign. Pyongyang conveyed its intention to hold talks with Seoul shortly after Thursday’s artillery firing. It also made the proposal for high-level talks Friday while it threatened that it was ready for an all-out war.

The North’s sincerity toward improving inter-Korean ties beyond its immediate aim of stopping Seoul’s propaganda broadcasts will be proved if it accepts the South’s demand for an apology for its recent provocations.

http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20150823000363

Essentially, both sides can now ignore all the previous little niggles that had brought negotiations to a standstill, because This Is A Crisis and we all have to sit down and talk it over For The Greater Good, whatever we may have said previously. The exchange of fire essentially gives both sides a clean slate and an opportunity to sideline previous provisos, while the agreement lets both sides claim to have achieved their stated aims. In game theory terms, it’s close to a perfect outcome: each side has sacrificed something to which it accords little worth but which the opposition values highly (‘regret’ costs the North Korean government nothing; equally, the South Korean electorate is more or less willing to allow the government to switch off its propaganda loudspeakers in exchange for the North’s semi-apology).

Two additional factors back up this idea:

  1. The North could easily have blasted the propaganda loudspeakers to smithereens with its artillery. It didn’t, instead aiming carefully for a spot where the explosions would do pretty much no damage whatsoever. (Aiming to miss has a long history in inter-Korean diplomacy.)
  2. While this North-South psychodrama has been being enacted, other inter-Korean activities have carried on as normal – something which suggests that Park Geun-hye’s administration realises what the North is trying to do here, and is willing to connive in its plans as long as it can extract a little good PR from the fact.

Interestingly, various analysts (all Western) have rushed to dismiss the idea that this latest crisis may have been engineered by the North and abetted by the South purely to allow both parties to continue negotiations starting from what is effectively a tabula rasa position.

And they’ve dismissed it because… well… just because. They – Western academics that they are – wouldn’t do it that way, so obviously it can’t be true.

For Troy Stangarone:

The two sides agreed to talks that extended beyond North Korea’s deadline and, in the end, North Korea did release the statement of regret that South Korea initially demanded. South Korea then ended its loudspeaker broadcasts. In addition, the two sides have agreed to a renewed working-level dialog on family reunions, and announced that they would hold further talks aimed at improving North-South relations.

Was all this what North Korea intended? Probably not. The landmine incident most likely was a misjudgment by the North Korea Army, trying to act a little aggressively to protest the long planned joint ROK-U.S. military exercises, but without intending to trigger a crisis.  In the face of the ROK’s demand for an apology, North Korea fell back on its traditional bluster and saber-rattling, probably assuming that the ROK would back down and seek a face-saving gesture.  When that did not happen, North Korea had no next step, and had no alternative other than to enter into talks and, in the end, issue the apology.  The language of the statement of regret is qualified, but it is still a statement of something other than defiance.

http://blog.keia.org/2015/08/north-korea-blinks/

For Stephan Haggard:

If North Korea had wanted talks, all they had to do was pick up the phone.

We would have to give Pyongyang extraordinary prescience to believe they could have planned the highly-contingent set of events over the last two weeks that lead to the talks and agreement.

http://blogs.piie.com/nk/?p=14422

For even the usually excellent Aidan Foster-Carter:

And why on earth does the North feel it has to arrange a crisis and go to the brink of war, in order to get a dialogue which could have been its for the asking anyway? Seoul had long been offering unconditional talks. There was no need to mobilize troops, launch submarines and declare a state of semi-war. Kim Jong Un could have just picked up the goddam phone.

http://www.nknews.org/2015/08/so-what-was-that-inter-korean-crisis-about-and-who-won/

There are two problems with this:

  1. The tendency among WASP-y professors to believe that the world’s default setting is ‘WASP-y professor’. This has been covered here before, see under: I am normal, you are exotic. Sure, sitting in an a nice warm office hugging your academic tenure tightly, nothing could be easier than picking up the phone and solving the 70-year history of division and strife on the Korean peninsula. There is a possibility, however, that the people whose job it is see it rather differently. And in saying this I’m not trying to imply that either the Korean negotiators or the professors are necessarily right, sub speciae aeternitatis. I’m merely pointing out that if you try to analyse the behaviour of one group using the motivations and mindset of the other, you are likely to come a cropper.
  2. Politics and international relations professors aren’t generally terribly good at politics or international relations. They’re good at avoiding committing themselves to opinions that may turn out to be wrong (or at least frowned upon by more senior professors) and at writing long articles full of polysyllabic truisms that no one will read. If they were good at politics they’d be doing that instead; it’s much more fun.Their key objection to the idea that North Korea engineered this crisis seems to be that they themselves would not be capable of thinking in such a devious manner. Well, yes. I wouldn’t be capable of formulating Boyle’s law, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in it. If the original landmine blast was engineered by the North Koreans, they could quite easily have guessed the sort of stand-off it had the potential to lead to. Equally, if it wasn’t, that still doesn’t mean that they couldn’t have worked out how to take advantage of the South’s riposte and escalate the confrontation until an urgent return to the negotiating table was the only viable option.

