Category Archives: The Korea Blog

Dispatches on the literature, cinema, current events, and daily life of Korea from the LARB’s man in Seoul Colin Marshall and others.

You can follow Colin Marshall at blog.colinmarshall.org, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook @ColinMarshallEssayist.

Christmastime in Seoul

By Colin Marshall

Korean winters start out pleasant enough, waiting until the new year to bite. This I’ve heard from longtime Korea residents who’ve experienced many more Christmases here than I have — which is to say, any Christmases here at all. So despite the growing cold and occasional snow flurries, I won’t expect a white Christmas in Seoul, but since Los Angeles long ago trained me not to even conceive of that as a possibility, I can’t count it as a disappointment. Even in non-weather respects, I’ve looked forward to experiencing just what form Christmas takes in Korea, and the run-up hasn’t disappointed.

Some Western visitors to Seoul come away thinking of Korean society as crassly commercial and consumeristic, a damningly alliterative impression that I can’t easily argue away. America, of course, gets similarly criticized, but there we try to deflect it by pretending to yearn for some sort of vaguely imagined, possibly even unwanted non-commercial holiday ideal. But Korea isn’t fronting; people here directly acknowledge the role of commerce in their lives all year round, and in so doing, I would submit, acknowledge how much potential it really has to add interest to their lives.

Take Christmas decorations, with which Seoul really does it up — or, rather, with which the businesses of Seoul, from humble Chinese-made merchandise stands to pubs with their liquor bottles repurposed into tree ornaments to grand department stores, really do it up. It might comes as a surprise to an American that Seoul still has grand department stores, with concierge desks and escalators taking you from high-end foods to cosmetics to apparel to housewares to restaurants and seasonal enthusiasm and everything, the likes of which we think of enclosed suburban malls and big-box stores as having long since crushed in the United States.

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In this and other respects, for better and for worse, Korea brings to mind midcentury America, or at least a certain impression I have of midcentury America. I’ve heard a few different middle-aged American friends living here, people with actual living memories of midcentury America, observe that Korea “hasn’t reached the 1960s yet,” although when they say the 1960s, they of course mean the era that began around 1966 or 1967, burned out in the early to mid-70s, and either did or did not change everything. They mean the time after A Charlie Brown Christmas, the beloved television special that celebrated the 50th anniversary of its first broadcast this year.

I listen to A Charlie Brown Christmas‘ immortal soundtrack by the Vince Guaraldi Trio every year, but only re-watched the show itself for the first time since childhood just the other day. I did it partly in anticipation of the new computer-generated Peanuts movie (here just called Snoopy, or rather, 스누피), but partly because christmastime in Seoul put me in the mind of the America in which it debuted. Even then, as we all know, the crudely animated Charlie Brown bemoaned, in an unusually articulate but genuine child’s voice, the increasing commercialization of Christmas. The story embodies this disapproved-of phenomenon in the form of the aluminum Christmas tree, an item popular in the late 1950s and early 60s, and one for which a market might well remain in Korea, given the way everyone seems to go in for the artificial tannenbaum here.

A Charlie Brown Christmas‘s proffered antidote — which still startles and even haunts, no matter how many times you’ve watched it — comes spoken by the security blanket-toting Linus, who takes the stage, orders the lights dimmed, and recites by heart Bible verses on the birth of Jesus. That, too, seems somehow suitable in Korea, a country whose Christianity doesn’t let you ignore it. A friend of mine here, despite having “grown up in church” in America’s south, still remembers the impression made on him when he first arrived in Seoul by night, all the better to see the city’s many bright red neon rooftop crosses illuminated against the skyline.

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Just how Christian is Korea? Both surprisingly so and surprisingly not so. I find that Americans who’ve never been here often have the impression that Korea’s religiosity goes so wide and deep as to border on making the place some sort of theocracy, an extrapolation they’ve made from the highly Christian Korean community in America — or, in any case, the highly visible Christian Korean community in America, what with its churches dispersed all over the country that provide helpful starting points for the new immigrant, devout or otherwise.

In South Korea itself, Christians make up between 25 and 30 percent of the population, not a terribly huge number outside the context of northeast Asia. But compared to China and Japan, Korea really is quite Christian indeed, and the only one of the three to recognize Christmas as a national holiday. Still, many people in the one-percent-Christian Japan, not a conventionally religious society but one that has shown great avidity for foreign icons and practices, look forward to Christmas. They look forward not least to the big Christmas fried chicken meal they eat with what has become a near-religious regularity since a savvy Japanese Kentucky Fried Chicken marketing executive first sold it to his countrymen as an “American tradition” in 1974.

Japan, we might say, sees Christmas as a primarily American holiday, and thus an opportunity to celebrate things they consider quintessentially American — things such as the Colonel’s secret recipe. But so, in its way, does Korea: this most fried chicken-loving of all societies hardly needs another occasion on which to go to KFC, but the American associations of Christmas take other forms here. Some Korea-watchers have, convincingly, framed the country’s adoption of Christianity in line with its adoption of capitalism and, in the fullness of time, democracy: the trifecta, in other words, that would lift into prosperity. After all, didn’t it work for America?

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The perception of faith as a means to satisfaction on Earth has a good deal of traction here in Korea, as it does in America, but I wouldn’t call it a settled issue. The controversy over it appears with some regularity as a theme in books and films, none of which have handled it more deftly, to my mind, than Lee Chang-dong’s picture Secret Sunshine (밀양), the story of a widow whom moves to the small town of the title, endures another sudden tragedy, and finds herself both drawn in and repulsed by the local Christian church. In scoring the rare victory of discomfiting both adherents and critics alike, it merits a spot, despite not being a “Christmas movie,” in the holiday viewing canon.

It certainly makes for a change of mood from many of the other high-profile trappings of the season in Korea, which tend to push Christmas as a kind of romantic couple’s holiday in the style of Valentine’s Day. Given the name, it won’t surprise you to learn that A Twosome Place, one of the country’s most popular chain coffee shops, goes especially full-bore with its Christmasization, bringing out all possible thematically appropriate decorations, desserts, special beverages, slogans (this year, “Twosome Twinkling Night”) and promotions, one of which includes a free Christmas gift if you collect enough stamps on your loyalty card during the holidays. My girlfriend has taken it as a mission to earn this gift, and so we’ve spent a lot of time lately at our local Twosome Place, drinking our way (as a couple!) toward the planner or the tumbler or whatever our reward turns out to be.

This project has entailed many hours of exposure to the music piping out their speakers, which underscores the popular Korean conception of Christmas as a — or maybe the — time for lovers as well as the bias here toward the recent and the poppy. Thus eschewing the “Silent Night”s and the “Little Drummer Boy”s of the world, it opts instead for Wham’s “Last Christmas” and Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” — near-exclusively, over and over, down a seemingly bottomless succession of cover versions in both languages. And so, as in much of the rest of the world, Christmastime in Seoul becomes, in certain respects, something of an endurance test. If you need me, I’ll be listening to Vince Guaraldi until Christmas.

