Who wore it better?

Park Geun-hye ice hockey

President Park Geun-hye playing iceless hockey (?) at the Daegu Athletics Promotion Centre.

Leaving aside the oddly surreal fact that an Athletics Promotion Centre apparently features as its key attractions ice hockey without the ice and a virtual reality ski-lift (neither I nor the original article have a convincing explanation for either of these things), what do you think of when you look at this picture?

Was it this?

Putin ice hockey

It’s not as if Putin’s the only politician ever to have played hockey. Nevertheless, what’s interesting here is the way that – whether you approve of his PR or not – he’s raised the macho bar for everyone else.

If he didn’t exist, I would have scrolled wearily past that Park shot as one does with all the millions of pictures of politicians gamely missing easy football penalties that seem to have become an obligatory part of public discourse these days. However, because he does exist I couldn’t see the picture of Park – who, incidentally, is an entirely serious and competent politician – without automatically making a comparison.

In rather the same way that (as Borges tells us) Kafka created his own precursors, politicians create each other, simply by acting as points of comparison. If you’re up against someone wacky, you’ll look duller by comparison. If you’re up against someone stupid, you’ll look smarter by comparison. The audience isn’t making a conscious choice at any point in the proceedings, they’re just situating you within your environment.

Alexander Wendt described the process of identity creation for states as a sort of ongoing battle between their own perceptions of themselves (or how they wish to be seen) and the way that others see them. Seeing Park lining up this shot, it struck me that individuals face the same struggle.


New Year, Old School Cool

Winning the Politicians’ New Year Messages Stakes by a country mile this year is Shinzo Abe, with this impeccable display of old school cool:

This year’s effort from Vladimir Putin was also pretty good – he gets kudos for actually going out into the snow to film it this year, rather than doing it in a studio in which everyone present looks as though they’d rather be removing their own gall bladder with a hammer drill rather than ploughing their way through this dismal charade again (see also under: all Russian tv ever).

Putin New Year address

The end result is definitely up there with Shinzo Abe’s message as the best of the bunch under review here. Sure, the only thing colder than the weather is his delivery, but we weren’t expecting rainbows and unicorns.

Nice coat too.

Park Geun-hye, for her part, did a pretty standard speech hoping for growth through innovation in the year of the red monkey, which only sounds batshit insane if you’re unfamiliar with the Chinese calendar.

Park Geun-hye new year speech

On the other hand, pretty much every South Korean national event involves a military component, and the film of Park honouring the RoK’s fallen soldiers is actually rather evocative, and certainly a classy look for her:

Park Geun-hye incense

There she is putting out her cigarette at the National Cemetery.

Just kidding. She’s burning incense.

Kim Jong Un’s new year message was a pretty standard performance, notable mainly for the fact that no two media outlets were capable of agreeing on whether it was conciliatory or belligerent (see under: choose your own adventure):

Reactions to Kim Jong Un new year speech.

Similarly, the aesthetics of Xi Jinping’s speech were much the same as last year (which we covered in great detail here).

Xi Jinping New Year speech

In fact, if you pay close attention, you will notice that all of the books and photos are in exactly the same positions as last year, arguing strongly in favour of this being a stage set.

Oh, and he also promised that China will be kicking ass and taking namesnot be absent” internationally in 2016, which is pretty ominous however you look at it.

Pranab Mukherjee was also broadcasting from a fake office, and an unsettlingly non-euclidean one at that:

Pranab Mukherjee new year speech

Is that green thing wall or carpet? Are those bookcases resting on the floor or some sort of trompe-l’oeil effect painted onto the plaster? Look at that thing for too long and you’ll find yourself feeling oddly sea-sick. It’s clearly got to Gandhi already.

He also dropped some pretty heavy hints on the subject of tolerance, seemingly directed at Narendra Modi and his followers.

By contrast, Lee Hsien Loong gave his message not only from within the four mundane dimensions of time and space, but inside a real room. He’s been on holiday in Korea for the past two or three weeks, which explains the rather relaxed look (even if the deskless chair makes him look like he’s applying for a job):

Lee Hsien Loong New Year Spech

On the whole, it’s a well-judged and nicely reassuring speech, and worth watching here.


Just what Park Geun-hye needs

comfort women

We’ve already covered the Korean government’s use of the comfort women issue extensively, so when I heard that some Japanese media outlets were reporting the discovery of Korean-run ‘comfort stations’ during the Vietnam war, I pretty much skipped past it.

