Kyungmin Cho “Look Before You Leap”

This is Kyungmin Cho’s opinion post regarding the “Peace Summits” to be held among the two Koreas and the United States. He is a senior at the Elliott School of International Affairs, and the President to Korean International Studies Organization (KISO). He expanded his professional experiences at the Embassy of the Republic of Korea in D.C. and the National Assembly of the Republic of Korea.

The content of this article does not reflect the official opinions of the George Washington University Institute for Korean Studies. Responsibility for the information and views expressed in the article lies entirely with the author(s).

Will there be a peace-settlement in the Korean peninsula? It seems likely, after the recent high-level talks between the two Koreas. President Moon’s efforts eased tensions through various means, including his prior suggestions toward North Korea to hold peace talks and send South Korean envoys to crystallize the true virtue of PyeongChang Winter Olympics: peace and unity through the medium of sports. While the nation is buoyant with the possible inter-Korean and US-NK summits, there are several points to be considered to gain practical results from the future peace negotiations.

First, South Korea must not neglect the possibility that this peace procedure could lead to the repetition of history. North Korea has developed its nuclear program since the early 1970s. After signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1985, Pyongyang suddenly threatened to quit the NPT when IAEA demanded access to North Korea’s nuclear sites in 1993. Thanks to the diplomatic efforts, North Korea remained in NPT and signed the 1994 Agreement with the US, which promised Pyongyang with enormous international aid packages in exchange for dismantlement of its graphite reactors. The agreement could have been a historical step toward the denuclearized Korean peninsula, only if the international agencies did not find out in 1999 that North Korea was illegally importing technology and centrifuges from Pakistan to secretly continue its development of nuclear weapons. With George W. Bush labeling Pyongyang as one of the “Axis of Evil” in 2002, North Korea withdrew from the NPT a year later, and declared itself as a nuclear power. The hidden element of manipulation, thus led to critical results: North Korea has conducted six nuclear missile tests since 2006, while the Obama administration neglected the issue under the name of “Strategic Patience”. Now that North Korea managed to continue its nuclear programs amid the international economic sanctions, and Kim Jong-Un’s Byeongjin Strategy now requires the economic development. Troublesome is the speculation that even if North Korea engages in “denuclearization”, the accumulated technologies and its nuclear program can be revived after a series of financial aid helps Pyongyang survive through economic instability. Considering that North Korea’s military provocations, such as the Second Battle of Yeonpyeong (2002) and the first nuclear test (2006), took place amidst the Sunshine Policy of the South Korean government, South Korea must be vigilante in Pyeongyang’s caprice.

Second, the Moon Administration must perceive the different perspectives between Seoul and Pyongyang on the ways and means to proceed the “denuclearization process”. Both South Korea and the United States believe that the denuclearization must entail immediate and irreversible destruction of Pyongyang’s entire nuclear weaponry and the production facilities. Also crucial is the transparent disclosure of such processes through continual inspections from IAEA. However, North Korea may call for rather ambiguous terms of denuclearization. Kim Jong-Un may call for the peace settlement with North Korea’s status as a nuclear state, but with a guarantee of non-aggression toward its neighboring nations and the United States. If not, Pyongyang may also insist on the gradual elimination of its nuclear warheads, of which, however, the exact numbers have not been identified. Lest there be future conflicts triggered by confusion, the upcoming summits must clarify Seoul’s definition of denuclearization, and that “peace” cannot coexist with the nuclear imbalance of terror.