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

Watching Korean Literature Go International at the Seoul Book and Culture Club

By Colin Marshall

I intend, in the fullness of time, to give Korean literature at least its fair share of coverage here on the Los Angeles Review of Books‘ Korea Blog. But where best to begin? Readerly types newly arrived in Seoul might well ask the same question about how to take a first step into the realm of letters here, and in response I would direct them to the Seoul Book and Culture Club, keep-uppable with online through either Facebook or Meetup.

Hosted by Scottish expatriate cultural impresario Barry Welsh (whom I interviewed last year on my podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture), the Book and Culture Club has put on live events with such literary luminaries as poet (and prime Korean Nobel Prize candidate) Ko Un, Please Look After Mom author Shin Kyung-sook, I Have the Right to Destroy Myself author Kim Young-ha (whom I profiled here in the LARB), The Vegetarian author Han Kang, Native Speaker author Lee Chang-rae, and Drifting House author (as well as another interviewee of mine) Krys Lee, all of which they conduct bilingually, in both Korean and English.

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Just last weekend I attended a Book and Culture Club event which gathered onstage four young Korean writers (“young” meaning, given the high barrier to entry of Korea’s literary scene, younger than fifty) for a discussion of the direction of Korean fiction today, all of whom now have a novella out in a dual-language edition from ASIA Publishers. Lee Jangwook, a poet, critic, and Russian literature specialist in addition to his work as a novelist, wrote Old Man River (올드 맨 리버); Lee Kiho, who specializes in telling stories of societally marginal characters in unusual forms, wrote Kwon Sun-chan and Nice People (권순찬과 착한 사람들); the Korean-Chinese Geum Hee, whose work focuses on the lives of North Korean refugees, wrote Ok-hwa (옥화); and Baik Sou-linne, who grew up in Paris from junior high on, wrote Time Difference (시차).

It might seem an odd choice to introduce writers to the Anglosphere with novellas (and short novellas at that), a form that English and American readers never seem quite sure what to do with. But if you want to understand Korean literature, you have to understand the place of the short form. Lee Kiho, the most famous author of the bunch, explained that short novels have the importance they do here not despite the fact that they don’t sell well, but “because they don’t sell well,” creating the perception that, unlike longer novels, “they’re not under the influence of capitalism.” (Plus, he added, “they’re more convenient for the writers” — no small matter.)

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In the interviewer’s chair sat Charles Montgomery, teacher in the English Interpretation and Translation division of Seoul’s Dongguk University, editor of KTLit.com, and just about the most enthusiastic American (or otherwise) advocate for Korean literature in translation I know. (I also happen to have interviewed him myself on Notebook on Cities and Culture.) He lead the writers into a conversation that ranged widely, especially in the geographic sense, given that most of them had written stories set in or involving (or came with the personal experience of living in) lands outside Korea. An underlying question: has Korean literature truly begun to internationalize?

Lee Jangwook suggested that it might simply have begun to reflect the age of global capitalism in which we find ourselves. Baik Sou-Linne pointed to the current rise of “traveling novels” in Korean literature, mentioning the increasing proportions of Koreans who, like her, lived abroad at an early age. It all made me think of Douglas Coupland’s definition of the relatively new genre of “Translit,” composed of novels that “cross history without being historical; they span geography without changing psychic place. Translit collapses time and space as it seeks to generate narrative traction in the reader’s mind. It inserts the contemporary reader into other locations and times, while leaving no doubt that its viewpoint is relentlessly modern and speaks entirely of our extreme present.”

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Yes, I would very much like to read Korean Translit, especially of a kind this latest generation of writers could well master. But would Koreans themselves like to read it? Montgomery brought up the OECD-collected statistic that, despite Korea’s impressively high literacy rate, it ranks poorly indeed in terms of how much reading its citizens do for pleasure. In this as in other areas of culture, more attention from the wider world — increasingly drawn, I would think, by a more history-spanning, geography-spanning outlook on the part of the writers — might stoke more attention back home. Korea’s promoters have long shown an obsession with the country’s international rankings (especially its sometimes unflattering OECD rankings), and perhaps that will bring those lagging pleasure-reading numbers up.

Or maybe we just need a better definition of reading. Lee Jangwook described the established notion of “good reading” as, quite possibly, nothing more than a stereotype. Maybe, he argued, it can involve something other than alone time with a paper book; maybe it can happen online too, and maybe the amount of active discussion, criticism, and knowledge that results from it counts as much as the volume of reading done in the first place. The very role of literature, added Geum Hee, has changed: it doesn’t tell you what to think anymore, but gets you to reflect on your life. Nobody argued against the idea that the time of the writer as societally anointed “grand master,” seemingly prolonged in Korea, has ended. In the straightforward words of Lee Jangwook, “It’s about time we burst that bubble.”

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

Korean Punk and Indie Rock in a K-Pop World

By Colin Marshall

After years of solo study, I first started taking Korean language classes at Los Angeles’ Korean Cultural Center. While sampling the levels on offer to find one that matched my ability, I noticed a trend. The classes started out huge at the beginner level, thinned out at the intermediate level, and got quite small indeed at the advanced level. That, you’d expect, but the type of people enrolled also changed on the way up: the ranks of the beginner class heaved with students brought there by their love of Korean pop music, or “K-pop” (perhaps you’ve heard of it), while, by the advanced class, they’d almost all fallen away, leaving, for the most part, me and a bunch of Korean-Americans finally interested in communicating with their grandparents.

Global interest in K-pop rose alongside my own interest in Korea — a pure coincidence, I can assure you, unless you buy this business about the pan-pop-cultural “Korean wave” supposedly crashing against shore after shore over the past decade or two. But there’s no arguing with all those Big Bang, Super Junior, Girls’ Generation, and 2NE1 enthusiasts packing the Beginner A classrooms: more so than the movies or the television dramas, the country’s disproportionately huge number of subtly different idol singers, girl groups, and boy bands have, for better or for worse, defined for the world what the world has begun to call “Korean cool.”

“Japanese cool is quirky, the sum of the nation’s eccentricities,” writes Jeff Yang at CNN. “Hong Kong cool is frenetic, representative of the society’s freewheeling striving spirit. American cool is casual: It’s cool that’s anchored in doing without trying, it’s about being quintessentially effortless. By contrast, Korean cool could not be more effort-ful,” with its “candy-colored, otherworldly aesthetic,” its performers “invariably dancing in perfect sync,” having been “recruited as adolescents and trained for years in groups that are required to live, take classes, eat, sleep and rehearse together until they’ve achieved a transcendent level of harmony.”

Growing up in America, I had plenty of time to grow weary of American cool, with its unceasing pressure to go your own iconoclastic way — as long as you do so as visibly as possible, and in such a way as to make it seem as if you not only don’t notice the eyes on you, but that you didn’t want to turn them toward you in the first place. The defining memory of the cultural landscape of my adolescence: “alternative rock” wasn’t just a commercial radio format, it was the most popular commercial radio format. There, as in many areas of mainstream culture, the substance didn’t quite match the image.

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My last memorable disappointment with this sort of thing came the first time I heard the actual music of Lady Gaga. Had the compositions of her songs sounded half as bold as the her outfits looked, we’d have had a revolution in pop, but as it stands, her outlandish appearance only casts into relief the blandest elements of her only faintly-adventurous-by-mainstream-standards hits. By the same token, if the compositional wing of the K-pop industry spent half as much energy pushing their music into new territories (rather than tweaking and refining whatever the last big group did) as the video and stage-show producers do with those candy colors and perfect synchronicity, I’d have started studying Korean out of a love of K-pop myself.

