Archive for Korean Society

Are South Koreans always the last to learn facts about North Korea or

… does it just seem that way?

Years after Google Earth made North Korea’s gulags visible to any American with an internet connection, Daum is launching a Korean-language map service covering North Korea. It’s not clear what new information this will provide for English speakers, other than helping us with those pesky problems of spelling North Korean place names in English.

Separately, South Korea’s National Human Rights Commission says “it plans to open a permanent exhibition hall on North Korea’s human rights conditions in an effort to raise public awareness about the issue.” That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that the opening date is scheduled for 2017, which should give South Korean’s left-wing parties, whose human rights policy can be summarized as “die in place,” plenty of time to cut funding for it.

I love watching North Korean refugees emerging as a cultural force …

to inform the world about life, such as it was, in their homeland. The South China Morning Post covers a North Korean human rights film festival in Hong Kong, and The Washington Post’s new Seoul correspondent, Anna Fifield, covers a young North Korean rapper who doesn’t quite share my taste in music, but does share my outlook about food distribution north of the no-smile line.

Those who’ve been assigned to Yongsan, or who sometimes went to Itaewon, …

will appreciate this well-researched history of the neighborhood’s sleazy past and present gentrification, although sleaze has been a difficult thing to extinguish from the places where it has put down its roots. During my last visit to Seoul, the brothel district near the former Yongsan Station, now a massive E-Mart, was still plying its trade, just a bit more sedately, and just around the corner from a police precinct. Judging from the link, Hooker Hill still features hookers, despite the new development two blocks away.

My prediction: as long as Itaewon remains within easy walking distance of thousands of lonely, horny Americans, and as long as Korean society continues to view prostitution as a necessary vice for men to patronize discreetly — and as an acceptable service for others peoples’ daughters to provide clandestinely — there will be a sex industry in Itaewon.

What the hell? Seoul bar bans black customers over Ebola panic.

Story and photo here. I had to read that twice to believe it, but I can’t say that it completely astonishes me. I wonder how many of those banned from the bar, which is a short walk from a large U.S. Army garrison, will be American soldiers who’ve never set foot in Africa.

In South Korea, a political realignment

When President Park speaks of reunification as a “jackpot,” she is seizing an issue that the left had “owned” for at least a dozen years. Ten years ago, the left could draw crowds of candle-carrying thirty-somethings to swoon about reunification, at least in the abstract. The dream was qualified, complicated, and hopelessly unrealistic, but it intoxicated them. The DMZ would have become a “peace park,”* the disputed waters of the Yellow Sea would have become a “peace zone,” and both systems would have evolved toward some sort of neutral confederation. (What a long, strange trip!) In concrete terms, however, the Roh Administration wasn’t so eager for reunification. It certainly didn’t want North Korean people, thousands of whom had a far better grasp on the practical distinctions between the two systems. It didn’t even seem to want North Korea itself, except as a tourist or investment venue, and more generally as a money pit. Above all, it avoided challenging the North’s political system. And as I noted here, it’s all so 2003 now.

You could say that the confederation was already taking shape in some disturbing ways. Maybe the most disturbing was the Roh administration’s willingness to suppress speech that Pyongyang objected to. It muzzled the press and tried to censor reporting critical of North Korea. Activists who protested visiting North Korean officials were followed by police, stopped and frisked, confined to their homes, or had pamphlets seized from them. The political output of the subsidized South Korean entertainment industry was almost monolithically anti-American and sympathetic to North Korea. Government officials reportedly demanded changes to the script of a play, written and produced by a North Korean refugee, and set in a North Korean concentration camp. It arrested activists who attempted to launch leaflet balloons into North Korea. A 2005 survey found that “[n]ineteen percent of [North Korean] escapees who had criticized the South Korean government, the North Korean regime, or Kim Jong Il … received a warning or threat by administration officials.”

Some of the censorship was vicarious or passive. The left-wing government gave financial subsidies to pro-North Korean unions and “civic groups” that engaged in violent protests against the U.S. military presence. In 2005, shortly after Radio Free North Korea began broadcasting, repeated anonymous threats forced its landlord to evict it from its leased space. (With the election of Lee Myung Bak, the end of the subsidies, and a sexual assault scandal, the KCTU’s street power waned.) As late as 2011, leftist union goons disrupted a North Korean human rights film festival in Seoul. There must be many cases of speech that was chilled by these tactics that we’ll never know about. Certainly it had an impact in shaping South Korean perceptions about North Koreans and reunification.

The consequence of this is that South Koreans, despite their physical and cultural proximity to North Korea, are almost a decade behind the rest of the world in their understanding of how most North Koreans really live. It has been a slow awakening, but since 2008, there has been a modest shift in how South Korean society views North Koreans. Cha In-Pyo was already a big star in South Korea that year, when he starred in “Crossing,” a story about a North Korean refugee and his son. The Chosun Ilbo produced “On the Border,” a brave and ground-breaking series of documentaries about North Korean refugees and smugglers, and how they were changing their homeland. The 2012 film “48Mportrayed the wretchedness of life inside North Korea and the brutality of its regime’s measures to prevent escape. Today, “On My Way to Meet You” is a popular variety show featuring fetching North Korean women who sometimes describe their lives in the North or comment on newsworthy events there. This is a change for the better, but with the latter exception, none of these works were popular or had a great cultural impact. More South Koreans still see North Koreans as a ravenous horde of ignorant bumpkins than as human beings and fellow Koreans.

A few die-hards still hold out on ideological islands of their own creation. One of these, Daegu University law professor Yoon Jae-man, recently tweeted, “I hate these North Korea defectors more than pro-Japanese groups. North Korean defectors, who once conspired to destroy liberal democracy, should be put to death just like France killed people who engaged with the Nazis.” Last year, former North Korean propaganda star Lim Soo-Kyung, now a Democratic Party lawmaker, unloaded a drunken tirade on a North Korean refugee in Seoul, saying that “[d]efectors who have no roots should just shut their mouths and live quietly,” and “should not talk back to a Republic of Korea National Assembly lawmaker.” Referring to a fellow lawmaker and human rights activist, Lim said, “You work with that Ha Tae Kyung right, on that North Korean human rights stuff? Ha Tae Kyung that turncoat I’m going to kill him with my own bare hands.”  Lim isn’t part of any fringe party. She represents the “mainstream” Democratic Party (DP), which is now trying to present a more moderate image.

And lately, it seems that another North Korean spy is unmasked in the South every month.

~  ~  ~

It was inevitable that shifts in the information landscape and public opinion would eventually force political changes, even in South Korea’s hyper-polarized and doctrinaire environment. The DP, the successor to Roh’s left-wing Uri Party, is now shifting toward the center to avoid being tagged as soft on North Korea. A few years ago, there would have been no need to worry about that.

