우물 안 개구리

9/2/2012

Things I don’t know about Korea, part 3

One of the things that I noticed about the materials I used last time I taught Korean history1 is that the texts I chose for my course did not mention, much less discuss in depth, the recently departed Moon Sun Myung‘s Unification Church. The global reach of this uniquely Korean Christian sect would seem to make it a natural topic for discussion, but even works that look in some detail at the religious changes of modern Korean history didn’t address this sect.

The absence was so striking, that I started to wonder if there was some sort of political minefield or cultural taboo at work, or if I had grossly misunderstood the scale and impact of the movement. I haven’t been looking all that hard for answers one way or the other in the two years since, but I certainly would like to have some better sense going in this time.

  1. and I’m scheduled to teach it again in the Spring, in parallel with my Modern Japan course, so it’s on my mind. I’m thinking of adding some literature to the syllabus []

8/7/2011

Politics of Health / Medicine, post 1945

I’ve been thinking again about the broader issue of beginning to approach the South Korean post-colonial state and post-1945 medicine, recognizing the immense problems that this presents.

Even leaving aside lengthy traditons of shamans and religious healers of varying persuasions, if we restrict medicine to two loose clusters–한의학 and biomedicine–then minimally this leaves us with the need to consider at least some of the following:

a) W. Medicine as brought / conveyed by misssionaries;

b) German academic medicine / biosciences of the mid to late 19th century (esp. maybe Virchow?);

c) German academic tradition as conveyed through colonial Japanese medicine, public health, and parasitology (Meiji, Taisho, and Showa);

d) USAMGIK / 미군정 (especially the CATS lectures prepared by Winslow); also here–pre-Korean War visits by Rockefeller in the form of prominent American demographers / social scientists–among them Taeuber, Notestein, Balfour;

e) military medicine and psychiatry (here meaning the ROKA and its own internal public health practice, starts even prior to independence, allegedly);

f) Korean War era aid / efforts–UNKRA, WHO report, NORMASH, MASH, Jutlandia, etc.;

g) post Korean-War medical relief / aid projects / technical assistance: e.g., Minnesota Project, Scandinavian Teaching Hospital, CMB, AKF, KAVA, etc.;

h) Public health efforts tailored to specific endemic diseases;

i) Public health mobilizations of the Park period (FP, KAHP), including assistance from Japan’s OTCA, SIDA, and various university demography centers;

j) Vietnam War and once again ROKA military medicine (esp. 열대의학);

k) The incremental growth / provision of national health insurance (1963-1989).

This is only a partial list, but and within this diversity I have two basic generalizations:

1) Lots of continuity / overlap with previous forms of Japanese practice, especially in public health terms, that is, the large-scale mobilizations of 1960′s and 1970′s (FP, Anti-Parasite eradication).

2) Immense effort to link personal health to national welfare as related themes, especially with international aid in post-Korean War period, but even into the 70′s and 80′s.

More on this later, and for now, just recognizing the immense complexity of one little slice of time on these issues. I don’t work on the colonial period, but I suspect it’s equally complicated on issues of medicine / health, far more complicated than some would have it.

3/17/2011

Nuclear Power in Korea / Domestic and International

Filed under: — John P. DiMoia @ 9:29 pm Print

Just a quick note, even as the Japan situation continues to unfold, to recall that (1) the current ROK government wants to prioritize nuclear exports in the coming years; and that (2) the domestic industry provides a significant portion of the nation’s energy (28 plants either in operation or under construction).

At this point, it would be unfair to make any sweeping generalizations or loose analogies with the Fukushima site, but it is not unfair to recognize similar types of actors (General Electric) and contractors dating to the late 1970′s, in roughly the same part of the world, and to ask some hard questions about those plants and their lifespans.

More on this later, but I have been surprised (although I suppose I should not be) about the press coverage from Japan, much of which has focused on TEPCO, and very little of it looking at the reactor origins and hardware.

7/7/2009

North Korean Propoganda Posters

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 8:44 am Print

Thanks to Adam at Mutantfrog for pointing me to these North Korean Propoganda posters. I think this is my favorite but the whole group is worth a look.

5/11/2009

“Prosthetic Memories”

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 10:10 am Print

Seungsook Moon at Japan Focus has an interesting historiographical essay about the contested life and legacy of Park Chung Hee, who led Korea through the 60s and 70s. The debate is particularly interesting because it parallels discourses which are ongoing in other post-dictatorial societies, including the debates about Stalin in Russia, Mao and Deng in China, Chiang Kaishek in Taiwan, etc. The history itself is fascinating, though I do wish Moon had spent a little more effort mediating some of the factual basis for the competing narratives.