“K-pop looks good,” says Bernie Cho, the Korean-American president of Korean music distribution and marketing agency DFSB Kollective. “Some would say it sounds good,” he adds, making the biggest laugh line of Us and Them: Korean Indie Rock in a K-Pop World, a new documentary by academics Stephen Epstein and Tim Tangherlini. It follows up on Our Nation: A Korean Punk Documentary, which they put out in 2002. I caught a screening last week of both films, back to back, at Seoul’s Club Ruailrock (롸일락), followed by live sets from a few of the bands featured therein — some closer to punk, some closer to rockabilly, some other brands of rock entirely, all of them united in the cause of not being K-pop.

Taken together, the documentaries constitute a fascinating portrait of not just the evolution of Korean punk and indie rock, which has had to develop on the thin margins of Korean life, but of Korean life itself. One friend remarked that the screaming girls at the foot of the stage in the early 2000s seen in Our Nation looked, even just by comparison to the screaming girls at the foot of the stage in the early 2010s seen in Us and Them, almost North Korean — that is to say, they looked less affected by the sort of cosmetic surgery-crafted standard look that, in the years between the two movies, has influenced the image of everyday South Koreans and positively defined the image of the South Korean pop star.

That counts as only one of the many things a young Korean rocker might have to rebel against. As I grew up and watched some of my friends get into punk, I have to admit I wondered what they saw in it, or rather heard in it; as a score, it might well have suited the crumbling New York or London of the 1970s, but the suburbs of Seattle in the 1990s? (Not that the theatrical booze- and pill-fueled angst of that era’s “alternative” rock struck me as relatable either.) But now I wonder how any Korean high-school student, subject to the all-consuming morning-noon-and-night pressure of Korean social and academic expectations, could do without the catharsis punk provides.

When Westerners imagine East Asian interpretations of Western music, they often imagine a sort of rigidly imitative formalism, the kind out of which Dave Barry got a few miles when he went to Tokyo and observed the street rockers and dancers of Harajuku, a scene that, he writes, “served as heartwarming proof that rock music is indeed the universal language of the young, and the Japanese young cannot speak it worth squat.” He perceives “a Hipness Gap, a gap between us so vast that their cutting-edge young rockin’ rebels look like silly posturing out-of-it weenies even to a middle-aged dweeb like myself. They buy our music, they listen to our music, they play our music, but they don’t get our music.”

But Dave Barry Does Japan came out in 1992, and this is the 21st century; we’ve long since transcended ideas of “getting it” and “not getting it,” right? Don’t we we now have a zeitgeist that renders Japanese reinterpretations of vintage Americana a worthier object of fascination than the genuine articles? And besides, this is Korea, a culture characterized less (in the view of its own people) by constant self-possession than spontaneous emotional outburst, and less by the disciplined replication of things foreign than by their indiscriminate mixture. This sensibility gave the first wave of Korean indie rock, reflected upon in Our Nation, its particular appeal.

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Epstein, in an article on both documentaries for The Asia-Pacific Journal, writes about 1989, his first year in Korea, a time when, “long before the term K-Pop was coined, Korean popular music was rife with anodyne but often overwrought concoctions and Western soft rock was ubiquitous,” a mixture he experienced as “a mild form of aural torture.” But when he returned in 1997, things had changed. “How did punk rock get to Korea when eight years ago I couldn’t even imagine that there would be anything like this?” he asked himself. And as for the new sounds themselves, “Imagine listening to pop music for your whole life, and then suddenly over the course of a year, somebody introduces you to Nirvana, the Sex Pistols, Green Day, Led Zeppelin, all at once. What kind of music are you going to make?”

That question lies at the heart of Our Nation and Us and Them‘s project, as it will presumably lie at the heart of whatever documentary on Korean punk and indie rock Epstein and Tangherlini make next. They chart a kind of internationalization of the music: first, Koreans adapted the threads of Western rock for their own expressive purposes (an early compilation carried the title Joseon Punk (조선펑크); a later band  branded themselves as playing “kimchibilly”); then, as the foreign population of Korea grew, the Westerners themselves joined in, forming mixed-nationality bands with the Koreans; now, Korean bands have begun to play in the West, and Western bands come to play in Korea — the sort of ongoing transoceanic musical exchange that must warm the heart of any cultural globalist.

But will there come a point, I wonder, when we stop calling it Korean music? For all their close scrutiny and impeccable assumption, even improvement, of the form of the postwar American greaser, those Harajuku kids Barry ridiculed, “all dressed identically in tight black T-shirts, tight black pants, black socks, and pointy black shoes,” each one with a “lovingly constructed, carefully maintained, major-league caliber 1950s-style duck’s-ass haircut,” come off no less Japanese — and, in a way, more Japanese — for it. He witnessed a mastery of varying surfaces, even foreign surfaces, but a mastery itself rooted in a deeper place. In the words of Pico Iyer, “Japan is ready to change its clothes so often in part because it changes its soul so rarely.”

How often does Korea change its soul? An ultimately unanswerable question, but one that any watcher of Korean popular culture can’t avoid. Our Nation and Us and Them reveal a subculture more porous, more subject to permanent influence, than any of my acquaintance in Japan, and perhaps, so far, a more fruitful one for it. I get the sense of K-pop, which by nature seeks an ever bigger market, moving toward a kind of linguistic dilution and geographical nowhere-ness that might one day, for all the soft-power value of the brand at the moment, let it cast off what Epstein calls its “Special K” and become a kind of (alas, even blander) global pop music. Will Korea’s punk and indie rockers, in their oppositional manner, show the way down a more interesting path of musical internationalization?

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

The Poetry of, or Rather in, the Seoul Subway

By Colin Marshall

When I want to learn about a city, whether researching it on the internet or stepping out into it in reality, I first look to its subway. It might surprise you how much you can infer about the overall personality of any given metropolis just from riding its trains, be that metropolis Los Angeles (incomplete and inconsistent, but still new and promising) or San Francisco (charming and infuriating in equal measure), New York (often old and dirty, but nevertheless an attraction for all walks of life) or London (highly serviceable, as long as you can enjoy grumbling about it), Mexico City (lively, brightly colored, enjoyably strange, and subject to sudden dysfunction) or Copenhagen (expensive).

I’ve ridden a good deal of urban transit in my time, none superior, thus far, to Seoul’s. Angelenos, who can count themselves as having a good day if their train shows up within fifteen minutes — assuming they need to go someplace a train actually goes, and assuming they know their city’s rail network exists in the first place — can only marvel at not just the system’s range, frequency, and cleanliness, but a host of features they’d never dared imagine: unbroken cell and wi-fi signals, displays that map the next few trains on the way in accurate real time, heated seats, and a variety of shops and cafés, or at least decently stocked stalls and vending machines (as well as non-horrifying bathrooms, the one true marker of civilization) in every station.

