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Wednesday, March 30, 2005

North Koreans catch the 'English Disease'

Finally back in the real world after a surreal little holiday. Seems as though the real world has unthoughtfully provided a lot of stuff for me to catch up on while I've been disconnected from the Matrix.

I won't bother catching up on what's been going on because the latest news is more interesting: riots have erupted in P'yôngyang during and after a World Cup qualifying football match between North Korea and Iran. Apparently the crowd of 60,000, almost all supporting North Korea naturally, became upset at refereeing decisions and started throwing missiles at the pitch. The violence continued after the match (2-0 to Iran) when crowds prevented the Iranian players from boarding their coach. (See BBC and Reuters reports)

It might be going a bit far to read too much into this incident, but it does raise a few thoughts in my mind. First, this show of rampant, violent nationalism gives credence to the idea that the 'regime changers' find impossible to believe: that many North Koreans are proud of their country. Dogstew had something on this topic recently, and although I don't agree with everything they say, I think the central point is valid: it is possible for large numbers of ordinary people to support a totalitarian regime (particularly, I would add, when the country is, or is perceived to be, under constant military threat). Iraq should have been an instructive lesson for the Neo-cons and their followers (a Mr Blair comes to mind) who consistently believed the tales they were told by Iraqi defectors about how the US would be welcomed with open arms when it invaded and there would be no resistance. Former British cabinet minister Robin Cook made this point in a comment piece just last week (via DML). But the Neo-cons and regime-changers just don't seem to get it: living under a horrible, repressive regime does not automatically mean that you will support US intervention, especially when you know what happened the last time.

Of course any 'popular support' that exists for a regime like that of Kim Jong-il must be highly unstable and contradictory. So while it doesn't surprise me that many North Koreans would be highly nationalistic and anti-US - especially considering the history of conflict between the two countries - this does not necessarily guarantee that they will always support Kim Jong-il's regime, or that they themselves do not have contradictory feelings. Nationalist sentiment could easily spill over into wider protests giving vent to underlying frustrations with the government at home (which no doubt do exist in North Korea).

This brings me to my second thought, which concerns the echoes of the anti-American protests in Beijing at the time of the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. At first it seemed that the Chinese authorities were quite happy to see spontaneous anti-American demonstrations on the streets, but they quickly became very worried and had to crack down on them, blocking off the entire embassy district of the city. Assuming that conspiracy theorists are wrong and this was not some massive government-orchestrated exercise in whipping up nationalist feelings, then I would have thought that the North Korean regime is rather worried by what happened in the stadium today.

UPDATE, 1st April:
For you information, here's how the North Korean media reported the football match. It's interesting to be honest that they go as far as to say that the spectators "vigorously protested":

Football Match Held between DPRK and Iranian Teams

Pyongyang, March 31 (KCNA) -- A football match between the DPRK and the Iranian teams belonging to the group B of the 2006 World Cup Asian regional qualifier took place in Pyongyang on Wednesday. The Iranian team won the game 2:0.
At the end of the match all the spectators were angered and vigorously protested the wrong refereeing by the Syrian referee and linesmen.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Joy of statistics

Remember that book I was coveting a few days ago? Well, thanks to a certain person, I've got my paws on a copy. Want to know the per capita GDP of Peru in 1914 in '1990 international Geary-Khamis dollars'? Or Ghanaian gold production for the 16th century in millions of 'fine ounces'? Or the year to year percentage change in per capita GDP in the former USSR in 1992? Or even possibly Japan's share of world population in 1000AD? No, I thought you probably weren't that interested... But just in case you change your mind the answers are at the bottom of this post.

I'm away over Easter so no posting for a few days. Should be back on line next Tuesday, fresh of mind and body (possibly).


Monday, March 21, 2005

Asano Kenichi on the Japanese mainstream media

We had a very good seminar last week at SOAS, given by Kenichi Asano, professor of journalism at Doshisha University in Kyoto. If I said that this guy is a leftwing Japanese academic, it would probably be a bit of an understatement. You can probably get a good idea of where he's coming from from the title of his talk: "The Japanese Mainstream Media's Colonialist Stance toward North Korea and its Propagandist Role in Iraq."

