Mar 10 2014

Non-ideas for fixing Japan-Korea ties

south-korea-japan-flag

 

By Fred Varcoe

I wrote this as a response to an article by Scott Snyder and Brad Glosserman on Council on Foreign Relations site Asia Unbound in which they explore problems between Japan and its neighbors, starting out with the issue of “national identity.”

“A deeper, and more compelling, dimension of the split between Japan and the ROK as it is currently framed: contradictory conceptions of national identity that stand in the way of reconciliation steps necessary to improve relations.”

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 The issue of identity is interesting. I would say your average Japanese has a very weak concept of self or identity, even less so when framed in historical terms. The average Japanese person has a poor grasp of history, if any grasp at all. The problem with Japan’s current brand of loud nationalist politicians is that they have the stage and theirs is virtually the only voice out there. So when someone like Prime Minister Abe – as intellectually disadvantaged as a politician can be – says ‘this’ happened in history and we must resist Korea because of it, quite a few Japanese will believe what he is saying because they have no points of reference to refute such claims; because – intellectual capacity notwithstanding – he’s prime minister; and because Japanese have a bad habit of believing anyone who’s always on TV.

The Koreans, on the other hand, have a very powerful sense of self and identity, and a strong sense of history (or should that read ‘injustice’) and did so long before the Japanese annexed their country. The oft-portrayed image of Korea as merely a peasant country prior to (and even during) the 20th century does Koreans a disservice. They have trailed Japan in terms of modernisation in the 20th century, but they have always had a sense of self, a proud history and the ability to make progress.

If anything symbolizes Korea’s relationship with Japan, it is probably the assassination of Queen Min:

“In the fall of 1895, Japanese ambassador to Korea Miura Goro formulated a plan to assassinate Queen Min, a plan that he named ‘Operation Fox Hunt.’ Early in the morning of October 8, 1895, a group of fifty Japanese and Korean assassins launched their assault on Gyeongbokgung Palace. They attacked the queen consort’s sleeping quarters, dragging out the queen and three or four of her attendants. The assassins questioned the women to make sure that they had Queen Min, then slashed them with swords, stripped, and raped them. The Japanese displayed the queen’s dead body to several other foreigners in the area, particularly the Russians, so that they knew their ally was dead, and then carried her body to the forest outside the palace walls. There, the assassins doused Queen Min’s body with kerosene and burned it, scattering her ashes.”

This was followed by annexation and domination as the Japanese forced Koreans to adopt Japanese names and only use the Japanese language as they tried to wipe out Korea’s culture and enslave its population. I don’t think a few new roads, railways and some fancy architecture will compensate for that. And that only ended 70 years ago. This is living memory.

Japan’s sense of victimhood is based entirely on the fact that it lost the war and was humiliated. It’s almost comical how they try to offset decades of rape and pillaging in Asia with the suffering its citizens endured in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After visiting the Atomic Bomb Museum in Nagasaki (or was it laughingly called the ‘Peace Museum’ to go along with the Peace Park, etc.?), I wrote: “The only surprising thing about Nagasaki is that foreigners don’t have ‘guilty’ stamped in their passports when they leave.” As a result of Japan’s distorted view of history, most Japanese think that Hiroshima and Nagasaki had nothing to do with what went before. They believe the atomic bombings happened because of American aggression, not because of Japan’s insane rampage through Asia and their attack on Pearl Harbour.

The main missing ingredient necessary to achieve the task of healing the divisions between South Korea and Japan is statesmanship.”

Well, good luck with that one. You’re not wrong. Japan is desperate for a leader and hasn’t had one since … er … never. No matter what he believes personally, a Japanese statesman should not visit Yasukuni Shrine while in office. It doesn’t make any political sense at all. Nationalist Japanese politicians use Yasukuni as a political booster, but for prime ministers, ministers and senior government officials it is self-defeating. It says to Korea, China, etc., ‘You can’t tell us what to do.” It’s more about trying to prove they have big penises, which they don’t. Most Japanese politicians are emasculated by local politics, bureaucrats and inferior intellects. They don’t have the intelligence or the freedom to explore their own thoughts – and that’s probably a good thing.

Korean politicians are characterized by egotism, avarice and regionalism. Right-wing politicians are seen as true defenders of the nation; left-wingers, like the admirable Roh Moo Hyun, are labelled Communists. President Roh offered Korean society hope like no other politician had done before him. He was exploited by those around him and ended up killing himself…

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Roh Moo Hyun

The only person who can help to resolve the historical issues between Korea and Japan is the Emperor of Japan, but he is also constrained by politicians and the bureaucracy. He was invited to Korea for the opening of the 2002 World Cup, but it was never going to happen. So maybe resolution of this issue is also never going to happen.

A ‘no-war statement’ between Korea and Japan? That’s not much of an idea and even if one did materialize it wouldn’t be worth the paper it was written on.

“Japan should declare its support for the unification of the Korean Peninsula under the Seoul government, a statement that would end speculation about long-term intentions in Tokyo about the fate of the Peninsula.”

Not sure that this wouldn’t be construed as Japan interfering in the internal affairs of Korea. Of course, we’re going off topic here, but Seoul is not the legitimate ruler of the entire Korean Peninsula.

The establishment of “a day for the two countries to jointly commemorate the history of the 20th century without being entrapped by it.”

Another wishy-washy idea that isn’t going to happen. August 15 celebrates liberation for the Korean Peninsula. They’re not going to want to stop celebrating that and why would they? It would be like asking the United States to stop celebrating July 4 (Independence Day) because it offended the British.

For right-wing dingbats like Abe, August 15 is not about reflecting on the war and Japan’s dead soldiers; it’s more about keeping alive an idea that didn’t quite pan out first time around but needs to be remembered for the next time.

abex

Shinzo Abe

In conclusion, the sadness of the conflict between Japan and South Korea is the division that moronic politicians are trying to make between two peoples who are quite comfortable with each other. The liberalisation of Japanese culture in Korea a decade ago and the reverse “Korea boom” in Japan made a huge people-to-people boost in the relationship. The “bottom-up approach” endorsed by Lee Chae-ryung makes sense if only evil politicians would just shut up and do their job of leading their citizens and countries toward a better future.

But I guess that’s not going to happen either.


