Last week I headed up to the 9th floor of my office building to take care of some routine duties. The floor is filled with young interns, dressed in the tattered jeans and flannel shirts that are the trend during Korea’s wintry weather. Turning a corner I bumped into one of them, a young man who looked to be barely in his twenties. He bowed to me, and it was so abrupt and unexpected that I didn’t return it.

I worried at first, after my mind had a chance to register what had just transpired, that perhaps I had come across as rude. As a foreigner it’s something I’ve become at times acutely conscious of here, not wanting to unknowingly give offense. Then – and this surprised me – I experienced a sense of pride. My chest puffed out a bit and my head became inflated by the thought that this person had acknowledged me as a superior. As superior.

That felt good. But frankly I doubt its how Japan’s Emperor Akihito took Obama’s bow.


Conservatives across the US are deriding the president for sending the message that America now “willingly prostrates itself before the rest of the world.” They say Obama seeks to “transform the United States,” to “teach Americans to bow before monarchs and tyrants.”

My sense is that the bow was in fact not intended for Akihito himself but rather to win over the Japanese public, which has grown increasingly anti-American in recent years. And while the outcome of Obama’s visit to Tokyo may not have been as frutiful as he would have liked, that simple gesture likely went some way in assuaging local sentiment. It was an aggressive, not a passive, move.

I studied judo for about five years when I was in my teens. The first thing you do before beginning a match is bow to your opponent. It doesn’t mean you’re going to roll over and let him throw you around like a rag doll. You bow and then go at him, with of course the utmost of respect as an opponent, an enemy and even perhaps a teacher. It’s an attitude America would do well to embrace.

Which brings me to China. Some two centuries ago a British admiral traveled to the court of the Qianlong Emperor, the Son of Heaven, in order to convince him to loosen trade restrictions that were then bleeding England dry. There were some issues of protocol to be worked out before the meeting, however, including making sure that Adm. Macartney banged his head on the floor before the emperor as a sign of England’s submission to the greatness of the Middle Kingdom. The proud Englishman of course refused.

I remember the event because of something I heard during a college lecture. According to an employee of the East India Company and member of the mission who recorded the journey, Macartney despite his obstinance apparently tripped and banged his head while approaching the emperor, who then graciously accepted the Englishman’s submission, though he refused his demands.

The failure of the mission has been described by scholars as a missed opportunity for China to accomodate the West, a political stumble by Beijing – not Macartney – that would lead to nearly two centuries of chaos and instability that China is now looking to put behind istelf. Now it’s America that is indebted to Beijing.

Obama has called hismelf America’s first “Pacific President,” and if his recent trip through Asia demonstrates anything, it’s that he’s learned to speak Asia’s language. Besides the bow, he’s drawn fire for backing off on pressing China over its human rights situation, something his critics have described in words akin to the president knocking his head on the floor before Beijing. Or bowing low.

In truth, as this piece in the Asia Times points out, Obama’s outward show of “deference” is no mere sign of weakness, it is not fueled by an apoligist approach to foreign relations. It is a genuine display of respect that allows the wheels of diplomacy to turn all the more smoothly and reflects a measure of confidence that America does not diminish itself simply by acknowledging its opponents.

In David Halberstam’s last book on the Korean War, he quotes a converstaion that Mao Zedong is said to have had with Zhou Enlai regarding the commander of U.S. forces, Gen. MAcArthur.

“What kind of man is he,” Mao asks. “Arrogant,” comes the reply, at which point Mao smiles and says, “Good, an arrogant man is easy to defeat.” That war still hasn’t ended.


Korea’s “God Gene”

Walking to work this morning I passed an elderly Catholic nun who I often see strolling along the street outside my home. Bracing against the cold and thinking about how hard it’s going to be to kick my coffee habit at the onset of winter my mind turned to the ubiquity of religion in South Korea.

So when I opened my computer I was surpirsed to see this in today’s IHT, a biological explanation for the Evolution of religion throughout human history. I found this passage particulary pertinent to the Korean context.

In natural selection, it is genes that enable their owners to leave more surviving progeny that become more common. The idea that natural selection can favor groups, instead of acting directly on individuals, is highly controversial. Though Darwin proposed the idea, the traditional view among biologists is that selection on individuals would stamp out altruistic behavior (the altruists who spent time helping others would leave fewer children of their own) far faster than group-level selection could favor it.

