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, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook @ColinMarshallEssayist.

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.

KB - Cruel State 2

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.

KB - Cruel State 3

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.)

KB - Right Now Wrong Then 2

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.

protests 4

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.

protests poster

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.

protests 2

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.

protests 3

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!”

protests 5

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.


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.