Media and the “Nation”: south Korea

How much do cultural icons reflect our “national values”? Actually, we should refer to them as “national ideals”, though this certainly isn’t the space to discuss the difference. For the moment, let us suffice to declare that national ideals are upheld by our popular cultural icons – our actors, our singers, our writers, painters, and artists. Like most people, I don’t ever really pay attention to this link – until I do.

If it please my dear readers – the following link is from Psy (the sensational pop singer from the southern half of the Korean peninsula. This Youtube music video was posted in July 2012 and is entitled “Korea” and is a “cheer song” for the 2012 London Olympics. While in Korean, the video also includes English translation for the lyrics in the bottom left corner. What Z Geography finds interesting is the conception of Korea in Psy’s music. I had assumed that “Korea” would reference both halves of the peninsula, they are after all “one people separated by war” (being the Korean War that is still, technically, going on). While the music video is understandably devoid of any references to the ruling Kim dynasty, most of the clothing (except the shirts with the South Korean flag) also counts as part of the northern state’s heritage. There are taekwon-do martial artists, men and women in hanbok, and more recent symbols of nationalism – Olympic athletes (representing South Korea).

In Psy’s worldview – South Korea is Korea. Is North Korea part of Korea? No. Throughout the song one of the lyrics is “the shouts of 50,000,000 are ringing and spreading”. The estimated population of South Korea in 2012 was 50 million. It is clear that these lyrics and the presence of decidedly South Korean national symbols (the athletes and flags) highlight the underlying notion (at least for Psy, the producers, and others) that South Korea is the descendant of the Choson (Joseon) dynasty. As the wikipedia article summarizes: “the Joseon period has left a substantial legacy to modern Korea; much of modern Korean etiquette, cultural norms, societal attitudes towards current issues, and the modern Korean language and its dialects derive from the culture and traditions of Joseon.”

That this message is coming from a cultural icon is also important. While state’s (government’s) often have their own motives for their press release and messages, most often they reflect governmental (or bureaucratic) desires rather than societal (or cultural) beliefs. Psy’s music video, “Korea”, will probably do two things. First, it highlights a cultural view among some South Koreans that they are the real “Korea”. How prevalent is this view in the south is the next logical question. Second, the music video as a cultural production will be used to acculturate younger Koreans. They will grow up understanding themselves as Korean, rather than as strictly “South Korean”. Will these future voters consider the North to be “Korean” as well?

Detractors will point out that this song was produced for the Olympics. While true, Psy’s comments to the Daily Beast in 2013 (referenced in his wikipedia article) are also illuminating, asked about North Korean threats to the south:

“Well, as an entertainer, I don’t want to talk about politics. As a Korean citizen, I want peace. That’s all I can say. I want permanent peace.”

This video and Psy’s comment leaves Z Geography with a final, more troubling thought, is what this means for Korean Reunification. Could it be that some aspect of southern culture is indefinitely postponing the idea of reunifying with the north? After all, there’s no need to reunify the Koreas – if you are the only Korea.

Geopolitical Cartoons: Korea, early 1900s

This week’s geopolitical cartoon is a depiction of Japanese-Korean relations in the early 20th century. It depicts an imperial Japanese soldier (signifying Japan) stepping on a Korean man wearing traditional clothing (hanbok and gat), the latter forms a bridge over the “Yalu” and a sign on the other bank points the way to Manchuria. As the soldier crosses, the man holds a sign stating permission to use “Korean territory” to cross into Manchuria.

Imperial Japan and Korea, ca. 1900 (via Mount Holyoke College)

While I don’t have the date of the cartoon, complicating placing it on a precise timeline we can make an educated guess based on what’s happening in the cartoon. But first some background, the cartoon was published during the general historical period of imperialism, more specifically at a time when Imperial Japan began asserting itself in East Asia, of course there was already a hegemon (or “super”power in this region), Tsarist Russia. We often associate the imperial and colonial periods with Europe and often forget that Japan was also involved. China at this time was thrown into disarray with the continued presence of Europeans (and Japanese) and a weak central government. Russian and Japanese tensions led to the Russo-Japanese War from February 1904 to September 1905, ending with the Treaty of Portsmouth. In some interesting foreshadowing, the Russo-Japanese War began with an Imperial Japanese surprise attack on Russian-controlled Port Arthur, now Lushunkou (in Dalian municipality).