Once they adjust to all that, they might then notice, especially if they study the Korean language, how often they see poetry during their short waits for trains. And I don’t mean that metaphorically, as in the “poetry” of bustling, well-orchestrated urban life or what have you — I mean it literally, as in actual poems put up for everyone to read. The program that did it began in 2008, ostensibly to provide the harried citizens of Seoul with opportunities to pause and reflect amid all their underground to-ing and fro-ing. Today, theses poems have made their way up in nearly 5,000 locations in about 300 different stations.

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The selection committee assembled by this subway poetry program have tweaked it over the years, introducing such refinements as tailoring the selection of poems thematically, in each station, to the surrounding neighborhood: poems to do with to youth at the Children’s Grand Park station, China at the Daerim station (center of Seoul’s Chinese population), Japan at the Ichon station (center of its Japanese population), America, England, and Nigeria at the Itaewon station (next to the American army base, and thus a kind of English-speaking enclave), and France at the Express Bus Terminal Station (near the Seoul headquarters of various French companies and the city’s biggest French school, and thus a place where, surreally, you hear French daily spoken on the street).

In Hong Sangsoo‘s Hahaha (하하하), a floundering film director attempts to win over a girl by writing her a few lines of verse about the moment he first saw her. “Everyone writes poems,” she responds, unimpressed. “I do,” she adds, “and so does he” — the boyfriend she already has, a poet by profession. Hahaha came out at just about the same time as Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry (시), the story of a small-town grandmother who decides to start writing poems in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, now one of the most acclaimed works of modern Korean cinema. People I ask for suggestions of Korean-language reading material often bring up books of poetry first.

So it seems that Koreans, in the main, don’t find poetry as marginal or even off-putting as the reputations of Americans suggest we do. In fact, I’ve heard many who know argue that the true heart of Korean literature lies less in novels, still a relatively new form here that in some ways hasn’t fully “taken,” than in short stories, and less in short stories than in poems. So it makes sense that, if Seoul wants to introduce literary moments into the long days of its commuters, it would use subway-station poetry as the tool with which to do it. (Although I could see Grenoble-style story vending machines potentially making inroads here too.)

All this nevertheless has its discontents. Some cultural critics have voiced the opinion that the poems selected, whether from poets living or dead, famous members of the canon or contest-winning everyday citizens, tend a bit too far toward the simplistic to represent the form at its best. That may be, though I have to admit that, while my command of the Korean language allows me to read them, the point where I can confidently evaluate them remains far in the future. (I can’t help but notice, however, a certain prevalence of blowing wind, blooming flowers, and things happening under moonlight.)

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Whatever their literary merits, these poems always appear on one kind of surface in the stations: their “screen doors,” glass walls between platform and track with portals that automatically open when the doors of an arriving train align with them. This at first looks like just one more technological feature that puts the safety and comfort of Seoul’s subway so far ahead of the others, but then you realize why the biggest city in South Korea, whose suicide rate floats around number one in the world (vying with the likes of Guyana and Lithuania), needed them: if they didn’t block the way, you’d see a lot more people jumping in front of the trains.

But none of this will sink too deeply in with a first-time visitor who doesn’t yet know much about Korea, whose experience will probably have more to do with absorbing the richly incomprehensible social, technological, linguistic, and graphical world around them. In that perceptual environment, the poetry and the dozens of ever-changing advertisements surrounding it — for coffee, for cellphone games, for a popular matchmaking service called Duo — merge into one intense and essentially undifferentiated visual substance. I get a little bit of that experience myself whenever I go to Japan, where my tendency to forget the Chinese characters they use there renders me a borderline illiterate.

Still, I haven’t grown so adept at Korean that I can ignore either the poetry or the advertisements around me as I wait for the train; if I don’t read them, I might lose out on the valuable opportunity to learn a new word or expression (even for something other than moonlight). When you read ad copy and poetry in the same way, you soon start to see the former as a species of the latter. This, for me, holds especially true with the latest round of industrial-sized illuminated posters for that matchmaking company, which, though I doubt I have any future as a translator of verse, have offered me plenty of chances to try my hand:

Someone who put work before love
Someone who wasn’t ready
Someone who believed they were fine alone
Someone who just liked their freedom
Get me married, Duo 

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

America Has School Shootings, Korea Has Sinking Ships

By Colin Marshall

You still see the yellow ribbons here and there around Seoul. I remember seeing them even in Los Angeles, pinned up by the hundred outside the Korean consulate building on Wilshire Boulevard. I got a couple yellow ribbons of my own last week, freebies that came with admission to Kin Jin-yeul’s new documentary Cruel State (나쁜 나라), which follows the quest for answers undertaken by the parents of the high-school students who perished last April in the sinking of the MV Sewol, the disaster which precipitated the yellow-ribbon flurry.

Cruel State covers, in roughly captured but often striking handheld video images, the year and a half after the incident, during which time a group of these parents spent beating on the Korean government’s door, seemingly full-time, marching to various official buildings and camping out on their steps, confronting a host of blank-faced representatives, heckling the president and even making their way up to her house, all the while demanding to know why their children had to die on a field trip. It should hardly count as a spoiler to tell you that the parents end the film in possession of as few answers as they had at the beginning.

In a sense, we know exactly why those kids died, having long had the facts laid out for us: the overloaded cargo hold, the underloaded ballast tank, the sudden turn, the nearly untrained crew, the captain not even asleep at the wheel but nowhere near it. But nobody has yet explained to anyone’s satisfaction, let alone to that of the families of the deceased, why the nation watched the ship sink on live television while an ineffective and seemingly incompetent rescue operation flailed around it. Absent a thorough explanation, the parents would at least like someone to take credible responsibility for those 304 lives lost.

“I take full responsibility,” announced the suicide note in the pocket of the school’s principal, and the Prime Minister said it too when he resigned over the matter, but they meant it in a more traditional East Asian fall-on-your-sword kind of way, while the families want to know who actually caused the disaster. But no one group of people, let alone one individual, could have brought about the fate of the Sewol themselves, and given that, I can almost understand the South Korean government’s tendency toward stonewalling and blame-deflecting circumlocution. Nobody thinks they did their job overseeing the cargo ferry industry, but could anyone in charge of running the country, even those most filled with shame by the incident, imagine that any decision of their own sank the ship?

Even those in charge of running the ship itself must see the blame as widely dispersed. Thoughts of disproportionate culpability no doubt haunt the surviving crew members directly involved in that fateful turn, but even they stand at the end of a long causal chain, one that may stretch all the way back to the early development of South Korea, the country that found a way to do the seemingly impossible: raise itself from the status of half a poor, ruined, and thoughtlessly divided remote peninsula to that of a modern economic powerhouse more first-world, in many ways, than much of the first world.

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Yet the Sewol was a third-world accident, and not the first — not even the eighth, ninth, tenth — in South Korea’s short history. Cruel State opens with a title card listing off the dates and death tolls of the Sewol‘s precedents, and only those specifically involving ferries: as the country’s economy grew, so did its propensity to generate horrifying news stories of not just boats sinking but jetliners crashing, trains catching fire, bridges and buildings falling down. 1995’s Sampoong Department Store disaster, the most memorable example of that last category, took 502 lives in the deadliest building collapse since antiquity.

