Tag Archive | "Culture"

South Korea Weighs Alternative Military Service Programs for Pop Culture Artists

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

What Happened

  • Lawmakers are considering a proposal to draft BTS for a campaign to promote the Dokdo Islets in lieu of serving their traditional military duties.
  • Proponents of the idea argue that the K-pop band would help raise international visibility on the territorial dispute between South Korea and Japan over the islets.
  • This comes after BTS roared to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 songs chart with their debut English-language single “Dynamite.”

Implications: Adoption of alternative military service for pop culture icons is consistent with an existing policy framework that sees conscription exemption as a tool to elevate Korea’s international standing. Under the current Military Service Act, male athletes who win medals in the Olympic Games or gold medals in the Asian Games are granted exemptions from military service. This measure was intended to raise South Korea’s international standing during the Cold War when the country competed with North Korea for diplomatic recognition. While some groups advocate for reforms to provide young people with more freedoms, the special arrangement for pop culture icons comes from the old line of thinking that places the interest of the nation ahead of the individual.

Context: In South Korea, all able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 28 are required to serve in the military for about two years as part of the country’s national defense against North Korea. While athletes have the opportunity to earn an exemption, musicians with high international visibility like BTS are not currently accorded the same privilege. The defense ministry recently announced that it is looking into an option that would allow BTS members a postponement of their mandatory enlistment until the age of 30. Since early September, more than 1,8000 people have signed a petition urging President Moon Jae-in to grant members of the K-pop band a special military service exception.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Sophie Joo, Sonia Kim, and Chris Lee.

Picture from flickr account of Uyên Nochu

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Obituary: The Death of North Korean Ideology

By Mark Tokola

On October 10, 2020, North Korea celebrated the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP).  The Pyongyang event featured a military parade and a speech by Kim Jong-un.  The parade had been years in the making and featured everything from matching white horses (reportedly imported from Russia) to a gigantic new mobile ICBM, the star of the show.  It also provided the stage for Kim Jong-un’s big anniversary speech.

Commentary has focused on Kim Jong-un’s tears as he apologized for having sometimes “failed.”  They also noted the speech’s shortage of bellicosity.  But the most remarkable aspect of the entire commemoration event was that it was almost non-ideological. This was the 75th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s founding of the Party.  If there was ever a time to extol the victories and future triumphs of Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism, this would have been it.  But, especially in comparison with earlier speeches by North Korean leaders, there was a sharp departure from traditional ideology.  There was, in fact, hardly any ideology.

For readers unfamiliar with North Korean rhetoric, Kim Jong-un’s October 10 references to the peoples’ party and the victory of socialism may have looked like communist boilerplate.  But, numbers tell the tale.  Kim Jong-un in his speech made 15 references to the pandemic, used the word ‘revolution’ only nine times, referred to Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il twice, and never used the word ‘Juche’ (North Korea’s ideological theory of self-reliance).  Contrast that to his 2017 New Year’s address (almost the same length), in which he referred to the ‘revolution’ 23 times, mentioned Kim Il-sung 7 times, and invoked Juche 11 times.  His father, Kim Jong-il, made few if any speeches, but he did issue a message marking the 50th anniversary of the KWP in 1995.  In that address, Kim Jong-il used the word revolution 147 times, Kim Il-sung 55 times, and Juche 46 times.  It was a longer text, but even at that, it burned brightly throughout with a North Korean ideology that was lacking in Kim Jong-un’s speech.

The difference is not only quantitative.  Kim Jong-il’s 1995 message, issued in the midst of North Korea’s great famine, never mentioned it.  There are only a couple of vague references to the Party successfully overcoming ‘adversities.’  In contrast, Kim Jung-un in 2020 claims that the pandemic has not cost a single North Korean life, but he does not downplay its seriousness.  He refers to the “heroic efforts and sacrifices” being made by ‘service personnel’ to cope with the grave threat posed by COVID-19.  He also refers to the natural disasters visited upon North Korea in 2020.  “All of these hardships are undoubtedly a heavy burden and pain for every family and every citizen in our country.”  His speech was about real life, intended to show his link to the North Korean peoples’ lives, rather than exhorting them, as in earlier times, to adhere more closely to the state ideology.