Korea moves

K-pop

Korea is an odd place. Both Koreas, in fact.

You know all those weird stories that you hear in the West about China and Japan? Stuff like the human jiaozi and the used panty vending machines? Well in China and Japan, the stories about a country where disturbing shit happens all the time are all about Korea. When the Japanese are regaling each other with stories about how strange a place is, then you know it’s really strange.

The excellent Hopes and Fears blog touched upon Korea’s eccentricities in an great piece about the K-pop machine, just recently, in which it noted that:

These assemblages of imagery are ridiculous and enthralling, recalling the disorienting alogic of dreams. They speak to a taste for sensory overload, a luxury unfamiliar to a newly-rich nation trying to prove itself as often and ostentatiously as possible. K-pop isn’t subtle, but it’s easy to understand the genre’s widespread appeal: it’s pop in its purest form. Larger-than-life, indulgent as a bowl of buttered popcorn, it’s satisfying in a way that so much Western music, with its pretensions to refined edginess, is not. Unlike the sulky Lana del Rey, who moves in a gauzy miasma of hip mystique, K-pop is highly legible. Idols are beautiful, poised, and successful, it loudly proclaims. By admiring them—and purchasing the associated merchandise—we can share in their aura.

Though K-pop encompasses a wide range of sensibilities, its many iterations are uniformly reliant on tropes that convey this common, uncomplicated message. Some artists are clearly trying to parrot American hip-hop artists: CL, of the popular band 2NE1, emulates Nicki Minaj in the video for her single “The Baddest Female,” where she sports grills and a chain—and, later, a flannel buttoned at the collar, a riff on the heyday of West Coast gangsta rap. Other artists, Super Junior, EXO and Beast among them, cultivate a Bieberesque look designed to appeal to teenyboppers who scrawl hearts in their math notebooks. Their videos abound with frosted tips, heartfelt gazes and sentimental gestures. (The music video for Beast’s “No More” explores a quintessentially angsty teen breakup through the filtered lens of Instagram, showcasing the agony each newly-single party experiences upon witnessing the other’s battery of selfies.)

Other artists are up to something different—something with no Western analog. Prime among them is the wildly popular group Girls’ Generation, which was created in the image of the “kawaii” aesthetic originating in Japan. (Interestingly, one former and two current members were actually born in California.) The girls in question are cute, cuddly, and ultra-feminine. In the video for their hit “I Got a Boy,” they cohabitate in a giant pink house where they host a perpetual slumber party, wearing their hair in pigtails and drinking out of dainty teacups. Clad in a baby-doll dress, one of the girls timidly ventures out to meet a male love interest. She is scandalized when her date reaches for her hand, and delighted when he crouches to tie the laces of her gem-encrusted sneakers.

But it also goes deeper than that. Korean culture has always been fond of borrowing and repurposing. To a certain extent, it has had no choice in the matter, being colonised repeatedly by Chinese, Japanese, Americans and Soviets. However, it has also made a tradition of going above and beyond the required levels of hommage to the colonisers, despite arguably, being The Racistest Place on Earth (I would like to point out here that I have never, personally, encountered anything but cheerful courtesy from any of the Koreans I have met – from both the North and the South).

However, when one borrows cultural institutions, there is a tendency to adopt the form but abandon or misunderstand the function. Much of modern Korea’s Confucian rigidity is actually a leftover from the Japanese occupation, when the locals copied the occipiers not just to survive and thrive, but also because – though no one will admit it these days – they rather admired and appreciated Japanese achievements. The result is that modern South Korea is, if anything, more ‘Japanese’ than Japan. Where Japan moved on and developed into a more relaxed society, South Korea essentially retained many of the social mores of the Imperial age. Moreover, the replication was never entirely faithful.

So, while Japan has a highly entrenched shame culture coupled with an emphasis on situational morality and collective responsibility, these features have evolved organically and it is possible to trace the individual and social logics behind their manifestations. Apparently pointless politenesses and rituals can be traced back to their origins and thus explained. (If you’re interested, much of Japanese etiquette is tied in with concepts of self-respect, and should be understood not so much as a matter of exaggerated deference to others as taking pride in one’s own image and ‘polished self-presentation’.)