1/22/2009

North Korea’s engagement with the world

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 8:05 pm Print

I remember the shocked look on my students’ faces fifteen years ago when I told them that we actually had no idea how decisions were made or leaders picked in North Korea, that it was more or less still a “black box.” I find it fascinating that we’re starting to get a better public picture of the internal processes of North Korea.

One of the reasons is the steady stream of refugees. In the Financial Times, Matthew Engel reports on a Korean enclave in the SW London suburb of New Malden. The relatively closed and self-reliant society is mostly middle-class, “bourgeois,” but among “the beginnings of an underclass” are North Koreans. I get the impression from the article that many of them are illegal immigrants, and their “underclass” status comes both from their lack of professional skills and their desire to remain outside of official notice.

Mitchell Lerner, at Ohio State University, believes that he’s found the key to understanding the Kim dynasty of North Korea: juche. And when “self-reliance” is slipping, domestically, they bluster internationally to bolster their credentials as strong and independent leaders. It’s counterintuitive: when they need help the most, they can’t get it. But their legitimacy as rulers is based on juche. He writes

In the political realm, it called for chaju (independence), in which North Korean leaders governed without constraint from outside pressure or internal challenge. Economically, juche called for charip (self-sustenance), which required a largely self-contained economy based on domestic workers using domestic resources to satisfy domestic needs. In international relations, juche advocated chawi (self-defense), a foreign policy based on complete equality and mutual respect between nations as well as the right of self-determination and independent policymaking.

Juche, simply, demanded the people subordinate themselves to the state, and the state in turn would advance their collective interests in accordance with the uniqueness and majesty of Korea, and always in pursuit of greater economic, political, and international independence.

By justifying the position of the suryong (single leader) and uniting the people behind him, juche successfully advanced Kim’s interests.

I’d call that a fairly textbook kind of fascism: emphasizing the independence of the nation, the subordination of the people to the nation, and the fuhrerprincip — the leader who embodies sovereignty. Even the reliance on the US as a hobgoblin echoes the “we have been denied our rightful place in the world” rhetoric of the early 20c fascist regimes. The only thing that distinguishes North Korea from them, really, is the longevity of the Kim dynasty. The Kim refered to in the above excerpt is Kim Il Sung, the founder of the DPRK; his son, Kim Jong Il, is one of the only examples I can think of of a successful fascist succession.

However, by closely associating the government’s legitimacy with its successful pursuit of juche, Kim had opened the door to potential disaster. When he triumphantly achieved juche, North Koreans would perpetuate and even embrace his rule. But if the pursuit was unsuccessful, the most fundamental justification for the regime would appear violated.

Legitimation of a government is always a double-edged sword. Some forms of legitimation have a sharper back edge than others: the Confucian Mandate of Heaven is like this, as well.

When considered within this framework, Kim’s tendency to behave more aggressively when he seemed to be at his weakest makes sense. Unable to deny economic and political instability that suggested his government was not acting in accordance with juche principles, Kim redoubled his efforts to demonstrate his strength and independence in the third juche realm, foreign policy.

He does a nice job fitting the periods of economic trouble with the eras of international tension. He also does a good job illustrating the claustrophobic environment — the limited, controlled media, the cradle-to-grave indoctrination, the purges, etc — which makes North Korea such a surreal place.

Update: Speaking of Surreal, Curzon has a post on Reverend Billy Graham’s relationship with North Korea, starting with his missionary ancestors. [via

7/16/2007

KTX female attendants – “contingent labour” fights back

Filed under: — noja @ 1:33 pm Print

There was a time in Korean labour movement history in the 1970s when it were the female workers who actually led the most militant part of the struggle. The reasons were obvious – while the wages were held generally low and grew on much lower rate than the economy as the whole (in the 1960s, the growth rate for economy were whopping 10%, but for real, inflation-adjusted wages in the manufacturing – modest 2,4% on the annualised basis), the female wages were always lower than the male ones, and military-like systemized bullying on the part of the male supervisors used to make factory life a miserable, constantly humiliating experience. Accordingly, some of the most moving struggles of the 1970s took place on the female-dominated textile factories – KyOngsOng Pangjik (1973) and Tongil Panjik (1978) strikes being the best known ones. In the latter case, the striking female workers were eventually assaulted by their male colleagues (?), beaten and showered with human excrements. Their response? On the Easter, 1978, they came to the public worship place on YOUido Square and succeeded in taking microphone for 5 minutes and shouting to the city and world – “우리는 똥을 먹고 살 수 없다!”. Of course, more beatings and arrest followed immediately, but the phrase ended becoming a tale-telling slogan of the female labour movement.

