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FTA Power Struggle

11 Dec

The KORUS Free Trade Agreement (known on these shores in shorthand as the 한미FTA) has been ratified, but that hasn’t stopped the opposition against it.  In fact, the protests calling for its rescinding are as heated, if not more so, as those held before the National Assembly passed the law.  As I’ve noted before, the central areas of Seoul can fill up with heated street confrontations at a moment’s notice.  The video below is of the 한미FTA protests that took place last night in the capital:

Most of the protest’s momentum took it from the Cheonggyecheon area into Myeongdong toward Namsan.  It also ended up in Jongro, right on the main drag.

The fascinating thing about Seoul is that there can be an event like this going on and you can be but a few blocks away and have no idea that anything significant is happening.  I was in the city all afternoon, up toward Bukchon with my girlfriend, negotiating the crowds of fat Japanese girls shopping and Chinese tourists photographing overpriced shoe stores, and drinking overpriced coffee in tiny cups.  There were police about, mostly young conscripts doing their national service.  I’d seen them on other occasions in recent months, for the President’s house, Cheongwadae, is nearby.  For some reason, they were spread out in tiny groups throughout the area.  Turn down a street and, peekaboo! standing in entrance of a little alleyway are a cluster of neon-jacket cops, two with riot shields, another with a glowing red-orange traffic wand.  They just stand there, in the cold, looking fairly useless if any really concerned mob like that in the video came through.  My assumption was that it was all a precaution or a change in tactics just for the hell of it; I had no idea what was going down a kilometer away.

Down along the eastern wall of Gyeongbokgung, it was clear that they didn’t need manpower, ’cause they had firepower instead.  There was a truck that resembled a hook-and-ladder type operation, but marked police on the side.  Its boom was folded for the moment.  I realized that this was the exact same equipment the police used against labor union protests at the Hanjin Heavy Industries pier down in Busan (check out the photo in the first link, the truck I saw was exactly the same).  There was a water cannon mounted on the end of the boom, but what made it more nefarious was the mixing of tear gas compounds in with the water they were spraying.  Was the tanker truck behind it, also in police livery, filled with CS-laced water?  No idea, but I’ve never seen preparations on that scale for a protest anywhere in Seoul before.

But while I noticed the equipment and the police standing around, there was still no inkling of what was happening down in Myeongdong.  Ironically, we missed our turn to drive south down the plaza in front of Gwanghwamun and ended up stuck in traffic, heading west before looping back east by the river.  If we hadn’t been cut off and gotten into the lane we intended, we’d have driven right smack into the middle of the fracas.  And, still, no idea until I drove all the way home and just happened to see the news pop up as I switched on my computer.

***

The arguments for and against free trade or protectionism often boil down to one side shouting at other about principles or the lack of them.  Free trade is sancrosanct, one side shouts, as self-evident as any natural right.  Can’t you see?  You don’t see?  Well, then, you have no understanding of economics.  The other side jabs its finger back, screaming that it’s often a select few who benefit, especially those connected to political power.  It’s all a scheme by the rich against the people!  We’ll all be serfs, don’t you see!  You clearly have no understanding of economics!

The unfortunate part is that (and this is painfully obvious in the boring, dualistic responses to Occupy Wall Street) we have come to regard economics as a source of morality (or ethics, if you prefer), instead of responding to and a servant of an external source of morality.  It’s the same way that we live without any sense of our own history.  Modern life distances and insulates man from his past, the realities of those struggles, and the principles and lessons inherent to them.  We run around making economics a shrill sermon of fundamentalist rigor because we live in a world with no past, one created in material and culture by the economics of industrialization — what else should we expect?

Unaware of our history, we fail to see that economic systems are tools by which nations, or parts of nations, attempt to secure power, prosperity, or security for themselves.  American corporations may enjoy free trade today and wax on about the moral uprightness of it, but a hundred plus years ago the industrialists would have rather died than see the tariff gone.  For the fact was that, from the beginning of the Republic, American industry couldn’t compete with England.  The tariff held the cheaper English goods at bay, but placed enormous burdens on the sections of the country exporting goods to England.

True, this built up America to a world power by the end of the 19th century.  And you could make the same argument about the nation-strengthening policies of Park Chung-Hee back in the ’60s and ’70s.  But that doesn’t make it moral.  One section of America suffered because of the tariff, so much so that it was one reason to secede from nation as a whole.  And the other section used their newfound industrial strength to crush the other.  So when people are out protesting in the streets like above, I don’t think about whether free trade or protectionism are themselves right or wrong.  I think, Who is getting the shaft here?  Beyond the sham of fungible rhetoric, who wins and who loses?