Anyway, he was really very good and gave an excellent, if rather depressing, overview of the state of the Japanese media. In many ways what he said brought out parallels with the situation in the US where an obedient media has (in general) played cheerleader to George Bush and the neo-conservatives in the war on terror. Here's an extract from his paper to give you a flavour:
In many ways the conundrum known as the Japanese press is encapsulated well in the example of Japan's relationship with the Democratic People's Replublic of Korea. Wherever the Japanese government goes, the Japanese news media usually follows close behind, more like a well-trained poodle on a leash than a fierce watchdog at the gate of a strong, independent press.
As Asano pointed out, as well as its equivalents of Fox and CNN, Japan also its own neo-conservatives in the form of people like far-right politicians like Shinzo Abe (deputy secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party). And to make matters even worse, in the last few years even the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, which had always portrayed itself as Japan's 'liberal' daily has swerved drastically to the right. So that the 'neo-cons' and Asahi were united in playing the whole North Korean kidnapping thing for all it was worth, with the newspaper apparently even criticising President Roh quite strongly when he made a link between the abductee issue and Japan's failure to come to terms with its colonial past.

Although the focus was on North Korea, Asano also took up the question of the Japanese media's coverage of the troop deployment to Samawah in Iraq. He pointed out not only that this coverage has been extremely restricted and basically acted as the propaganda arm of the Japanese government, but that the press has also gone on the attack against people who threaten the government's position. He describes the case of the three Japanese hostages who were released in Iraq last year and then berated by politicians and newspapers when they returned home as a 'media bludgeoning'.

My question to professor Asano concerned the political environment in which this sort of thing can occur. Of course we have to look back at Japan's history and understand the compromised form of democracy that has been established there since World War II, but what about the current situation? It is easy in this sort of analysis of the media just to become hopeless and believe that the press is falling into the hands of rightwing governments and their rich allies all over the world and that everyone will be brainwashed into falling in line with whatever governments want to do. But this isn't a one way process by any means - what about the left, social movements, anti-war campaigns, the unions, what about the forces that counterbalance a move to the right? In the UK and Europe in general it has not been possible for the media across the board to support the war and propagandise for it (in Germany the government itself was not able to support the Iraq war) because the anti-war movements have been so strong and the 'ideological field' (as leninology characteristically put it) has been shaped by them. In the UK you had two major broadsheet newspapers and one tabloid coming out firmly against the war and producing some very good journalism in the process.

So this is a very long way of coming around to the question that I asked Prof. Asano: what is the current state of civil society movements and the anti-war movement in particular in Japan. As might be guessed, his reply was not hugely encouraging: things are pretty awful in general and the anti-war movement has been weak. However, he's seems to be one of those irrepressibly optimistic people who thinks that the bottom is a good place to be because you can only go up. And he's planning to do his part in encouraging the development of independent media in Japan:
Every democratic society counts on a healthy, skeptical press to be a check against the excesses of government, but in Japan today, that kind of press does not exist.
Japan, however, need not look very far for a solution: One lies just accross the Sea of Japan / East Sea on the Korean Peninsula. The rise of independent media movements worldwide are changing the face of the 'one-way dialogue' that corporate news has become, and nowhere is that positive change more exemplified than in the Seoul-based news outlet known as Oh My News, said to be the largest online independent news service on the web... I am happy to say that we are thinking of creating a Japanese-translated version of Oh My News on the web and hope someday soon to publish original Japanese news stories on it as well... it is up to the Japanese public to take the matter into its own hands and start creating its own independent news media. That time, for Japan, is now.
If you're interested, you can find Kenichi Asano's homepage here and some articles in English by him here.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

London-Seoul-Tokyo March 19/20 protest round up

The London anti-occupation demo yesterday was excellent, big, lively, colourful, young, old, noisy and above all... sunny. Nothing like marching on a warm sunny spring day to raise the spirits a bit. There were at least 100,000 people there and for me it was definitely the best anti-war demo since the (supposed) end of the war in April 2003 (unfortunately I missed the massive Stop Bush demo in November 2003 as I was in Korea at the time). Anyway, if you want an entertaining report on the day check out leninology. A couple of pics (from IMC) to give you a flavour:

Into the haze

Taking over the streets...