Now, I feel sometimes that the 1970s are returning, in a way. After 1997 crisis, females were first to be sacrificed on the altar of Washington consensus and “national interests” – put on contract (many of the contracts for tellers at the large malls, for example, are for 3 months or even 1 month), send to work on much worse conditions for a subcontractors, to which large part of the tasks was now “farmed out”, “re-employed” by some shadowy intermediary with proporationate part of the salary being withheld “for introduction”, and “flexibilized” in a million other methods, too diverse and creative to describe here. Now, 70% of Korea’s female workforce is “contingent” and “flexible”, on short-term contracts, subcontracted or supplied by “manpower agencies” – a world record of sorts. The women fought back, and the most protracted and bitter of all the struggles witnessed so far by the 2000s is the marathon strike by KTX (express train) female attendants – now well over 500 days and showing so far no signes of coming to an end. Below is the text of the appeal for their sake, prepared in its English form by a group of Korean female professors and sent to me by Prof. Na YungyOng (Culture Studies, Yonsei University):

“URGENT APPEAL for INTERNATIONAL SOLIDARITY

On March 1, 2006, approximately four hundred women who work as train attendants (similar to flight attendants) on the KTX “bullet train” began a strike to demand the end of discriminatory and unjust outsourcing practices of the Korea Railroad Corporation (KORAIL). Despite KORAIL’s promise that workers hired under short-term contracts via an external company would be granted permanent status as direct employees of KORAIL after one year, the KTX Crew Workers Branch Union’s demands for direct and permanent employment have yet to be met.

To date, the KTX Crew Workers’ Branch Union’s struggle is the longest and most bitterly waged fight by women workers in the history of Korea. For over 500 days, women who work as train attendants on the KTX bullet trains have held public rallies and marches, occupied buildings, lectured in classrooms, and conducted outreach on the streets and at train stations throughout the country. KORAIL’s continued refusal to meet the union’s demands for gender equality, safe working conditions and secure employment have led union leaders to engage in desperate measures to expose the unjust and unequal conditions under which they are forced to work. After exhausting every tactic, 31 union members began a hunger strike on July 2, 2007. As the hunger strike surpasses its 14th day, many union members have been rushed to the hospital..

Despite KTX’s sleek and high-tech image as the fifth fastest “bullet train” in the world, it is the site of blatant sexism and labor abuse. Of those train attendants who are irregularly employed under outsourcing agreements, the majority are women. In contrast, their male counterparts who perform comparable duties are directly employed by KORAIL as “team leaders.” Simply by being women, KTX train attendants are subject to lower wages, harsher working conditions, and heightened job insecurity. In addition, women workers face the perpetual threat of dismissal if they speak out against unfair conditions and sexual harassment in the workplace.

According to the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, KORAIL’s treatment of KTX female train attendants is a clear example of gender discrimination and a basic violation of human rights. The National Human Rights Commission has strongly recommended that striking KTX women workers be granted fair and just conditions of employment. The South Korean Minister of Labor, the legal community, various media outlets, 500 university professors, 300 members of the literary community and a wide cross section of NGOs including the Korea Women’s Association United, Lawyers for Democratic Society, People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, Korea Women Workers Association United, and the People’s Coalition for Media Reform have also called upon KORAIL to reinstate the striking workers as directly hired employees, not as contingent workers contracted through a third party. However, KORAIL continues to disregard this overwhelming public outcry.

KORAIL, the nation’s largest public enterprise and employer of over 30,000 people, refuses to abide by the most basic and fundamental standards of fairness and equality. KORAIL’s actions violate South Korean laws that prohibit all forms of discrimination, as well as international standards established by the ILO to protect the rights of workers. KORAIL is also failing to comply with the international standards that the company itself pledged to uphold when it joined the UN Global Compact in May 2007.

KORAIL’s blatant violation of the basic principles of democracy and human rights deserve international criticism. KORAIL’s actions are indicative not only of the pervasive inequality facing contingent workers in South Korea, but also of systemic gender discrimination in South Korea. We urge the international community to stand in solidarity with the KTX Crew Workers in its brave fight for justice. We respectfully request your signature on this petition letter in support of the KTX women workers. This letter will be sent to President Roh Moo-hyun and UN Secretariat General Ban Ki-moon, as well as to the CEO of KORAIL.”

The letter of the appeal is enclosed below. Dear friends, if you think that the cause of the KTX workers is worthy, I beg you to sign it and return with you sign to ktxworkers@gmail.com (please, indicate your position and affiliation). More info in Korean is available at: http://ktxworkers.blogsome.com. This thing is URGENT, since only the Almighty knows how long the hunger strikers will be physically able to hold on.