It’s even possible to discern within Kim Jong-un’s 2020 speech a contradiction to earlier North Korean dogma.  Listen to Kim Jong-il in 1995: “In the driving force of revolution the leader is the brain and the center of unity and the party is a political organization that materializes the leader’s idea and guidance.”  “The working-class party must have ideological purity, being dyed in the leader’s idea and moving as one under his unified leadership.”  Kim Jong-il’s 1995 address is full of tedious, revolutionary claptrap but it absolutely clear that obedience to the North Korean leader’s monolithic, infallible will is all that matters.  What is the role of the people?  “Our Party is a motherly party, which takes care of the destiny of the popular masses under its charge.”

Kim Jong-un is no democrat, but he talks about the North Korean people differently.  “Our people firmly support the country with their sincere sweat and efforts.”  “It is none other than they themselves who surely deserve a bow of gratitude.”  “Our people have placed trust on me, but I have failed to always live up to it satisfactorily.”  The implication is that the North Korean people have agency and have chosen Kim Jong-un and the KWP to promote their interest—in the absence of competition, of course.

For Kim Jong-il, the great objective was ‘independence.’ “Independence is man’s intrinsic desire.”  Fortunately for North Koreans, “Our socialism defends and ensures independence for the popular masses and satisfies their demand for independence to the full.”  One might wonder what independence has to do with unblinking devotion to a single ruler, but that would be a counter-revolutionary thought.  At some point, Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism collapses under its own sodden weight.  For example, what on earth does this, from Kim Jong-il’s anniversary address, even mean? “Maintaining the revolutionary principle means defending the revolutionary interest of the revolution.”

Kim Jong-un is offering something more tangible in 2020: “What is left now is to ensure that our people enjoy a sufficient and civilized life to the full free from difficulties any longer.”

What does this change indicate?  First, it shows that Kim Jong-un is not in thrall to the old North Korean ideology.  North Korea is changing.  Second, it sets a new standard.  The question now is not whether the North Korea public continues to display adequate revolutionary zeal, but whether the North Korean regime can, through its authoritarian means, improve the lives of North Koreans.  That actually is a new thought.

Kim Jong-un is no less brutal than his predecessors and the “civilized life free from difficulties” doesn’t apply to those he has put in political prison camps, but it is no longer true to say that the Kim regime is ideologically driven.  His motivations and behaviors are now the same as any dictator trying to stay in power.

North Korean ideology: 1945-2020.  RIP.

Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from Prachatai’s photostream on flickr Creative Common.

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South Korea’s Diaspora Engagement

By Sonia Kim

Since the start of the 1900s, the number of Koreans living abroad has increased significantly. The most recent data from South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs reveal that nearly 7.5 million ethnic Koreans reside outside the Korean Peninsula, with the largest diasporic groups in the United States, China, Japan, and Central Asia. With a focus on boosting the Korean economy, the ROK government continues to base its diasporic engagement policy on instrumental objectives, namely, to maximize material and economic gains. But as the country seeks to build a global image, it also aims at strengthening political and cultural ties with the worldwide network of Korean communities.

Korea’s diaspora engagement has been primarily developed through an economic relationship. This stems from the fact that some diasporic groups have been considered to be valuable sources of global talent and potential investment. In effect, the Korean government leverages its overseas population with an eye towards enhancing national economic competitiveness. Figures alone demonstrate that the ROK trades more with countries where a larger number of ethnic Koreans reside. Additionally, various transnational initiatives like the World Korean Business Convention and the Overseas Korean Traders Association promote business ties as well as networking opportunities between Korea and its diaspora. In 2017, more than 600 small and medium-sized companies in Korea signed deals with Korean entrepreneurs living overseas to further enhance Korea’s economic profile.

While diaspora engagement policies have been generally targeted towards highly skilled individuals from relatively advanced economies like the United States, Korea started to also import cheap labor from the pool of ethnic Koreans in China (Joseonjok) and Central Asia (Koryo saram). Though these two groups are limited to opportunities in 3-D (dirty, difficulty, and dangerous) jobs, the wages they earn in Korea are much higher than what they earn in their home countries. This is a unique phenomenon that affects Korea, as very few countries across the world have overseas ethnic members who provide cheaper labor to its homeland.

From the above analysis, it becomes clear that Seoul’s interactions with the Korean diaspora have focused on yielding economic dividends. Yet, another crucial aspect of Korean diasporic engagement policy looks beyond self-interest. Partially as a result of more active and influential advocacy from civil society groups, the Korean government extended political enfranchisement and granted dual citizenship to overseas Koreans. An expansion of these rights makes it much easier for members of the diaspora to live and work in Korea with many of the same privileges as South Korean nationals.