Taking over Trafalgar Square

And this placard wins second prize in the funniest of the day competition (first prize goes to the one that read "Cherie, take the kids and run, while you still have time"):

Sounds as though the demo in Seoul was pretty decent too, attracting some 5-6000 protesters according to the organisers. Oh My News has the goods here.

피켓의 숲 / forest of placards

Protesting, Korean style

The BBC was reporting that there was a 4500-strong anti-war demo in Tokyo. If these figures are correct (I couldn't find anything to verify them) this is very good, especially considering that the Japanese anti-war movement has been a bit lacklustre in general and certainly wasn't able to mount the sort of opposition to the deployment of the Japanese "Self Defence Force" to Samawah that the Korean movement was able to mount against their country's deployment to Irbil. Perhaps it was Condi's visit that galvanised people into action.

Friday, March 18, 2005

I knew they were right...

I was wondering the other day about the political orientation of the people surrounding the Japanese embassy in Seoul, cutting off their fingers, setting fire to themselves (etc), all over the Tokto (non)issue (see Kotaji passim et alia Koreanus blogium ad infinitum). Obviously, not being in Seoul it’s not possible to pop down to check out who’s hanging out burning Japanese flags, but it seems that I’ve got my answer anyway. According to the Marmot:
Something odd I noticed as I was doing a piece for the Chosun — the groups doing the protesting are, by and large, not the anti-American lefty loons you usually see protesting in front of embassies. No, this is a crew of an entirely different sort. The Korea Freedom League, Pan-Citizen Alliance to Defend Dokdo, Citizens’ Alliance to Stop North Korean Nuclear Weapons, Hwalbindan… these are some real, hardcore rightists. The kind of guys who’d normally be spending the day burning Kim Jong-il in effigy.
Oh My News also has a good article about the Tokto demonstrators (also a good English article), quoting the chairman of the Seoul veterans' association as saying that the whole Tokto crisis was actually the fault of the Korean left and their “inadequate nationalism” (어설픈 민족주의) and promotion of 'anti-Americanism'. So, the logic of this is basically that, because the South Korean left has stood up to US imperialism both on the Korean peninsula and in its recent murderous adventure in Iraq (this practice is usually known under the name 'anti-Americanism' for some reason), it has not paid enough attention to real issues concerning the Korean people such as the designs of a few Japanese loony rightists on some rocks in the middle of the East Sea. And therefore the whole Korean nation is under threat. Hmmm, personally I'm not convinced by this line of reasoning.

Anyway, it is quite clear that the whole Tokto thing, as well as being whipped up by the mainstream press, is being exploited for all it's worth by the Korean far-right and it is the right in general that is leading the protests. I'm not, of course, denying that there might be people of other political complexions out on the streets as well, but in general it seems to be a good excuse for a nice day out for all those semi-fascist, semi-gangster groups who rarely get to see the light of day in Korea these days.

Talking of fascist types, I finally found a picture of those Japanese fascists celebrating the passing of a bill to establish 'Takeshima Day' in Shimane Prefecture (they look strangely like schoolboys don't they):

Anyway, to everyone who's going to be out on the streets today/tomorrow protesting about the real imperial project of our times, have a good day. I'll think of you all as I file past the US embassy in Grosvenor Square, most likely shouting something horribly anti-American...

PS: If you think I've gone all soft on Japan, I've got a post on Japan/Korea/Iraq coming up which should hopefully be quite interesting.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

First we take Tokto, then we take Berlin

Everyone else seems to be talking about this so I suppose I’m going to have to, even if it is a bit tiresome. Since my last post on the Tokto islands dispute between Korea and Japan things seem to have developed a bit (ie people have started lopping off parts of their bodies in protest). The BBC has some good overviews including this and this. The latter article, concerning the passing of a bill today by the assembly of Shimane Prefecture which officially recognises Tokto (Takeshima) as part of its territory, has the following rather disturbing passage:

The Shimane assembly law's passing was applauded by right wing activists in paramilitary uniforms.