Oct 16 2012

Japan, Korea and the Gangnam void

By Fred Varcoe

There’s something distinctly odd about Japan’s cultural relationship with South Korea. Of course, with around a million Koreans or people of Korean lineage living in Japan (the Koreans would claim around 120 million, but that’s a different story), it should be no surprise that there is a strong link between the two. Head to the area between Shin Okubo/Hyakunin-cho and Kabukicho in Shinjuku Ward and you will be overwhelmed by Koreana. You can’t move for Korean shops, Korean restaurants, Korean pop culture and Korean people.
When I lived in that area between 1987 and 1992, there was nothing there. And I mean nothing. At that time, Japanese culture was effectively banned in South Korea – no pop music, no films, nothing – and it seemed like it was a two-way affair. Japan, too, wasn’t exactly going out of its way to understand the culture of its closest neighbour (despite the presence of plenty of Korean hostesses where I lived).
Following the easing of restrictions on Japanese culture (which was, of course, always available in the bootleg markets of Seoul and other cities), the two countries slowly opened up to each other. Japanese bands were already becoming popular in Korea, while “Winter Sonata” heralded a tsunami of dreadful dramas into Japan. Koreans have become big stars in Japan, while Japanese are free to exploit the smaller Korean market.
Japanese pop fans have realised that Korean bands and stars can out-sing and out-dance the domestic versions (or at least equal the many “Japanese” stars of Korean descent). Other Asian countries have followed suit. The Koreans are everywhere.
PSY is everywhere.

 

 

Who’s he?

The pudgy 34-year-old has taken the world by storm with his quirky dance hit “Gangnam Style,” racking up half a billion views on YouTube and soaring to the top of the charts in the U.K., the United States and a host of other countries. He’s now a worldwide star.
A worldwide star that most people haven’t heard of in Japan.
The anomaly doesn’t make sense. Japan has been mainlining Korean culture for a decade now and doesn’t seem to be able to kick the habit. However, a recent reawakening of the Dokdo/Takeshima island dispute has put the right-wing lunatics back on the street and TV stations have been put under pressure to lay off Korean culture. Even Fuji TV, known as a right-wing channel, was apparently “warned” to be less accommodating to Korean programs and to show more Japanese crap.
Politicians from both countries have fanned the flames in irresponsible ways. South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak’s ill-advised trip to the islands sparked the latest round of insults and many Japanese have been happy to return the insults with their warped version of history. The Koreans are in possession of the islands and aren’t going to give them up. The Japanese have a weak claim to them and aren’t going to do anything to try and reclaim them, apart from fruitless gestures and ineffective legal measures. So the catcalling is just that.
But it may be that there is some discrimination against PSY for being the world’s most visible Korean. Some people claim not to like “Gangnam Style,” but not many. And it should be right up Japan’s alley – great tune, good beat, stupid dance, funny and fun. What’s not to like?

Some say PSY hasn’t promoted the song in Japan. HELLO!!!?! Half a billion people have seen it on YouTube. It shouldn’t need promoting. It’s a worldwide phenomenon; you’d think that any media organisation must report on it. How could they ignore it? But I haven’t seen it mentioned on Japanese TV (which, admittedly, I try to avoid) and when I polled 50 university students, only one of them knew it – or admitted to knowing it.
PSY reportedly was planning on heading to Japan at the end of September and even planning to do a special Japan version of his song (“Roppongi Style”), but the trip didn’t come off. No reason has been given. One theory is that he was concentrating on doing a deal with Justin Bieber’s management in the U.S. But one factor that may be preventing PSY from coming here is a drugs bust in South Korea in 2001. He was busted for smoking marijuana. Apparently, the usual drill for South Korean parents in such situations is to head down to the cop shop, fall to their knees and beg forgiveness for their child. PSY’s parents apparently just shrugged and said, “Yep, that sounds like our son.”
PSY also had trouble with his compulsory military service. According to Wikipedia:

“PSY served his mandatory military service as a technician in a venture firm from 2003 to 2005. After evidence came to light that revealed that PSY hadn’t properly carried out his duty during his service as a technician, he was re-drafted to serve as a soldier in the ROK Army in August 2007. After being discharged in the summer of 2009, PSY said he had learned a lot through this experience. He said he also felt the weight of his responsibility to his wife and twin daughters, born two months before he headed off to the ROK Army boot camp.”

PSY has been labelled “K-Pop” but he’s not really part of the K-Pop setup. He’s not pretty, he’s not slim, he doesn’t look like he’s been surgically modified and he’s not young – generally prerequisites for success in Japan (and Korea). But he does have talent and has been successful over the years. More to the point, he’s funny and an iconoclast. He gets irony, which the Japanese haven’t managed to invent yet. Maybe the Japanese just don’t get him.

 

Apkujong (no) style

“Gangnam Style” parodies the young, rich and stupid who flash their brand names in the meat markets of Seoul. PSY should know; he’s one of them. Well, he’s a rich, Gangnam boy. Actually, Gangnam is a large area south of the Han River in Seoul. The ground zero for the rich dicks PSY parodies is Apkujong. Here’s what I wrote about Apkujong for The Japan Times 10 years ago:
“Apkujong
Part of the Gangnam area, but merits an entry in its own right as it’s the trendiest part of town. Or, to put it in the vernacular, it’s full of tossers with more money than taste and posers with no taste at all. Apkujong is a little bit Ginza, a little bit Regent’s Street, a little bit Beverly Hills. … While you will still get your hamburger joints (McDonald’s, Kentucky, Hard Rock Cafe, etc.) and family restaurants (Bennigans, Thank God It’s Friday), you can find several classy eating establishments, bars and cafes. Of course, there’s nothing more irritating than seeing a bunch of clueless dorks with cash pretending they’re better than everyone else, but if you can ignore the cream of South Korea’s jerks, you can find some decent food in the area. Apkujong is BIG on fashion designers. You have been warned.”


According to an AP report: “ ‘The song explores South Koreans’ ‘love-hate relationship with Gangnam,’ said Baak Eun-seok, a pop music critic. The rest of South Korea sees Gangnam residents as everything PSY isn’t, he said: good-looking because of plastic surgery, stylish because they can splurge on luxury goods, slim thanks to yoga and personal trainers.
‘PSY looks like a country bumpkin. He’s a far cry from the so-called Gangnam Style,’ Baak said. ‘He’s parodying himself.’ ”

Well, good luck to him. PSY obviously can do without Japan. Japan, on the other hand, desperately needs someone like PSY who can recognize and parody the buffoonery in Japanese society and politics and entertainment. We don’t need no Beat Takeshi, as Pink Floyd might have said. It’s another brick in the wall that Japan loves to live behind.
The world’s gain is Japan’s loss.