7/16/2006

Kim Hwanp’yo and his “Ssalpap chŏnchaeng”

Filed under: — noja @ 9:03 am Print

Several days ago, I was happy to be presented a newly published book by the publishers who had also earlier printed two of my own books – that is, by Seoul-based Inmul kwa sasang (인물과 사상). The book is entitled “Ssalpap chŏnchaeng” (쌀밥 전쟁: “War for rice”, or how should I translate it?), and written by certain Kim Hwanp’yo – a non-academic, obviously from the circle of Prof. Kang Junman (a Chŏnbuk University media scholar and famous social ciritic, well-known for his habit to “name names” while criticising people and institutions – a dangerous thing to do in our position, I would add…), who previously co-authored several essay collections of political and “cultural criticism” including one on the history of S. Korea’s official ‘anti-communism.’

This new work, a surprisingly detailed and professionally written account for somebody who is seemingly neither a historian nor a specialist in the field of agricultural economy, deals with the story of S. Korean rice agriculture, and mainly in 1960s-70s. The picture which emerges from reading it is helpful in understanding what is going on in North Korea in a sort of wider historical perspective—you get to know that S. Korea achieved self-sufficiency in rice in 1976, when it harvested 36 million sŏk of rice, and that this achievement was, in fact, quite shaky. S. Korea had to resume rice imports in 1980, when it harvested only 24 million sŏk due to a large-scale crop failure. It was happy enough to do so as it had enough currency at the time, and then became a stable client of the Californian rice cultivators – who were politically well-backed enough to press Chŏn’s dictatorship to buy their wares throughout the early 1980s, even when S.Korea did not really need them.

N. Korea, with its depleted foreign exchange reserves and without cheap Soviet fuel and fertilizer, did not manage in the mid-1990s to escape the same plight which Southerners barely escaped in 1980. The way to rice self-sufficiency under Park was a bumpy one, and involved lots of disciplinary action taken in a good Japanese imperial spirit—of the kind the Western public would probably more readily associate with North Korea. It included designating special “no-rice days” (무미일 – no rice to be sold anywhere, and presumably no rice to be eaten in home dining-rooms, although this part probably was not really well-enforced), ordering in 1963 that all rice merchants to blend 20% non-rice cereals (잡곡) into their wares, and ordering restaurant owners to do the same with the rice they served. More resembling the good old imperial days—as well as the realities of the North Korean situation—were housewifes’ “public meetings for the sake of encouraging flour-based meals” (분식권장궐기대회), which were supposed to force home kitchens to comply with the governmental policy of “분식의 날”—bread and noodles only, none of that luxury good called ‘white rice.’ These housewives who were deplorably ignorant about the ways of making good food without rice, were taught to do so in special “flour-based meal consultation centres” (분식상담소), run from 10.00 to 16.00 every weekday by the “National Reconstruction Movement” (재건국민운동본부). And they had to study assiduously. If the share of white rice in the lunch boxes of their children exceeded prescribed norm, and this heinous crime was uncovered during the regular “lunch box checks” (도시락 검사), the punishment (that is, the corporal punishment for the children) would be severe, and their children’s grades for behaviour might suffer.

This “rice economizing movement” (절미운동) ended only in the late 1970s—and the age in which newspapers explained that the high intelligence of Westerners was precisely thanks to the fact that they ate bread and not rice, became just an (unwelcome) part of the collective memory. It all shows something about the nature of post-colonial statehood on the Korean Peninsula – but the Western media did not try that much to poke fun at Park Chung Hee’s ways to discipline and punish his subjects, while very similar things (on a much worse scale, I have to acknowledge) done by Kim Il Sung, were always mocked in very good humour, were they not? I always wonder what proportion of Western—and non-Western—consumers of Samsung products are aware of what would happen to any Samsung employee who tried to unionize his/her company?

5/9/2006

The Marijuana Crisis of ’75

Filed under: — Owen @ 1:37 pm Print

I’ve been dipping into an excellent book on the history of Korean popular music now and then (이혜숙 & 손우석 – 한국대중음악사) and came across a fascinating passage on Park Chung-hee’s use of drugs scares to suppress the emerging youth culture that he found threatening. Here’s an excerpt (my rough translation):