It also brought the first major wave of the reflection of which the Sewol has brought the latest, one that forces people to ask, Is this the price Korea must pay for its relentless — and, looking back now, reckless — drive to do ever more, ever faster, ignoring procedure, law, and threat to life and limb if it meant one more step up the economic ladder toward that prized distinction of “developed country”? And for all the pains Korea has taken, can it even consider itself a member of the developed world, where buildings don’t collapse and boats don’t sink due to sheer irresponsibility?

The documentary’s English title of Cruel State highlights the conflict between the Sewol parents and unresponsive Korean officialdom, but the point clarifies further with a direct translation of its Korean title: “Bad Country.” That echoes a sentiment you’ll hear from many Koreans who left their homeland before the 1990s, whose first-hand memories of their homeland, which vividly retain the simultaneous drabness and fierceness that once characterized the place, stop well short of the period after the country’s impressive recovery from the 1997 Asian financial crisis, when Korea looked like a shining city on the hill to the rest of Asia and, as time went on, to the wider world as well. But then came the Sewol, resuming the pattern of tragedies that have not only killed thousands but, in a sense, indicted the entire South Korean project.

The United States of America has an obvious equivalent in its increasingly frequent mass shootings. Cruel State made this especially clear to me, so closely does the Sewol parents’ struggle mirror, especially in its Sisyphean appearance, that of some parents of the elementary schoolers gunned down at Newtown, Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012. Those parents have worked, needless to say, for stricter gun laws, a cause with which I can only agree, though I can’t be the only American who wonders whether his country long ago opened Pandora’s box.

America has more firearms, one often hears, than it does people. No plausible gun law, no matter how strict, could bring that ratio very far down in anything like the near future — and if one did, I fear it would only give a certain segment of America reason to believe, and react accordingly to the belief, that the president really is coming for its guns. And sometimes I wonder whether the National Rifle Association, the standard target for blame whenever an American shoots up a school, a theater, a church, a postal facility, or a government office, has it entirely wrong when they insist that guns don’t kill people, people kill people.

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I can’t call myself one of Michael Moore’s biggest fans, but his documentary Bowling for Columbine put forth a question all too rarely asked: what if the guns aren’t the problem — what if we’re the problem? We regard America’s routine shootings and the guns used to execute them as the disease when they could just as well be the symptom, the natural consequences of a violent, introverted culture, just as the Sampoong, the Sewol, and all of South Korea’s other high-profile catastrophes may have come as the natural consequences of the unceasing pressure for higher and higher performance — deliver more cargo per run, do them faster, forget the safety training, just ship out — that pervades so much of life here. At this point, Americans and Koreans alike might well ask themselves if they simply live in, well, a bad country.

Still, Korea has shown that it learns more from failure than America does. Malcolm Gladwell took some flak when he framed Korean Air’s streak of crashes in the 1980s and 90s as a cultural problem addressed with a cultural solution, but something has kept their planes properly in the air (“nut rage” and the like notwithstanding) these past fifteen years. The citywide post-Sampoong investigation revealed that one in seven Seoul towers needed rebuilding, and none of them have collapsed since (though an auditorium at a Gyeongju resort did last year, killing ten). 2003’s badly mishandled Daegu subway fire resulted in 192 deaths, while 2014’s Busan subway fire resulted in none at all.

The Seoul subway also had a blessedly death-free incident last year, a collision on its busy Line 2 just weeks after the sinking of the Sewol. But many of the passengers involved, well aware that the students on the boat who survived were the students who disobeyed the order to stay in their cabins — evidence of a frightening gap between the reality of their country and the follow-the-leader mentality their country had instilled in them — pried open the doors and fled the moment the voice on the loudspeaker told them not to. “It’s unlikely South Koreans will ever again trust the voice on the intercom,” wrote novelist Kim Young-ha.

Each big shooting in America does spark a renewed debate, though, America being essentially an accretion of rules, always a legal debate, with one side arguing that more laws will prevent more such incidents, and the other arguing that more laws will not prevent more such incidents. (Nobody dares imagine the possibility a country whose people, irrespective of the laws they live under, don’t want to shoot each other in the first place.) This sort of thing may deepen America’s national resignation on both sides that the general phenomenon will only get worse, but in Korea, I can at least believe that a ferry will never again sink in the same manner as did the Sewol.

Still, the focused but inconclusive Cruel State, neither first movie about the disaster (Lee Sang-ho and Ahn Hae-ryong’s The Truth Shall Not Sink with Sewol/다이빙벨 came out last October) nor, surely, the last, recognizes the consequent psychological shift as lasting — a shift, at least, away from complacency rather than toward it. This portrait of agony brings to mind the words of Martial joylessly watching lions devour slaves at the Coliseum, words Alistair Cooke quoted on Letter from America when he faced the Columbine High School massacre, which in retrospect began a grim era: “These are my times, and I must know them.”

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

Korea Through the Eyes of Hong Sangsoo, the Éric Rohmer and/or Woody Allen of Korean Cinema

By Colin Marshall

When we moved to Seoul, my girlfriend and I, not unstrategically, chose an apartment located near several major universities. This guaranteed a robust level of cultural amenity; imagine, if you will, the features of several American “college towns” all stacked up within a few square miles. One morning after getting settled in, we took a walk up toward the Film Forum, a kind of miniature art-house multiplex right across the street from Ewha Womans University. There we caught a screening of what, for me, made for the ideal first movie with which to begin my life in Korea: Hong Sangsoo’s Right Now, Wrong Then (지금은 맞고 그때는 틀리다).

Koreans often ask me what got me interested in their country, a question that inevitably leads to Hong Sangsoo. Nothing has motivated me to immerse myself in things Korean as much as the language itself (about which more another day), but my first exposure to the language came through the movies. I got that exposure when Korean cinema enjoyed its first international boom in the early 2000s, which flung out into the world such slick but thematically and tonally distinctive pictures as Park Chan-wook’s Joint Security Area (공동경비구역) and Oldboy (올드보이), Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (살인의 추억) and The Host (괴물), and Kim Ki-duk’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (봄 여름 가을 겨울 그리고 봄) and 3-Iron (빈 집).

Having watched through the filmographies of those Korean auteurs, I found my way to Hong, perhaps the auteur-iest of all Korean auteurs. By that I don’t mean to call him the absolute best filmmaker of the bunch (though I do follow his work with by far the most enthusiasm), but the one who — having made a movie a year for almost the past two decades now, each on a shoestring budget and some with scripts written shooting day by shooting day — has arrived at the most developed style, one he uses to examine, with clear eyes from many different angles, the stories that unfold when a certain type of man (often an filmmaker or academic) and a certain type of woman (often an artist) collide in modern Korea.

This has increasingly drawn accusations that Hong “makes the same movie over and over again,” a charge I can accept, but only to the extent that, say, Mark Rothko painted the same pictures over and over again. Or maybe I should compare Hong to one of the Cubists, so intently has he concentrated on viewing his subject matter in as many ways as possible in a single work, telling a story several times over but with slight variations, or from one character’s perspective and then another’s, in order to shed light from all possible directions.