 

English Translation of “Gangnam Style” (from the web):

Oppa is Gangnam style
Gangnam style
A girl who is warm and human during the day
A classy girl who know how to enjoy the freedom of a cup of coffee
A girl whose heart gets hotter when night comes
A girl with that kind of twist
I’m a guy
A guy who is as warm as you during the day
A guy who one-shots his coffee before it even cools down
A guy whose heart bursts when night comes
That kind of guy
Beautiful, loveable
Yes you, hey, yes you, hey
Beautiful, loveable
Yes you, hey, yes you, hey
Now let’s go until the end
Oppa is Gangnam style, Gangnam style
Oppa is Gangnam style, Gangnam style
Oppa is Gangnam style
Eh, Sexy Lady, Oppa is Gangnam style
Eh, Sexy Lady oh oh oh oh
A girl who looks quiet but plays when she plays
A girl who puts her hair down when the right time comes
A girl who covers herself but is more sexy than a girl who bares it all
A sensible girl like that
I’m a guy
A guy who seems calm but plays when he plays
A guy who goes completely crazy when the right time comes
A guy who has bulging ideas rather than muscles
That kind of guy
Beautiful, loveable
Yes you, hey, yes you, hey
Beautiful, loveable
Yes you, hey, yes you, hey
Now let’s go until the end
Oppa is Gangnam style, Gangnam style
Oppa is Gangnam style, Gangnam style
Oppa is Gangnam style
Eh, Sexy Lady, Oppa is Gangnam style
Eh, Sexy Lady oh oh oh oh
On top of the running man is the flying man, baby baby
I’m a man who knows a thing or two
On top of the running man is the flying man, baby baby
I’m a man who knows a thing or two
You know what I’m saying
Oppa is Gangnam style
Eh, Sexy Lady, Oppa is Gangnam style
Eh, Sexy Lady oh oh oh oh


Oct 6 2012

Dealing with Death

 

By Fred Varcoe

I went to my first funeral when I was 38. It was my father’s. I hadn’t had to deal with death up to that point – and I haven’t had to deal with it much since then.
I’ve paid my respects a couple of times in Japan and South Korea, but I wasn’t particularly close to the people involved, or even knew them at all in some cases. Death was distant; it was abstract. I never felt involved. My recent trip to South Korea to take part in my father-in-law’s funeral brought death back into my life.
There have been a few deaths sort of near me – all my grandparents. But they, too, were distant. I only met my grandparents once a year at best; I didn’t know them so well. I was 8 years old when my mother’s mother died (at 58) and vaguely remember going to say goodbye to her as she lay dying at home. Her husband died 10 years later, slightly out of his mind, while my father’s mother succumbed to cancer around the same time. I hadn’t seen either of them for ages. They lived far away, I was a teen at boarding school and nobody in my family really seemed to make an effort to meet up.
But at 23, with one grandparent left, I made a trek across London to see my remaining grandfather. He was 86, and we went down the pub for some gin and fags. He was good company, alert, funny and as down-to-earth as most Cockneys. He drank pink gin – strong pink gin – and we talked about trivial things. He died a few weeks later. I don’t know how; I don’t know what of. I like to think he had a pink gin in one hand and a Woodbine in the other. But having seen him so recently, I felt connected. I wish I had been more connected to all my grandparents. They were a diverse bunch and had so much to offer.
But it was too late.

The day the music died

Death continued to pass me by. Working in Saudi Arabia in the early ’80s, a couple of colleagues died young: one through an ill-judged experiment with nitrous-oxide, the other – a rampant homosexual –from a mysterious disease. Life went on.

One death while I was there did affect me. In December 1980, I bought the Arab News in downtown Taif and took it home. As I entered my bedroom, I glanced at the front page; John Lennon had been assassinated. I was stunned. Perhaps I was more shocked by the fact that I took it personally. It sounds trite, but it was like a part of me had died that day. But it was true. I had grown up with The Beatles. I had bought Please Please Me at the age of 7. I even went to see the movie Help! with my paternal grandmother, another down-to-earth Londoner. The Beatles wrote the soundtrack to so many young lives. We were all emotionally involved.
Fast-forward 22 years to another musician who helped write the soundtrack to my life. Warren was an acquaintance who became a great friend. Like his hero Ray Davies of The Kinks, Warren wrote stories into music – great English pop songs. I used to visit him in Holland when he lived there in the early ’80s. Holland buzzed, and we had a lot of fun. So much fun, it dominated our conversations for the next 20 years. Warren had two Top 10 hits in the U.K. with Bucks Fizz and five minor successes in Japan (I was his agent). He was always first on my list of people to see when I went to the U.K., but with limited time on visits home, I didn’t always see him. At 55, he went to sleep one night and didn’t wake up.

 

Warren on stage in Holland (with ex-Gruppo Sportivo bassist Eric Wehrmeyer)

 

It was like being robbed of my memories. Talking about our rock ‘n’ roll days in Holland kept those days alive, kept us young, kept us alive. Is this what happens? Your friends die and bits of your life just drop off with them? We hadn’t finished reminiscing; that part of our lives still felt so close. Is it now?

A week to the day after Warren’s death, I became a father. Suddenly, life had new meaning. My life. But now I realize the enormity of what I’ve done and nothing horrifies me more than to think that I might not be around to help my daughter grow up. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t expect to live to an old age.

 

Goodbye, Grandad

My Korean father-in-law didn’t have that problem. One of his daughters died young in a car accident, but he had six reserves plus a son. There was a lot of life in the Lee family. A week after his death, there still is.
But saying goodbye to this man – as dignified and well-grounded as my paternal grandfather, who died at exactly the same age, 86 – was a mixture of the grand and the grotesque. And for the first time since I attended my father’s funeral, I was a participant.
With my father’s death, the remoteness was still there. My father died while I was in Japan and I’d been living overseas for 14 years. It took me two days to get home. I didn’t have to deal with the everyday stuff of death. I got home and the funeral was arranged. I saw no dead body. I didn’t feel involved. My mother, brother and sister had to deal with everything; I just had to fly home. On the morning of the funeral, I played golf. Did I appear cynical? I hope not. Golf clears the head and my head needed clearing. I was hiding behind an emotional wall. It wasn’t going to get to me yet. To get to the crematorium, I drove my rental car. I didn’t want to be part of a procession. I was almost in denial as to all of this being real.
But then we were in the crematorium chapel with my father’s coffin on the rollers ready for his final journey to the incinerator. It all came home to me. This was my life. Death was suddenly real. The priest was talking about my father. After a short service, a curtain shielded the coffin as it rolled toward the burners. A door closed. Goodbye, Dad.
And then we were out in the sunshine, drying our tears, saying goodbye to the living, driving home. What do we do now?
Party, of course. Good food, a lot of Champagne and we were living life again. Perhaps it was too easy, too quick. The Koreans have to work a lot harder for their closure.

The long goodbye
My wife’s father died at around 4 a.m. on a Monday morning. I managed to get my wife on a plane to Busan at 2 p.m. on the same day and she was in Daegu by 6. By then, her family were several hours into the ceremonials. They had delayed dressing the body – in front of the family – until she arrived. I’m not sorry I missed it. Curiously, the first things her parents had shown me the first time I went to their house were the clothes they would be dressed in after they were dead. I was under the impression that I would have to help dress the body. This wasn’t the case, partly because I was traveling a day behind my wife, but mainly because the mortuary staff did that. The wife told me it was done very well and with great class. “My father looked very dignified,” she said.
Due to work obligations, I arrived 24 hours behind my wife. I figured that by the time I arrived in the early evening the whole family would soon out of mourning mode and into the food and alcohol.
Wrong!
I was hustled into the mourning area in the basement of a small hospital to pay my respects before the altar that had been set up. You could barely move for flowers.

