Jang Sa-ik: Better than KPop

I just thought I’d share this with you, as my last post was a little on the heavy side. This is Jang Sa-ik (장사익), far and away my favourite Korean singer – yes, I prefer him even to Lee Hyori!

If you take the time to watch this, I would encourage you to stick with it right to the end, as it ends up being a very stirring piece. He’s known for his proficiency in singing many of what Korea considers to be its classic songs, so do listen to a few of them! Plenty of 한 as well! 😉

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Roh Moo-Hyun’s Suicide: Sadness and Hypocrisy

As the title to this post suggests, I did not take well to reading of former President Roh’s (pronounced No) suicide in the news. I was troubled by this latest of markers that Korea is a country ravaged by suicides, and has been for a few years now. There are numerous excellent blog posts regarding the issue of suicide in Korea, so I will not attempt to rehash what has been said in them, and I will only provide here the basic data of Korea having the highest suicide rate in the OECD, in fact the highest in the world outside of the Eastern Bloc (inclusive of Kazakhstan).

As I’m sure we all now know, in the last few years Korea has suffered a spate of suicides, the causes of which seemingly being drawn from a small pool of usual suspects: depression, pressure in schooling or work, online verbal attacks by netizens, debt. As I said, the phenomenon of suicide in Korea has been discussed elsewhere to good effect, and so I would rather stick to this particular case, largely for its uniqueness. Roh Moo-hyun’s suicide is not just an unusual case in Korea, however, but also internationally. Until roughly a year ago, he was the president of the Republic of Korea, the most powerful and prominent man in the country. How did he fall so far and so fast (genuinely no bad taste pun intended), why is it such a sad story, and why do I associate it with hypocrisy?

Well, to explain these, it’s necessary to glance briefly back over his presidency. In the election of 2002, Roh stood against Lee Hoi-chang. Speaking about this in mid-2009, it seems reasonable to say that Barack Obama and John McCain represent a decent comparison of where Roh and Lee stood in relation to each other. By this I mean that Roh was by far the more liberal, younger and more politically sensitive of the two. He was the first of a new generation of politicians, and demonstrated that he could deliver a new style of government and politics for the younger generations of Koreans. Roh won about 60% of votes in the 20-40 age group, with Lee claiming just over 30%. The 40-50 age group was split about 50-50. It was only in the older generations that Lee managed to win popular support. What we should take form this is that Roh was able to empathise with those who did not grow up under the highly authoritarian governments of Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan. They were voters who grew up in a much freer society, where they didn’t suffer the same political and ideological suppression and oppression that their parents’ generation did. They lived in the internet age, with far greater access to information and far more discussion on important issues. On top of this, Roh was arguably the most liberal presidential candidate Korea had ever had. In a political climate used to military figures, authoritarian rule and veteran campaigners as their presidents, human rights lawyer Roh was a breath of fresh air.

Roh really was supposed to be the clean break, that crucial step forward into the modern democratic era. He decried corruption and actively sought to purge regionalism from Korea’s political landscape. He was a nationalist, but moderate enough in that respect to appeal across the board. He was the son of a ‘peasant’ family, and was even a leader of rebellions against the government of Chun Doo-hwan. This was the hype that surrounded his election campaign, and for my money, he tried very hard to back it up once he was in office.

He did attempt to free Korean politics from the grip of endemic corruption and regionalism. He even wanted to move the capital away from Seoul. He also opted to continue the Sunshine Policy of the previous administration, the policy of engagement and steps towards cooperation with North Korea. But it seems that Korea did not cope well with some of the changes Roh attempted to bring about. Perhaps Korea’s top-down age-based hierarchy prevented the desires of the younger generation(s) being put into practice. Another contributing factor evidently was that Roh was inexperienced when it came to actually being in a position to make the decisions. As mentioned, his attempt to move the capital failed completely, and it was an ill-advised move in the first place – just imagine if someone tried it in your country.

Roh did have moderate successes, but it was the negative aspects of his term that garnered most interest, especially from the press. His administration was accused of being incompetent in dealing with the economy, as well as other issues, such as moving the capital, or purging the corrupt politicians. I could give various excuses for why these failed, in defense of Roh, but the truth of the matter is that being a politician is about more than just having the right policies. That may be what gets you elected in the first place, but then you have to be able to turn words and ideas into action, and it was perhaps in this respect that Roh was lacking as a leader.

What struck me most, however, was how badly the media took to him. Most Korean presidents go through a stage when their popularity plummets, but for Roh this stage seemed to last for most of his term in office. As anyone who has spent time in Korea will know, the mainstream media has a great impact on popular opinion – more even than one might expect. It is for this reason that I say that Roh’s declining popularity was largely caused by the fact that the press didn’t like him. They focused so much on corruption within his party, his family, and his failures, that the general public turned against him in ever-increasing numbers. None of the accusations against him were particularly serious, certainly not by the standards of South Korean politicians. The simple fact of the matter is that Koreans have had to put up with far worse from some of their presidents, but this was masked by economic development or simply by oppression. In some ways, then, the transparency in politics that Roh fought for contributed heavily to his diminished support and in turn ability to achieve anything.