In terms of soft power diplomacy, Korea ranked 15th in the world as a major exporter of popular culture and tourism. And since the turn of the 21st century, the Korean Wave has helped create a transnational identity, which contributed to further engagement with diasporic communities. Through the spread of K-pop and K-dramas, overseas Korean youth are provided with a channel to build a sense of connection and loyalty to their ethnic homeland. Meanwhile, the founding of the Overseas Koreans Foundation (OKF) expanded educational and cultural opportunities for overseas Koreans to learn more about their Korean heritage. From a high-level perspective, OKF works to foster the relationship between Korea, their native country, and their countries of residence. Notably, the Foundation’s work is not as focused on cultivating commercial networks as it is on strengthening cultural ties between these communities and South Korea.

Although the economic dimensions of Korea’s relationship to its diaspora far outweigh other considerations, recent developments suggest that political and cultural forces have also come to shape how Korea interacts with its overseas population. Given the country’s ambitions to play a greater role on the international stage, it will benefit from continuing to diversify its outreach efforts toward the millions of Koreans living abroad.

Sonia Kim is an intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America. She is a recent graduate from Harvard College with a degree in Government and East Asian Studies. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Picture from Wikimedia Commons user GoToVan

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Our Summer Korean Reading List

By KEI staff and interns

For those of us lucky to be able to stay home during the coronavirus pandemic, there has never been a better time to pick up a good book. Last week, we presented a list of our favorite Korean movies. This time around, we are back with several Korean book recommendations to help keep you both entertained and informed. From Korea’s tumultuous 20th century history to its modern-day transformation, these selections provide a window into not only the Korean Peninsula, but also the thoughts and memories of the Korean people. Perhaps you will decide on a graphic novel or an autobiography or a classic tale. Whatever floats your boat, we hope KEI’s book suggestions below, sorted into fiction and non-fiction, will give you the respite you need.


If I Had Your Face (2020) — by Frances Cha

Set in contemporary South Korea, this novel depicts the lives of four young women as they navigate a world defined by absurd beauty standards, complex social hierarchies, and secret room salons. Woven together, their stories tell a gripping tale of modern South Korean culture and obsessions.

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 (2016) — by Cho Nam-joo

This book follows the story of an ordinary Korean woman named Kim Ji-young, who starts to impersonate the voices of other women, both known and unknown to her. As she plunges deeper into her psychosis, she visits a male psychiatrist, to whom she recounts her entire life.

Pachinko (2017) — by Min Jin Lee 

This multigenerational saga focuses on a Korean family living in Korea and then later in Japan from 1910 to 1989. This sweeping saga focuses on people in exile from a homeland they never knew, all while exploring themes of faith, family, and identity.

The Grass Roof (1931) — by Younghill Kang  

“The Grass Roof” is a semi-autobiographical novel that uses the character of Chungpa Han to depict Kang’s life growing up in a poor, literary family in colonial Korea. This vivid story closely follows Han as he decides to leave Korea and becomes influenced by Western literature.

East Goes West (1937) — by Younghill Kang

“East Goes West” takes up the story with Kang’s alter ego arriving in New York during the Depression. The April 23, 2020 edition of The New York Review of Books revived awareness of Kang with a review of East Goes West that begins, “What if the finest, funniest, craziest, sanest, most cheerfully depressing Korean-American novel was also one of the first?”

Uncomfortably Happy (2017) — by Hong Yeon-sik

In this graphic novel, Hong tells the story of a contemporary couple’s move from Seoul to the countryside, its problems and pleasures. As the book progresses, it delves into rural Korea and the universal relationships humans have with each other as well as with nature.

Umma’s Table (2020) — by Hong Yeon-sik

“Umma’s Table” is a graphic novel of a young man’s efforts to deal with his impoverished parents: an ailing mother and an alcoholic father. To cope, he finds himself reminiscing about the family kitchen and meals he had with his parents.

The Hole (2017) — by Pyun Hye-young, translated by Sora Kim-Russell

In this novel, a professor trapped inside his own body after a car crash grapples with his new reality and the circumstances that brought him to it. Covering the same bleak terrain of marital strife as Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian,” Pyun Hye-young’s thriller may surpass the Man Booker winner. It is a tighter tale and laced through with more venom.