Third, the genuineness of Kim Jong-Un’s intention to “denuclearize” must be perused. Aside from the disparities between each party’s definition of denuclearization, we must ask ourselves a critical question: “Does North Korea really want to denuclearize?” North Korea is a totalitarian state under the dictatorship of Kim Jong Un. Residents in North Korea have been forfeited of their basic human rights under the severe national surveillance system. The ruthless murders, tortures, and contemptuous disregards for their civil rights are being conducted to maintain the regime’s status quo. Meanwhile, Kim Jong-Un has been aware of the possible insurgency scenarios from either the disgruntled public or the politico-military elites, and Pyongyang’s nuclear program creates a partial sense of nationalistic pride and legitimacy by portraying Kim as a strong leader. Even in the outbreak of revolts, Kim’s nuclear arsenal will prevent any international military interventions that could easily topple down the regime, especially considering the case of Libya. During the Arab Spring, when Gaddafi was an inch close to quelling the armed protesters, Obama decided to send in the “humanitarian intervention” that completely turned the tide of the revolt, directly leading to the Gaddafi’s death. Like North Korea, Libya has continued its clandestine nuclear program until Gaddafi rolled it back in 2003 to avoid further economic sanctions. The precedent of Libya must have engraved a notion into Kim that he will not be able to keep the denuclearized regime intact. Here, not only the human rights issues should be fully addressed during the negotiation process, but also the level of Pyongyang’s authenticity should be examined by thorough inspections of fulfillment.

There is no doubt that this inter-Korean summit in April will be a historic moment. Nevertheless, the Moon Administration should strive to obtain precise intelligence of Kim’s intentions and his future schemes lest the history be repeated.

Eric Rowe “South Korea and #MeToo: A Step in the Right Direction”

This is Eric Rowe’s blog post regarding the March/April Monthly Student Opinions theme “The #MeToo Movement in South Korea”. Eric Rowe is an M.A. Candidate of Security Policy Studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs.

The content of this article does not reflect the official opinion of the George Washington University Institute for Korean Studies. Responsibility for the information and views expressed in the article lies entirely with the author(s). 

The #MeToo movement has spread across the globe since the October 2017 allegations of sexual misconduct by film producer Harvey Weinstein, the hands of retribution finally reaching the upper echelons of South Korean society. Of all the East Asian countries, South Korea is arguably the most patriarchal, due to the underlying Confucian ideals in Korean society. While both China and Japan have cultural roots in Confucianism, some (but certainly not all) of the patriarchal elements of Confucianism were negated by Communism and progressive norms passed on by Western influence, respectively. Confucianism very much emphasizes “knowing one’s place”, whether that be a peasant in relation to a king, or a woman in relation to her father or husband. Within this hierarchy a woman, no matter her place in society, is subservient to a man in some way. The view has continued in modern day Korea, with older generations of Koreans and some younger generations seeing a woman’s value through the lens of her three traditional roles: wife, mother, and daughter.

Not all of the blame can be placed on Confucianism, however, as the stereotypical female career paths of teaching and nursing had been built into Korean society as result of girls’ schools founded by Protestant missionaries. At the time, women’s education was seen as progressive, an alternative to simply being a wife/mother/daughter. Back to the sexual assaults, the pervasive idea within Korean society that women are subservient is reflected in the assaults. The perpetrators were full of themselves, assuming that no one would turn them down. The women were expected to go along with it, lest they wanted to be blacklisted and have their careers ended. Now that victims are telling their stories, there are some in Korean society who are less than sympathetic, accusing victims of “ending a great man’s career”. In the case of actor Jo Min-ki, the women who accused him of sexual assault are already being demonized for his suicide. The anger directed at the victims comes from those who view Jo Min-ki as being hounded by false accusations. Rather, I see his suicide as an admission of guilt and not wanting to face both prison time and a ruined career.

Previously, perpetrators were emboldened, knowing they were in positions of power and had control over the careers of their victims. That men like poet Ko Un, a former Buddhist monk, and Ahn Hee-jung, a politician with a formerly squeaky-clean image, could commit such terrible acts only reflects how endemic such abuses of power and status are. I see the #MeToo movement as a necessary first step in not only bringing about long-overdue retributive justice, but in achieving greater gender equality in South Korea. However, it must be followed up by greater legal protection for women (and victims in general) with regards to sexual assault, a push for qualified women to take up leadership positions, and general encouragement of women to pursue education and careers outside teaching, nursing, and secretarial/clerical work. Instituting these changes will become easier as the older generation passes from power and those with a more progressive worldview replace them, but it will take a collective effort by both women and men across Korean society to enact lasting change.