I didn’t realise that Japan had its own neo-Nazi nutters. No pictures unfortunately though…

Meanwhile, Dogstew has a round up of recent events and links to an article on another issue that has flared between the neighbouring countries for about the millionth time: history textbooks. The Marmot on the other hand draws our attention to the (slightly loopy) attempts by certain South Korean parliamentarians to get their own back on the pesky Japanese by claiming that Tsushima (Japanese island between Pusan and Fukuoka) is actually Korean.

Not wishing to remain left out of all this good fun, the North Koreans have also stuck their oar in. Unfortunately, as is often the case, their paranoid delusions get the better of them and their claims get a little bit wild:

The islet is situated in the waters of geopolitical importance for realizing Japan's ambition to invade Korea…It is the calculation of the Japanese reactionaries that their seizure of the islet would make it possible for Japan to reinvade Korea with ease and get great economic profits... The Japanese reactionaries would be well advised to behave with discretion and give up their ambition to seize the islet and stage comeback to Korea.

I like the idea that the Japanese want to ‘stage a comeback in Korea’, as though Japanese colonialism was actually carried out by a pop group. Having said this, judging by the nutters mentioned in the BBC article above, there clearly are some Japanese who would rather like to see a Japanese ‘comeback’ in Korea, and probably most of the rest of Asia for that matter.

If you’re in Seoul this weekend, here’s something much more worthwhile to protest about, although I still wouldn’t recommend chopping off any parts of your anatomy.

[Update: I should probably add to this post, for the sake of clarity that what the Shimane Prefecture assembly actually passed was not a bill asserting territorial rights over Tokto as such, but rather one establishing a 'Takeshima [Tokto] Day'. Which, I suppose amounts to roughly the same thing.]

Monday, March 14, 2005

Life imitates blog!

Oh dear...

My post of a few days ago suggested (in jest) that the revelation that chickens can be cured of bird flu thanks to kimchi might lead to a shortage of the precious substance in Korea. The BBC has obviously realised the significance of this story and now reveals:

South Koreans are reported to be eating more kimchi as a result of the study.

"I'm eating kimchi these days because I've heard in the media that it helps prevent bird flu infections," one man said.

But actually this is only a case of history repeating itself as a similar phenomenon was apparently observed during the SARS outbreak:

There was an increase in kimchi consumption two years ago, when thousands of people in Asia contracted Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome).

Kimchi was reported to have helped to prevent Sars. The claim was never scientifically proven, but according to some Koreans, people in other countries followed their example and started eating kimchi.

"After the Sars outbreak, I went to China and I noticed that the Korean restaurants there sold most of the kimchi they'd made that day," a Korean man said.

I only hope those kimchi mountains I imagined can come to the rescue.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

The Shadow of Arms

In the comments to my last post, which touched on Korean involvement in the Vietnam War, I mentioned a passage by Korean novelist (and Vietnam veteran) Hwang Sôg-yông concerning his Vietnam War novel The Shadow of Arms (무기의 그늘). There was an English translation published in the Cornell East Asia Series, but I believe it is currently out of print. I must admit that I haven't read the novel myself, either in English or Korean, but it's on the list...
Anyway, here are Hwang's thoughts on the novel and the war in general:
It was in the eighties, in the midst of this maelstrom of change, that I published the work that would mark the end of the first half of my literary career: The Shadow of Arms.

Unlike Hollywood films and other novels that deal with the Vietnam War, The Shadow of Arms has nothing to offer on the theme of struggling with life and death on the battlefield; the pages hold no humnitarian conflict, no ideological protest against the war. Neither is it a mix of colonialism and orientalism in the tradition of "Apocalypse Now," presenting a detached but darkly emotional condemnation of war itself. The Shadow of Arms is a cold-hearted novel that deals instead with the business aspects of what was an intrinsically capitalistic war.