True or not, there was every likelihood that the Korean government – which is currently surviving on a mixture of lacklustre opposition and angry WWII-related nationalism – would just ignore it. The only outlets covering the story were relatively low-circulation Japanese magazines, after all, and the Park government has recently been going all out to weaponise the issue:


However, it now seems like the Hankyoreh has taken up the issue and fully intends to use it to do as much damage as possible to the incumbent government. (The Hankyoreh is a relatively small, progressive news outlet in Korea – something like the equivalent of the New Statesman in the UK – they’re bent on causing trouble for Park because she belongs to the centre-right.)

They began with a no-smoke-without-fire piece based on the original Japanese articles, which could quite easily have been brushed off by the powers that be. However, they immediately followed this up with interviews with Vietnamese grandmas claiming to have been raped by Korean troops. Uh-oh.

As one of  the original Japanese pieces put it:

“If President Park Geun-hye truly sees the comfort women issue as a human rights issue rather than a tool for domestic politics and diplomacy . . . then she will take the lead in investigating [the allegations] as with the example of the South Korean comfort women. Otherwise, [South Korea] would be proving to the international community that it is a country that ignores truths that are inconvenient to itself and refuses to confront history.”

It will be interesting to see whether the Park administration will manage to succeed in shrugging this off over the next few days. My bet is that it probably will.

Japan is Tired of your Shit

Japan is tired of your shit

The Japanese ministry of foreign affairs just changed a sentence on its website. Rather than describing South Korea as ‘an important neighboring country that shares basic values with Japan such as freedom, democracy, and a market economy’, it now merely describes it as the ‘most important neighboring country’.

And South Korea is outraged. How could you do this Japan? How could you?

Meanwhile, in other news, South Korea is also outraged that Wendy Sherman said that ‘it is not hard for a political leader anywhere to earn cheap applause by vilifying a former enemy’. They’re also outraged that Big Hero 6 contains Japanese references.

They also just began a new round of confiscation of assets from the children and grandchildren of people accused of collaborating with the Japanese during the war. No doubt any ressemblance to the North Korean songbun system of hereditary political dishonour is entirely coincidental. (One also presumes that a certain Takagi Masao‘s daughter will be safe from any depredations…)

The problem, as mentioned before, is that outrage has diminishing returns. If you’re never anything but outraged, and you make it clear that no amount of apologies or compensation will ever be enough, then that pretty much frees up the people who’ve offended you to do whatever the hell they like, a fact upon which Shinzo Abe has built his entire foreign and defence policy.

Now let us all be fanatically delicate about Park Geun-hye’s personal life

South Korean President Park Geun Hye on Monday hit out at “groundless” rumours circling her administration, some of which have touched on her personal life and triggered defamation suits against domestic and foreign media outlets.

“There have been a lot of groundless allegations. It’s time to reveal the truth so that people should not be thrown into confusion any more,” Ms Park said in televised comments to senior advisers.

The latest allegation, made by the local Segye Times daily, is that former Park aide Jeong Yun Hoe, who holds no official administration position, has been meddling in state affairs. Citing an internal presidential office document, the Unification Church-owned newspaper said Mr Jeong received regular briefings from senior presidential officials, and had pushed for the dismissal of Ms Park’s current chief-of-staff.

The presidential Blue House insists the document is inaccurate and state prosecutors launched a probe on Monday into how it came to be leaked.


If you’re wondering why this is a big deal, compare and contrast with this story:

A Japanese reporter indicted on charges of defaming South Korean President Park Geun-hye pleaded not guilty at a preliminary hearing on Thursday at the Seoul Central District Court.

Prosecutors last month indicted Tatsuya Kato, the former Seoul bureau chief of Japan’s Sankei Shimbun, over an article published online Aug. 3.

Kato’s article suggested the president had been absent from her office for seven hours on April 16, the day the Sewol ferry sank, killing 300 people. He quoted a South Korean newspaper as saying the president may have been in a personal rendezvous with a recently divorced former aide.

“The article was to let the Japanese people know about South Koreans’ view of President Park,” Kato told the hearing. “It was not intended at all to vilify President Park personally.”

Kato’s defense team also questioned the validity of the case. “It is questionable whether a report on a relationship between a single man and a single woman constitutes defamation,” said Ahn Seung-min, a defense lawyer for Kato.

Being curious, I dug out my quasi-inexistent Korean language skills, and am now delighted to bring you a pic of the man himself (Jeong is the one on the left, obviously):
Jeong Yun-ho