Hong has kept with this impulse in Right Now, Wrong Then. A director named Cheon-soo arrives in the city of Suwon, twenty miles south of Seoul, to speak at a screening of his movie. But he’s come a day early, and while killing time at a nearby historical site happens to meet Hee-jeong, a painter, who hasn’t seen his work herself but still displays some excitement at meeting a director of some renown. He invites her to coffee, then she invites him to her studio. He takes her to a soju-soaked dinner during which he professes his love for her, and then she brings him along to a party (otherwise attended only by a trio of middle-aged women) she’d previously promised to attend.

Then the story starts over, but with variations. This time Hee-jeong, who’d previously seemed so hesitant to reveal to the filmmaker her work in progress, now shows it more confidently. This time Cheon-soo offers constructive criticism (emphasis on the criticism) rather than the fulsome praise he heaped upon her canvas in the first version. This time, as Hee-jeong sleeps off her drink in another room, Cheon-soo sees fit to suddenly, drunkenly undress in front of the horrified ladies at the party. This time Cheon-soo gets along with his interlocutor at the screening’s Q&A the next day, whereas the first time he wrote him off as an incompetent. The second reality, on the whole, ultimately feels preferable to the first, if only as a 51% positive outcome versus the first reality’s 49%.

The latter version of events certainly feels preferable for Cheon-soo, despite or possibly because of that impromptu, unwanted strip show. At least it goes better than the first iteration of the party, during which Hee-jeong repeats Cheon-soo’s praise of her painting, lines the other women at the table, fans of his, recognize from the descriptions of his own work he’d given before in interview after interview. This leads to talk of all the rumors floating around of his various affairs with female crew members. Thus his game unravels, and the first telling of this story (which the film presents as Right Then, Wrong Now) shows him up, like many a Hong film has shown many a male protagonist up, as the pathetic playboy he is.

“What can we do about this Korean man?” exclaimed one of the female characters of In Another Country (다른 나라에서), four Hong films ago, upon catching one of the male characters in the philandering act. We might consider that a driving idea of Hong’s filmography, which can sometimes seem like one big exercise in exposing the delusion and foolishness of men enslaved simultaneously by both their high, inflexible romantic ideals and their low, insatiable sexual desires. (Yet as much as critics have written much about the problems of Hong’s male characters, I believe the haven’t sufficiently acknowledged those of his female characters, who respond to the men’s buffoonish rigidity with a centerless passivity I find downright scary.)

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The ideals of Hong’s men never get satisfied, but the desires occasionally do; he used to punctuate his movies with some of the least appealing sex scenes in modern cinema — an unblinking camera, bright lights, pale flesh, bare rooms, dialogue like “Can I moan?” — but has moved away, mercifully, from that terrible frankness. Right Now, Wrong Then, in fact, contains neither the image nor even the implication of sex, and for its particular story — or rather, for its particular stories — benefits from that: despite the varying particulars, Cheon-soo and Hee-jeong’s brief relationship sputters out both times, and feels all the more real for it.

Korean cinema as a whole first fascinated me for a variety of reasons, among them the fact that, even in this day and age, it so often accomplishes the rare feat of pulling off melodrama, or if not melodrama, what might otherwise Westerners as preposterously heightened emotion. Hong’s movies, apart from an outburst from an especially frustrated and/or inebriated character every now and again, succeed by doing the opposite, ratcheting down the Sturm und Drang until they become a mirror reflecting a certain segment of Korean society. (Even those who dislike Hong’s work never do so on grounds of implausibility.)

But given the way Hong constructs his films, I’d do better to describe each of them as a series of mirrors, attached but facing in slightly different directions, hence the comparisons commonly made between him and predecessors as different as Éric Rohmer and Woody Allen. A more accomplished writer friend once gave me this piece of golden wisdom: “If you focus on the structure, the content takes care of itself.” That could well be another driving idea of Hong’s filmography, though I don’t think he chose his subject matter of the miscommunications, pretensions, and humiliations that occur when man encounters woman wholly accidentally.

I often think of Anthony Lane’s words: “The landscape of desire, as laid out before Hong’s unflustered gaze, could scarcely be further from an idyll.” Whether that gaze applies only to Korea’s landscape of desire (Hong has set only one picture outside his homeland, in Paris, but he kept all the characters Korean) each viewer will have to determine for themselves. But I get the sense that Hong understands the universality of his work. I once heard him respond, at a Q&A, to the question of whether he would ever consider telling a different kind of story. He said that he finds nothing more fascinating than the relationships between men and women, and wouldn’t stop examining them until he understood them. “And if anybody tells you they understand them,” he added, “they’re lying.”

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love I.Seoul.U

By Colin Marshall

Just before I came to live in Korea, the capital introduced a brand new English-language slogan, the fruit of a much-publicized process wherein real, everyday citizens — alongside a panel of nine “experts” — got to vote on ideas submitted by other real, everyday citizens. The victorious entry, which originally came from a philosophy student, won over not just 682 of the 1,140 Seoulites who turned up to Seoul Plaza to cast their vote, but the entire expert panel as well. And so, beating out rival candidates “Seoulmate” and “SEOULing,” emerged the city’s next global banner: “I.Seoul.U.”

I watched all this happen from a distance, back in Los Angeles, and when I say “watched,” I mean I watched my Facebook news feed explode with ridicule. (One wag wasted no time Photoshopping a version of the slogan for the village of Fucking, Austria.) I.Seoul.U proved controversial from the get-go, but I daresay that the loudest of the controversy — and even my view from Facebook made this clear — erupted among Seoul-based expatriates, especially those from English-speaking countries, a group on whom you can always count to get powerlessly worked up over matters of Korean policy.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” goes the mildest of the objections. Indeed not, but that just puts I.Seoul.U on the long list of the English slogans adopted by Korean cities that hit the native English speaker’s ear somewhat askew. These range from the bland (“Amazing Iksan,” “Beautiful Gyeongju,” “Good Chungju,” “It’s Daejeon”) to the unpromising (“Fine City Hwaseong,” “Just Sangju,” “Namyangju: The Slow City”) to the ungrammatical (“Amenity Seocheon,” “Do Dream Dongducheon,” “Wonderfull [sic] Samcheok”) to the threatening (“Bucheon Hands Up!”).

This whole body of branding, more than any work in particular, no matter how amusing, does raise a rarely asked question: why does any city in Korea, let alone an out-of-the-way small town like Iksan, Sangju, or Samcheok, need a slogan in English at all? For all the interest in English-language media here as well as all the time and money poured into English-language education, the day where Korea can call itself a widely English-speaking society in the manner of European countries like Germany or Denmark lies, to my mind, at least a century off. British, American, and Canadian travelers have only just begun to put Seoul on their bucket lists, and I don’t see them flocking to Namyangju, the Slow City any time soon.

So who are these slogans meant to attract? The Korea Times‘ Andrew Salmon, a rare Western defender of I.Seoul.U, argues that “the target demographic for Seoul tourism promotion efforts is not the U.S., U.K., Canada or anywhere else in the Anglosphere. The obvious, natural focus for Seoul tourism promotion is China and Japan. The stark simplicity of I.Seoul.U may well speak to tourists hailing from these high-potential target markets ― tourists who have, on the whole, a poor command of English.” Here we have, in other words, a use of English not as English, exactly, but as what Salmon calls “the international medium of communication.”

