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:
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.