Kim Hangyun “Pyongyang Olympic Games”: Neither a Fair Opportunity nor a Fixed Process, nor a Just Result


This is Kim Hangyun’s blog post regarding the February Monthly Student Opinions theme “Pyeongchang Winter Olympics”. He is a senior at the Elliott School of International Affairs, an intern at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), and the Senior Advisor to Korean International Studies Organization (KISO). Aside from current positions, Hangyun has expanded insights from previous professional experiences at two law firms, Deloitte and the Korean Embassy in Uruguay.

The content of this article does not reflect the official opinion of the George Washington University Institute for Korean Studies. Responsibility for the information and views expressed in the article lies entirely with the author(s). 

It’s almost here: the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang, Korea. Picking up from the left-wing regime’s two unsuccessful attempts, President Lee Myungbak easily secured the bid for the 2018 games, marking it Korea’s second Olympics since 1988. The nation roared in a decade-waited excitement as they breathlessly watched the announcement, with high hopes over the moon.

As the Olympics near, all eyes should be on Pyeongchang. Instead, Pyongyang stole the show and hijacked spotlights towards North Korea – all thanks to our President Moon Jae-in. An ex-human rights lawyer and still an advocate of the failed Sunshine Policy, Moon has obstinately called for appeasement to Pyongyang. He has already sought ‘South-North Economic Union’ by openly supporting reopening of the Kaesong industrial park and tourist visits to Mount Kumgang, amidst international constraints including the United Nations sanctions. Despite continued threats, Moon vowed for an ‘aid’ package worth $8 million to North Korea as well.

Moon’s lunacy reached yet another peak when the Blue House pressed ahead with the joint women’s ice hockey team as an opportunity for détente. As a sacrifice for political purposes, 23 athletes of the South Korean team were suddenly merged with a dozen unqualified players from the North, which head coach Sarah Murray said she was “shocked” and her players will “suffer damage.” Quite contradictory to Moon’s self-praise as the “communicating president,” South Korean team was not directly informed about the government’s proposal to form a single Korean team until the very last moment. Some players complained on social media about giving up spots last minute to North Koreans, but were immediately confronted with cyberbullying from Moon’s ‘Red Guards’ who so-proudly call themselves “Moonshine Knights (달빛기사단)” or “Honey Moon Badgers (문꿀오소리).” What politicians have not solved should not be tossed over to sportspeople.

Added to the joint team madness, Koreans were pained to the core as the Blue House announced the plan for athletes to march behind the “Unification Flag,” in place of the legitimate Korean flag, during the opening ceremonies. Moon also made concessions to replace Korea’s national anthem with “Arirang” folk tune. The proud flag and anthem, which our brave men and women fought so hard and shed dearest blood for, were abandoned in a slight second without a single public discussion. The Olympic Games, where athletes should be the one and only focus, now became invested with political meaning.

How completely out of touch can the government get? Such a hastily made deal was immediately confronted with intense backlash. The most recent poll reveals that 72% of the respondents did not welcome the joint one-Korea team, among which 82% of the millennials and 30s – Moon’s core supporter group – opposed. A four-minute rap song criticizing Moon for turning the Olympics into Pyongyang’s propaganda tool has been trending with more than 1.3 million views. The song replaces the host city Pyeongchang with Pyongyang as a mockery. Frustrated at the Blue House’s amateurish policies, with intensifying housing market polarization and the highest unemployment rate since the 1997 Financial Crisis already suffocating people, a new nickname ridiculing Moon’s ineptness gained popularity: “Moon Catastrophe (문재앙).”

The government failed every measure to suppress the public outburst. Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon’s reckless remark on women’s hockey team being out of medal range anyway only fueled the anger. Sports Minister Do Jong-hwan joined his colleagues to defend the joint team proposal by assuring that no South Korean athletes would be left out, yet news reports revealed some players were excluded from the final entry list. Empty promises made; empty promises broken.