Classic Korean Tales: With Commentaries (2018) — by Choe Key-sook

“Classic Korean Tales” features 11 classic Korean myths, legends, and folk tales. With thoughtful commentary accompanying each tale, Choe writes about the dreams and hopes of Korean people.


The Power of Nunchi: The Korean Secret to Happiness and Success (2019) — by Euny Hong

In this simple yet wise guide, Hong explores the art of nunchi — the Korean sixth sense for winning friends and influencing people. This book carries lessons on how to build connections and hone skills of emotional perception.

Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History (2005) — by Bruce Cumings

This book looks at the modern history of Korea, which Cumings describes as a small country overshadowed by historical and modern challenges. While unification is not bound to happen anytime soon, what rings true on both sides of the peninsula is the dynamic nature of politics, economy, and society.

Korea: The Politics of the Vortex (1968) — by Gregory Henderson

“Korea: The Politics of the Vortex” is an early, relevant, and still debated analysis of Korea’s political culture and what shaped it. Written by a former American diplomat with deep experience in Korea, this study explores patterns that exist within Korea’s homogenous society.

Who Ate Up All the Shinga? (2009) — by Park Wan-Suh

This memoir is an account of Park Wan Suh’s life growing up during the Japanese occupation of Korea and the Korean War. It captures Park — one of South Korea’s greatest postwar writers — in her formative years as she witnesses Korea’s national development.

A Sketch of the Fading Sun (1987) by Park Wan-suh

“A Sketch of the Fading Sun” is a collection of Park’s penetrating stories of the lives of ordinary people in the harsh but hopeful early days of the Republic of Korea. Told in the first person, this tale revolves around an elderly woman who has a guilty conscience.

Pyongyang (2007) — by Guy Delisle

Pyongyang is a graphic non-fiction story that documents Delisle’s time as an illustrator in North Korea, where he stayed for two months. Throughout the memoir, Delisle shares his observations of this secretive and mysterious nation.

Asia’s Next Giant: South Korea and Late Industrialization (1992) — by Alice Amsden

In this seminal study of Korea’s industrial policy from the 1960s to the 1980s, Amsden identifies factors that yielded the meteoric rise of this latecomer economy. Some of Amsden’s unconventional takeaways (competition as a derivative of growth; institutions as determinants of productivity; state monopoly of finance and commodities as a market-disciplining tool) also contextualizes some of Korea’s current economic ills.

Developmental Mindset: The Revival of Financial Activism in South Korea (2016) — by Elizabeth Thurbon

Thurbon seeks to answer a question that is frequently raised across the Asia-Pacific region: are strategies employed by the Asian Tigers in earlier periods of industrialization still potent vehicles to transform themselves into leaders of future industries? Building on the works of earlier economic historians like Amsden, Thurbon looks at Korea in particular and sees space for both continuity and needed reforms.

The recommendations above are the views of individual KEI staff members and interns and do not represent an institutional endorsement. KEI Intern Sonia Kim helped in compiling and editing this list.

Photo from Pesky Librarian’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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The Media Cultures that Shape News on North Korea

By Andray Abrahamian

A month ago we ended a thrilling rollercoaster news event that helped temporarily distract us from coronavirus news: the health of Kim Jong-un. This story was due to some specific features of newsgathering and reporting on North Korea. With a bit of hindsight on that maelstrom, it might be worthwhile to zoom out and take a look at the media cultures that help shape North Korea news more generally, when there isn’t necessarily a “BREAKING” headline to get our attention.

Three media cultures create the majority of English-language news about North Korea: the United States, United Kingdom and the Republic of Korea. All three have unique characteristics and generate news in specific ways to meet particular goals and standards.

In the United States, news production rests on the foundational value of objectivity, though that has come under strain in the past decade. But this principle isn’t applied evenly, of course. One area in which the objectivity norm is less robust when news covers foreign policy issues generally and war/conflict in particular. The United States is, of course, in conflict with North Korea.

In Britain, “rather than objectivity, notions of truth, independence and ‘fair play’ held greater appeal”, according to one scholar [1]. Partisanship is allowable, so long as the subject is dealt with equitably and rationally. When the subject is deemed to be acting wholly unfairly, however, the requirements for fairness in news coverage are understandably diminished. North Korea as a news subject finds itself in this position, as does, say, Dominic Cummings. This is particularly true for British tabloids, which pursue “righteous causes” with a vigor largely unseen in American media.