War is nothing more than a fiercely violent reaction to a conflict between different races, nations, and/or classes that is guaranteed to either solve or exponentially aggravate the issue at hand. Without question, was does result in the appearance of a hell on earth, full of destruction and slaughter. On the other hand, this hell is accompanied by the emergence and activation of an extremely dispassionate, precise mechanism of political and economic logic. The Shadow of Arms is an attempt to reveal both the surface appearance and inner workings of this phenomenon. America's Vietnamese 'intervention,' which came on the heels of their activities in the Philippines, was simply a move calculated to expand their imperialistic market control to include the rest of Southeast Asia. War was considered to be the quickest, most efficient means of achieving this end: in essence, the war itself was a kind of business being conducted on a rather grandiose scale.

As such, The Shadow of Arms uses the back alley black markets of the Vietnam War as its stage, a market that turns into a setting more fitting than any jungle to discover and explore the core of the war. The more we learn about the system that was used to circulate U.S. Army munitions, the closer we can come to understanding the true nature of the war. Because achieving this understanding became my overarching goal, it was necessary for the perspective of the story itself to be multi-lateral. In this novel we see the perspective of the U.S. government and soldier, the Vietnamese National Liberation Front, the South Vietnamese under American rule, and the "psychological refugee" who refuses to intervene and become a part of the war, searching endlessly fo an escape route instead. Lastly, we have the perspective that overlaps with that of myself, the author: the dazed ROK [Republic of Korea] soldier who has somehow become involved in this foul war.

In the preface to the first edition of The Shadow of Arms, I wrote that I would "never indulge in a depiction of an individual who was scarred" by the Vietnam experience. This was a manifestation of the obstinate self-consciousness that is controlled by the guilt we Koreans feel when treating of the Vietnamese, a substantial limitation that was difficult to overcome when armed with nothing but the perspective of an irresponsible outsider.

Truly, if there is one thing that must make a deeper impression on the hearts of the Vietnamese than the victorious outcome of their war for independence, it can only be the painful memories of all that was lost in order to achieve that very victory. For this alone, over my ten years of exile and incarceration, watching the world change around me, I felt remorse.
[From the 'Korean Writers Reading in the US' publication accompanying an event held October 9-18, 2003 at three US universities. This passage translated by Maya West.]

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Mmmmmmm.... dioxins

At Any Street Corner, who I've been meaning to link to for a long time, has everything you ever wanted to know about Agent Orange. Apparently a court in the US has just thrown out a case brought by 4 million Vietnamese victims against the US chemical companies (Monsanto, Dow etc) that manufactured the stuff.

It's worth remembering that the substance was also used by the US military in Korea in the late 60s when they thought the DMZ was getting a bit too overgrown and they might not be able to see the Commies for the trees. It's also worth remembering that Korea has more than its fair share of Vietnam vets registered as victims of Agent Orange - 40,000 - of whom some 60% are defined as suffering from depression.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Chinese share of world output still only half what it was in 1820

Thought I should mine the BBC's China week a bit more (if that's not an unfortunate metaphor considering the thousands of miners who die in China every year).

Anyway, I found this interesting article providing a longer term historical perspective on China's current economic performance:
[China] has usually been a rather bigger player in the global economy than it is today.

Two thousand years ago, it produced a quarter of total world output.

A thousand years ago, it produced almost a quarter of world output.

And in 1820, it produced a third of the world's output.

China's relatively poor performance of the last two centuries has been an historical aberration, with the country falling behind Europe which learned to industrialize and develop quickly.


In the year 1AD, the per capita income of China was $450, (in 1990 prices).

In 1950, the per capita income was more or less the same ($439 in 1990 prices).

By 2001, that had risen to $3,583.

The author bases his piece on a report from the OECD called The World Economy: Historical Statistics which should make for very interesting reading (I want this book!). Seems to be quite strong material for some of the arguments that have been made by the historian Kenneth Pomeranz in his book The Great Divergence (one of those books I'll get around to reading one of these days...).

As for the figures quoted above, two things strike me: if China's share of world output was one third in 1820 and it is 15% now, then it is still only half way to recovering the position it held in the world economy almost two hundred years ago. And second, the comparison of per capita income in 1AD and 1950 must (I would guess) conceal much higher figures somewhere in beween. Surely the boom periods of the Song, Ming etc must have produced growth that led to higher per capita incomes than that of the mid Han Dynasty period.

