One day in 2006, I took a few hours off from work to attend a hearing of what was then called the House International Relations Committee, one of many hearings to ponder the then-awful state of the U.S.-South Korean alliance without calling it awful. One of the witnesses that day was Richard Lawless, the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Asia-Pacific Affairs, who had to squeeze past my chair to get to his. Lawless is a large man, but I can’t say that it hurt when he stepped on my foot. If it did, I was too stung to remember after he asked me, “Are you the Marmot?”
It shouldn’t have stung. Since 2003, when Robert Koehler first created The Marmot’s Hole, no English speaker has interpreted Korea so consistently, or so well. This week, Robert announced that he will shut down his blog, after twelve years. That leaves The Big Hominid (read his reaction here), The Gypsy Scholar, GI Korea, and me as the last men standing among those who’ve blogged about Korea for a decade, plus.
In recent years, Robert had stopped writing at TMH, and except for his infrequent posts, I’d stopped reading. Anyone could see that he was tired of it. You can’t force yourself to perform any creative function, like writing. Nor should you try. (When I have those days, I don’t write, either, but after nearly 12 years, they’re still rare.)
Fittingly enough, I heard of the Marmot’s end from a friend who was also a soldier in Korea while I was there, in the years just before The Marmot’s Hole. That friend has since become a Korea analyst for a government agency. Like me, my friend read TMH for years after his DEROS date, to tether himself to a country he couldn’t quit, through all the frustrations of the Roh Moo-Hyun years, and during the slow drift back toward the midstream.
The years after 2003, when Robert Koehler first founded The Marmot’s Hole, were angry and anarchic ones in Korea. Around that time, the country was swept by a wave of anti-Americanism, xenophobia, and street violence that could make it seem a little like Berlin in the late 1920’s. To the extent the sentiment on the street — and within the government the street installed in the Blue House in 2003 — wasn’t expressly pro-North Korean, it was at least anti-anti-North Korean. Koreans — helped by a great deal of American sacrifice — had won their freedom from a Japanese occupation, a North Korean invasion, and a South Korean dictatorship. Suddenly, they seemed ready to gamble it all on vaporous and hopelessly implausible notions of a confederation with Seoul’s totalitarian rivals in Pyongyang. Often, this agenda came wrapped in a poisonous minjokheit. This, in turn, sometimes expressed itself in violent and ugly ways.
For Americans who were, either physically or emotionally, too close to Korea to ignore this, those years were a blizzard of contradictions — potentially irreconcilable differences in a relationship in which we had invested heavily. Thousands took to the streets to excoriate all of America over one tragic accident, while just about everyone ignored the deliberate mass starvation and slaughter of millions in North Korea (and for the most part, still do, nearly two years after a U.N. Commission of Inquiry declared that they have no parallel in the contemporary world).
South Koreans, or so we were told, didn’t want their government to help North Koreans defect, blamed the U.S. for dividing Korea, wanted American troops to stay in South Korea, but would take North Korea’s side if the U.S. attacked it. A sizable minority would have sided with Kim Jong-il regardless of who shot first. Or so said a dizzying array of possibly unreliable polls at various times in Roh Moo-hyun era. (Most of the Korean press, it must be said, was hostile to Roh, and the feeling was mutual.)
By this time, however, Blogger, Moveable Type, and WordPress had been invented. We took to these tools, not so much to offer explanations we didn’t have, but as therapy for ourselves. We called ourselves ourselves silly things like The Flying Yangban, the Oranckay, The Big Hominid, and the Nomad. The silliest and most pretentious name of all was One Free Korea, a notion that could be either hours or decades away, if it ever comes at all, and will probably have its greatest appeal retrospectively (and I’m at peace with that). Like any hobby, we mostly did it because something within drove us to do it. If anyone else found our writing therapeutic, so much the better.
The best, and most widely read, of these new blogs was called The Marmot’s Hole, though I still have no idea why he picked that name. Robert Koehler had been a translator for a South Korean newspaper, reads and speaks Korean fluently, and could access a universe of thoughts — inspiring, ethereal, salacious, or repellent — that the rest of us couldn’t, or could only access with great and increasing difficulty. And while Robert shared our frustrations, like us, he refused to fall out of love with Korea because of them. He had gone native, to be sure. When I finally met him and a small group of bloggers for dinner in Seoul a few years ago, he told me to look for “a fat white guy in a hanbok.” He chose the restaurant, a kalbi place in a beautifully restored hanok house in Bukcheon.