Perhaps what he was most renowned for was the attempted impeachment due to an alleged breach of election regulations. The rule he was accused of violating was that he openly supported his Uri Party before the election – the issue being that the party wasn’t formed until after he had taken office. He was found guilty, but his actions were not deemed to be serious enough to warrant impeachment, and he was allowed to continue his term. On the positive side, this little mishap sparked a protest on the streets of Seoul by supporters of Roh, asking for him to be allowed to continue.

 

Roh Moo-hyun placard
Roh Moo-hyun placard

The sign on the left reads: “Please let our country’s president do some work!”

 

As I’m sure many people will have read, Roh was also under investigation at the time of his suicide, this time for accepting bribes. This is what angered me most about the whole history of the media seeking to demonize Roh for fairly trivial matters, simply because they didn’t approve of him. Firstly, he has never been proven guilty. As I said, the case was ongoing, and has now been dropped. But to the media, it seems like this man’s taking of his own life is perfect justification to recirculate articles whose real focus is in making Roh look like a criminal and a fraud. Secondly, Roh has always claimed his innocence. He admitted that money changed hands, but we know that none of it was ever given to him. It was paid to two members of his family, and everyone involved has stressed that it was investment money, not a bribe, as is the accusation. I’m in no position to determine what the reality of the situation was. All I will say is that the total amount was about $6m, and I’m pretty sure that more than that has changed hands between other Korean politicians before and quite possibly since. Kim Dae-jung won a Nobel Prize for organising a summit that only happened because North Korea received money from the Hyundai Group in secret, just to get things moving I suppose – enough said.

 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this shouldn’t be investigated properly. My issue is that other presidents and prominent politicians have got away with far worse, but seemed to keep the right people happy, and nothing ever came of it. Roh was disliked from the start in some circles, and in my opinion they sought to tarnish his image to the general public. He certainly wasn’t the most capable nor the most effective South Korean president, but he clearly was a passionate man, who believed he was acting in the best interests of the people of his country. He represented a huge step towards more liberal politics in Korea, and a more modern way of doing things. One of the most frequent criticisms I’ve heard aimed at him since his presidency is that people were sometimes embarrassed by the fact that they saw him as a weak president. Basically, they wanted someone who could be more authoritarian. And yet we all know about their history with authoritarian presidents.

 

 

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The Kwangju Uprising, 1980

 

 

The tragedy of the story is that he seemed to be a decent man, who tried to improve the situation in Korea, had moderate success in a political sense, and perhaps some small failures in a personal sense, and yet it is these that have hounded him, to the point that he would throw himself off a cliff. I look back and think of the effort he made before and during his presidency, and his striving for justice – don’t forget he was a human rights lawyer before he was a politician – in a system that has time and time again rewarded injustice and corruption. To reach a point where he felt that he could no longer achieve anything, having once been a man of so much purpose is what saddens me. I was not his greatest admirer as a president, but I do share many of his beliefs regarding what should be done to improve the country in which he lived. He was hounded unfairly by the media, and now that he’s dead the same media say how much he will be missed. The hypocrisy is a shame, and he deserved better.

Hello, annyŏng – The First Post

Welcome to Asadal Thought, a blog about all that is Korean Studies, by a Korean Studies student. If you would like to know more about the aims of this blog, or about me, please visit my About page –> I would also be very interested to see if any Koreans find their way here, and what they think about what I discuss. I do speak Korean, so please do comment or leave messages!

Unfortunately I’ve been inspired to begin this blog after deliberating for some time during the penultimate week of my penultimate year of my degree. More worryingly, in the final week I’m required to give two presentations, one about the economic implications of reunification of the two Koreas, and one on any topic of my choice related to contemporary Korean society, which is where this post comes in. One thing more contemporary (albeit not exactly academic) than just about anything else is the success in recent times of a crucial figure in South Korea’s history:

Park Ji-sung.

Yes, my first ever post on a blog about Korean Studies themes will be about a footballer.

 

Since he moved to Manchester United in 2005, Park has become the first Asian player to play in four Champions League semi-finals, has won three English Premier League titles as of this afternoon, two League Cups, the Club World Cup and the Champions League. But this was of course not the great moment that it should have been. He should have been the first Asian player in history to play in the final of the European cup, let alone win it. But he was left out of the squad for the final, denied the chance for this unprecedented glory. The revelation of the team selection for that match came as a huge shock, considering the part Park had played in the quarter and semi-finals, and it was later revealed that manager Alex Ferguson apologised to Park, saying it was one of the most difficult decisions of his managerial career.