The losers will not be most of the people in that video.  In fact, they might even prosper.  They and their children will fill the ranks of the rising middle class that is fueling all the speculative growth in the capital area.  They’ll move into one of the massive apartment complexes being thrown up in places that a generation ago were no-name villages, now covered with the scars of asphalt and concrete, with ridiculous names like “Gwanggyo Techno Valley” the label capitalizing on people’s hopes.  They’ll make money, forget that they ever said anything bad about the 한미FTA or globalization, and proceed to transform Korea into a land of PC rooms, coffee shop chains, designer clothes outlets, smartphone stores, and soaring towers of concrete soul-destruction, everyone crammed into tiny boxes, creating their worlds online because there’s no space outside.  Their culture will become the only Korea, the old ways dying not with a bang but with a whimper.

Yes, whimpering away, that is how the losers will go.  For they are too old and too few to make any noise.  The remains of the rural peasantry will be gone.  Korean rice is protected under the FTA, but other farm products will be hit by U.S. imports, without many opportunities to make up for losses in vulnerable U.S. sectors.  And no one will replace the rice farmers when they’re gone, for four acres and harvester doesn’t have any appeal for the younger generation, who are convinced that maybe if they study just a little bit harder, take one more interview, get a nose job, then they’ll finally land a spot in a corporation, safe for life.  Yes, maybe this time, just one more try.

And that will be it.  Korea as Korea will be done, gone forever.  The last thing really tying it to its past and its identity, an agricultural people and its traditions, will be gone.  After that, Korean culture as the urban masses believe it, as the world is shown — the Chuseok celebrations, the hanbok, the winter kimchi making — is a mere facade, a mimesis without understanding.

This struggle between an agrarian and an industrial civilization, then, was the irrepressible conflict, the house divided against itself, which must become according to the doctrine of the industrial section all the one or all the other. 

It was the doctrine of intolerance, crusading, standardizing alike in industry and in life.

– Frank Lawrence Owsley

Korea, the Korea as it was, had to be crushed out; it was in the way; it impeded the progress of the machine.  So Juggernaut drove his Hyundai across the peninsula.

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The Golden Age of Korean Boosterism

8 Jul

By now, word has gone ’round the world – Korea will host the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. It is indeed an honor and an acknowledgement of Korea’s new role in the world. The Seoul Olympics in 1988 were that of a very different Korea – an emerging industrial workshop that had only barely moved beyond the pale of a military dictator. The Olympic Korea of 2018 will be a very different one.

But despite Korea’s success, despite whatever merits it might have as an Olympic venue, the securing of the 2018 bid cannot be seen outside the lens of the immense tide of boosterism that has defined much of Korea to the rest of the world. The Korean Olympic bid effort was indeed a massive marketing campaign and well played in many ways. The charisma of gold medalist Kim Yuna may have been been a deciding factor, as may have the fact that no Winter Olympics has been held in Asia since Nagano in 1998. But many countries make a concerted propaganda effort to snag an Olympic bid for themselves. Others, especially the European countries who have the longest tradition of and most invested in winter sports, undoubtedly have more experience at this than Korea.

What we must realize is that the Pyeongchang bid was never a completely independent campaign. It was an intrinsic part of the rest of the Korean booster efforts. The manufactured buzz and excitement over the G20 last year, the Korean F1 Grand Prix in a country with no racing legacy, the efforts to brand makgeolli and ddeokbokki as signature Korean foodstuffs, to promote every region of Korea as a shining opportunity for both investment and tourism – all are one and the same. They are a concerted effort to sell not just Korean products or services to the world, but to sell Korea to the world. It is an attempt to establish the blue-chip credibility of the country itself. And what better way than for the world to come to your shores and be awed at your ability to put on a spectacle as complex and dazzling as the Olympics? That is why the Pyeongchang bid was never a separate effort, but actually the pinnacle, the jewel in the crown, of Korean boosterism.

The world has thus been sold Korea. But this begs the question, what sort of product has Korea become? To convince a modern consumer to buy a product, the package and marketing must be slick and focused, all of the negative aspects hidden or minimized in appearance. Only the benefits must be emphasized and in particular the moment of thrill and excitement, of ecstasy when that product is finally taken and a new world or self revealed. To look at Korean boosterism is to see exactly that. Before I came to Korea, I had an image of the country as a land of traditional hanok houses on every corner, of exquisite and serene natural purity everywhere, and of traditional culture permeating everything.  I’d gotten those images from what little I could gather on TV or from tourism websites or any other normal form of marketing.  When I first arrived in Korea, I thought that I’d taken the wrong plane.  Those images may convey tiny corners of this country, but the truth is actually glaringly ugly.