The reason Koreans have lost faith on Moon is because he has lost touch with people. Young Koreans increasingly see North Korea as a separate nation, and only 4 out of 10 believe reunification is necessary. Moon’s regime and Pyongyang emphasize that all Koreans belong to the same “minzok(people),” but how can South Koreans possibly identify with North Koreans when the Kim dynasty never hesitates to backstab the innocent South?

The images of North Korea’s torpedo attacks against ROKS Cheonan, the bombardment of Yeonpyeong island and endless nuclear threats are vividly engrained in memory. The younger Koreans hence, unlike the older generations like Moon with family ties in the North, share hawkish views on Pyongyang. Besides, the attitudes toward bloodlines and race purity have changed as the notion of “minzok” and nationalism faded. Suffering from the worst economic performance since 2008, Koreans are even more unwilling to blithely give financial handouts and roster spots on the hockey team to their perceived enemy.

Essentially, Moon has written indulgence to Pyongyang. Gaining confidence from Moon’s radically submissive attitude, North Korea has quadrupled their demands to incapacitate sanctions. To host North Korean art troupe, Moon made an exception to “5.24 Measure” for the barred “Mangyongbong-92” ferry. The ship, which even Russia refused entry last year to comply with the UN sanctions, was low on fuel and Pyongyang demanded the South to refuel it.

Seoul already sought an exception from Washington for an Asiana Airlines charter plane to take South Korean players to North Korea and is talking with Washington and the UN to clear the North Korean delegates’ visit. The delegation includes Kim Jong-un’s sister Kim Yo-jong, who was blacklisted by the United States Treasury in 2017 and had overseas assets frozen, and Choe Hwi, who was on the UN Security Council sanctions list as well. As a yet another olive branch, Moon urged the US to postpone joint military exercise until after the Olympics. Inter-Korean relations have never resembled master-servant relationship more than now. If Korea continues to retreat under the pressure from Pyongyang, then eventually Seoul will face the final demand “the ultimatum.”

To give a fair chance, I do empathize with the view that a dialogue between the Republic of Korea and the unlawful occupants in the North is necessary to establish a degree of stability on the peninsula. Even with THAAD, Korea has no active defense system to protect all 50 million citizens and 230,000 Americans in the South against a barrage of North Korean artillery, let alone a missile strike. Only an irrational warmonger would actively pursue a military option towards Pyongyang since a strike would only delay – not eradicate – their deep-hidden nuclear and missile programs. Engagement is, by far, the most promising and peaceful way to resolve the problem.

What is problematic is that Moon’s policy of accommodation lacks a solid basis. An approach to North Korea should remain composed, be based on a strict adherence to domestic and international measures, and must not alienate allies. Up to this point, Moon has managed to do the exact opposite – he has voluntarily punched a hole through the maximum-pressure coalition and gave more room for Pyongyang to achieve its nuclear objective. “To give, or not to give?” should not be a question in the first place, and North Korea deserves no special treatment in this global festival of athletes.

Every lesson in history tells the greater risk lies in appeasement. From 2000 Sydney Olympics to 2014 Incheon Asian Games, all attempts to moderate North Korean behavior through sports diplomacy have proven to be unfruitful. History shows that extending an olive branch to Pyongyang did not reduce tensions, and gestures of peace from North Korea never represented the regime’s actual behavior. Yet with each new vain attempt, optimists like Moon and the Democratic Party anticipate the appeasement to work this time. Well, North Korea’s official newspaper “Rodong Sinmun” threatened on 7 February that inter-Korean relations will “stumble” and face “severe ends” once the joint military exercise is resumed after the Olympic Games: After all the exceptional treatments received, Pyongyang is already looking into an ‘exit strategy.’