I was living in Seoul at the time, and I remember staying up well into the early hours of the morning to watch the final, and I was as shocked as everyone else seemed to be. It was particularly devastating for Koreans, who had been waiting to see one of their own lift the greatest trophy in club football for the first time. It was supposed to be a moment of immense national pride for Korea, but instead Park had to sit it out in a suit, and watch as his squad-mates went up to lift the trophy.

Koreans seem to act as one when it comes to success on the international stage, whether it be sporting success, business success or even being known for being good at maths. They crave success and they have a marked desire for the rest of the world to notice them. I can recall various instances of Korean friends asking me whether or not British people knew that Park Ji-sung is Korean, and that we didn’t think he Japanese. Same question relating to Samsung. And Hyundai. And do they know about the Korean War? And Ban Ki-Moon?

Korea has spent the last half a century driving for economic success, modernisation and globalisation. They resented being weaker than their neighbours as well as the Western powers at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Centuries, and so they begun this trend. I think that there is a need for validation of all the work they have put in as a nation, as well as a natural desire to be considered by other countries as powerful and important. Koreans have had this instilled in them from an early age for years. The country’s military triumphs of the past are all well known, as are they great figures from history, their success in business, and they are all sources of great pride for the Korean people. They have received very little recognition, however, for sporting success. When Park Ji-sung moved to Manchester United, one of the top teams in the world, it seemed like this barren spell in the international sporting arena was going to come to a glorious end.

Park is a talented, hard working and very professional football player. Alex Ferguson clearly appreciates him, as do the Manchester United fans. It is foolish to question the selection policy of the most successful manager in English football history, despite what a good season Park had last year. This year, if anything, he has been even better. He shone against Arsenal in the Champions League semi-final, and even scored a goal today that was wrongly disallowed. He deserves to be named among the squad for the final this year, and it will rightly be a very proud moment for Koreans and for the man himself.

Park has earned the right to be considered a sporting hero in Korea. In my opinion, he is not only very good, and successful, but he is also one of the best sporting role models that Koreans have. The Beijing Olympics provided some new success stories for Korean sportspeople, most notably the baseball team, now ranked 2nd in the world, female weightlifter Jang Mi-ran and swimmer Park Taehwan, all of whom won gold medals. Yet despite their success, none are as prominent in the Korean mind as Park Ji-sung. In my opinion the best way to analyse him as a positive role model is to compare him with Kim Yu-na.

Kim is undoubtedly a fine athlete, having reached the very top of her sport at a very young age. You only have to watch this video to see that:

But for some reason the Korean media constantly demand her to be more than a top sportsperson. She has to be an entertainer, a singer, a dancer, attractive, sexy and clean-cut. Evidently, she is a very good looking young woman, and attractive young women in Korea tend to have their careers and to some extent their lives dominated by that characteristic. The same is happening to Kim, and it is entirely irrelevant to what she does and who she is. She’s marketed through her appearance, and by being something of a jack-of-all-trades on TV shows, see this video:

If only more focus could be placed on her sporting prowess and achievements, and not just the whole isn’t this amazing, a girl who does well at sports and she’s pretty, isn’t she talented! I can’t imagine that all the tv appearances and over-exposure will do her skating career much good, but the Korean media seem more preoccupied with making her fit the template of the Korean star than anything else. I suppose the point I’m really trying to make is; what would have happened to her if she was ugly? Take the weightlifter I mentioned previously, for example, Jang Mi-ran. She lifts in the 75+ kg category, and is not the most conventionally attractive woman. However, she is perhaps even more successful and dominant in her own sport than Kim Yu-na is in hers. If you were to type both their names into Korean Google in Korean, Jang Mi-ran (장미란) comes up with 427,000 results, whereas Kim Yu-na (김연아) produces 13,800,000. Enough said.

A Park Ji-sung search produces slightly less results than Kim Yu-na, at 7,240,000, but this is still considerable. Firstly, because he is not known for his good looks. He is also not marketed in this way. He is not known for any misdemeanors, self-promotion or theatrics. He gets on with his job, performs very well, and comes across as a nice guy, who is always professional. He has spoken of overcoming the difficulties of being a flat footed footballer, and his dedication to training from a young, following his heart, rather than pressure to only focus on study.

As I’m sure James Turnbull over at The Grand Narrative would agree, it is a great shame that such a talented woman as Kim Yu-na is becoming almost more renowned for her looks and various other talents (Being good looking might as well be a talent if you listen to some Koreans) rather than for what she is truly good at, and it is disappointing to me that the media continue to portray her this way. I haven’t embedded the video because I think that the comments on YouTube prove that the media has drastically altered her image and what she stands for, and it’s quite sad that they (and she) feel that she should be branded in this way.

Park is exactly the sort of sporting hero Korea needs, and I for one sincerely hope that he will feature in the final later this month.