The immediate catalyst for the shift was the announcement by politician Ahn Cheol-Soo that he’s forming a third party to compete in elections across South Korea. This has sown panic on the left. The Hankyoreh, its flagship newspaper, recently called the DP “pathetic,” and the DP leadership admits that it is “compet[ing] with Ahn in political innovation” as Ahn targets the DP’s base in Cheolla, emphasizing local autonomy rather than old-fashioned leftist ideology. Ahn flirted with running for mayor of Seoul — a position currently held by the DP — but later denied any interest in the job. More worrisome for the DP are recent polls suggesting that it is “surrendering second place to” Ahn’s party. If that is true, it is almost certainly a short-lived novelty reaction to a new brand. The real danger for the DP is that Ahn’s party will act as a spoiler against its candidates. That is forcing the DP, whose ranks still contain some extreme pro-North Korean ideologues, to back away from extreme views that, not so long ago, were dominant within the ranks of the old Uri Party.

Within weeks of Ahn’s announcement, the DP’s leader, Kim Han-Gill, promised to help create a North Korea policy based on “national unity.” A majority of DP lawmakers polled by the Joongang Ilbo agreed that “its North Korea policy should be upgraded to reflect the times and the changes in the public’s perspective.” Next, Kim did a photo op at a monument to service members killed by the North Koreans on Yeonpyeong. (By contrast, former President Roh Moo Hyun had downplayed remembrances of the six crewmen of the Chamsuri 457, who were killed in a 2002 naval battle with North Korea, to avoid offending North Korea’s sensibilities. This so angered the widow of one officer that she emigrated to the United States.)

Kim even committed his party to supporting a North Korea human rights law. The reversal seemed to end nine years of DP obstructionism, based on a fear of offending North Korea, of a bill that “seeks to improve human rights, political rights and the right to freedom” of North Koreans, and “includes the establishment of a special envoy (for North Korean human rights), a documents archive and a North Korean Human Rights Foundation.” The bill would also provide financial support to private human rights advocacy groups and groups helping North Korean defectors.

A few days later, however, the DP’s floor leader said that his party wasn’t really committing to any of that, it was committing to “supporting South-North cooperation and providing humanitarian aid” — in other words, cash for Kim Jong Un. Evidently, the DP’s hard-left wing had pushed back. GNP floor leader Hwang Woo-Yea, who had exerted himself heroically for this bill for years, responded that a human rights bill ought to be about promoting and improving human rights:

“A bill on North Korean human rights should literally be a bill for the improvement of North Korea’s human rights situation,” Hwang said. “The specific ways of supporting (North Korea) are contained in a separate law on supporting North Korea, so they should be handled by that law.” [Yonhap]

If the DP’s concession does nothing else, it will turn the national debate toward the question of why a human rights bill is necessary at all, and it shows which side of the debate has momentum. The ruling Grand National Party hopes to put the bill to a vote this month, but the two parties show no signs of agreeing on substance. If there is a vote, it will be divided, and it will give us a clearer idea of how much the DP’s rank-and-file has evolved.

~  ~  ~

Part of the DP’s problem is that President Park projects competence. The economy is doing well, and the conservative press can make a credible case that Park has been effective in promoting Korea’s interests abroad, even if only in the largely symbolic contest against Japan. Park also showed toughness and effectiveness in negotiating with the North Koreans to reopen Kaesong (thus, successfully achieving a second dubious objective).

Another part of the left’s problem is that is has been damaged by the excesses of its extreme element. Lee Seok-Ki, a lawmaker for the far-left Unified Progressive Party, was recently stripped of his parliamentary immunity and arrested for leading a Fifth Column group called the “Revolutionary Organization” that plotted violent attacks against South Korean infrastructure, in support of a North Korean invasion — over a tapped phone line, with 130 people (including kids and drunks) in attendance.

In one of the meetings, which lasted till 2 a.m. on May 13 at a religious retreat in the South Korean capital, Seoul, Mr. Lee, 51, said war could be imminent on the divided Korean Peninsula and his followers should prepare themselves for a “revolution” against “the world’s most powerful American imperialists” and achieve “a new reunified fatherland,” according to the National Intelligence Service’s charges against him. At one point, he said the manual for making the pressure cooker bomb used in the Boston Marathon attack was available on the Internet. [….]

Another follower, Lee Sang-ho, suggested attacking South Korea’s communications, oil, train and other crucial facilities in case of war, the charges said. But Mr. Hong also called the idea of buying sniper rifles and using hacking skills to attack military radar facilities “outlandish.” [N.Y. Times]

Here is what one of Lee’s co-conspirators said in a recorded conversation that the prosecutors recently played in court:

“We have our support groups in the country. In an emergency, we must organize them in a timely manner … If we mobilize them to spark a protest just like the massive protests against mad cow disease [in 2008], it will damage the Park Geun-hye government,” he said. “Some important facilities are installed in U.S. garrisons. Not just army bases but radar installations or electric facilities. We need to amass [information about] them.” [Joongang Ilbo]

Prosecutors are now seeking a 20-year prison term for Lee. We haven’t heard the court’s verdict, but some “progressives” insist that Lee’s trial is a witch hunt to restore a right-wing dictatorship. I can believe a number of arguments that Park has an authoritarian streak, but not this one. The UPP had initially offered a dizzying range of explanations, including, “He was just joking.” Eventually, Lee settled on the minimally plausible story that he was really preparing to defend South Korea against an attack by the United States.

The UPP and the DP are two different parties, of course, but it isn’t completely unfair of voters to associate Lee’s ideology with a DP that still includes the likes of Lim Soo-Kyung. The DP’s Chairman, Kim Han-Gill, supported Lee’s arrest on charges of plotting a violent insurrection, but roughly two dozen of its members opposed it.

If the left wanted to make a more convincing argument that Park Geun-Hye is behaving like an authoritarian, it could criticize her for dissolving political parties, decertifying labor unions, or prosecuting people for praising North Korea. Park might be able to justify these actions if those groups — as opposed to certain individuals or factions within them — had conspired to commit violent acts or act as covert agents of a hostile foreign government, but that is not true of any of the cases I linked above. (Lee Seok-Ki’s pro-North Korean faction does not represent the entire UPP. One faction of the UPP holds views similar to European democratic socialists. To dissolve an entire political party because of the actions of some of its members is overbroad and authoritarian.) I was horrified when the Army shot a man for trying to defect to North Korea last September, although I appear to be the only one who felt this way.

You don’t have to sympathize with the targets of these actions to see that the government’s tactics will backfire, eventually. For now, South Korean voters care more about security and economics, and they’re weary of the left’s extreme ideology. It’s also clear that the left has lost its talent for dissent. Yes, it has offered some legitimate criticism of Park’s troubling attacks on freedom of speech and association, but it also squandered its credibility defending Lee Seok-Ki.

The point of which is, isn’t it sad that Korean governments find it so much easier to censor opposing views than to argue the issues on their merits?