the Russo-Japanese War, 1904-1905 (via wikipedia)

The Treaty of Portsmouth signalled Imperial Japan’s emergence as a real world power and exposed Tsarist Russia as a state in decline. Indeed, some twelve years later Tsarist Russia would be torn apart by the Russian (Bolshevik) Revolution and a civil war. In addition, Imperial Japan also gained recognized control over unified Korea (with acknowledgement from the U.S. and UK). This control turned to formal annexation in 1910. Korea was nominally an empire from 1897 to 1910 but this may have been due to more wishful thinking than actual power. For instance, the August 1904 First Japan-Korea Convention stipulated extensive Japanese governmental involvement in Korean internal governance (specifically in the areas of foreign relations, finance).

The political cartoon could be referring to the First Japan-Korea Convention, but perhaps also to the outright annexation of Korea in 1910. The words “so obliging” hint at the author’s belief that Korea is partially responsible for Japanese actions against Manchuria. The aftermath of the Russo-Japanese war left Manchuria administratively with China but the actual influence lay with Japan, rather than Russia. Following the Mukden incident in 1931, Imperial Japan invaded Manchuria and established a puppet state, Manchukuo.

This political cartoon is an effective political geography tool. The geopolitical importance of Korea for Imperial Japan is highlighted for the reader in that Imperial Japan must cross Korea (and the Yalu river) in order to reach their political objectives in Manchuria.

The State and Hunger: North Korea’s political Geography

The Mail (citing undercover reporters with Asia Press) reported the existence of cannibalism in North Korea, the last pure fascist-Marxist hybrid state left in Asia (perhaps the world). The article suggests that a ‘hidden famine’ is occurring in the country’s main breadbasket provinces and that some 10,000 people have already died. Causes of the potential famine are listed as a drought in the breadbasket areas and the confiscation of the remaining food by the government to give to the capital city, Pyongyang. While the brutality of the North Koran regime has been long documented by a variety of NGOs, this isn’t the first time that North Korea has experienced famine. The article notes that the North undertook an “Arduous March,” a delightful euphemism, for a famine in the 1990s that killed hundreds of thousands (if not a million) people.

This real human tragedy highlights important geographic links. First, there is the importance of understanding countries at a sub-regional level. A drought in a mountainous area might cause local food shortages, but it probably doesn’t have much impact on the food situation in the country at-large. Agriculture, as we all know, is typically concentrated in more temperate climates, with good soil, with reliable access to fresh water, and groups of people to work the land. These requirements aren’t typically available on mountainous slopes, though it is possible (as the Inca proved) to support substantial communities given time and effort. The North Korea case highlights the importance of a drought in an agricultural belt, lowering agricultural output in your breadbasket necessarily has a wider impact on your food situation in the entire country.

Next, there is the importance of understanding state actions during a food shortage, which reveal and highlight the political geography of the state. In North Korea’s case, confiscating food from the breadbasket provinces and redistributing them to the capital highlights the importance that the state places on the residents in the capital city. One could potentially argue that the regime is willing to let its farmers starve, with the outcome of them not able to work the land, then to let residents in the capital go hungry or starve. If we return to the organic state concept, the North Korean state (and probably most states) identify the capital city as the focus of their power – it must be protected at all costs.

Together the potential famine in North Korea highlights the importance of understanding the natural and social causes of hunger. On the one hand, physical phenomena, like droughts or flooding, can have a grave impact on local food supplies, often causing starvation and death. But these phenomena are, by their very nature, somewhat localized especially when discussing a countrywide scale. The human impact on starvation is often left out of the discussion, confiscating food, withholding food supplies, or poor political decisions often complicate “natural” disasters. Another good study of the human/political impact on famine is the Bangladesh famine of 1974 (shortly after independence) where government mismanagement of foodstocks exacerbated a local crisis. There’s probably a political element to the focus on natural causes, its easier (and politically safer) to blame the natural environment than to accept blame that your political system shares a large fault.