Pyeongchang 2018 was a good chance to attest that Korea stands resolute with the international society against hyperbolic threats from the rogue neighbor in the North, and a prime opportunity to expose human rights calamities inside the most repressive political dynasty. In common with shunning of South Africa from the Olympics for 24 years as a protest against apartheid, Seoul should have boycotted North Korea’s participation in Pyeongchang in response to widespread human rights violations committed by the regime.

Kim Jong-un continues to generate fearful obedience through arbitrary detention and forced labor, tightening travel restrictions, and systematically persecuting its own people. A renowned judge and Auschwitz survivor Thomas Buergenthal concluded that political prisons in the North are perhaps even worse than the Nazi concentration camps. It is the divine imperative, not as a Korean but as a responsible human being, to act now.

Ex-human rights lawyer Moon Jae-in’s willful ignorance on North Korean human rights, along with a series of other nonsenses, reveals the height of irresponsibility, and is the reason why people would never trust the left-wing regime with North Korean issues again. It took 11 years for the North Korea Human Rights Act of 2016 to pass due to stubborn “nays” from Moon and his left-wing politicians, and his North Korea Human Rights Team within the National Human Rights Commission saw 50% budget cut. A president who repetitively boasts his 20 years of career as a human rights lawyer should do far better than this, instead of turning a blind eye. At best Moon is incompetent, at worst he is complicit.

During the presidential campaign last year, Moon did not hesitate to emphasize his slogan “Opportunity will be fair; the process will be fixed and the result just.” Yet in these abnormal times the government took away the chance to compete; disregarded the preparation process without listening to its people, and justice seems far away. I ask: Much anticipated for the “Pyongyang Olympics?” You and I have the courage to say, “No thanks, not anymore.” This is neither a fair opportunity nor a fixed process, nor a just result.


Sergei Kurbanov: “North Korea in Modernization: Economy, Politics, and Social Life”

sergei event

The content of this article does not reflect the official opinion of the George Washington University Institute for Korean Studies. Responsibility for the information and views expressed in the article lies entirely with the author(s). 

On January 26, 2018, Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures hosted the Kim-Renaud East Asian Humanities Lecture Series regarding modernization in North Korea, co-sponsored by the GW Institute for Korean Studies (GWIKS). The talk featured Professor Sergei O. Kurbanov from the St. Petersburg University, who is currently a visiting scholar at GWIKS. Professor Kurbanov offered a unique insight into North Korea that he lamented as gaining far too little attention in U.S. public perception.

Professor Kurbanov began the discussion by noting that we often live in the world of our own myths, and thus, it is imperative to deconstruct these myths so that we are able to make astute decisions grounded upon facts. While many observers focus on North Korea’s “modern” history of roughly 70 years, Prof. Kurbanov emphasized that the country’s history dates back to 5000 years ago, beginning with Ancient Joseon (Gojoseon). In the minds of North Koreans, there is much more to their way of life and their history than their leadership, given how their traditions, literature, language, art, and values stem back to thousands of years ago.

Prof. Kurbanov then discussed North Korea’s more recent history, starting from the 1940s, which he argued as being a relatively free society with freedom of speech, thinking, and assembly. Before the outbreak of the Korean War, the northern provinces featured numerous political parties and fractions, intellectuals espousing various schools of thought, and private ownership of small and medium enterprises. Even after the War, there was a short period in which pluralism existed.

The 1990s was a period of forced isolation for North Korea, given the fall of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc. Thus, in the early 2000s and until 2011, North Korea sought to improve relations with South Korea, China, Russia, and the United States. In light of this historical background, Prof. Kurbanov argued that North Korea has always been more nationalistic than truly communist. Contrary to the dynasties of Korea’s long history, he asserted that it would be incorrect to label the Kim regime as dynastic, as each successive leader of the DPRK has occupied a political position different from the previous leader. Furthermore, given North Korea’s place in East Asia, where neighboring countries of South Korea, Japan, and China are making strides in economic, technological, and scientific innovation, he claimed that North Korea has similar ambitions.