(* President Park revived that proposal recently. I’m all for it, by the way. I don’t think Park Geun-Hye is interested in lowering South Korea’s defenses; I think she’s trying to triangulate for the voters, and a “peace park” would effectively become another border North Korea couldn’t seal, and a direct route for north-to-south defections. That’s why North Korea would never agree to this.)

Can Park Geun-Hye prepare Korea, and the world, for reunification?

Yesterday, Yonhap reported that an unusual billboard had appeared in Times Square in New York: “Korean Unification would be an immeasurable BONANZA for any nations with interests in the Korean Peninsula.” To most of the Americans who read it, the billboard will seem odd, but Korea-watchers will recall when Korean-Americans took out similar ads in the United States, about things that matter much less. Beneath the paywall, we learn that “[t]he ad was set up by Han Tae-gyuk, a 66-year-old Korean-American man, at his own expense,” because Han “wants to publicize the importance of Park’s recent message on the future of the two Koreas.”

(Update: Here’s an image of the “billboard.”)

We could speculate as to whether the Korean government prompted or encouraged Mr. Han, and that is also remarkable if you knew the Korea I knew just over a decade ago. Lately, President Park herself has taken to promising Korea’s neighbors (read: China) that they will share in a “jackpot” when the day of reunification comes:

South Korean President Park Geun-hye said Wednesday that the Korean unification would be a blessing not only for the Koreas but for neighbors as well, citing investment opportunities in the communist North. Park made the remark during a question and answer session after a keynote speech at this year’s meeting of the World Economic Forum in the Swiss ski resort of Davos. She said unification of the two Koreas would be a “jackpot” for all of Northeast Asia.

“I think unification will be a great benefit for neighboring countries,” Park said, adding that unification will touch off massive investments in North Korea, mainly infrastructure projects, and revitalize investments in neighboring China and Russia too.  “As unification can provide the Northeast Asia region with a fresh growth engine, I think unification will be a jackpot not only for South Korea, but also for all neighboring countries in Northeast Asia,” she said. [Yonhap]

In case you think Park is talking about some hippie-drum-circle fantasy that preserves the North Korean political system, read on:

Park also said that unification would also be meaningful in that it will free North Korean people from the starvation and human rights violations they suffer under the communist regime. Park also said the best way to predict the future is to map out your own future. She added that she is trying to make unification happen by creating the right conditions for a peaceful unification, rather than just sitting by and waiting for it.

If you didn’t read that last passage carefully, reread it and measure the immensity of all that it implies. Read it as if you were in Beijing, Pyongyang, or Chongjin.

In a possibly related development, the Unification Ministry has just launched a (Korean-language only) portal (http://nkinfo.unikorea.go.kr) to “provide comprehensive information on North Korea ranging from politics and the military to economy and social issues,” including “information on more than 290 high-profile North Korean officials, as well as information on geographic features of the isolated country.” Secretary of State John Kerry also says he will raise the topic of reunification during an upcoming visit to China, something he wouldn’t have done unless President Park had asked him to so.

So who is this woman, and what has she done with the consistently cautious, visionless, and pragmatic Park Geun-Hye we all thought we knew, and for whom a narrow majority of South Koreans votedShe sounds like John Bolton … not that there’s anything wrong with that.

~  ~  ~

Officially, Park Geun Hye’s policy toward North Korea had been something called “Trustpolitik.” (Now there’s a word you haven’t heard for a while.) If you read Park’s “Trustpolitik” manifesto closely, however, it’s tougher than its gauzy label suggests. It isn’t Sunshine 2.0, and it isn’t about taking risks to earn North Korea’s trust. Instead, it puts the onus of earning Park’s trust on Kim Jong Un, because it is his government, after all, that has repeatedly broken its commitments. Trustpolitik is about holding North Korea to its commitments and to international norms, and it is about imposing consequences when the North breaks them. It is a sober, grouchy policy that fits South Korea’s mood today. Above all, it is passive. It isn’t about forcing change. It’s about reacting to change it can’t believe in. Cynical, calculating, hard-nosed, and reactionary — that is the Park Geun-Hye I know, but assuredly do not love.

By contrast, Park’s talk of reunification isn’t passive. It might even be revolutionary, and not in the usual trite way you’re used to hearing in car commercials. It’s selling the biggest change in Korea’s political status since 1945. Depending on exactly what Park has in mind, you could call it “bold,” “ambitious,” “historic,” or “grandiose,” or just a lot of talk. I could be reading what I want to see here. Like any good politician — or psychiatrist — President Park shows us an inkblot and lets us see our own fetishes in it. (If you want an especially cynical view, please see Dr. Foster-Carter’s.)

For years, the conventional wisdom has held that reunification of the Koreas would be immensely costly. This wisdom has persisted because (a) it supports the argument that favors a gradual, negotiated reunification, and (b) because it happens to be trueA declining percentage of South Koreans say reunification will benefit their country, and few think its benefits will be worth its costs. The leader of the Democratic Party, which has recently triangulated toward the political center, must think that Park is overreaching, and that his party can gain an advantage on this issue:

He especially expressed reservations about President Park Geun-hye’s analogy of reunification as a “jackpot,” claiming it painted too rosy a picture of reunification and gave the false impression that it could happen anytime. “For reunification, the process is very important,” Kim said in his address to the National Assembly. “Without consistent cooperation for reconciliation and efforts and steps to improve ties, the ‘reunification is a jackpot theory’ can easily be misunderstood as an impending sudden change.” Kim stressed that his party is against reunification by absorption due to the enormous costs and confusion it would bring to society. [Yonhap]

But what that really means is more indefinite preservation of the status quo, at an incalculable cost to North Koreans, and to the security of both South Korea and the world.

There is no question that reunification will be costly and painful in the short term, although the South would be able to impose a degree of gradualism if the Kim Dynasty falls tomorrow by controlling the movements of people, money, goods, and property until the two economies reintegrate.

In the long term, however, Park is right — reunification promises to be an engine of spectacular growth, prosperity, and power for both Koreas. Once the overburden of the North Korea’s dysfunctional political system is stripped away from its natural and human resources, its wealth will be unlocked by the South’s economy, capital, and legal system, and North Koreans will be able to earn a living wage. And also, to live.

How can President Park expect to win votes campaigning for something that scares more South Koreans than it inspires today? She certainly hasn’t communicated any specific plans for achieving “peaceful” reunification or economic integration recently, except as small throwaway ideas. So what is Park thinking with her talk of reunification? Are these her first cautious steps toward beginning a national conversation about reunification, in the hope that she can make South Koreans think differently about it? Is she preparing the diplomatic and political ground for something she believes is inevitable, and that will be revealed to us in due course?

~  ~  ~

I don’t know the answer to these questions, but it would be presidential malpractice to fail to prepare for what expert opinion sees as increasingly likely, whether South Koreans are mentally prepared for it or not.

Uncertainty about North Korea’s regime has grown since the downfall of Jang Song-thaek, who was the country’s second most powerful figure, a U.S. congressional think tank said. Jang’s demise in December indicates the “boldness” of young ruler Kim Jong-un, which could lead to more provocative and unpredictable actions in the future, according to the Congressional Research Service (CRS).

