우물 안 개구리

4/1/2007

Unity is Almost Always a Myth

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 3:53 pm Print

In an otherwise interesting discussion of North Korean defector readjustment and North-South relations in the Washington Post, Samuel Songhoon Lee drops this

In South Korea, a country that withstood centuries of invasions from its Chinese and Japanese neighbors, unity defines survival. And without ethnic diversity or a history of immigration, unity means conformity. When something becomes fashionable here, it can have significant consequences. For example, South Korea has the world’s highest ratio of cosmetic surgeons to citizens, catering to the legions of girls who receive eyelid surgery as a present for their 16th birthday. … The lack of diversity at school makes the young defectors instant standouts — subject to 15 minutes of fame and adulation, then an enduring period of isolation. When their peers ask about their accent — noticeably different from what’s common in Seoul — most students say they’re from Gangwon Province, in the northeastern part of the country.

My second reaction was to note the self-contradictory nature of the paragraph: if conformity is so ubiquitous and nationalized, how can strong regional accents survive? In fact, this is something which I’ve noted with regard to Japan as well: to a large extent, parochialism and immobility (geographic and class) mask diversity because most people don’t experience it within their own society. There’s another factor which is similar between Japan and South Korea: the domination of the media by media created within a single mega-urban community, which tends to assume its own experience and views as “normal.”

But it’s the historical early section which piqued my interest in the first place, of course. Maybe it’s just a word choice thing, but I’d be much more comfortable with the idea that Korea “endured” invasions than “withstood”: the latter implies that they successfully resisted. They didn’t repel the Mongols: they waited until that empire had collapsed elsewhere before rising in revolt. They didn’t repel the Japanese in the 1590s without considerable assistance from China. They were in no condition to repel the Qing, thanks to the Japanese, though they retained their independence. They didn’t repel the Japanese in the modern period at all, though they enlisted the aid of their largest, most powerful neighbors. In one sense — the continued existence of an entity which eventually became the modern Korean states — the term “withstood” is tolerable, but it still implies that Korea was largely unchanged by the experiences, and that wasn’t really true, either.

Then there’s the “unity defines survival” question: for most of Korea’s history there was a pretty sharp divide between aristocratic and commoner, as well as pretty significant unfree populations. I suppose you could argue that it was the unity of Korean elites which defined the cultural survival of Korea, but that still requires believing in some essential element persisting and also that Korean elites were actually unified, which seems quite questionable, especially in periods like the Koryo.

Finally, there’s “unity means conformity” which just makes my skin crawl. I’ll freely admit that it’s an American bias, but it also seems a long way to me from fashion conformity (which is fleeting and faddish) to national unity (which ought to be enduring and based on some kind of fundamental principles). The concept of the nation as sharing culture usually refers to an historical tradition; the idea of the nation as people who share fads is a significant degradation of an already questionable concept.

Addendum: The author of the Post article contact me, as he has everyone who’s blogged about his article, to alert us to a problem, namely that he’d neglected to use pseudonyms and alter identifying information for his students. This raises safety issues for their family members who are still in North Korea, and consequently he is asking that anyone who blogs about the article be careful to avoid identifying his students.

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