Having established this background, Prof. Kurbanov proceeded to discuss his observation of scientific, technological, and cultural modernization in North Korea. Specifically within the context of the capital of Pyongyang, he noted the widespread use of cellphones (smartphones), computers, tablets, solar-powered batteries, banking cards, and taxis. Market mechanisms were very much active, with vendors selling goods, car owners paying for parking, and businessmen and women moving about. Prof. Kurbanov also observed the prevalence of children carrying drinking water around (which he noted was unseen when he was growing up in the USSR), soju (which had been introduced to North Korea through interactions with the South), religious institutions such as a Buddhist monastery and a Russian orthodox church (whatever their real objectives may be), and popular trends in fashion and style.

Perhaps what was most interesting among his many examples was the widespread popularity of American culture, with children avidly watching dubbed Disney animations and donning Mickey Mouse shirts. Thus, Prof. Kurbanov strongly emphasized that North Koreans do not see Americans as enemies, but rather as potential friends. Despite the rhetoric adopted by the North Korean leadership and the media, as well as the strong public sentiment against what has been framed as American imperialism, the average North Korean enjoys American popular culture and is curious to learn more.

Prof. Kurbanov shared various photos to elucidate his points and offered a unique look into the country based on his personal experience living and working there. He highlighted the importance of arriving at a common understanding of North Korea. In regards to tackling the politico-diplomatic and nuclear problem presented by the country, he offered three steps the U.S. could take toward resolution: (1) guarantee North Korea that the U.S. will not invade, (2) invite North Korea into the U.S. defense system, and (3) begin talks after these two proposals are put forth.

Written by Bomie Lee

Tara Fitzmartin “Film Review: Peppermint Candy”

Tara Fitzmartin HeadshotThis is Tara Fitzmartin’s blog post regarding the November Monthly Student Opinions theme “Korean Film“. She is a senior at the Elliott School of International Affairs, majoring in Political Science and International Affairs, concentrating in Comparative Political, Economic, and Social Systems.

The content of this article does not reflect the official opinion of the George Washington University Institute for Korean Studies. Responsibility for the information and views expressed in the article lies entirely with the author(s). 

Peppermint Candy, directed by Lee Chang-dong and starring Sol Kyung-gu as Young-ho, was released in 1999, but tells the story of the decades before its release. The film is a painful, gut-wrenching experience, its main character first pitiable and then detestable; it flips traditional depictions of historical narratives on their head. The film’s unconventional rewinding of history through a series of vignettes unfolds the story of failed businessman Young-ho, starting with his suicide. The skillful unraveling of the true nature of his tragedy is the triumph of the film, with the unsuspecting audience at first wary, then disgusted, by Young-ho and finally, shocked by his simple origins as a gentle laborer. Up until the last vignette of the film, Young-ho is thoroughly detestable: abusive of his wife, hypocritical, and a former torturer for the police. Any pity the audience may have felt for Young-ho from his suicide is lost as the decades that led up to his death are revealed. However, just when the audience has settled into their abhorrence of Young-ho, there is the vignette, 19 years before his death, entitled “1980 May, Visiting Camp”.

Anyone familiar with South Korean history instantly recognizes the significance of May 1980 – the date of the infamous Gwangju Uprising, which came to define the nation’s democracy movement. However, unlike most depictions of popular uprisings in cinema, the audience finds itself viewing the side of the oppressor: the military. But this is not the military as seen in other films like May 18, but a man stumbling over his own feet, mourning the loss of gifts from his sweetheart, and when it comes to it, incapable of executing his orders. Upon entering Gwangju, Young-ho is shot in the foot and left by his compatriots when he is approached by a young woman, clearly a participant in the uprising. She begs Young-ho to let her go unharmed, and he acquiesces. This surprising vision into Young-ho’s capability for mercy becomes rapidly warped as his fellow soldiers reenter the scene, causing him to frantically scare the woman away with warning shots. When the second shot he fires accidentally kills her, Young-ho reacts with unrestrained grief and horror, wailing grotesquely in a mirror image of his frightful appearance before his suicide. This scene, the act of killing, becomes the crux of the film, completely changing the audience’s understanding of Young-ho’s life. It is this scene that exemplifies Peppermint Candy to be a master class in story telling, and completely altered the audience’s emotions towards the film and its characters.