“The chilling effect on the elite in Pyongyang could lead to internal unrest as those who considered themselves secure look for reassurance from other potential power bases,” it said in a recent report, titled “North Korea: U.S. Relations, Nuclear Diplomacy, and Internal Situation.” The CRS pointed out the sudden purging and execution of Jang, Kim’s uncle by marriage, was unusual because of his elite status and top-ranking posts. It completed “nearly a total sweep of late ruler Kim Jong-il’s inner circle, signaling Kim Jong-un’s consolidation of authority in Pyongyang,” said the CRS. [Yonhap]

The U.S. military says that it is “updating its contingency plans for a possible regime collapse in North Korea,” and ordering “detailed planning” for “a rapidly changing situation that would require stabilization of the peninsula,” but not all of the plans are so passive. Robert Beckhusen points to this fascinating article in “Special Warfare,” a publication of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, about last year’s joint “Balance Knife 13-1” exercise, between U.S. and ROK Special Forces, which tested their readiness to act “if tasked to conduct unconventional warfare in the Korean Theater of Operations.” And by “unconventional warfare,” the Army means “activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt overthrow an occupying power or government by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary and guerrilla force in a denied area.

The exercise included “a reassessment of infiltration methods and the various risks the [Korean Theater of Operations] poses to each,” and examined such practical problems as evacuating wounded, traveling in mountainous terrain, finding food in a starving country, and communicating without a communications infrastructure. It also discussed the tactical and logistical challenges of supporting an insurgency inside North Korea. A small sample:

Many ROKSF soldiers still have family in the north that they may or may not maintain contact with. These divided families provide strong relationships that transcend NK ideology and can serve as a foundation for the development of a loyal resistance organization.

The Balance Knife exercise was held within the context of the big annual exercise called Foal Eagle, which also stressed readiness for “combined unconventional warfare.” The willingness to acknowledge and talk about supporting a (still hypothetical) North Korean resistance is essential to preparing ourselves to support one, should one emerge. (And when one does emerge, it’s almost certain to emerge suddenly.)

All of this planning and training is still in its infancy. It should be viewed as nothing more than prudent contingency planning for events we can’t anticipate. In other words, U.S. and ROK forces are preparing for what we weren’t prepared for when events in Libya and Syria took us by surprise. In both cases, the length of the conflict was inversely proportional to the quality of the outcome. If there is some low-risk alternative that can influence the outcome of a North Korean civil war, we won’t be able to do it if we haven’t planned and trained for it.

For now, of course, there is no North Korean opposition of real significance, so any discussion of whether and how to support one is entirely speculative. But if you still haven’t read Bruce Bennett’s RAND study of the problems we’ll face when the regime collapses, you’ll understand why we can’t afford to ignore the question. Simply put, South Korea doesn’t have enough manpower to reestablish order in the North. (I’ll add that America may well decline — and probably should decline — to contribute that manpower.) Enabling indigenous forces to resist the regime and reestablish order in “liberated zones” could make the difference whether Korea is re-stabilized under a unified government or becomes a source of chaos and great-power conflict. The only plausible way to stabilize North Korea is to enlist the North Koreans themselves. We are far more likely to form those alliances if we being to “engage” the North Korean people, and persuadable demographics within the security forces, now. The decisions North Koreans make within the first 72 hours of a crisis could determine the course of Korea’s history. For example, the emergence of a strong, pro-South Korean opposition in the North would reduce the risk of a Chinese intervention and great-power conflict dramatically. It would also reduce the odds that South Korea asks the U.S. to help occupy the North.

Certainly there is room for argument about how Korea reunifies. That argument may soon begin in earnest. But there is no higher objective for the Korean nation-state than to form one free Korea — reunification under an independent and representative government. For the sake of her nation, I hope President Park will undertake this campaign as carefully and methodically as she undertook her campaign for the presidency. If she manages it, she will easily eclipse her father’s place in history.

Post-Sunshine South Korea is sober, pragmatic, and grouchy.

In this post last week, I cited polling data showing how South Koreans’ views of North Korea have hardened in recent years, representing a dramatic swing since the fervent anti-Americanism and pro-appeasement sentiment of the Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun years. I reckoned that the 2010 Cheonan and Yeonpyeong attacks were the tipping point in this shift, but a wealth of polling data from the Pew Global Attitudes Project changes my mind about this. I wish the data directly measured South Koreans’ views of North Korea, but they do measure other indicators that turn out to have a logical relationship to them.

In the decade between 2003 (the height of the anti-American wave) and 2013, the polls tell us that South Koreans’ views shifted steadily toward what we usually associate with “conservative” views — their opinion of the U.S. became 32% more favorable, unfavorable views of the U.S. fell 30% to just 20% in 2013, and 15% more South Koreans believed that the U.S. considers their country’s interests “a great deal” or “a fair amount” in making international policy decisions.

Between 2008 and 2013, the percentage of South Koreans viewing the U.S. as a “partner” as opposed to an “enemy” rose 18%, from just 51% to 69%. Between 2002 and 2013, favorable views of China fell 20%, to 46% (up from the 2010 nadir of just 38%). Very few South Koreans see China’s growing military power as “a good thing.” About a quarter of South Koreans view China as an enemy, but that figure has hardly shifted since 2008, when it was first measured.

The results I had really hoped to show you come from a poll by the Asan Institute, which I’d picked up as a paper booklet at a conference last summer. The poll gave a detailed generational breakdown on South Korean attitudes toward the North, and showed that Koreans in their 20’s were the most conservative age group in two generations. That’s immensely relevant; unfortunately, I’ve managed to lose the pamphlet in one of my stacks of paper, and I can’t find the results online, so you’ll have to settle for the next best thing — this report from Asan’s Kim Jiyoon, which shows us the same image in lower resolution:

When examined by age group, there is an interesting but consistent tendency. The young generation of South Korea exhibits conservative attitudes toward national security issues. They are quite a different species from the young generation ten years ago. Conventionally, a conservative South Korean tends to be hostile and assertive toward North Korea and friendly toward the United States. Much like those who are in their sixties, a disproportionate number of the youngest generation of Korea chose to support the United States (64.8%) in the hypothetical match against North Korea. This is the second highest proportion following the oldest generation’s support 72.8 percent. The most ethnically bound generation was in their forties—the so-called 386 generation. 

Surprisingly, most of this shift occurred between 2007 and 2009. The trend was underway before the election of Barack Obama, the Cheonan Incident, the Yeonpyeong Incident, the killing of Park Wang-Ja and the closure of Kumgang, or any of the events Americans might be tempted to think catalyzed this trend. It’s more likely that a steady stream of evidence gradually undermined the grandiose and wishful unifictions of the Korean left. The incidents of 2010 were not the cause of the shift, but probably solidified it just as people were growing tired of Lee Myung Bak, and prepared to listen to criticism of his policies.