Of course there is also something missing from this interesting article: what was the reason for the 'historical aberration' of the last couple of centuries? Well, to be slightly glib you could explain by saying that the capitalist mode of production was able to dominate societies in Europe before it could establish itself firmly in China. But this would ignore the history of political and military struggle between Europe and China that took place in the nineteenth century and in which China was ultimately defeated.

(I don't normally like to take the piss out of someone else's writing but I did think this phrase in the article was rather a good mixed metaphor if ever I heard one: "During the twentieth century, though, China was batting well below its weight.")

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Kimchi's heroic exploits

I have to admit that I am a bit obsessed by the Korean obsession with health food fads. Whereas in the UK the government tries somewhat desperately to get everyone to eat five small bits of vegetation every day and Jamie 'the pukka muppet' Oliver becomes a hero for teaching schoolkids how to tell the difference between a leek and a kiwi fruit, in Korea it seems that every kind of food is scrutinised for its possible efficacy in fighting cancer and just about every other disease known to man. In the ongoing mission to prove that the Korean diet is the healthiest in the world, the findings of intrepid food scientists are regularly reported in the Korean press, often leading to a major shortage of whatever it is they are extolling the virtues of this time round.

In yesterday's Korea Times it was announced that kimchi (Korean fermented chili and cabbage) is "helpful in fighting bird flu". Before anyone starts to panic I think that a kimchi shortage is rather unlikely and the Korean government almost certainly has a backup 'kimchi mountain' somewhere in the country for just such occasions.

Apparently though, kimchi even has its own species of bacteria named Leuconostoc Kimchii, and someone has actually been working on its genome - true dedication to kimchi. Another interesting fact: kimchi is also effective against Newcastle disease. Not sure what this is but it sounds nasty, and possibly involves wandering around drunk on a Saturday night in December wearing only a T-shirt.

Perhaps I should begin to collect these food fad stories from the Korean press for posterity or some sort of pseudo-anthropological research project. On second thoughts, perhaps I won't.

Monday, March 07, 2005

China on everyone's minds

Just watched the first in a series of reports on Newsnight this week about changing China. In fact the BBC is having a whole China-themed week (this is quite a fashion these days - I seem to remember the Guardian also had such a week a few months ago). Tonight's report focused on class, profiling a gigantic seafood restaurant in Tianjin employing 700 people.

Talk of China's 'growing inequality' has become quite a cliche of late (as though China was once not unequal...) but some of the figures in this programme really brought home the fact that China is now one of the most unequal countries in the world. For example, waitresses in the restaurant (who live in a dorm inside the massive building) earn the equivalent of 20 pounds a month ($35?) while a head chef, who is only middle management level earns 400 pounds a month - 20 times as much. You can only guess at what the chief executive of the company that owns the restaurant is earning.

One of the most interesting parts of the report was when they interviewed a group of young people in a private karaoke room at the restaurant having the sort of after work booze-up / sing-along that employees all over East Asia seem to love. It turned out that they were actually workers from the paintshop of the local Toyota car plant letting off a bit of steam. They earn 100 pounds a month and are obviously at the relatively privileged end of the Chinese working class, but they did not seem all that impressed with their wages. As the reporter pointed out, one of the biggest worries for the Chinese ruling class is how to suppress demands for higher wages, particularly among this sector of skilled manual workers.