But group selection has recently gained two powerful champions, the biologists David Sloan Wilson and Edward O. Wilson, who argued that two special circumstances in recent human evolution would have given group selection much more of an edge than usual. One is the highly egalitarian nature of hunter-gatherer societies, which makes everyone behave alike and gives individual altruists a better chance of passing on their genes. The other is intense warfare between groups, which enhances group-level selection in favor of community-benefiting behaviors such as altruism and religion.

South Korea is no doubt a very group-oriented society, a fact that is often used to distinguish itself from its Western counterpart. Korea is also a very religious society, as seen in the proliferation of crosses that dot urban skylines in the South or the cult of personality in the North.

But does Korea’s history of war and invasion mean that Koreans are more “hard-wired” to believe? And more to the point, does it mean there is nothing more to these beliefs than simple programming?

Today in Korean history – street lights and the Great Han Nation

1900 — Hanseong Electric, the country’s first electric energy producer, which was established two years earlier, installs street lights for the first time in Jongno, the central district of Seoul, where the royal palaces of the Joseon Dynasty were located.

1919 — The Provisional Government of Korea, established in Shanghai earlier to restore their homeland’s sovereignty from Japanese colonial rule, meets for the first time and adopts a modern name for their country, “Daehanminguk.”

1957 — Law students from Seoul National University announce a class boycott to protest the admission of Rhee Gang-seok, the adopted son of President Syngman Rhee, to their school. The president’s son was accepted to the highest-ranking university in the country without taking admission tests.

Today in Korean history

1975 — Eight South Korean men convicted of trying to overthrow the government are executed just 20 hours after a court sentenced them to death. They were among a group of 23 arrested on rebellion charges as part of a government crackdown on dissident movements.

An article by Bruce Cummings in the Hankyoreh from 2007 details the event and notes the eight were cleared of the charges in 2007.

A court ruled that the government pay compensation in the amount of 63.7 billion won (US$67.4 million) to 46 members of the families of eight men who were once accused of being members of the Inhyeok-dang (People’s Revolutionary Party, or PRP). The men, who were found innocent at a retrial held in January, were executed in 1975 for what the government cited as anti-government activities and cooperation with North Korea.

The eight were arrested on charges of treason and violating the National Security Law in 1974, when anti-government student protests spread across the nation. Student activists and opposition leaders demanded an end to the military dictatorship and the repeal of the Yushin Constitution, in force from 1972-1979, which had been revised to allow then-President Park Chung-hee, the father of current opposition leader Park Geun-hye, to stay in power indefinitely.

Park Chung-hee ordered cruel, nationwide crackdowns on political dissidents and student activists in order to further solidify his power. Those who were alleged to have been part of the PRP had grown up together as friends and acquaintances in the region near Daegu, and were arrested in the round-up on false charges of having formed the PRP in order to overthrow the government.

The People’s Revolutionary Party was later found to have been a fabrication of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, which predates today’s National Intelligence Service, and the fear with which it became associated became a strong tool for Park’s ruthless, authoritarian rule. Those accused of being part of the PRP were not only tortured into confessing that they had formed the group, the KCIA also alleged that group members had confessed that their eventual goal was to build a socialist government in close cooperation with North Korea, in violation of the National Security Law, which prohibits both communism and the recognition of the North as a political entity.

Eight of the accused were sentenced to death and dozens of others were sentenced to 15 years to life imprisonment. The eight men who were handed death sentences were hastily executed less than 24 hours after the final rulings by the Supreme Court were issued. Human rights organizations, both in South Korea and abroad, have criticized the execution as barbarous, and have long called for reinvestigation of the case.

The eight men, Woo Hong-seon, Song Sang-jin, Seo Do-won, Ha Jae-wan, Lee Su-byeong, Kim Yong-won, Doh Ye-jong and Yeo Jeong-nam, were acquitted of all charges in a ruling handed down in January of this year.

Today in Korean history

The Independent

The Independent

Some intersting media related historical tid-bits.