South Korea finds its news media embedded in a politicized and polarized environment. With a relatively short history of media freedom, large media companies tend to cleave closer to the state than in the other two countries. That state that is involved in an ongoing structural competition for legitimacy with its Northern neighbor, even when the government in Seoul is pursuing a policy of rapprochement.

These media cultures agenda-set for reporting worldwide on this topic. The United States is a media hegemon, whose media outlets command the attention of media in other languages. The UK is home to several agenda-setting media outlets, notably the BBC, the Times and the Guardian. South Korea is less influential globally, but produces a great volume of news about North Korea, often translated into English.

In the United States, as noted, the objectivity norm is reduced when covering foreign affairs. This is partly because media are reliant on official sources for content. (One study from the 1970s found that 75 percent of front-page stories on the Washington Post and New York Times depended on official sources.) The U.S. government can therefore present the information that is to constitute the news story and then simultaneously give the official opinion on it, framing the information from the beginning. If a journalist can find an opposing view, it tends to remain a subordinate “counterpoint” in the binary relationship between the two.

This doesn’t mean media are simply complicit in how officials frame foreign affairs and conflict. As Daniel Hallin puts it, “officials, in their efforts to control political appearances, necessarily challenge the autonomy of the media, and journalists naturally resist” [2]. But, as Michael Schudson, another media scholar, notes: “the media are obligated not only to make profits but to maintain their credibility in the eyes of readers,” as well as “expert and often critical sub-groups in the population, particularly in Washington, D.C.” [3].

This is an important frame and might manifest itself, for example, by describing North Korean acts as “saber-rattling”, while the US and allies conduct “shows of force”. This is easy to slip into. After all, if you ascribe to small-l liberal values and a liberal world order, perspectives favorable to Pyongyang are usually fundamentally opposed to both American values and strategic interests. How does one find an objective viewpoint on such a country and its policies?

That fact that the DPRK doesn’t respect human rights and individual rights in the same way as western democracies also challenges the “fairness doctrine” of British media. This can happen with conservative, establishment press like The Economist, which famously had a cover of Kim Jong Il captioned “Greetings, Earthlings!” and bid him farewell when he died with a self-referential “Farewell, Earthling’s”.

UK tabloid news outlets are even more likely to mock North Korea. When The Sun snuck two journalists onto a tour of North Korea in 2012, “tricking” the regime, they noted that apartments in Sinuiju were “a sham, they were all windowless and empty. Despot Kim Jong-il had ordered the ‘homes’ to be built to make it appear to the Chinese that North Koreans were living well.” People were of course “zombie-like”. They also produced commentary about a “glum” circus: “The Sun’s shocking pictures expose the despotic regime’s everyday cruelty that will outrage animal lovers.” Still, the headline: “North Korea’s got Talent: Animals Made to Skate in Secretive State” is pretty amazing.

These descriptions are dubious and the point about the apartments manifestly nonsense. The point here is fairness becomes unnecessary when describing a place that is so alien, difficult and visits all manner of woes on its own citizens. And also on bears, who I agree should not be forced to skate.

Finally, South Korean media culture fits into what Hallin and Mancini call the “polarized pluralist model”. In this model, the processes that disembedded news media from political parties, interests and the state has not taken place. Pre-democratic South Korea has left a legacy wherein the expectation of cooperation between media and government is high. The government also has more leverage over news organizations than in the UnitedStates or UK.

There is a conservative press and a progressive press, both of which favor different approaches to North Korea, though overall within the framework of an alliance and good relations with the United States. The DPRK is a competitor state, after all, even if a pro-engagement administration like the current one is in power.

Along with this news-industry model, the specific news culture allows single anonymous sources to be the basis of a story, something not really possible in the United States or Britain. News stories can be much more “rumor-y” in Korea in general.

The nature of government leaks and anonymous source stories on North Korea, of which there are many, does change according to which kind of government is in power. Under the previous two conservative administrations, the stories pushed in the direction of the media tended to emphasize instability, human rights violations and deprivation. Under this progressive one, stories are more likely to emphasize stability, reasonable leadership and areas where compromise might be possible. What matters for English-language news is these are the pool of leaks that get picked up by the South Korean press, then sometimes re-interpreted by western outlets.