Korea, on the other hand, arrived on the scene in medias res, and so – a lot of the time – the adoptees of Japanese manners were aware of their outward manifestations, but much less so of the philosophy that underpinned them. Moreover, Japanese culture has also developed a number of safety valves to avoid the more troubling manifestations of such an uncompromisingly image-focused culture. One example would be the formal apology, which often functions as a sort of generalised get out of jail free card. As has been pointed out here before, refusing a formal apology in Japan often incurs a severe loss of face on the part of the refuser, and is always shocking even when you suspect that he has a point.

In Korea, on the other hand, it’s no biggie: the person being apologised to is in a position of power, and may accept or refuse more or less at their own discretion. So, in other words, a formal apology won’t necessarily procure you any practical advantage or help you regain face, but you still have to do it. What became a handy way to negotiate conflicts without violence became a show of dominance and submission. (This is also often the case in China too, where criminals are wheeled out to apologise on tv, but receive little or no leniency as a result, though in the Chinese case the tradition was also influenced by communist notions of self-criticism).

But what does this have to do with K-pop?

Well, let’s look at the original comment:

These assemblages of imagery are ridiculous and enthralling, recalling the disorienting alogic of dreams. They speak to a taste for sensory overload, a luxury unfamiliar to a newly-rich nation trying to prove itself as often and ostentatiously as possible.

Well, possibly, yes. That’s one explanation, and it’s certainly the one that someone who had known Korea as a poor nation would jump at. The problem is that the vast majority of the consumers of K-pop, even within Korea itself, have never known a poor Korea. They don’t see Korea as a developing country struggling to keep up, any more than the teen and 20-something inhabitants of Leipzig think of themselves as East Germans.

In fact, the imagery of K-pop is only confusing if you expect it to make sense. The K-pop machine has borrowed symbols and aesthetics from rock and rap that do have a meaning and an iconography when viewed in the context of American musical history – and particularly black history. In a US context, it’s possible to trace the evolution of bling post-Flava Flav or situate the dirty South aesthetic within a large historical picture (Matt Daniels does it very entertainingly). When these tropes and styles are adopted by Korean artists, however, they lose that context. They effectively become purely aesthetic choices, with no deeper meaning behind them.

Which is actually kind of cool.

And it’s not just a one-way transfer from West to East. There are examples in Western pop culture too. Take this guy:

KatospellM Bison, right?

Actually, it’s Yasunori Kato, the character upon whom M Bison was based, although it’s a rare US or European gamer who’ll recognise the hommage (Japanese gamers got it immediately). Moreover, Yasunori Kato is not a character created out of thin air himself – he is a deliberate reference to the links between Japan’s Shinto revival and its pre-war militarism, as well as various other historical legends dating back to the Hei’an era.

Gwen Stefani did a similar thing consciously with Harajuku Girls – borrowing a random grab bag of Japanese pop culture tropes and repackaging them out of context – and got a lot of drearily predictable criticism for it from the usual SJW suspects.

And then, if it comes to that, Japan is also a great borrower. Take the example of the shinigami. Literally ‘death god’, it is a local equivalent of the grim reaper. It is so prevalent in Japan that people claim to have seen it, and a good proportion of people will, if asked, guess that it is a part of shinto tradition. In fact, while a few regions of Japan can bost traditional boogeymen going by the name of shinigami, the shinigami that we know today is not an equivalent of the grim reaper, it is the grim reaper, imported by mangaka to fill a narrative niche, it escaped the page and went free range, stalking the Japanese countryside in the manner of invasive alien fauna everywhere.

So what’s the conclusion to be drawn?

Well, probably that when it comes to culture, possession, as we used to say in law school, vaut titre.

White is the new black

WomenCrossDMZThe WomenCrossDMZ marchers have finally completed their peace march. In a bus, but hey, you can’t always get what you want.

What intrigues me is the all white outfits. The scarves copy a traditional Korean pattern, so that’s understandable, but in Asia white is what you wear to a funeral, which makes them look kind of sinister.  The connotation is so strong that if you’re heading to a festive event dressed like that someone will politely advise you to jazz things up a bit before you leave.

I assume that they’re… sad that… people in the Korean war died..? We know that they’re not in mourning for the victims of North Korea’s human rights abuses, so that seems like the only death-related item left on the table.

Can anyone provide enlightenment?