Young-ho’s experience in Gwangju reveals that Peppermint Candy is a story of trauma, of how Young-ho’s accidental murder of the young woman results in the destruction of his innocence and a profound sense of being emasculated. The audience sees his true innocence at the very end of the film, in the form of his passion for photography, flowers, and his first love. Tracing these symbols back, the audience realizes that after Gwangju, and in the first half of the film, Young-ho consistently rejects these symbols of his innocence, refusing to embrace what he lost in Gwangju. It is a common belief of those who experience traumatic events that they cannot return to the life or sense of self that they once had – which is portrayed in Young-ho’s desperate cry at the beginning of the film that he wants “to go back”, but knowing that he cannot, his only choice appears to be suicide. As for his sense of masculinity, according to society Young-ho failed to fulfill his masculine duty in Gwangju: he failed to fulfill his duty as a solider and failed to protect a defenseless woman. In order to cope with his damaged masculinity, in a society that deeply values masculinity, he violently asserts his dominance over those around him: sexually harassing the woman who would later be his wife, later physically abusing her, and torturing activists for a profession.

Scholars have argued that Young-ho could be considered as South Korea’s angel of history, referencing the philosophical concept of the spirit of history as fixated on the past but pushed into the future by the storm of progress. Young-ho is forever trapped in the past, reliving his trauma and eternally feeling the need to compensate for the loss he experienced: he is unable to progress because he is incapable of reconciling with his past trauma. From former President Kim Young-sam’s commutation of Chun Doo-hwan’s life sentence to the debate over “The March of the Beloved”, South Korea has struggled to reconcile with its autocratic past. The collective trauma of a country is often credited solely to the experiences of victims – but in a world where the line between victim and perpetrator blurs, it is simplification of society to ignore how perpetrators are created. This film explores the concept of ‘an explanation, not an excuse’, that in order to understand the ‘villains’ of a story, their villainy cannot be accepted as inherent, but must be explored in order to prevent the rise of others like them. The idea of collective trauma encompassing all those affected is clear when Peppermint Candy is paired with Human Acts by Han Kang, a novel that follows the lives of several participants of the Gwangju Uprising. In her novel, it is recognized that after the uprising, many activists, who were tortured by men like Young-ho, committed suicide after struggling for years with the trauma they endured – overwhelmed just as Young-ho was.

However, Young-ho’s existence as a symbol of South Korea’s collective trauma does not mean that the country will suffer the same fate. The success of the 2016-17 protest movement to impeach Park Geun-hye and the election of Moon Jae-in, with his subsequent decision to revive “The March of the Beloved” and the investigation into the Gwangju Uprising, show that the storm of progress continues to push South Korea forward.

Hae Jin Son: Regarding Gender Equality in South Korea

The content of this article does not reflect the official opinion of the George Washington University Institute for Korean Studies. Responsibility for the information and views expressed in the article lies entirely with the author(s). 

Hae Jin Son is a Senior at the Elliott School of International Affairs majoring in international affairs with a concentration in Asia and a minor in Economics

November 29, 2017

Over 10 female nurses in Sungshim Hospital were forced to dance along a sexual song wearing an erotic outfit at the Hospital Foundation talent show earlier this month. This news went viral in Korea and made me wonder: why are they treated as if they were puppets and commodities for entertainment? From my friend who is a female nurse in Korea, I came to know that nurses at her hospital are assigned a timeframe during which they can get pregnant and take a maternity leave. While a three month paid maternity leave is guaranteed by the law, these women cannot use it because of pressure in the work culture. This is not only unprofessional, but violates basic reproductive rights of women. A series of events like this led me to wonder, is it even legal to do that?