In those years, the Marmot’s Hole became essential reading. Then, many Koreans assumed that no foreigner would ever read the outrageous things they said. More than anyone else, Robert changed that. He helped — blogs almost always operate in packs — to tell the world about things like Nazi chic cosmetic ads, or popular anti-Semitic comic books that Julius Streicher would have adored. When the comic’s author “defended” himself by doubling down on his anti-Semitism, Robert outed that, too. And it must be said that when Brian R. Myers began telling the world about North Korea’s racism, so did Robert.
In more cases than I could count, Robert found statements in Korean sources that added to our understanding of the true (and at times, exceptionally nasty) views of code-switching politicians and public figures. My favorite example might be the time Robert caught leftist Unification Minister and future presidential candidate Chung Dong-Young addressing a delegation of North Korean officials as “comrade.” Or the time when the leader of a pro-North Korean civic group was caught red-handed, passing a loyalty oath to a visiting North Korean delegation. Or when he directed us to a Korean blog post that traced the lineage of a popular anti-American song to a North Korean textbook. Or, when the former President of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions said this about violent protests at a U.S. Army post (and my former duty station) at Camp Humphreys:
During the May 1 North-South Workers’ Rally in Pyongyang, the workers of North and South agreed to unify to carry out the anti-American struggle”. The center of that struggle with the United States is Daechu-ri, Pyeongtaek.
No, I think it was still “Comrade Chung.” That one was definitely my favorite.
And when the Korean public’s views, or their reactions to events, were themselves newsworthy — or downright ghastly — Robert told us that, too.
More recently, when left-wing fringe lawmaker Lee Seok-ki was recorded while plotting violent attacks in support of a North Korean invasion — all over an open phone line! — Robert showed us the inconsistent alibis and explanations tossed out by his lawyers and political comrades.
Some of these stories were covered in the mainstream press. Some were covered after Robert covered them first, and in many of those cases, probably because Robert covered them first. Most of them, however, weren’t covered in the mainstream press at all. Had it not been for Robert, we’d probably never have read most of them. Robert says now that he hates reading what he wrote in those years. I sympathize. I, too, hate almost all of the crap I wrote before, say, 2010. But in the days I’ve taken to write this post, I’ve reviewed quite of few of Robert’s posts, and most of them still look relevant, well-written, and fun to read. His clear, direct prose managed to be both worldly and world-weary, reverent and satirical, influential yet without delusions of grandeur, and best of all, funny. I can’t tell you how often Robert turned my fury to laughter with a dry “sit down for this,” “you don’t say,” or my perennial favorite, “the humanity!”
I’ve often suspected that Robert’s tendency to link to NSFW material was really a veiled (unveiled?) protest against those who expected him to act as important as he reluctantly became. Sometimes, he seemed ambivalent about his blog’s audience and influence. And of course, every audience includes its share of deep-fried nutters. Of his notorious comment section, enough has already been said.
Also, for a guy who said he hated ranting about North Korea, he did it pretty well.
Whether this unwanted exposure was good for Korea, and for its relations with the U.S. and the world, may depend on your perspective. You could see it as another step toward the globalization of political correctness, or toward drawing Korean society into the standards that most of the civilized world claims to accept. I think, on reflection, that Robert’s posts were socially valuable, although I know he’ll wince when he reads me saying so. Korea is concerned, more than most places, about its reputation abroad. I suspect that the result of exposing Korea at its worst has been civilizing.
This exposure was also important to any serious examination of whether, and to what extent, an alliance between South Korea the U.S. still has a shared purpose and a base of popular support. That’s why Undersecretary Lawless read it. Not that it matters, but that’s why I read it, too.
The Korean government, which expends astronomical sums to influence opinion here in Washington, may or may not understand the influence that Robert’s writing had on a generation of his readers, many of whom have since graduated into places of influence. Because Robert broke through the platitudes and the propaganda of South Korea’s influence machine, most of us harbor more ambivalent views of the alliance than the generations that came before us. At the risk of taking this post onto a tangent, that ambivalance has improved the quality of our critical thinking about the alliance. Does the current structure of U.S. Forces Korea do us more political harm than good? Do all parts of that force present more risk than reward? Against which threats are non-military options better deterrents than keeping 30,000 Americans within range of North Korean rockets?
If asking those questions makes both the U.S. and South Korea more secure, that would be a great service. But it would be enough that Robert Koehler reminded us that the things we loved about Korea were still worth holding on to (thankfully, we still have Robert’s wonderful photoblog for that).
Also, he made us laugh. The public service in this requires no elaboration.