 

 

I was soon on my knees.
“You have to do two and a half bows,” my brother-in-law informed me.
Well, what’s that? OK, two on my knees, head touching the floor; I get that. But a half bow? Do I get half up and get down again? Or do I get all the way up and bow halfway. I’ll opt for B, Bob. Eerrrck! Wrong! But no big deal.
I was handed a black suit to replace the black suit I was wearing (“It’ll get dirty,” I was told.) and given an oversized white shirt and black tie, identical to the suits and shirts and ties worn by the other five sons-in-law and my wife’s brother. I had to wear a strange tall yellow hat and armband made of linen, which had a single black line running around it. The brother’s had two black lines. South Korea is a Confucianist country; everyone has their rank. I felt like the corporal of death.

 

No, really, it suits you…

In the small altar area, there were seven cushions lined up on each side. Not quite seven brides for seven brothers; there were seven brides for the lone brother and six brothers-in-law. Position was determined by age. I was married to daughter No. 4, so I was fifth in line (the brother was first, of course). The women were lined up in similar order opposite their husbands.
The altar had a smallish picture of the deceased and lots of food and flowers. The primary floral tribute had been provided by the chairman of one of South Korea’s chaebols, an impressive tribute and one of significance. Big wheels are turning.
Mourners flooded in. Mourners were not only those who knew the deceased, but also those connected to the family, so colleagues of the son, sons-in-law and daughters. Some came in groups; others individually. As they entered the mourning area, the family lining each wall would chant “Igo, igo, igo” non-stop, a call to the spirit of the deceased. The chief mourner in the visiting group would make an offering of alcohol and light a stick of incense, followed by the requisite two and a half bows. Then, all the mourners in that group would turn to face the male relatives and both sides would fall to their knees again in a humble bow. Then, they would make to get up, but invariably fall to one knee to offer a message of condolence after being introduced by whoever they knew among the family. They would then put an envelope containing money in a box ($55,000 passed through that box over the three days!). Some would then leave; others would eat and drink at the restaurant adjoining the altar area. They were soon replaced by other mourners. In fact, this had been going on for well over 30 hours by the time I arrived. Nobody had gone home. On the day I arrived, the procession of mourners didn’t finish until after midnight. At 1 a.m., the family ate. Most grabbed two or three hours sleep on the floor. The marathon was not over yet.

 

Waiting for more mourners

The first ceremony of the final day came at 5:45 a.m. The ceremonies were now getting more heart-wrenching for the family. Another ceremony was held in front of the coffin before it was loaded into the massive black Cadillac hearse for a journey to the old man’s home. Another ceremony was held in the yard there with one of the elders from the village leading the prayers.

 

 

Up to this point, things had been moving and dignified; the old man was being sent off with love and affection.

Then we got to the crematorium.

 

At the crematorium

The coffin was unloaded into what appeared to be the tradesman’s entrance. The family was directed to a waiting room. People could watch TV. Soon, we were hustled into a glass-walled viewing room. Beyond the window was the coffin. Beyond the coffin was a line of a dozen doors to what looked like industrial furnaces. It was horribly stark.

 

A door opened and the body was shoved through. It was quick, sudden and shocking. Family members yelped in shock. The furnace door closed and everybody was hustled out to wait.
We waited for over an hour under a hot midday sun. We did lunch. We drank beer. We waited some more.
I went back to the waiting room as it was cooler there. I noticed a bank of TV monitors, each one placed above a photo of those being “processed.” You could watch the furnace doors open and the ashes being wheeled out on a trolley. The picture was fuzzy, thank God.
But then the monitor told us furnace No. 4 was ready and we were hustled back into the glass-walled viewing room. The door opened and a tray of bones was dragged out. The women screamed for their father. Everyone looked on in disbelief.
Originally, the family thought they would stick with tradition and bury the old man on a hill near their house. But South Korea is losing its cultural markers. Modern times require quick and easy solutions to life – and death. The dead don’t need to take up space on a hill.
One or two bones were still identifiable. Two crematorium staff swept everything into a box and brought it over to where the family were watching in a state of shock. I stood well back, holding my daughter for comfort. Everyone was distraught. This was no way to create a final memory of a man revered by his family. This was processing, not healing, not loving, not even remembering. Who’d want to remember this?
The bones were crammed into an urn and handed over. Thanks for your patronage; have a nice day. Er, recommend us to your friends…
The family drove back past the old man’s house and village and up into the hills to a Buddhist temple where his ashes would be enshrined and where the family could find spiritual salvation. Religions require belief and everyone wanted to believe that father was on a journey, and his journey would end peacefully in a sacred place. It was sunny and 33 C; no one had any energy left. A Buddhist priest gave the family the spiritual sustenance they sought. We said our last prayers for the old man’s final journey, bowed to the ground one more time to say goodbye and headed home.

Final resting place

 ****

Later that night, a magpie – a symbol of good luck in Korea – flew onto a wall of the house. He gave the impression he belonged there and looked paternally at the family members clustered behind an open window. He flew into the house and perched high up in the living room. Nobody said anything, but everyone thought the same thing. How could you think otherwise?
After refusing to leave, the fearless widow Lee grabbed the bird and ushered it out. It flew away into the night. She watched it go, saying a final, silent farewell.
Sorry, you don’t live here anymore.

 

 

****


Oct 6 2012

Can Kim Jong-Un play the symbols?

By Fred Varcoe

Nuclear war is imminent!
It’s true. Pak Kil-yon, North Korea’s vice-foreign minister said so at the United Nations.

 

Dye another day?

 

“Today, due to the continued U.S. hostile policy towards the DPRK, the vicious cycle of confrontation and aggravation of tensions is an ongoing phenomenon on the Korean Peninsula, which has become the world’s most dangerous hot spot and where a spark of fire could set off a thermonuclear war,” Pak told the General Assembly (according to The Daily Telegraph).

It’s OK; they let any nutter speak before the General Assembly. Last week, Japan “Prime Minister” Yoshihiko Noda muttered a few words there. Nobody listened.
And not many people are going to listen to Mr. Pak. The speech may have been at the United Nations, but it was most likely aimed at the United States. The Americans, after all, are the only ones dumb enough to listen to such crap.
Of course, Mr. Pak also felt obliged to hammer away at the lame-duck administration of President Lee Myung-Bak, but that’s definitely going to fall on deaf ears in South Korea.
“Since taking office, the current South Korean government has caused the worst situation in North-South relations by making all inter-Korean agreements null and void,” Pak declared dramatically.
Arf, arf. Pot, kettle, black, etc. North Korea is a world leader in ditching agreements when it feels like it. So why do they even bother speaking if they aren’t going to say anything that anyone will listen to (American government officials excepted, of course).

 

Ha! Ha! Ha! So you know nothing about the outside world either!!?! Ha!