The Korean Constitution guarantees equality between men and women since its enforcement in 1996. The Korean Ministry of Gender Equality and Family was established in 2010 to address and enact women-centered policies to eradicate gender-based discrimination in Korea. In fact, the Framework Act on Women’s Development protects women from “gender based discrimination.” This national law creates a blueprint on how women-centered policies in Korea should be directed and enacted in order to promote “equality between men and women.” While there is a legal foundation for gender equality in Korea, the reality is that Korea is ranked as 117th out of 142 countries in gender equality according to the Global Gender Gap Index 2014.
In addition to the incident at Sungshim Hospital, violence in intimate relationships is another example of the disparity between the legal and real status of women in Korea. According to a journal released on International Journal of Gynecology & Obstetrics in October 2017, 34% of pregnant women in Korea experience physical or psychological violence by their spouses. Dating violence has recently become a serious topic of debate in Korea. A recent survey revealed that almost 80% of Korean men abused a girlfriend physically or psychologically while they were dating.
For the last two decades, Korea has shown continuous efforts to end gender discrimination by enforcing laws to protect women’s rights. In response to the recent issues of gender violence at the workplace such as the recent incident in Sungshim Hospital, the Ministry of Employment and Labor said that they would work with the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family to enforce their monitoring on prosecution, victim protection, and education to prevent further violence against women. This is not enough, however. The government’s efforts to enforce laws are necessary and important, but this alone is insufficient to decrease the disparity between legislation and reality.

Deep-rooted cultural factors such as Korean Confucianism and male-oriented society explain why there is gap between the current laws and reality. While there are clear gender roles in Korea based on Confucianism, it should not justify any type of discrimination or violence against women. The recent news about nurses being forced to wear erotic clothes and dance in front of colleagues is a clear example that the legal framework is not applied to these individuals. Even if the Ministries enforce the current laws on gender violence, punish perpetrators and improve their monitoring system, they will not change people’s perceptions on gender equality.
I believe, to identify a balance between gender equality and Confucianism in Korea, the Korean government should encourage people to engage in constructive dialogue on gender equality. Only a subset of people are talking about this issue. But everyone should talk about it because it is relevant for all, regardless of gender. As the news and people’s reactions show, we know that this is a problem. What is the next step for us?

Hyungjun Yu’s Response to Hangyun Kim: If Not At Least The Mediator, Then What, a Puppet?

The content of this article does not reflect the official opinion of the George Washington University Institute for Korean Studies. Responsibility for the information and views expressed in the article lies entirely with the author(s). 

Hyungjun Yu is a Junior at the CCAS majoring in Political Science and is a board member of the Korean International Studies Organization.

Soon after President Trump criticized North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at the United Nations, threatening to “totally destroy North Korea”, the right-wing media in South Korea hastily radicalized the idea even further to argue something like “Show Kim Jong-un the fear of death with our pledge,” or “commitment to peace does not help.” These newspapers not only insisted that South Korea must show a sign of faith to the U.S.-South Korea alliance, but they in essence pressured the current government to support Trump’s words.

Instead of criticizing the irrational claim, that 25 million citizens of a country must be wiped out, the South Korean papers flapped about how the six-decade old alliance might fall apart if the Moon government did not cooperate with the U.S. The public threat to North Korea drew wide criticisms from the U.N. leaders around the world and crowds of politicians within the U.S. Democratic Party. And it is truly shocking that from the nation that was most directly involved in the tragic war that marked the 38th parallel there were voices championing Trump’s imaginary nuclear war scenario.

Arming South Korea with the realist perspective is one thing, but being dragged like a doll by the little girl is another. How long is the rhetoric that South Korea’s only option is to follow the U.S. going to manipulate the public? One must see that there is a difference between an alliance out of each state’s self-interest and a bully. What the rightists of the South is suggesting is not an alliance but almost the dependency theory.