There is also evidence that the Yeonpyeong attack shook off many South Koreans’ disbelief that North Korea sank the CheonanThis report by the International Crisis group cites a poll showing that Yeonpyeong attack convinced 17.7% of South Koreans that North Korea sank the Cheonan.* It’s human nature to view evidence as self-affirming, and I suppose plenty more South Koreans who were at least willing to entertain Cheonan conspiracy theories before Yeonpyeong decided, after the event, that they knew all along that North Korea did it. And overwhelmingly, they wanted to hit North Korea back.

The data suggest a zero-sum ideological contest between North Korea and the United States. The good news is that the contest has shifted away from North Korea lately (I care much less whether it shifted toward us). The bad news is that the shift is more a withdrawal of interest, of investment, of hope, and of fear. It does not look forward to reunification and has no desire to hasten it. It is the grouchy hangover that follows intoxication. I have no quarrel with pragmatism; it’s the selective apathy I can’t stand. And young Koreans are as blindly nationalistic as their elders, despite their immersion in the global culture.

The rejection of appeasement in its most masochistic forms, in a favor of a more rational, interest-based calculus, should not be confused with a complete rejection of inter-Korean exchanges or dialogue. It especially should not be confused with affection for the United States, or for the young, libidinous, and occasionally drunken American soldiers gallivanting around Seoul, Pyongtaek, and Uibongbu.** What it means is that South Koreans think they need us, and that the Sunshine fad is over.

Later this week, I’ll examine how South Korea’s changed media environment may have contributed to these changes, and why, even if the Democratic Party wins the next elections, it will be on a far more moderate platform than that of its predecessor, the Uri Party. It all sort of fits together. Trust me.

~  ~  ~

This particular study also makes the mathematically impossible finding that 83.6% already believed that North Korea did it. The study concluded that South Koreas were moving to the left, but based this conclusion on a snapshot of public opinion during the second and third years of the Lee Administration, a point in the political cycle when voters usually grow disenchanted with the party in power. No wonder the study wrongly predicted a DP victory in the 2012 election.

** Except me, of course. I’m sure I was a lot nicer than the other drunken, libidinous young soldiers.

Update, Feb. 10:

Many thanks to Steven Denney for providing two links to studies relevant to this post. The headline is that ethno-nationalism is on the decline in Korea, but when I read the actual texts, I’m more inclined to think that the character of Korea’s ethno-nationalism has changed from generation to generation. Nationalism is no longer seen in explicitly political terms that militate union with the North. Instead, the younger generation invests its national pride in the South Korean nation, rather than in the Korean race. Says CSIS:

Koreans have begun to view themselves and their republic in a way that reflects political, social, and economic realities. Korea’s new nationalism is based less on 

ethnicity than previous strands of nationalism, views the state with an increasing level of confidence, and presumes that South Korea is on the rise in East Asia and the world. …

The 2013 data makes it clear that the South Korean public judges North Korea on its actions, with public opinion turning sharply against the North following tensions in early 2013. Of course, if North Korea can become a responsible neighbor, attitudes would improve. The question is if the North can achieve this before the youngest South Koreans decide that they, and their country, are better off seeing the Republic of Korea as a completely separate political and national entity. In 2012, while 11 percent of those in their 60s expressed no interest in reunification, 23 percent of those in their 20s stated the same. Notably, it was those in their 20s (60 percent) who were most in favor of reunification on South Koreans terms, indicating a less accepting and less tolerant attitude toward the North. …

The most important point to make is how sharply South Koreans in their 20s have broken in their views of North Korea with those in their 30s and 40s. In 2011 and 2012, those in their 20s were the least likely to identify the North Korea as “one of us.” Indeed, in 2012 this cohort was more likely to define the North as an enemy (24 percent). Following heightened inter-Korean tensions in the first quarter of 2013, the response “one of us” decreased by 9 percentage points.

I suppose if push came to shove, it would still be a case of “my brother and me against my cousin, my cousin and me against the stranger.” And I would hesitate to conclude that we’re seeing the emergence of a post-racial Korea. Still, we’ve at least seen the decline of an explicitly political racism in South Korea, something that disgusted me enough to inspire the very creation of this site. That is good news, because political racism never ends well.

Young South Koreans were also more confident in their country than their elders, and more resolute in the face of North Korea provocations. I can’t help thinking that insecurity is often the root of nationalism in its most extreme forms.

A Quick Thought on this Psy business

My ten year-old can already tell you that one of my life’s newer objectives is to die an old man without having heard “Kangnam Style” even once. Pop culture has never been my thing, but I sure did get tired of all the forced Kangnam-Style allusions and cliches in just about everything written about Korea during Psy’s 15 minutes.  Anyway, if you’re wondering whether I’m even a little bit surprised that Psy once sang, “Kill those fucking Yankees …. Kill their daughters, mothers, daughters-in-law, and fathers …. Kill them all slowly and painfully,” well, no, I’m not surprised.  Not even a little.  In fact, I’m sure there was a whole mob cheering those applause lines when he sang them. Some of the rhetoric in South Korea in those days would have made Hamas blush.  It also enjoyed a significant amount of encouragement from — and exploitation by — South Korea’s ruling party. If you doubt me there, then you haven’t read that last link.

You know who made a lot of good points about this? Someone I disagree with more often than not, The Metropolitician.  I agree with him that Psy’s apology was certainly insincere, and the fact that Psy’s “art” has as much to do with Korean culture as a Samsung knockoff. (I allow that Psy may have been just one more ambitious person who exploited the popularity of anti-Americanism for his own selfish reasons, but that excuses nothing.) Having served as a soldier in Korea at the time when Psy was spewing his hate, I don’t deny my feelings of satisfaction that Psy, unlike me, was capable of making millions of Americans aware of the depth of many South Koreans’ hate. I worry that he may also make South Korea as a whole infamous for hate. Like many other things in life, including South Koreans’ own views of America and its soldiers, this would be unfair.  Psy’s promoters must be awfully thankful that their client shares a peninsula with an even more repulsive individual, who provided a timely distraction.

Flower Indeed: Lim Su-Kyung and the Bigotry of the Korean Left

For several days, I’ve hoped to find time to write about the new hit TV show in South Korea, “Now on My Way to Meet You,” featuring (and humanizing!) photogenic North Korean women:

Each woman also entertains, some by singing and dancing. Others perform comedy skits, including several who mimic North Korea’s iconic, stern-faced female TV newsreader.

But the ending turns sad as the women send video messages to family members back in the North. Everyone in the studio sobs as one woman tells her father, held in a North Korean jail, how she can’t forget the way he smiled when she visited.    [….]

The emotional public response has taken them by surprise.  One guest, Shin Eun-ha, even has her own fan club.  “I wept for the first time in 10 years, along with my husband,” wrote one female viewer. Another said the show had persuaded her and her husband not to divorce.  [Reuters]

More here, video here.