 

Mr. Pak’s claim that the citizens of the North feel “shame” and “political terror” as a result of South Korean policies and actions will hopefully be supported by a Gallup poll, but until then, he can be safely ignored.
The performance at the U.N. is a sad repetition of the same old line that Pyongyang has been trying to sell for a couple of decades: We have nuclear weapons; the South is provoking us (yes, PSY does look a little like North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un); the Americans are provoking us (they look at us across the 38th parallel in a funny way); the Japanese are provoking us (why don’t they believe that Megumi Yokota is dead?). They want war; we want Mickey Mouse.
Yes, indeed. Mickey Mouse is now a player in the geo-political game. While Mr. Pak trots out the same old old-wave rubbish he’s been indoctrinated in, there have been signs that the North could be changing under young Jong-Un, the son of Jong-Il and grandson of Il-Sung.
The first sign in early July was a video showing Kim Jong-Un attending a performance that included Mickey and Minnie Mouse and other Disney characters. Observers around the world thought this was cute or ironic or daft, but in a country where symbolism is everything, you would think there was something deeper going on. The leader of a Stalinist state enjoying the most visible symbol of its archenemy? That doesn’t happen by accident.

 


The next sign was the firing of Army chief Ri Yong Ho in mid-July. Firings don’t come much bigger in North Korea and it was a massive show of power by North Korea’s young leader.
Ten days later, Kim Jong-Un is seen attending an important meeting with a young, attractive woman. The woman turns out to be his wife. Seen that before in North Korea? No, didn’t think so. Koreans on both sides of the peninsula don’t go around parading their wives. Korea is a patriarchal society. Men rule (OK, that’s changing in the South, where they might even have a woman president before the end of the year).

 

Oppa Pyongyangnam Style

Two weeks after that, Kim welcomed back Kenji Fujimoto, his father’s former chef who reportedly fled from North Korea more than a decade ago and has made a tidy living writing books (about North Korea), making speeches (about North Korea) and wearing disguises (to cunningly evade North Korean assassins at events where he is billed as Kim Jong-Il’s former chef).

 

Kenji Fujimoto tries to blend in with the rest of Japan

 

That’s four extraordinary events in a month, but they only received passing interest in the West. But to me, they signify:

1. I’m open to talks with the United States (and their leader Mickey Mouse);
2. I’m a modern, forward-thinking Korean (OK, North Korean);
3. I’m my own man and I’m in charge (so I’m the person to deal with, if my wife says so);
4. I’m also willing to talk to Japan (or, at least, eat their food).

If North Korea wants to say something at the United Nations, they really need to come up with something a bit more imaginative than Mr. Pak’s drivel. They would get more respect by admitting they want to change and asking for the help of the rest of the world. The South Korean people are more willing to help – and less afraid of – North Korea than the North Koreans seem to understand.
North Korea’s problems have nothing to do with the outside world. They have cut themselves off from the rest of the world for over 60 years. Now, they don’t know how to get back in touch with it.
Kim Jong-Un is one of the few North Koreans who have lived in the West. He, perhaps, has a chance of building a bridge to the West. But he can’t expect the West to roll over and throw down a red carpet. The truth is the West and South Korea can safely ignore North Korea. If the North has a nuclear bomb, they can’t use it. Everything the North has tried to provoke the outside world has failed miserably. Conciliation is the only thing they haven’t tried, at least, sincerely. (There’s a thought: Why don’t they try sincerity. It works.)
Here’s an idea for Kim Jong-Un: Go to Panmunjom, step into the Blue Hut that serves as a meeting place for North and South Korea and step over the line in the middle that divides the two countries (it’s easy; I’ve done it).
That’s a symbolic gesture even the U.S. State Department would understand.

 


Sep 25 2012

Slash and Burn: Getting a ‘faceover’ in Korea

 

 

By Fred Varcoe

I’ve often wondered why so many South Korean actresses look the same. A South Korean friend once told me that 80 percent of the girls in her high-school class had had cosmetic surgery. And this wasn’t the middle of Seoul; this was smalltown Korea. Cosmetic surgery is huge business in Korea.

But I never expected to experience it myself. Probably because I’m not Korean. For many, having surgery is a routine thing to do. My wife’s had stuff done and her sister and even her mother. I didn’t notice.

At least, I didn’t notice until I checked old photos. My wife had quite significant bags under her eyes and my sister-in-law looked positively worn out. Surgery has taken at least 10 years off their faces; they look great. So they decided that it was my turn next.

I hadn’t thought about it, but they told me I had too many wrinkles around my eyes and my face was getting too lumpy. I got a new pair of glasses and could see they may have a point. And, to be honest, I had thought my face was turning to jello.

But not enough to splash $5,000 on a refit. So my sister-in-law blackmailed and bribed me. “Do it for your daughter,” she said. “She doesn’t want a daddy that looks like a granddaddy. And I’ll pay.” Convincing arguments – so I said yes.

The clinic was at the top of a fairly non-descript building with a vacant shop on the first floor. We were shown into a glass-panelled waiting room. A couple of women staff members looked at my face and talked to my sister-in-law (a lay expert). I got the go-ahead.

A very attractive young lady came in and put big dobs of cream on spots on my face. She was nice. I wish I’d had more spots, but she left.

Then I went to see a doctor. Nobody was speaking English. The doctor prodded my face, consulted with my sister-in-law and said OK. After further relaxation time in the waiting room, I was led to another room and told to take my shoes off and lie down on the surgical table. The doctor came in, told me to close my eyes and started to nuke my face with a laser. You could smell the flesh burning and feel the heat of the laser, which felt similar to the laser that nearly erased Sean Connery’s bollocks in Goldfinger. But after attacking my eight spots, I was led back to the waiting room again, bollocks safely intact.

Then it was time for the main show.

Cosmetic surgery, my arse! The results may be cosmetic, but the surgery is very real.

I’ve had lots of doctors cut me up on the operating table, but I was always asleep. Not this time. I was taken to an realistic-looking surgery, told to take off my shoes, given a pajama top that was too small for me and placed on the operating table. Two big lights shone down at me. First the nurse took my blood pressure. It was high (157/84). My unhealthy lifestyle, I thought. They wrapped the outside of my head and placed a cover over my upper torso that left a hole for my face. Then the nurse started washing my face with iodine.

All this time, my sister-in-law was present to act as interpreter – in Japanese, which didn’t help much as her Japanese is much better than mine. The doctor came in and I was told that they would thread a needle into my skin to allow the areas to be anaesthetized. It might be painful, he added, teaching me the Korean word for pain (paekum). As I was to be cut in four places (two sections of about 3 cm above each eye and two sections right beneath each eye, each about 6 cm), they did this four times. It felt like a big needle being threaded through my skin (mainly because that’s what it was) and it hurt like fuck.

Boom, boom, boom went the beat of my heart. Seriously. Was it my body or my mind reacting to this abuse?