Ultimately, none of this is about what is true or false per se. But as media consumers being aware without being hyperbolic – no need to scream “fake news” or any of that nonsense – is important as we attempt to understand a difficult and complicated country.

Andray Abrahamian is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute, Visiting Scholar at George Mason University Korea, and Senior Adjunct Fellow at Pacific Forum. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.


[1] Mark Hampton, “The ‘Objectivity’ Ideal And Its Limitations In 20th-Century British Journalism,” Journalism Studies Vol. 9, No. 4, (2008): 477.

[2] Daniel Hallin, The Uncensored War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 7

[3] Michael Schudson, The Sociology of News (New York: Norton, 2003), 40.

Picture from flickr account of Eli

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The Impact of Covid-19 in South Korea

By Emanuel Pastreich

The first thing I noticed when I arrived in Seoul Station was the rows of masks to prevent the spread of COVID 19 set up in the middle of the enormous atrium above the train tracks. I found masks with the likes of all the Korean cartoon characters developed by NAVER, mixed together with innovative masks with holes that allow the user to drink through a straw, or with a detachable bottom section that allowed one to eat a cookie while being safe.

The degree of cooperation with government authorities and the sense of mutual solidarity displayed by citizens is impressive. Although I personally was a bit skeptical about the importance of everyone wearing a mask, the coordination between government, hospitals and citizens to pursue a common goal was unlike anything I had seen elsewhere. I only wished that such a spirit carried over to the campaigns to end the use of plastic, or of coal, in South Korea.

You cannot get away from about the topic of COVID-19 when speaking with Koreans. Even young children seemed to have considerable knowledge about the nature of the disease and its impact on the economy.

All public officials wear white masks on television, as often do TV news anchors, as part of an effort to inspire awareness. There is tremendous social pressure to wear a mask and evince solidarity in response to this national crisis—some parts of which I felt went too far in terms of social shaming.

One can see a clear parallel to the collecting of gold by private citizens during the 1997 IMF crisis as part of an effort to restore Korea’s financial security. Or to the rush of Koreans from across the country to the beaches at Taean after the oil spill of 2007 to engage in a massive effort to clean by hand the rocks and the sand covered with the sludge that had washed up. In both cases, the overall impact of the citizens’ movement was limited in its practical application. The gold collected from citizens was not decisive in the negotiations on the IMF deal and the loving efforts to clean the beaches did not restore the ocean’s ecosystem. Yet those efforts did have a powerful impact on the awareness of Koreans of their role as citizens, as have the current work of Koreans to control this COVID-19 outbreak.

Whereas in other countries there has been tremendous concern that the response to COVID-19 of quarantine and social distancing will be abused by powerful forces, in Korea the general population has been willing to set aside politics and work with government in good faith. There is a general faith, which I think is well-founded, that things will return to normal after this crisis.

Also impressive were the many doctors who worked 24 hours a day in Daegu and elsewhere to respond to the need of the sick. Citizen volunteers were also numerous, some of who became ill in the process. There was the potential to mobilize citizens because of a basic sense of trust in government and in other citizens.

South Korea’s coordination between government, hospitals, medical professionals and citizens to rapidly identify cases of COVID-19 and to respond quickly made a tremendous difference in Daegu. Workers at companies and factories willing to work all night to produce masks, ventilators and other critical devices. Profit ceased to be a concern. The processing of data was especially rapid and focused-taking advantage of Korea’s strengths in IT. South Korea developed testing kits for COVID-19 of high quality in a short period of time, some of which may be models for future pandemic responses globally. I received numerous calls from friends in the United States asking me to introduce experts on testing in South Korea and one Korean firm that asked me how they could introduce their test into the United States. The convergence of policy, technology, expertise and behavior modification by citizens is what sets South Korea apart from other countries.

The crisis has led to a healthy questioning of the medical field in the media as well. Attention has been brought to the importance of public health which contrasts with the obsession with medical tourism and the ability of specialized medical fields like plastic surgery to generate income.

The issue of diet and the immune system also has been brought up more frequently in the media, although not anywhere enough. Sadly, the need to strengthen the immune system by eating nutritious vegetables and fruit, and avoiding processed foods with high sugar and sodium content was not a priority in the rush to wear masks.