I love this story on several levels (my wife also does a wicked impression of a North Korean anchorwoman).  So often, South Koreans perceive North Koreans in the way Europeans perceive Roma (aka Gypsies) — as feral vagabonds who can never quite be brought into their circles of trust, whether socially or economically.  The greatest barriers to reunification will be psychological  — mutual stereotyping, tribalism, and exploitation.  And when we see the views of some in Korea’s political left — including one who was elected to the South Korean National Assembly by a majority of one district’s voters — you get a sense of how difficult unification will be.

Allow me to introduce Lim Su-Kyung, who in 1989, before it was routine for South Koreans to visit the North, defied the warnings of her own government to attend a youth festival in Pyongyang.  The North immediately made a propaganda superstar out of her, dubbed her the “flower of unification,” and even granted her an audience with Kim Il Sung.  Last April, Lim got herself elected to the National Assembly as a representative of the main left-wing opposition party, the Democratic United Party.

In Seoul recently, Baek Yo Sep, a 28 year-old a North Korean defector, university student, and human rights activist recognized Lim in a restaurant, where she was drinking with some advisors.  Baek asked Lim to pose for a picture, Lim agreed, and all seemed to be cordial until one of Lim’s advisors insisted on deleting the pictures.  Somehow, the soju set free Lim’s inner Mel Gibson, and showed us the worst of the Korean Left’s bigotry toward their oppressed brothers and sisters:

According to Baek […] Lim made the comments to him on the 1st at a restaurant in Seoul, saying, “Defectors who have no roots should just shut their mouths and live quietly in the Republic of Korea. Defectors with no idea should not talk back to a Republic of Korea National Assembly lawmaker.”

[….]

In the process, Lim also heavily criticized Saenuri Party lawmaker Ha Tae Kyung, who used to be a pro-North activist himself, saying, “You work with that Ha Tae Kyung right, on that North Korean human rights stuff? Ha Tae Kyung that turncoat I’m going to kill him with my own bare hands.”  [Daily NK]

Different papers offered different accounts of the incident, all of them ugly:

According to the North Korean student who happened to meet Representative Lim in a restaurant last Friday, Lim began to lash out at him when he told her that a waiter had deleted photos taken with Lim from his cell phone, as ordered by Lim’s aides. (See story on Page One.) Lim allegedly responded to the defector by saying, “You are doing the weird things, dubbed a fight for North Korean human rights, with Ha Tae-keung, right? Ha is a son of a bitch betrayer and I will kill him with my hand .?.?.” Ha is the president of Open Radio for North Korea, who became a lawmaker for the ruling Saenuri Party in the last April legislative election.

When the defector rebutted Lim’s violent language by saying, “Who betrayed whom? Do you mean Representative Ha and us, North Korean defectors, betrayed the murderer Kim Il Sung [founder of North Korea], whom you called ‘your father’?”

Lim reportedly kept shouting, “You stupid turncoats!”  [Joongang Ilbo]

Full disclosure:  Ha Tae-Kyung is a friend of mine.  Ha, a disaffected ex-leftist, was imprisoned by the old right-wing regime for possession of pro-North Korean literature.  He later became disgusted by North Korea’s human rights abuses and oppression, and by the willful blindness of his fellow leftists toward those abuses.  He became a human rights activist, founded Open News, which publishes clandestine reports from North Korea and broadcasts them back into North Korea, and was also recently elected to the National Assembly.

Baek quoted Lim as denouncing North Korean defectors as traitors and having “no roots.” She also vilified Rep. Ha Tae-kyung of the ruling Saenuri Party, who had once worked with Lim in the 1980s, as a traitor for his conversion to an anti-Pyongyang activist, Baek said.

Lim was also quoted as saying she will “kill the traitor (Ha) with my hands.”

[….]

As the traitor remarks drew strong criticism, Lim offered an apology Sunday, claiming in a statement that she was referring to only Ha as a traitor for joining the conservative ruling party, and that she never meant to describe defectors as such.

On Monday, Ha accused Lim of lying and demanded she sincerely apologize again.

“Rep. Lim holds hostility toward North Korean defectors and thinks of defectors as traitors,” Ha said. “But she said in the statement that she never called North Korean defectors traitors, but she said I am a traitor just because I joined the Saenuri Party, not because I engaged in a human rights movement helping defectors.”  [Yonhap]

Lim later apologized.  Her own party took no disciplinary action against her, although her party’s leader said that lawmakers should be more careful about what they say (as in keep their bigotry hidden from view lest it embarrass other politicians).

Oddly enough, Lim seems to have escaped the current scandal over two other alleged North Korean sympathizers in the National Assembly.  Unlike those other individuals, Lim appears to have been duly elected, and Lim is a member of a “mainstream” political party.

Maybe when Korea finally does unify, some sympathetic South American dictator will allow people like Lim Su-Kyung to live out their wretched lives in an isolated compound on some remote scrap of unused farmland.  Maybe Venezuela.

Patty Kim and Saemaul Nostalgia

Isn’t this a great, jaunty old song? I’ll bet at least one reader will remember where he’s heard this before:

President Lee Leases Tokdo to Japan for 100 Years to Build Porn Studio

islands.jpgOh, wait — that’s not it. It was North Korea that actually leased two islands to China to build (what else?) casinos. Yes, casinos. File that one under “stuff Chinese people like.” It might also go under “stuff that North Korean money launderers like.”

The difference being, the islands of Hwan Geum Pyong and Ui Hwa Do actually consist of arable farmland. Not that North has any shortage of that, of course.

I eagerly await the Hankyoreh’s reaction and the impact on North Korea’s impeccable nationalist credentials.

Correction: The Global Times, a not-all-that-well-loved ChiCom broadsheet, citing the Hankook Ilbo, says the islands will be the site of a “free trade zone.” Hat tip, Chris.

Once Again, South Koreans Prove Exceptionally Prone to Mass Hysteria

There are times when I wonder if South Koreans will ever learn anything from the entire Mad Cow fiasco, when all it takes to spread mass hysteria in a prosperous, technologically advanced, industrialized society is a 16 year-old with high speed Internet:

Police said yesterday that the boy, resident of Yeosu, South Jeolla, identified only by his surname, Yoo, sent 15 friends an online message that South Korea had decided to “make a pre-emptive military attack on North Korea” because it was “only a matter of time” until the North, fully prepared for war, invaded.

“All males over the age of 17 should take part in the battle and all schools will be shut down,” read the message sent at 11:23 p.m. on May 26.

Yoo allegedly sent his message as military tensions between the two Koreas made headlines after Seoul blamed Pyongyang for sinking South Korea’s Cheonan warship. Yoo reportedly told police he wanted to “fool people.

Yoo’s friends soon started relaying the message to their own friends, police said. The spread of the message increased exponentially as teenagers in South Chungcheong, Gyeonggi, Gangwon, Seoul, Busan and Incheon passed it to their own friends on in the following 48 minutes, before one of them, a 12-year-old elementary school student, posted it on the online board of a major Internet portal site.