Soon after, I felt the pressure of the scalpel, followed by the flow of blood as they opened up my face. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen after that – and I still don’t know what happened. But it took a long time. I was told they cut out about a centimetre of face from under my eyes, but they were also putting stuff in. There was a machine that seemed to inject something (glue, cement, landfill, botox – I don’t really know, but I suspect botox) into the holes cut in my face. When they did it below the eye, it pressured the eyeball and was very uncomfortable.

I became anxious. My blood pressure rocketed again and my heart was pumping so hard it felt like it was only a matter of time before it burst through my chest. The doctor was so concerned, he recalled my sister-in-law from the waiting room to try and get me to calm down. Eventually, my heart stopped trying to burst through my ribs, but I really wanted the machine to stop injecting me with stuff, because it hurt every time it did.

Finally, I guessed that they were doing some sewing. It was a huge relief. I didn’t want to be skewered or cut or cemented or traumatised any more. And I wanted to make sure the doctor hadn’t glued or sewn my eyes shut.

Then it was all over. I could open my eyes. They didn’t feel happy. The doctor said everything had gone fine. The nurses smiled and took their time cleaning me up, which was the only nice part of the whole two-hour procedure. They gave me a mirror. I looked like Dr. Frankenstein’s first experiment and it seemed I had about 50 stitches in all.

 

 

Before

 

 

My sister-in-law came in. She was enthusiastic, but then spotted a problem. They hadn’t botoxed my forehead as she had requested (it was a bonus procedure). The doctor came back armed with a new syringe and jabbed it into my forehead about 10 times. Thankfully, that was the last procedure. I just wanted to go home and see my daughter.

But she was none too pleased seeing Daddy all bashed up. I told her Daddy had been to see a doctor and his face was painful. I saw a look of worry pass across her face. She wasn’t impressed with the results, but reassured by Mummy, she accepted Daddy’s latest disfigurement.

 

After

 

Daddy wasn’t too sure either, despite the enthusiasm of my wife and her sister. The stitched up scars looked ugly (they always do, of course) and the lasered spots were covered with skin-regeneration tape. I felt like I should be in a circus. But my wife and her sister had already decided we should go on a family trip to Daegu, Pohang and a temple or two. As I wasn’t allowed to drink alcohol during my recovery, I was one of the designated drivers (the other designated driver drank anyway). So, everyone else in Korea would be allowed to view the taped-up foreign monster. My wife had provided me with a pair of sunglasses that covered most of the scars, but I still had a large dressing under each eye. It was hard to eat chewy stuff like meat, so I ended up eating less and drinking less. I was allowed to remove the dressing after a couple of days, but my face was jaundice yellow.

The stitches came out six days after the operation and were removed by a very pleasant nurse who was very deft with the scissors. When I’ve had stitches out before, I’ve almost passed out, so I wasn’t looking forward to it. It took around 20 minutes and I managed not to pass out, just. Everyone was pleased with the results, but for me, it was still too early to tell. Eleven days on, my face was nearly clear and the scars less red, but my face felt tight. One of my friends said it seems like I can’t smile any more. The wrinkles in my forehead have gone.

More likely, they’ve just been paralyzed. According to Wikipedia, “Botulinum toxin is a protein produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum, and is the most powerful neurotoxin ever discovered.” It doesn’t repair your body, it just stops it working. So your frown doesn’t disappear, your frown muscles are zapped so they don’t have any choice but to stop frowning. I had a fair amount of trouble opening my mouth properly when I tried to eat. Six months later, most of my face is working again, but no botox means no youthful veneer. So if I don’t want a forehead that looks like the ocean outside my front door during a typhoon, I gotta go back for more “jab-a-syringe-in-the-ageing-foreigner” torture.

Maybe I’d be better off just adopting a healthy lifestyle.

You’re right; too late.

“Nurse!”

See, it worked…


Jul 23 2011

Has N. Korea shot its load?

By Fred Varcoe

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said recently that without America’s presence in the region, “North Korea’s military provocations could be even more outrageous or worse” and China “might behave more assertively toward its neighbors.”
Well, thank God for the American bomb.
Except that America’s presence failed to stop North Korea sinking South Korean warship the Cheonan (as South Korea claim) or prevent North Korea from unleashing an artillery barrage on Yeonpyeong Island close to the disputed sea border between the two countries. It didn’t stop North Korea bombing a South Korean airliner in 1987; it didn’t stop North Korea trying to blow up the South Korean cabinet in Myanmar in 1983; and it didn’t stop North Korea kidnapping Japanese and South Korean citizens for over half a century.
Ah, but surely it has stopped North Korea from invading the South.
Well, it didn’t stop them in 1950 when there was a massive American military presence right next door in Japan, where the U.S. had demonstrated their nuclear might just five years before (the U.S. had a minimal presence in South Korea at the time).
It has been argued that America’s military presence in the region is more of a provocation than a source of appeasement. Certainly on a local basis, American troops are despised both in Japan and South Korea. For some they are a permanent blot on the landscape.
But they are not immovable. America’s greatest ally in East Asia – former colony the Philippines – told the U.S. military to “get the hell out of Dodge” in 1992.
According to a New York Times report, “The American military presence was assailed as a vestige of colonialism and an affront to Philippine sovereignty.”
Which is not dissimilar to how the North Koreans – and quite a few South Koreans and Japanese – view America’s presence in the region today.
You have to ask yourself how a relatively small country like the Philippines can tell the United States to leave, but the world’s third-largest economy – Japan – can’t. In addition, the Philippines were charging the U.S. $203 million a year for the right to have bases on their territory. In contrast, Japan pays in the region of $2 billion to the U.S. as “rent-a-cop” fees.
To get back to Korea, the only country that has stopped North Korea invading South Korea is North Korea. Of course, it’s all about consequences and equations. In 1950, North Korea had the support of China and the Soviet Union, and only had to consider a conventional war against a weak South. And its attack nearly succeeded. The North captured around 90 percent of South Korean territory. The South clung on desperately to a small corner of the peninsula known as the Pusan Perimeter.
After three years of fighting, the prewar divisions and stalemate remained intact. They remain intact today.

Calculation or miscalculation?