The impact of COVID-19 on youth has been tremendous because of the overwhelming importance of educational preparation in the lives of Korean youth Kim Seong-gi, retired news anchor at KBS spoke vividly about the complex shifts in the lives of youth that have resulted,

“The disruption of education has been profound, leaving students waiting until April to start school. This has caused tremendous chaos in South Korea, but it has also brought families together, spending more time with each other than they would otherwise. The sense of community was not always disrupted by social distancing. In some respects it was reinforced.”

Kim spoke about his daughter’s experience with deep concern. She runs an art academy for children that developed out of her deep concern for the education of youth. But her academy has been completely shut down and there is great uncertainty concerning when it will open again. Almost all Koreans had a similar story to tell and I was reminded of the broad impact on the economy I saw when living in Seoul during the IMF crisis.

Korea is full of small businesses: small restaurants, computer repair, coffee shop, and study aids. If they are lost, the economy will lose its diversity and much of the population will be pushed to the edge.

I had a chance to get a spiritual perspective on COVID-19 when I visited   Mihwangsa Temple in Haenam, and met with Abbot Geumgang Sunim. Hidden away deep in the mountains, but with a spectacular view of the coast where Admiral Yi Sunsin fought against a massive Japanese naval fleet to achieve a tremendous victory.

Abbot Geumgang Sunim remarked, “Korean society has been crippled by a individualistic perspective over the last few decades of consumption culture. Food, transportation and trade link us together but we did not know how. I think this COVID-19 crisis will serve as a chance for us to understand better how our politics and our economy work, and to reaffirm our role as members of a common society. We learned about hardship and shortages, but we also learned that there many things we did not really need.”

The Korean Model

Korea has emerged as a model for how industrialized nations can respond to pandemics in a human and scientific manner. Already Canada has engaged in a careful study of Korean best practices and is most likely be but the first of many countries to do so.

Korea avoided complete lockdowns like China but was still able to take aggressive measures without the risk of serious political abuse of government’s new-found powers.  Public transportation and many forms of online discourse continued on unaffected. I was stopped repeatedly for a test of my body temperature and would have been further tested had I been running a fever. I did not find those efforts invasive or threatening in any sense. If anything, they suggested a society deeply concerned with the welfare of citizens. Government offices and other public spaces were rendered as testing centers and quarantine spaces rapidly without any lack of transparency.

Emanuel Pastreich is the President of The Asia Institute and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from Park-Keun-Hyung’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons. 

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Oscar-winning Parasite Overcomes Domestic Partisanship

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

What Happened

  • Parasite, a South Korean movie directed by Bong Jun Ho, won the Academy Award in the best picture category.
  • Bong was denied state funding during the Park Geun-hye administration due to his political outlook.
  • Political parties are trying to capitalize on the popularity of ‘Parasite’ for the upcoming legislative election in April.

Implications: Global validation appears to be silencing criticisms that the movie Parasite and its social messages would have otherwise elicited from some political circles in South Korea. Politicians from across the ideological spectrum are praising the movie’s Oscar win ahead of April legislative elections. In particular, conservative lawmakers are eagerly embracing Bong – a seachange in attitude given the previous conservative administration’s informal ban on public funding for the director. Some proposals from conservative politicians include erecting a statue of Bong, naming a street after him, and building a film museum dedicated to Bong.

Context: South Korean movies that place a spotlight on societal issues usually face scrutiny. For instance, liberal and progressive politicians criticized “Ode to My Father,” a movie about a man who lived through post-Korean War reconstruction era, for embellishing the politically-repressive developmental period. Meanwhile, conservative politicians criticized one of Bong’s earlier movies, “The Host,” for perpetuating anti-American sentiments.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Gordon Henning, Soojin Hwang, Hyungim Jang, and Ingyeong Park.

Picture from user Kinocine PARKJEAHWAN4wiki on Wikimedia Commons.

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Gaming Industry: Another Trial of “Welfare vs. Growth”

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

What Happened

  • WHO will officially ask individual member states to recognize gaming addiction as a mental health disorder on January 1, 2022.
  • Park Yang-woo, Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism (MCST), vowed to review regulations that hinder the growth of the game industry and said that “gaming is not a disease” at the 2019 Korea Game Award on November 13.
  • According to an academic study, formalizing gaming disorder as an official mental disease could cause a $9.45 billion loss to the South Korean economy.
  • The government is looking for ways to minimize the loss before a new Korean Standard Classification of Diseases takes effect.