And to think they’ll all be voting in just a few years!

In what must be one of the great ironies of our time, a society known for technological Luddism is proving to be exceptionally capable at stealing online ID’s to circumvent South Korea’s lame internet restrictions, spreading conspiracy theories, and posting propaganda videos that become viral hits in South Korea. And the best response the hub of LG and Starcraft addicts can muster is … a couple of loudspeakers blaring K-pop to bored North Korean soldiers? Are you kidding me?

Why do the North Koreans have such a pathological fear of the free flow of information? My guess is, they’ve seen how gullible and easily manipulated South Koreans are, and they suspect that the same is true of their own subjects.

Where’s the Outrage?

South Koreans’ unifiction mania may have cooled for the moment, but B.R. Myers tells us that public anger toward North Korea doesn’t approach that directed against America after the 2002 accident, and that plenty have made the decision to disbelieve the evidence that North Korea sank the Cheonan:

It would be unfair to characterize these skeptics as pro-Pyongyang, but there is more sympathy for North Korea here than foreigners commonly realize. As a university student in West Berlin in the 1980s, I had a hard time finding even a Marxist with anything nice to say about East Germany. In South Korea, however, the North’s human rights abuses are routinely shrugged off with reference to its supposedly superior nationalist credentials. One often hears, for example, the mistaken claim that Mr. Kim’s father, Kim Il-sung, purged his republic of former Japanese collaborators, in alleged contrast to the morally tainted South. [….]

South Korean nationalism is something quite different from the patriotism toward the state that Americans feel. Identification with the Korean race is strong, while that with the Republic of Korea is weak. (Kim Jong-il has a distinct advantage here: his subjects are more likely to equate their state with the race itself.) Thus few South Koreans feel personally affected by the torpedo attack. [….]

This urge to give the North Koreans the benefit of the doubt is in marked contrast to the public fury that erupted after the killings of two South Korean schoolgirls by an American military vehicle in 2002; it was widely claimed that the Yankees murdered them callously. During the street protests against American beef imports in the wake of a mad cow disease scare in 2008, posters of a child-poisoning Uncle Sam were all the rage. It is illuminating to compare those two anti-American frenzies with the small and geriatric protests against Pyongyang that have taken place in Seoul in recent weeks.

If demographics are destiny, accounts like Myers’s suggest that our alliance with South Korea has no long-term future. Like Robert, I don’t think this is the time to speed up our disengagement or appear to abandon South Korea, but it’s as appropriate as ever to proceed with an orderly transition to an independent South Korean defense from which both countries will emerge stronger.

Hat tip to a reader.

Mad Cow Revisionism


The Hankyoreh reacts
to comments by President Lee by reinventing the Mad Cow riots of 2008:

During a Cabinet meeting Tuesday, President Lee said, “It has been two years since the candlelight vigil demonstrations and although many suppositions proved untrue, not one of those intellectuals or medical sector figures who participated back then has engaged in any reflection. The president also said, “Without reflection, there is no development of society. He added, “I would like to say that it is positive that one daily newspaper reevaluated this in the form of a focused feature piece to mark the second anniversary.

Let me state my agreement with the truth of the matter Lee asserts while questioning whether it might have been wiser to let this dog sleep. That being said, I can scarcely add up all the layers of delusion in the Hanky’s response, but start with the one about how this really wasn’t about beef at all.

He also pledged to improve his communication with the people, reshuffle positions in the Cheong Wa Dae (the presidential office in South Korea or Blue House) and Cabinet, and abandon his plans for the Grand Korean Waterway. This was an admission by President Lee that the candlelight vigil demonstrations were not only about the dangers of mad cow disease from U.S. beef, but also an expression of negative popular sentiments regarding the one-sided governance and expediency tactics he showed early in his term and the appointments of wealthy Gangnam elites and Korea University, Somang Church and Youngnam region individuals, the so-called “Ko So Young,” to prominent positions.

So … the guy they voted for didn’t win, I take it. And then again, maybe it was about beef after all:

Ahn Jin-geol, director of the Public Welfare Hope Team for People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, said Tuesday, “It is brazen for President Lee to apologize twice for giving concerns to the people and even promise to carry out additional beef negotiations, and then turn around and tell the people they need to reflect. Ahn also said, “This proves that the president’s apologies back then were lies.

No, Lee apologized for his “handling” of the beef import issue, which isn’t the same as acknowledging that the public panic that caused the mass demonstrations had any scientific basis. In his first apology, he just about called the scare “unfounded” before concluding that the angry mob was in no mood to listen to any amount of objective, scientific information — much less his own assertions. While the specific reasons for Lee’s apology remain somewhat vague, the main reason seems to have been to appease the mob and politely request that they shut up and go home (eventually, after the most of them got tired of the protests and did). To an extent, Lee was also apologizing for mishandling the P.R. aspect — not doing enough to get accurate information to gullible people soon enough. I don’t think that Lee was apologizing for the terms of an FTA negotiated during the Roh Administration, nor was he apologizing for not implementing the minutiae of trade policy through a series of popular plebiscites before misinformed voters panicking over false reporting and irrational, unscientific rumors. At that point, Lee would have thrown the Wonder Girls into an active volcano to appease the mob and get them to put down their their pitchforks and torches bamboo poles and candles.

The Hanky also predicts a groundswell of Roh-stalgia, just weeks after South Korea buried its dead from the Cheonan. I suspect that there will be sympathy for Roh, the troubled human being, but I doubt there will be much nostalgia for Roh, the man who should never have been the President of the Republic of Korea, and whose policies have been thoroughly repudiated by events during and after his term. My hopes are actually rising that South Korea’s unrequited infatuation with its abusive North Korean cellmate is about over with. Is it possible that South Korea is growing up at last? I hope so. I’d be disturbed, and surprised, if the Hanky is right and I’m wrong.

Oh, for F**k’s Sake: Not Another Do-Gooder Congressman Out to Rid the USFK of Juicy Girls

Normally, I actually like Chris Smith, but it’s just plain dumb to go after U.S. service members who, while thousands of miles from home, pursue (a) human nature, and (b) a form of commerce that’s more-or-less openly available to 23 million South Korean men around them:

A bill to create a director of global anti-human trafficking policies in the Department of Defense was introduced Thursday in an effort to better monitor the way the military deals with South Korean “juicy bars” that cater to American troops and have often been linked to prostitution.

U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., drafted the bill to create the assistant secretary-level position. The office would “investigate links between trafficking in persons and … members of the Armed Forces and contractors of the department,” according to a copy of the bill Smith’s staff e-mailed to Stars and Stripes. [Stars & Stripes]

First, a point of order: juicy girls aren’t necessarily prostitutes. They are employees of “juicy bars” who charge customers, in some places U.S. military personnel, for the privilege of buying them overpriced drinks (usually colored water or juice) while cuddling with the girls or feeling them up. Some sell sex, some sell it to selected customers only, and some don’t sell it at all. (Hey, a defense attorney has to know these things! This is essential professional knowledge, people!)