The North has growled for nearly 60 years at the U.S.-backed South, killing the odd American or South Korean, blowing up the odd airliner, kidnapping people for no apparent reason.
(The kidnapping of Japanese citizens makes no sense at all considering the number of “North Koreans” born and raised in Japan since the end of World War II. If North Korea wants to teach its spies and terrorists how to speak proper Japanese, then its own “citizens” are more than capable of doing this.)
But how have South Korea, Japan and the West reacted to the North’s most recent provocations? Simple, they’ve done virtually nothing. Of course, diplomats have expressed “concern,” but not enough to interrupt their early evening cocktails.
But North Korea may have miscalculated with its latest attack.
While South Korea’s defense minister was fired for a weak response to the North’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, the South still retaliated with a barrage of 40 missiles, which, according to an Asian Times report by Washington-based analyst Yong Kwon, had a terrifying effect on the North:
“Radio Free Asia reported that the shelling of the Yeonpyeong Island caused widespread panic throughout North Korea because of the belief that the United States would retaliate militarily.”
South Korean President Lee Myung Bak has vowed to use significant force if the North repeats its missile attack. This is widely interpreted as meaning air strikes against the North.
The North’s reaction? Let’s have some more six-party talks.
Initially, the South opted not to play that game again. And why would they? The six-party talks are a joke. If the North is caving in after a mild missile response from the South and the mere threat of an air strike, what incentive is there for the South to carry on playing the North’s game?
The North is not willing to negotiate away any of its advantages, certainly not the one ace it’s got over the West: its perceived nuclear capability, which is still unproven and may be more bluff than reality. But if the North is not up for a minor fight over its border, is it up for any fight at all?
The North may well have played its last card. If it can’t intimidate militarily, it can’t intimidate, period.
What actually, can the North do?
It can resort to terrorism, which, as the Palestinians (of old) and Al Qaeda have shown, can be more effective than overt military action, but such action would only serve to isolate the country more and could lead to strong countermeasures by South Korea, Japan and America. And blowing up planes, kidnapping people and assassinating politicians hasn’t worked for the North, so far.
It can attack South Korea again, but this would initiate a serious response from the South (and possibly the U.S.) and the North would then be forced to back down or escalate the conflict.
Such escalation could lead to war, but the North knows that while it can win some significant battles and inflict serious damage on the South, it will never win a war. War is an end game with the North defeated.
Could it use nuclear weapons? Theoretically, yes; practically no. Again, this would be an end-game tactic that would destroy North Korea, and the only raison d’etre for North Korea is to sustain the current regime. Stalemate for them is victory.
An invasion of the South would ultimately destroy the North. And there are serious doubts that the North could sustain a war beyond a few weeks. A ground war requires food and supplies and fuel and it’s unlikely that North Korea possesses enough of these to wage a credible campaign. North Korea may have great numbers – 7 million is the scary figure Western media like to use – but, again, it’s quality vs. quantity. In the Korean War, many soldiers from the South defected to the North. That’s not going to happen again. The reverse is far more likely.
Also, a war – or even a significant escalation – would involve China, but not like 60 years ago when half a million Chinese “volunteers” spontaneously flooded into Korea to aid Kim Il Sung. While half the West’s economy now seems to be tied up in China, nearly all of China’s economy is tied to the West. Do you think the Chinese people/government are going to sacrifice their wealth and stability to assist North Korea?
Wikileaks seem to suggest that the Chinese have less influence and less interest in North Korea than people in the West have given them credit for. The North needs China – without it, it would probably die. China does not need the North and the argument that a buffer is required between capitalist China and major trading partner South Korea just doesn’t hold water any more. China can afford to drop North Korea; it can’t afford to cut its ties with the West.

 

The citizens of Shanghai probably wouldn't want a war on their doorstep.

 

And if the South is going to carry out air strikes on the North, a good place to start would be the bridges over the Yalu River that link the North to China. Such a move would finally force China to take a stand on the North and their message to Pyongyang would have to be: Start a war and this time you’ll have to start it and finish it without us. Added to which, northeast Asia without a North Korean problem would ease tension in the region and allow China and the West to intensify their capitalistic intercourse.

While North Korea is the only country that can initiate a war on the Korean Peninsula, South Korea is the only country that should be making the decisions on how to prevent one.
The United States is quite clearly out of its depth and its involvement in the affairs of other countries in recent decades has been nothing short of embarrassing. Iraq, Libya, Palestine, George Bush/Tony Blair, Japan even (the Futenma debacle). My associations with Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Japan have shown me how ridiculous America looks to the citizens of these countries. Politically. Of course, many admire the economic achievements of the U.S., but the Washington would be foolish to think that they have earned universal respect in these and other countries.
And the other “players” in the Six-Party equation?
Japan is arguably the weakest country in the world when it comes to political clout and diplomacy. The government changes yearly and is invariably headed by a weak-willed idiot. Many Japanese would love it to have political power to match its economic strength, but don’t hold your breath. Tony “The Poodle” Blair has nothing on the lap-dancing lap dogs of Nagatacho.
China. Oh yes, the country that has influence on North Korea. North Korea is far less of a puppet state of China than Japan or South Korea is of the United States. China does not dictate to Pyongyang. But China is friendly – very, very friendly. And for a reason.
Any major instability in North Korea would have refugees rushing over the Yalu River into China rather than over the heavily mined DMZ into South Korea. And who or what would replace the Kim dynasty should it be removed from power? The only alternative power in the North is the army and this, reportedly, is extremely factional. An internal power struggle could result in more of the same (i.e., a new North Korean Saddam Hussein or Moammar Gadaffi to deal with) or a pro-West faction (or at least, a pro-West rapprochement faction).

Resolving to resolve nothing

Communist China’s only option in this whole game is to maintain the status quo. It is horrified by the prospect of a pro-Western, pan-Korean government and it certainly doesn’t want any more Koreans clogging up its border cities.
So it reaffirms its faith in the Six-Party Talks, knowing that they will never, ever bring about a resolution – certainly not the kind of resolution that the West anticipates. The purpose of the Six-Party Talks is to get the North to give up its nuclear weapons. This won’t happen, especially as the North watches the West bombing the crap out of Libya. North Korea and China win by prolonging the Six-Party Talks. Just as war is an end game, talks are a no-end game.
In an article in the April/May edition of the RUSI (Royal United Services Institute) Journal by respected East Asia watchers Scott Snyder and Byun See Won, the writers talk of “the Six Party Talks through which North Korea’s nuclear programme and other issues must be addressed.” From the diplomatic perspective, this seems logical. Talking is what diplomats do. But if it’s resolution that you want, this won’t fly.
To their credit, the writers mention “doubts about China’s credibility as a broker of the Six Party Talks” and even suggest that China may have given North Korea a “blank cheque to pursue provocations with apparent impunity.” But this is also a misreading of China’s position. China may not be dictating to Kim Jong Il and at times may appear not to have the ability to control Pyongyang, but its patience would wear out rapidly if tensions escalated to extensive military action. For China, stalemate is the only answer; it certainly doesn’t want a resolution.
And it certainly doesn’t want a war. Snyder and Byun point out: “According to U.S. officials, Chinese party leaders have reportedly expressed increasing anxieties about Pyongyang’s provocations,” although the Chinese military apparently are less concerned.
China’s military may be flexing its muscles in other areas, but North Korea knows that it won’t get backing for any large-scale military action against the South (although it was interesting to note that while China condemned U.S.-ROK military exercises in the Yellow Sea, it failed to condemn the North’s bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island).
The other player in the six-party talks is Russia, presumably invited as it, too, borders North Korea, but also because they’d get extremely pissed off if they weren’t dealt with on equal terms. Russian involvement is peripheral. Russia is only interested in scoring diplomatic points, mainly against the West.
Gates has said, “There must be concrete evidence that [the North’s leaders] are finally serious about negotiations.” Well, good luck with that one, Mr. Gates, ‘cos you’re not going to get it.