I SEOUL U photo gallery

We might better understand the I.Seoul.Us of the world if we regarded them not as English-language slogans, but as Global English-language slogans — or, to use the appropriate neologism, Globish-language slogans. An ugly term, yes, but then Globish is an ugly thing, as anyone knows who’s turned an ear toward everyday conversations between non-native English speakers from different countries, the kind of thudding exchanges of nouns (and nouns pressed into verb duty) going on even now in hostels across Asia. I.Seoul.U belongs to an English stripped of its expressiveness and nuance, a language painfully reduced from the one with which the slogan’s most ardent detractors grew up.

But Seoul’s making such a fuss over its branding in English, even perfect English, might signal a certain desperation. Let me ask you this: do you know Tokyo’s English slogan? I bet you don’t, and neither did I, until a bit of digging revealed that Japan’s capital rolled out a new one of its own in October: “& TOKYO,” a puzzling half-phrase surely even less catchy to English speakers than I.Seoul.U. But what does it matter? Everyone knows Tokyo. Nobody knows it because of its crack ad campaigns, and certainly not because of Japan’s mastery of English; we’re talking about the country, remember, of T-shirts emblazoned with such nonsensical messages as “MONEY IS LIKE MUCH NOT NOT” and “SOMEWHERE I HAVE NEVER BEEN SOMETIMES I AM.”

Or they seem nonsensical, rather, if you try to parse them as English. Japan, a country that sometimes seems to have recused itself from the burden of communication in that or any other foreign language, prefers to repurpose bits and pieces of English as, effectively, a form of Japanese. This, as part of the larger phenomenon of Japanese insularity well scrutinized over the past 400 years, has its downsides, but at least Japan knows where it stands with regard to English. Korea looks less sure, and whether it becomes another Japan or another Denmark, linguistically speaking, counts as one of the many questions whose answers I moved here to watch emerge.

If Seoul insists on branding itself in English but wants to ruffle fewer feathers, I suggest simply translating its Korean-language slogans from now on. The graphic design of the official I.Seoul.U logo actually includes, right below the Globish, a superior Korean-language version: 나와 너의 서울, or “My Seoul and Yours.” I.Seoul.U’s predecessor “Hi Seoul — Soul of Asia” remained in office for a dozen years (despite China’s ban on the use of the phrase “Soul of Asia” within their own borders), but it already had a considerably more cogent slogan in “함께 만드는 서울, 함께 누리는 서울,” or “Seoul We Create Together, Seoul We Enjoy Together.”

Still, I have to admit both that I laughed along with the rest of the Westerners when I.Seoul.U made its debut and that, about a month after it went into action and I moved to Seoul myself, I’ve come around. After all, there’s no such thing as bad publicity — a highly non-Korean notion, granted — and I have just wide enough a contrarian streak to prefer an awkward slogan that gets people talking, or even just grumbling, to a frictionless entry like “Surprising Seoul,” which wouldn’t get anybody doing anything. The broad references to current internet trends in its phrasing and presentation (it does surprise me that the submission came from an undergraduate and not one of the middle-aged men who tend to hold the cards in Korea) will date instantaneously, but for the time being, I, for one, will stay to get Seouled with pleasure.

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

Protest, Korean-Style

By Colin Marshall

The first piece of writing I ever read on Korea had to have been P.J. O’Rourke’s “Seoul Brothers,” originally published in Rolling Stone in 1988. O’Rourke, whose work in many ways inspired me to get into writing myself, back then had the beat of the troubled parts of the world; I first read this particular article in a collection called Holidays in Hell. It opens as follows: “When the kid in the front row at the rally bit off the tip of his little finger and wrote KIM DAE JUNG in blood on his fancy white ski jacket — I think that was the first time I ever really felt like a foreign correspondent. I mean, here was something really fucking foreign.”

O’Rourke had come to Korea to cover the turmoil around the country’s first free direct presidential election. A Korean friend of mine, an economist as well as a fan The Economist, remembers opening up that magazine some time ago and reading an article which began with words like, “South Korea, which became a democracy in 1987…” — words which startled her. She on one level knew, of course, that her homeland held its first genuinely democratic (or close-enough) elections in that relatively recent-sounding year, but it’s one thing to know it, and quite another to have it plainly stated back at you as an acknowledged fact by a respected international news outlet.

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History remembers Kim Dae-jung as an icon of Korean democracy, but despite having proven inspirational enough in December of 1987 to get his supporters writing his name in their own blood, he wouldn’t win the presidency until 1998. He ran against the late Kim Young-sam, who would serve as President first, from 1993 to 1998, and they both lost to Roh Tae-woo, President from 1988 to 1993, though rumors of vote fraud swirled around his victory fast enough that O’Rourke had the opportunity to don a helmet against the hail of thrown stones and a ventilator mask against the tear gas (which seems to have constituted a basic element of Seoul’s atmosphere in the 1980s) and make his way into a ward office occupied by enraged student radicals and under siege by the police.

I experienced nothing so harrowing at Seoul’s latest round of protests, almost three decades later in front of City Hall this past Saturday. Korea’s street fighting years have gone, but — in keeping with the retromania that has lately swept Korean popular culture, culminating in a hugely popular TV drama set in 1988 — their spirit made a bit of a comeback last month, when a November 14th demonstration attended by between 68,000 and 130,000 turned into a melee between protesters and police, the latter armed with pepper spray-infused water cannons. The grievances of the former, a variety of which tend to accrete together to fuel these protests, included the potential abuse of labor reforms meant to allow companies to hire on shorter-term employment contracts, manhandling of history by new government-issued school textbooks, and harm to Korean farmers from a free trade agreement with China.

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When I turned up at Seoul Plaza around 1:00 in the afternoon, I found little going on but a group of identically-dressed protesters practicing their choreographed routine — literally a song and dance, a form Korean protesters have long used to get their points across — before a sparse crowd. But when I came back about an hour later, that sparse crowd had become a nearly impassable throng, many of its constituents wearing color-coded dress or holding aloft flags in representation of their cause. This being Korea, a number of street-food vendors had also set up shop to feed the crowd on the chilly day with grilled chicken skewers, speared fish cake, and steaming pots of beondegi, the boiled silkworm larvae so popular as pub cuisine.

More video screens had gone up since last I’d checked, and the cameras that fed them swooped over the crowd (of 14,000, says the police estimate) looking down onto a sea of white masks. Those masks, which anyone could pick up from distributors handing them out around the plaza, had appeared as a result of the November 14th protests, or rather, in response to President Park Geun-hye’s response to the November 14th protests. Park brought down an official ban on masked protests because, in her words, “Isn’t that how the Islamic State does things now, hiding their faces?” — thereby giving her detractors a both easy and media-friendly way to show their defiance.

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Though he couldn’t understand the language, O’Rourke captured the tone of a politically charged Korean gathering neatly: “Korean sounds like ack-ack fire,” he writes, “every syllable has a primary accent.” Indeed, in official or otherwise serious contexts, even civilians in Korea tend to speak with a militaristic sir-yes-sir cadence. And if the speaker pauses, “the crowd responds in unison with a rhymed slogan or with a precise fifteen seconds of waving little paper Korean flags. There’s no frenzy in this, no mob hysteria, and it’s not a drill or an exercise. I’d never seen spontaneous regimentation before.”