And sorry, but with a few isolated exceptions, I simply don’t believe that most “juicy girls” were plying their trades involuntarily (if not always enthusiastically, but that’s not the same thing). If there really is a human trafficking problem in South Korea, just how effective can USFK really be in enforcing the laws against it if the South Korean cops — some of who stations were directly adjacent to some of Seoul’s most notorious red light districts until very recently — won’t?

Or perhaps you’d rather have them all hanging out in Hongdae?

What gives this idea legs (!) is its appeal to a number of constituencies that don’t usually agree on much: religious nannies, feminist nannies, and Koreans of both genders who, for various reasons, can’t stand the idea of American soldiers getting laid in a country that happens to have a multi-billion dollar sex industry that is both illegal and mostly tolerated. And frankly, in a society where prostitution still has broad social acceptance and patronage, wouldn’t it be wiser to legalize and regulate it? I know, you’re going to compare it to the drug thing now, which I’d still argue is not widely accepted and more destructive than a natural bodily function with the added fact that money changes hands, though I personally disapprove if one of the persons is married or carries an STD (so regulate it!).

Sure, juicy girls are a waste of money, money that usually just pays for a lot of frustration and gets a lot of soldiers Article 15’s for bouncing checks. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve talked soldiers out of marrying juicy girls as an Army defense attorney. But then, if keeping soldiers from getting screwed — financially speaking — was our primary concern, why not start by shutting down the casino at Walker Hill and taking the slot machines out of the on-post MWR facilities?

Andrei Lankov on Ajumma Power

Picking up the theme of North Korea’s indefatigable ajummas, Andrei Lankov writes in the Wall Street Journal:

A joke making the rounds in Pyongyang goes: “What do a husband and a pet dog have in common?” Answer: “Neither works nor earns money, but both are cute, stay at home and can scare away burglars.”

I’ve often thought that one of the most destructive consequences of socialism is the destruction it wreaks on families. That is especially so in Korean society, where the family unit retains such strength and importance. But in North Korea, women who had been herded into the factories and communes, and who had no intention of being “empowered” — to use a P.C. term — found themselves driven into founding a new merchant class out of necessity. I surmise that this was mainly a result of the system’s failure to fully employ their husbands, on one hand, combined with its refusal to let them abandon their assigned work units, on the other. As Andrei notes, women were “liberated” from the jobs that couldn’t pay them because the regime deemed their labor to be relatively expendable, and perhaps also out of local officials’ recognition that a family has to get by somehow.

Blasphemy in the Temple: Thoughts on Ramstad, Kirk, and the Finance Ministry

I’m going to add just one small bit to the fracas between the Korean Finance Ministry and two reporters with whose work I’m familiar — Don Kirk and Evan Ramstad. As to the questions themselves, sometimes, the function of a good reporter is to challenge official groupthink and corruption, especially in a place where groupthink is as prevalent as it is in Korea. I do not think that a country that aspires to be a hub of international business can nonetheless exempt itself, for cultural reasons, from ethical standards that have gained international acceptance. One of these is that governments ought not to ply interest groups or investors with prostitutes (which seems to be a reasonably good guess as to where the questions might be headed). If a reporter has a basis to believe that this has occurred, it seems fair to ask about it. The questions Kirk and Ramstad were at least as appropriate as the question that brought us this infamous episode of presidential mendacity. As for the context in which the questions were asked or the other issues between Ramstad and the Foreign Ministry, I have no particular knowledge and therefore nothing useful to add.

I will confess, however, that I am biased toward Kirk and Ramstad, am a fan of their work, and wish them both well. Long before this episode, I’d noted their role in a trend toward much-improved reporting about Korea lately. Some full disclosure would be appropriate: I consider Kirk a personal friend, and he arranged for his publisher to send me a free review copy of his excellent book about Kim Dae Jung. I don’t think this was enough to buy me off, but I put that out there for your consideration. Kirk’s book, like his original exposure of the 2000 summit scandal, are prime examples of questions that some Koreans no doubt considered pushy and inappropriate at the time, not just in spite of the fact that they contradicted Korean groupthink about DJ and North Korea, but because they contradicted it. Those who lived in Korea in those years know the extent to which those issues had become intertwined with Korea’s national pride and nationalism. For a time, it was blasphemy to challenge it.

Ramstad has featured my work, and Curtis’s, in the Journal. In addition to our lengthy conversation during which which he interviewed for that article, we’ve had a number of e-mail exchanges. These, in addition to my observation of his work, have been sufficient for me to get a sense of his subject matter knowledge, which is first-rate. His reporting has added a much-needed correction to past reporting of North Korea by reporting on conditions inside North Korea itself. Both Kirk and Ramstad are correspondents of the first caliber. To the extent that their questions drew attention to elephants that went unmentioned in a room filled with reporters, so much the better.

North Korean Gulag Survivors Tell Their Survival Stories to Bored South Korean Soldiers

As it turns out, inviting a North Korean gulag survivor to speak to South Korean troops is a lot like inviting Elie Wiesel to speak at a Pat Buchanan rally:

After speaking recently to a group of young South Korean soldiers about North Korea’s harsh labor camps, former prisoner Jung Gyoung Il — himself once a soldier in North Korea’s massive army — was stunned by the questions from the audience. One soldier asked how many days of leave North Korean soldiers were given. Another asked if North Korean soldiers were allowed to visit their girlfriends. No one showed any curiosity about the notorious network of gulags, a signature marker of the North’s brutality toward its own people.

In a rare acknowledgment, the South Korean government recently noted in a report that hundreds of thousands of North Koreans are languishing in the prison camps. But Seoul has made no public effort to exert pressure on Kim Jong Il’s regime over the issue. And many South Koreans, who hold deeply conflicted feelings toward their communist neighbor, are reluctant to even concede that the camps exist. [Stars & Stripes]

Actually, I don’t think this guy’s views are conflicted at all:

Jung Wook-sik of the Peace Network, a group of civic activists, said the existence of the gulags is “not relevant” in South Korea because many citizens feel their own human rights are being abused. Lee has been heavily criticized for, among other things, subduing peaceful protests and firing members of a teacher’s union that questioned his administration.

And it’s exactly the same thing, of course! You do remember Jung, don’t you, from when he was writing at OhMyNews as “Cheong Woon Sik?”

David Hawk, author of the study “The Hidden Gulag: Exposing North Korea’s Prison Camps,” said little was known about the gulags until about five years ago, when large numbers of North Koreans managed to defect from the famine-stricken country.

Nothing in there surprises me much after four years in the USFK.

[Update: Reading more carefully now, I realize that “Jung Wook-Sik” may not be the same guy as “Cheong Woon Sik” after all.]