There is also quite a nice article on BBC News about the Chinese diaspora in the UK - Britain's so-called 'hidden minority' of 250,000 (not so hidden around where I live, as there seem to be quite a lot of mainland Chinese labourers). Funnily enough, the first person profiled is venture capitalist and fellow SOAS student Johnny Hon, who is also a pal of Kim Jong-il's I believe.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Unification and the Korean nation state

Time for some more on one of my favourite subjects: Korean history, nationalism and internationalism. There has been a rather thought-provoking and unusual exchange of letters in the pages of the Korean socialist newspaper Ta Hamkke which I've mentioned in passing before. A letter in issue 49 brought up a number of interesting questions regarding Korean nationalism and unification. The correspondent first questioned whether internationalism was really a way of overcoming nationalism as it presupposes the existence of nation states and nationalism, even in the very word we use. More interestingly, the writer of the letter put forward the idea that unification of North and South Korea was not a progressive demand and something that would only really benefit the bourgeoisie as it would be equivalent to the completion of the Korean nation state, paralleling the process that happened in many parts of Europe in the late nineteenth century. This is possibly the most blasphemous statement that a Korean of any political persuasion can make. It is completely ingrained in Korean society that it is the destiny of Korea to be reunited as a single nation (and people), arguments are really only limited to how this can best be achieved. While there might be problems with this position, it is certainly very refreshing to find someone thinking well outside of the usual frames of reference and a million miles from the nationalistic nonsense that often passes for common sense even on the left in South Korea.

In the latest issue of Ta Hamkke Kang Tong-hun responds, arguing (correctly I think) that the first point is really little more than sophistry. I suppose it is in the nature of language that words for new or as yet unfulfilled concepts have to be based on already existing words. So the word 'internationalism' contains the word 'nation' even though it aims to produce the negation of the nation. Likewise, the Sino-Korean word 국제주의 (kukchejuûi - internationalism) contains the character 國 meaning country / state / nation. But of course concepts are created to help us understand the world and we cannot understand the world better by studying the logical connections between concepts or words in the abstract, but only by using these concepts to help us analyse concrete reality.

Kang responds to the second point by giving a good basic outline of an internationalist position on national liberation struggles: labour or progressive movements in oppressor countries should support the struggles of oppressed nations against their colonisers / occupiers, where hopefully workers will begin to see the advantage of a more internationlist position themselves and attempt to go beyond the national liberation struggle to a social revolutionary struggle which will also target their own national bourgeoisie.

But how does this apply to the question of Korean unification and ending what the Koreans call the 'system of division' (분단체제)?
Of course, on the Korean peninsula today the problem of establishing a nation state no longer exists. North Korea and South Korea have both established their own nation states and so the demand for unification is not in itself a progressive one.

However, having suffered Japanese colonial rule, then the forced division of the country by the Soviet and US imperialist powers and afterward the experience of an actual war and the threat of further war on various occasions, it is not particularly strange that the Korean people should want unification. If the mass of working class people say that they want unification then we can support this tactically.

Unification is not simply something that will strengthen the capitalists. As one can see from the example of German unification, unification can give rise to greater instability. Saying that we support unification absolutely does not mean that we become uncritical followers of nationalism. We insist on solidarity between the workers of North and South Korea and the necessity of a fundamental social revolution that goes way beyond unification.
I don't need to add much to this... But I thought what is most significant about the above argument is that it shows clearly how drawing conclusions about the position socialists should take when faced with a particular situation cannot be based mechanically on abstract principles. Although Kang agrees that Korean unification is not in itself a progressive demand, this does not mean that socialists cannot support it - socialists should always be engaging tactically with the real political world.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

E-mail is so late nineties early naughties

Interesting story in the Guardian a couple of days ago about e-mail trends in South Korea. It seems that e-mail use has started falling for the first time ever, and quite significantly. Two things intereted me about this article. First, the idea that young people in particular are shunning e-mail for other forms of communication like homepages, IM and texting. But actually, thinking about it, has e-mail ever been that popular with teenagers? The idea that it's hard to find someone in a Korean PC Bang using e-mail doesn't surprise me in the least - everyone's usually glued to Warcraft or whatever the latest game is whenever I've walked into one. Internet cafes in the sense Europeans think of them don't really exist in Korea.