This rally featured speaker after speaker, each performing with a display of high if nevertheless controlled emotion. They often spoke Park’s name, usually in calls for her resignation, or at least for an apology for her increasingly heavy-handed use of power. In the weeks before the protest, posters critical of the President appeared in subway stations throughout Seoul, and those doing the criticizing imply and sometimes even claim outright that her ruling style has come to resemble that of her dictator father Park Chung-hee, under whom Korea industrialized in the 1960s and 70s, the period of which opponents of the new history textbooks fear a “whitewashing.” Her supporters, many of whom remember the country’s rapid development under Park Chung-hee (I have yet to meet an avowed Park Geun-hye fan under fifty), might well consider that a fine thing.

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To the extent that the older generations approve of Park Geun-hye and admire her father for having run a tight ship, they also regard protesters like Saturday’s as a nuisance. They might have applauded the police ban on their activity, ostensibly for the sake of public safety, and regretted when the Seoul Administrative Court overturned it as an infringement of their right to assemble. But the very notion of a ban on a protest might strike American ears as something of a contradiction: surely if a government lacks the right to ban anything, it lacks the right to ban a protest.

But as that Economist article reminded my economist friend, democracy and the attitude toward the law (of those subject to it as well as those who make it) on which an American might expect democracy to be based hasn’t had time to take deep root in Korea. A protester now might feel entirely justified in fearing a short slide back into dictatorship, especially given the thin ideological convictions on which democracy came in the first place. “What’s this election all about?” O’Rourke asked voters in 1987. “Democracy,” they answered. “But what is democracy?” he asked. “Good,” they answered. “Yes, of course,” he said, “but why exactly?” “Is more democratic that way!”

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Much on Korea’s surface has changed since the 80s, but some deeper qualities haven’t, least of all the assumptions underlying protests like this month’s or last’s. Michael Breen told the story well in his book The Koreans: “In the first half of the twentieth century, the Japanese used modern law to invalidate Korean practice, destroy Korean culture, and cheat locals out of their land. Under Park Chung-hee, the government directed modernization through laws. These laws are written in a vague way that allows government bureaucrats great leeway in interpretation. Thus, Koreans have always seen law as something given from above. The concept that law is created after debate by people who are elected, and that in theory they, the ordinary people, have a say in the development of the laws of the land, does not yet figure into the common perception.”

Longtime Korea-watchers tend to view the country not as a system of laws but of social relations, a framework which makes it easier to understand an environment where, as Breen puts it, the opposition will “simply oppose and hinder government in whatever way it can, without bothering to develop rational argument,” where parties form and dissolve as nothing more than “a gesture to democracy in an authoritarian political culture.” Democracy for Koreans, as much now as when the last edition of The Koreans came out in 2004, “means they can elect their leader and hold him accountable. But they still do not see their political leaders as their representatives. There is still a view that leaders are wrong, corrupt and working against the interests of the people.” I might add that, even though I didn’t dodge any rocks or breathe any tear gas this time around, that mistrust still goes both ways.

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

Why I Left Los Angeles for Seoul

By Colin Marshall

Three weeks ago, I moved from Los Angeles’ Koreatown to Korea itself. The relocation happened not suddenly but after years of planning, and as the date of the one-way flight came within a few months’ time, I found myself more and more frequently pressed to answer the same question: why? Why did I want to move across the Pacific Ocean to a country the size of Indiana, a country many Americans know only for a poorly understood war back in the 1950s (and then mainly through the 1970s television dramedy ostensibly set in it), an impoverished and feistily militaristic northern neighbor, and, more recently, squadrons of pop singers often sonically and visually indistinguishable from one another?

But I’ve hardly gone to Korea without precedent. Nowadays, most of those Americans who couldn’t describe Korea in even the broadest strokes themselves know a few other people who’ve been, whether as members of the U.S. military stationed here or, more often among Californians, college graduates who do a year or two of English teaching here to pay off student loans. The soldiers and English teachers still do more than their part to color the Westerner presence in Korea, but I didn’t want to join their ranks; I had to come on my own terms, outside of the established roles and acknowledged types.

Seoul Welcomes You

This sort of venture has more of an association with Japan, inspirer of so many English-language expatriate memoirs and observational writings since the Second World War. I’ve enjoyed those books, and even taken their tradition as something of a research interest, but the Westerner-in-Japan narrative has, by now, assumed a pretty standard form. The Westerner-in-Korea narrative, however — essayed by Isabella Bird Bishop and the astronomer Percival Lowell in the late 19th century as well as Simon Winchester, Michael Stephens, and Clive Leatherdale in the late 20th, though none of them made a permanent home in the country — has yet to really take shape. The desire to experience that narrative for myself counted as one reason to leave America.

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The desire to live in the first world counted as another. That sentiment came to mind in Los Angeles whenever I found myself aggressively panhandled, chasing the wild goose of a usable public restroom, or waiting fifteen minutes on a platform for the next train — assuming I had the good fortune to be going somewhere a train could take me in the first place. While I wouldn’t say (as Joe Biden memorably did about the facilities at LaGuardia Airport) that my homeland has fallen into the third world, who could disagree that it now sets the unfortunate standard for something like a new second world, a plane for great powers in clear decline? Their signal qualities: inadequate infrastructure; a bitter, futile obsession with the law; and the sad inability to see beyond their glory days.

Some Koreans, too, have begun to look longingly into the rear view mirror this past decade, but mainly those in the older generations who voted in the current president. The daughter of the strongman who industrialized the country with the “Miracle on the Han River” in the 1960s and 70s, she promises a “Second Miracle” just as straight-facedly as certain American politicians promise to return the United States to the ever more mythologized 1950s. I draw great refreshment from the fact that no Korean could possibly want to return to that decade, much of which Korea spent as a war-ravaged shambles.

In the 21st century, America and Korea have, to some extent, switched roles: the former now looks a bit shambolic compared to the latter, and the latter, on the whole, still regards the future (despite much hand-wringing over the slowdown in the staggeringly rapid economic growth of past decades) as a good thing. I haven’t met an American who considers the future a good thing in years. A British friend here, a notable writer of books on Korea, felt just the same about his homeland when he left it in the early 1980s: “But I found that in Korea,” he said, “I had a spring in my step.”

night street

That’s not to say that the darker aspects of Korean life — the all-pervading culture of hierarchy, the shockingly high suicide rate, the major disaster every twenty years or so — can’t also take the spring out of your step. But both the dark and the light (and especially the inevitable, complicated mixture thereof) get acknowledged by the most interesting elements Korean culture, which manifest not just in its books but its films, its music, its food, its media, its business, and its daily life: the subjects, in other worlds, I’ll take as the focus of the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog.

“Every man has two countries,” goes a saying attributed to no less an American mind than Thomas Jefferson, “his own and France.” France’s global cultural primacy may have waned since the early nineteenth century, but every man’s need for two countries — and in our unprecedentedly connected age, I’d say at least two — remains. It’s from that dual-countried perspective that I’ll write to you here three times a week. America, and especially Los Angeles (the most Korean city, incidentally, outside Korea itself), fascinates me more than ever, though it also frustrates me more than ever. Korea, and especially Seoul, also fascinates me more than ever, and I look forward to the frustrations it, too, will surely bring.