Implications: The dilemma surrounding the gaming industry is another area where the Moon administration is struggling to balance between growth and welfare. Despite increasing concerns about game addiction in South Korea, the government may be reluctant to adopt the WHO’s new standard of ‘gaming disorder’ because it might dampen this major growth industry. According to the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, the game industry accounts for 8.8 percent of Korea’s trade profit. As such, there are concerns that associating gaming with mental illness would suffocate local game businesses, which are already under pressure from increased global competition. As a temporary compromise, the government has assembled a panel of experts and industry people to study the issue further.

Context: Although it attracts less attention than K-pop, Korea’s gaming industry brings in greater revenue for the country. According to statistics from the Korea Creative Content Agency, gaming exports increased 80.7 percent to USD 5.9 billion in 2017. But most of this growth came from Korea’s exports to Chinese-speaking consumers: approximately 60 percent of the sales that year. China is also amidst efforts to regulate gaming in the country and the WHO classification will likely allow the government to intensify its control over the sector. This may have additional negative implications for South Korea’s gaming exports to the country.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Soojin Hwang, Hyoshin Kim, and Rachel Kirsch.

Picture from user Rob Fahey on flickr

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Reports of Defector Dissatisfaction Raise Questions About Resettlement Process

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

What Happened

  • Since 2015, 12 North Korean defectors in South Korea were caught trying to return to North Korea.
  • During the same time period, 64 defectors applied for refugee status in Europe and the United States despite receiving settlement in South Korea, according to new government data.
  • According to the 2018 Settlement Survey of North Korean Refugees in South Korea, 72.5% of North Korean refugee respondents were satisfied with life in South Korea.

Implications: With cases of North Korean defectors attempting to leave South Korea, Seoul will likely focus more heavily on social integration when formulating its resettlement policies going forward. Following the incident in August when a defector and her son starved to death, the inquiry initially focused on whether public services are materially failing this community. But survey data revealed that defector dissatisfaction was not predominantly driven by economic conditions. Most defectors cited difficulties separation from family back in North Korea (27.4%) and discrimination and prejudice (18.3%) as principal challenges to integration. Only 14.9% of respondents cited economic difficulties.

Context: The number of North Korean defectors to South Korea has fallen since Kim Jong-un came to power seven years ago due to tighter border controls. As of June 2019, 33,022 North Korean defectors live in South Korea. Although still a relatively small community, research by Steven Denney (University of Toronto) and Chris Green (Leiden University) show that there is variation within this community’s attitudes towards South Korea. Denney and Green attribute this to people older than 55 having a different resettlement experience than their younger cohorts. Specifically, they hypothesize that the need for younger age defectors to compete with native-born South Koreans for jobs, build social networks, and substantively integrate into South Korean society negatively influence their resettlement experience and feelings of ethnic solidarity.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Soojin Hwang, Hyoshin Kim, and Rachel Kirsch.

Picture from Ceosad on Wikimedia Commons

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Changes in South Korea’s Workplace Culture

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

What Happened

  • 97% of respondents in a survey noted that they experienced ‘gapjil’ (a Korean term meaning abusive behavior by those in positions of power) in the workplace.
  • Last year, South Korea implemented the 52-hour workweek system.
  • In addition, a new anti-harassment law went into effect on July 16, 2019.

Implications: Recent efforts by the South Korean government to improve working conditions are showing signs of success. Following amendments to the Labor Standards Act, the Industrial Accident Compensation Insurance Act, and the Occupational Safety and Health Act, a nongovernmental organization called Gapjil 119 published a report that showed a considerable increase (2.8 times higher) in workplace harassment reporting. This may suggest that the new laws are encouraging workers voice their rights. One survey showed that 64.5 percent of respondents said they could reject attending “hoesik,” and other after-work hour staff gatherings, which used to be considered mandatory. Along with other government policies such as the 52-hour workweek system, these new laws are setting the ground for improvements in South Korea’s workplace culture.

Context: There is still a lot of space for improvement. Only 40% of Korean workers think harassment at work has decreased since the introduction of the new laws. Furthermore, large and middle/small enterprises are regulated differently. It is also not clear how familiar workers are with their rights. Gapjil 119 also pointed out several limitations of current law, including the lack of enforcement measures, vague terminology, not being applied to companies with less than five employees, etc.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Soojin Hwang, Hyoshin Kim, and Rachel Kirsch.

From user Joop on flickr

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