Second, there's this whole thing that South Korea is now seen as the primary trendsetter in the internet world - this is where we look if we want to predict the future of the net elsewhere. Actually, I'm not so sure about this. Is Korea really so far ahead of everywhere else or is there just a diversification in the way the net is being used in different countries? Seems as though blogs haven't taken off there, but then this whole homepage craze has never really happened here as far as I know. And the online gaming thing - somehow I find it hard to imagine professional gamers getting sponsored by big corporations in the UK.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

McCormack on NK nuke announcement

Dogstew have flagged up a new article by Gavan McCormack about the latest goings-on in the on-going US-NK nuclear soap opera. I haven't had a chance to read it all myself yet, but judging by previous stuff of his that I've read it should be well worth a read if you're interested.

The real Sinûiju uprising

The city of Sinûiju on the Korea-China border was not only the setting for North Korea's attempt at re-enacting the Kwangju uprising (see last post) but also the site of a genuine uprising that took place in November 1945 - an incident that is not widely known about.

Around three months after the Russians had occupied the northern half of the Korean peninsula, resentment began to boil over towards the occupying troops and the hand-picked Korean Communists they were putting in positions of power. In her book The Korean Peninsula from an Internationalist Perspective (국제주의 시각에서 본 한반도) Kim Ha-yong gives a good account of the events, following the testimony of Ham Sôk-hôn (leader of a local People's Committee and later a well-known democracy activist in the South). An extract from my translation (a work in progress):
Ham Sŏkhŏn points out that the direct cause of the Sinǔiju Incident was the occupation of the local law courts by the Communist Party and the establishment of their local headquarters there without consulting the provincial People’s Committee. “The behaviour of the Communist Party became more arrogant, absurd and violent by the day. This was the single most important cause of the incident.”

The students who came out to demonstrate on November 23 at Sinŭiju condemned the looting by Soviet soldiers, the improper conduct of Han Ung, security chief of North Pyŏng’an provincial People’s Committee, interference in the local school and the inhuman mistreatment of Korean refugees returning from China and Manchuria. At the time there were some 3500 middle and high-school students in the city and the most of them took part, marching in three different directions to hold demonstrations. About 1000 of these students laid siege to the former Sinŭiju court building, where the Communist Party had set up its North Pyŏng’an headquarters. The students crowded their way up to the third floor with the intention of occupying it. But at that moment, from somewhere on the third floor the sound of a pistol shot fired by a Soviet officer rang out and one student collapsed with blood pouring from his head. Around 100 members of the poandae [security police] then appeared from the basement of the building and began beating the students with their rifle butts. The sound of machine gun fire could be heard coming from behind the fleeing students as they scattered in various directions.

The well-prepared
poandae crushed the attempted occupation in an instant. According to witnesses, between 15 and 24 people were killed and 168-350 injured. Immediately after the demonstration a wave of arrests began with around 1000 people rounded up. The Soviet secret intelligence service intervened directly in the interrogation of the arrested students. Of those arrested, a certain number were transferred to Soviet jails while the rest were detained in the poandae police cells. Ham Sŏkhŏn, who at that time was head of education and culture on the North Pyŏngan Peoples’ Committee, was among those arrested. During the Japanese colonial period he had been in and out of jail on at least five occasions, but after liberation he suffered his sixth period of imprisonment at the hands of the Soviets.
One thing that struck me about this incident and similar ones from that period was that foreign military occupations seem to have a certain logic to them - a course which they follow regardless of the circumstances and location. The similarities between what happened when the Soviets occupied North Korea and when the US Army occupied parts of Iraq in 2003 are quite striking and I'm sure that a hundred other military occupations could demonstrate some of the same similarities. A particular recurring flashpoint seems to be the use of public buildings - the occupying army may already be carrying out acts of theft, rape and murder but it is often conflict over a specific physical site that seems to set the spark to the tinder.

As I read about the uprisings in Sinûiju and Hamhûng I immediately thought of Fallujah, where the initial demonstrations also erupted over the requisitioning of public buildings and where they were also met with overwhelming force. Of course, the Soviet occupation of northern Korea and the US occupation of Iraq have played out in very different ways. Unlike the Americans, the Soviets and their Korean Communist allies (Kim Il-sung foremost among them) took a conciliatory stance after these events and were later able to win large sections of the population around with reforms that benefitted peasant farmers and so on. The US doesn't seem to have been so tactically astute, offering little to the Iraqis apart from death and privatisation.