1896 — Korea’s first Korean-language newspaper, the Dongnip Shinmun, publishes its first edition in Seoul. The four-page newspaper, funded by the government and produced by Seo Jae-pil, an official educated in Japan and the United States, was aimed at reaching the general public by publishing in the vernacular as opposed to the more tradional Chinese script.

Seo promoted the introduction of modern culture from Japan and Western countries, but soon faced criticism from conservatives who opposed the influx of foreign culture through the newspaper. He returned to the U.S. in 1898 and the newspaper was closed a year later.

1957 — The Korea News Editors’ Association is established in Seoul, setting a code of ethics for journalists.

Korea road trip cont.

Driving south down the expressway towards Busan I ponder the rows and rows of apartment blocks that litter Korea’s skyline. Many of them look like government housing projects back home, and they’re everywhere, like sentries on duty. What are they protecting? The power  of South Korea’s ruling political and business elite, which have so thoroughly defined Korean society for decades that the two are now inseperable.

There’s no competition. A handful of conglomerates decided decades ago what kinds of homes were going to be built and went ahead building them. There were no alternatives, no firms vying for customers with better designs. In a short period of time Koreans found their living spaces defined by these companies and their corrupt heads. Society began to adapt to the new layout. Kindergardens sprang up in these new “communities,” convenience stores, barber shops. This is how most poeple in South Korea live now.

I’m not saying there’s anything necessarily wrong with living in these complexes. They are convenient in a lot of ways, and in a country with more people than space it makes sense to build up. The point I’m trying to make – in a round about sort of way- is the enormous might of this select group in shaping Korean society. It’s eerie, and it extends beyond architecture into the realm of media, fashion, entertainment and politics.

Honestly, I don’t know what the majority of people here think about this. Whether they are too busy or preoccupied to consider it. I suspect attitudes likely break down along economic lines, but even that may not be the case. Culture here is in many ways used as a commodity – marketed and sold to ensure that folks not only accept the framework, but support it wholeheartedly. “It’s my culture, and I’m gonna defend it.”

I love being in Korea. I’m thankful for what the country has given me in my time here and have a tremendous amount of respect for its people and history. But I wonder what that culture means when so much of it is defined by these elite circles in order to sustain their hold on power.

Korea road trip

The key is avoiding the traffic out of Seoul. Do that and its smooth sailing all the way to Busan, with a stop along the way to peer at the stars in Mt. Jiri National Park and a quick tour of Taejeon on the way home.

About 10 kilometers past the town of Hwagae – known for its tea plantations and cherry blossoms – is the village of Uishin, which lies in a valley below rolling mountains that are home to dozens of small hermitages. One of these, Wontong Temple, is supposedly the site where Hyu-jong, who led an army of monks against Japanese invaders 500 years ago, first shaved his head and took the monastic oath.

Wontong Temple

Wontong Temple

We were told to park the car in front of a small guest house, behind which a trail began that meandered its way up to the small temple. A little boy stared from across the road as we packed what we’d need for the night, waddling over to get a closer look. The air was crisp, clean and invigorating after months of breathing in exhaust fumes while standing at jammed intersections.

We walked for about 40 minutes, soaking in the first signs of spring that were everwhere along the trail and wondering whether we’d taken a wrong turn until we heard the distinctive knock-knock of the wooden moktak used in prayer ceremonies. “You’ve gotten fat!”

I looked up to see a spritely older monk with bronzed skin that belied his 60 plus years. An old friend of my wife’s, it had been almost 10 years since we last met and I’d put on a few pounds. He stood below a cluster of bamboo that hid the temple, grinning as we huffed and puffed our way up to greet him.

Mt. Jiri National Park

Mt. Jiri National Park

The view was stunning, blue mountains with a coating of fog that stretched to the horizon. Not an apartment block or skyscraper in sight, just clouds and sky and a sense of lightness that permeated the whole place.

We sat over endless cups of tea, taking in the view as we reminisced on the past decade. Dinner was a simple meal of pickled vegetables and rice followed by shots of home made herbal liquor, then cognac, and finally wine as the stars slowly filled the sky. Our host broke out his flute.

“How will you manage here when you get older,” my wife asked. “How will you get down on your own?”

“Who needs to come down.”