 


In an insightful Asia Times Online piece (“Misunderstandings May Prove Fatal”), Kwon puts it thus:
“The bewildered diplomatic and military overtures to Pyongyang and Beijing are signs that Washington has barely begun to take a serious interest in the country that it has been confronting for over 50 years. Currently, too many policies towards the DPRK are made using presumptions and analogies that are fundamentally inconsistent with what little we do know about the regime’s objectives and perceptions. … Washington has placed a profound amount of faith in China’s leverage on Pyongyang. … Ultimately, the current policy of treating the DPRK as a Chinese client or puppet state is inherently flawed.”
Kwon concludes: “The assumptions that drive American foreign policy towards the DPRK are too often historically uninformed, and over-exaggerate or misinterpret the threats posed by Pyongyang. The Obama administration should recognize this and treat North Korea as it should be treated, a uniquely North Korean problem.”
That’s the first step. The second step is for Seoul to distance itself from Washington. Don’t give in to American blackmail as the Japanese did over the Futenma Air Base in Okinawa.
Diplomatic sources have suggested that Seoul is keen to press a hard line against the North. Pressure not to do so comes from outside. The South Korean government must have the courage of its convictions. North Korea is now in a uniquely vulnerable position. Its supreme leader seems to know he will not live too long (although he looked healthy enough on his recent trip to China) and it now has serious doubts about its ability to scare the South. Economically, it’s as much a basket case as ever and food shortages are a constant threat. There have been isolated reports of unrest in North Korean cities. Depriving the North of assistance will strengthen the South’s hand, assuming it can rid itself of brotherly guilt by making its people suffer more. While many in the South don’t want instant reunification, they still regard Korea as one country separated by politics (and blame Japan, Russia and the United States for the division). The North currently believes that the South will respond with force if another Yeonpyeong occurs. For that to be effective, that’s exactly what the South should do.
Raising the stakes is a risky game, but the North has never had to call the South’s bluff before. The South must now play its cards right if it wants to win the game.

END


May 14 2011

Sinawe

Korean rocker carries on the family business

By Fred Varcoe

Go to Korea and you feel like everyone’s got a chip on their shoulder. It’s like everyone wants to pick a fight with you. On this occasion, someone did.

I was just sitting at the bar drinking with Korea’s most famous rock band, Sinawe, and a few friends when this young salaryman started pointing in our direction and mumbling something about the “girl-like” longhairs in the bar. But like my friends, I tried to ignore him.

When he got up, I ignored him a little less, and when he knocked the barmaid flying into a glass table with a drunken lurch, I thought, “That’s . . .” I didn’t have time to think much more as the four members from Sinawe leapt on the guy, smashed their fists into his face, kicked him in the guts and finished him off by bringing a couple of chairs down on his head. Then we ordered another round of beers and resumed our conversation on whether or not Pearl Jam was mainstream or alternative.

If anyone in Korea has a right to be angry, Sinawe guitarist and leader Shin Dae Chul is well-qualified. At the age of 10, his life was turned upside down when his father, Shin Chung Hyan, was busted for drugs and sent to jail.

“When my father got busted, I felt betrayed by society,” the younger Shin said. “Even at the age of 10, I couldn’t believe people got put away just for smoking dope. Almost all the musicians around at the time smoked, but my father was the only one they crucified.

“It still bugs me.”

Just as Shin Chung Hyan was no ordinary musician, it was no ordinary bust. Shin Sr. was the very foundation of South Korean rock ‘n’ roll. But more than that, he was an integral part of the troubled social and political landscape in South Korea in the ’60s and ’70s.

After paying his dues playing for U.S. servicemen on military bases in Seoul, he went on to become South Korea’s top guitarist, composer and producer. Such was his popularity that President Park Chung Hee asked him to write a song for Korea. (“No deal” was the reply. Top marks for integrity, perhaps, but zip for political astuteness.)

In the late ’60s, Shin wanted to try and understand what was happening in the West. “I invited a lot of foreign hippies to my house after a concert in 1968,” he explained. “They smoked a lot of dope. I wanted to understand Jimi Hendrix — his music, his feelings, his image and his mood.” So Shin tuned in, turned on and dropped out.

“I woke up about a year later and got back to work,” he continued. “A few years later, some Korean musicians came to my house and were interested in finding out about marijuana. I didn’t really smoke any more, but I had a plant in the house and gave it to them.”

Bad move. One of them was an associate of President Park’s son, Park Chi Man. Eventually word got back to daddy and the defecation hit the oscillator.

A lot of musicians were arrested, but Shin took the rap and got thrown in jail for four months. At the time, Park was on the verge of a political crisis and since rock ‘n’ roll was a medium for unrest, it had to go. Shin’s music was banned completely in South Korea and when he came out of jail, he was basically a nonperson, shunned by his countrymen and divorced from his profession.

For five long years, Shin endured the pain of ostracism. Then, in October 1979, Park was assassinated. For Shin, down on his luck and running out of sanity, it was his moment of retribution, although he doesn’t look back in anger.

Although he never quite attained the musical heights he had reached previously, Shin’s exile did have one positive result — he could spend more time with his family.

Dae Chul learned well from his father and like a good Korean eldest son, he took over the family business. As his father was the prime mover in the first wave of Korean rock, so Shin Jr. became the prime mover in the second wave.

In 1986, when he was just out of high school, his band, Sinawe, released its first album. In a land dominated by disco in the first half of the ’80s, Sinawe’s brooding, if rough-edged, metal ripped across the musical landscape. It sold 400,000 copies and spawned a host of imitators. At 18, Shin Jr. became the focus of South Korea’s rock scene.

Although rock has been overtaken by dance music in the popularity stakes, Sinawe and Shin Dae Chul continue to maintain their position as prime movers in the heavier side of the Korean music scene.

That can be seen in some of Shin’s lyrics. Thirteen years on from his debut album, Shin has abandoned the rather predictable ’80s metal of his formative years and is now exploring the grungier, darker side of life and music.

The gravel-edged vocals blend in with a meaty rhythm section and Shin’s dominant guitar, the music reflecting the gloom that seems part of the Korean national psyche.

Shin himself leads the band from a position of strength. He handles most of the music and most of the business.

With his latest album, “Psychedelos,” Shin has taken a step back from the Kurt Cobain-like primitiveness of his previous two albums and tried to blend a few more melodies in with the mayhem. There’s no less power, but it’s less abrasive.

After jamming with Sheena and the Rockets a few months ago, Shin has now opted to bring the whole band over for a couple of live dates in Tokyo. More than a few curious Japanese rock stars are expected to turn up to see what the Koreans already know: Whether he’s swinging a chair or an ax, Shin Dae Chul will knock you out.

(Originally published in The Japan Times)