Yet boosterism is how Korean government and business bring awareness and money to their country. Does it work well? Perhaps. What they haven’t considered is people’s reaction when the image does not match up to reality. In the consumer world, this usually means ditching whatever product failed to satisfy you and going in search of another one. So while Korea is prepared to do anything and everything to snag an ever-larger portion of the world’s pocketbook, what it doesn’t realize is the eventual backlash that will come. And this will have an even more damaging effect because Korea has not made its products an expression of itself, but its very self a product in order to sell goods.

The way this attitude perverts attitudes of Korean culture is palpable. Consider these two videos about the Korean music group 2NE1:

2NE1 was explicitly started as a music group to defy all of the other cookie-cutter, cutesy Korean girl groups out there. Their objective was not to appear coy, submissive, or aegyo (애교) as has been traditionally expected of Korean women. They were aggressive, assertive, independent women. Even though they were a contrived effort by an entertainment company, their music nonetheless stirred real reaction. When I have mentioned 2NE1 in a positive light, I’ve seen men make faces of disgust and pass them off with, “But they’re so ugly.” I also have heard women speak very positively about the quasi-feminist attitudes in the songs. 2NE1 has achieved some impact on Korea culture and their domestic success indicates that they could accomplish more.

But it should be evident from the videos that however grand and noble the intentions of their managers were in the beginning, they have been cast aside in favor of pure success. The very fact that Will.I.Am from the Black-Eyed Peas will produce their album, not for the sake of making a good album, but to specifically tap the world market, shows that international recognition is their new god. And if as a group 2NE1 is supposed to be for Korean women above all else, giving them an alternative model in popular culture, then why in the world is 2NE1 promoting a dance contest on iTunes, one which is for the whole world?  Are Korean women their focus or the world music charts?  I don’t think that this is the group members’ doing, but that of their entertainment company. What is clear, though, is that Koreans are increasingly prepared to sacrifice any sort of healthy cultural evolution to jump on the bandwagon of international recognition.

The very fact that Korea feels this desire to be recognized by the rest of the world indicates a deep-seated insecurity with itself. It is a far cry from the days of the Hermit Kingdom or even earlier days of Joseon, when Korea was content to be itself, keep outsiders beyond their borders, and manage its own affairs. Korea historically was never a conquering nor exploring power, concerned with what others were doing or new places. It looked inward and was content to know and evolve in its own way.

Perhaps it was the Japanese occupation, perhaps the Korean war, perhaps the long struggle with poverty. Whatever the cause, something made Korea believe that looking inward was no way to survive in a harsh world of trade and violent neighbors. It decided to move forward as quickly as possible, doing whatever it took in order that the nation might be strengthened. To look at Korea today is to see that it has achieved that goal in many ways. Yet when one ceases to look inward, one becomes concerned with outward appearances, with the approval of others. Thus, in the Korean mind of today, it is not enough for the world to buy Korean products so that the country might be rich. Only if those consumers know that a product is Korean, is an expression of being Korean, is only great because it is Korean, can the producers be satisfied. The reflection upon the body politic is a reflection upon the self.

Yet what happens when the aforementioned backlash comes? It will not appear merely as a rejection of an inferior product; it will be a rejection of Korean culture, of Koreanness. And what will Koreans do when the world does eventually leave them for something new? They will have prostituted their culture for the favor of outsiders, and when those outsiders are gone, what will they have left for themselves?

Koreans may think that with riches they have escaped their tragic past and are entering a new and better era. Yet that is not true. Tragedy is not an external event that befalls us. It is an internal flaw, which, given the right opportunity, turns into our undoing. Pyeongchang 2018 may represent the Golden Age of Korean Boosterism, but, like any golden age, its success obscures the truth about our very nature.

Back in Town

20 Mar

After a hiatus, I’m back. In Korea and on the blog, that is. I was never terribly regular or prolific with my posts before and that condition will probably continue as other writing projects take precedence from time to time. There’s a good chance that I’ll be updating a lot about the blog: look, title, etc. You know, make it look more professional, whatever that means.

Bottom line: I hope that if you read me before, you haven’t chucked the site from your blog feed. There is much more to come, on many different fronts.