After the defeat in Vietnam Park Chung-hee set about strengthening his dictatorship by stressing an external policy of self-reliant defence and an internal policy of ‘defending the system’. To that end, the possession of nuclear weapons, national harmony and traditional culture were all emphasised. However, the imitation of the Western youth culture of jeans, long hair, [folk] guitar and pop songs was widespread. At a time when it was necessary to defend the system and achieve national unity and a self-reliant defence it was impossible to remain indifferent to this degenerate Western youth culture. It was necessary to tighten social discipline. In the view of Park Chung-hee the base and degenerate culture of the West appeared in two forms: one was the folk guitar singers and the other was the entertainers who had originated in the [clubs frequented by] US Eighth Army soldiers. A crackdown on these people was urgent. He began by banninglarge numbers of pop songs and kayo and then moved on to a crackdown on marijuana. On December 2nd, 1975 a huge number of entertainers were banned completely from working in the so-called ‘marijuana crisis’ (대마초 파동). [한국대중음악사, p86]

The book goes on to quote Park Chung-hee himself on the marijuana problem:

“At this grave juncture that will settle the matter of life and death in our one-on-one [struggle] with the Communist Party, the smoking of marijuana by the youth is something that will bring ruin to our country… You must pull up by the roots the problem of marijuana smoking and similar activities by applying the maximum penalties currently available under the law.” [Chosun Ilbo, 3 February 1976, quoted in above book, p88]

There was a little bit more to this story, because the president’s own son, Park Ji-man, had smoked marijuana and been influenced by hippy culture. As the authors of the book point out, this was possibly further motivation for Park’s crackdown.

Of course there exist semi-conspiracy theories as to why marijuana is prohibited throughout the world and how it came to be prohibited in the first place. We can also ask the broader questions about why states would want to outlaw commodities for which there is a clear market and which could be so lucrative to both capitalist entrepreneurs and government tax revenues (David Harvey has some good passages on the limits of commoditisation in his recent book on neoliberalism).

This is probably not the place to get into all the historical reasons why this particular commodity happens to be prohibited. But the history of controlled drugs all over the world shows that social control is often one aspect in the calculations of governments enforcing prohibition laws. Korea was and continues to be a good example of this. The fact that illegal drug use is very low in Korea by world standards did not and does not stop the authorities from stamping down on the merest hint of usage, particularly when it comes to people in the public eye. As I’ve mentioned in a post before at my blog, there continue to be periodic scandals with prominent Korean entertainers being busted and sometimes having their careers ruined. And this is not confined to the world of pop singers or TV hosts – one of Korea’s most talented traditional musicians, percussionist and dancer Yi Kwangsu, has been in and out of jail a number of times as a result of his fondness for the odd reefer.

Of course, as a fibre crop hemp was crucial to the economies of both Korea and Japan for hundreds of years. But that’s another story…

3/29/2006

Duelling histories? part 3

Filed under: — Owen @ 7:57 pm Print

I thought I would revive this title once more and add another post to the series on recent historiographical clashes in South Korea since I recently came across another interesting example that actually fits rather nicely with some of the posts made here by Jiyul and Noja.

I came across this report on a debate on the Park Chung-hee era between Im Chi-hyŏn and Cho Hŭi-yŏn in the pages of the Donga Ilbo newspaper. Apparently the debate between the two has been going on since 2004, particularly in the pages of the journal Historical Criticism (역사비평) and the Professors’ Newspaper (교수신문).

Basically, the main protagonist, Im Chi-hyŏn, argues that Park’s rule was an example of a ‘mass dictatorship’ (대중독재), in other words, the idea that Park was able to rule by creating some degree of consent for his dictatorship. Cho counters that “the mass dictatorship theory is problemmatic because it expands the accommodating silence of the masses into a general and active agreement with the dictatorship, thus justifying it.”

Im on the other hand responds that “Cho’s understanding makes the people into heroes and demonises the dictator, creating a moralistic duality. If we are to prevent a new dictatorship from arising we need to go beyond moralistic dualism and provide a dispassionate analysis.”

Going a bit further, Cho argues that both Im Chi-hyŏn’s views and those of Yi Yŏng-hun (who edited two recent books I’ve mentioned here: 해방 전후사의 재인식 and 수량경제사로 다시 본 조선후기) are part of a general attempt to create a revisionist history that takes advantage of the current crisis of ‘democratic progressive discourse’. He argues that while Yi’s critique comes from the viewpoint of the so-called ‘New Right’, Im’s comes from a postmodernist (탈근대적) position. Funnily enough I’m planning to translate a review of 해방 전후사의 재인식 by a Korean Marxist historian whom I rate highly, who makes almost exactly the same point, titling his review: ‘A reactionary duet between the right and the postmodernists.’ When I actually have some time to do the translation I’ll be sure to make it available to readers here.

More on the debate here at the Chosun Ilbo. And something in English I found here on Im’s theory of mass dictatorship.

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