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Monday, December 28, 2015

News Bombs: Inscrutable Korea

I read a daily Korean newspaper (it’s in English) and it’s been an excellent way to learn about Korean culture/structures/values.  It can also be hilarious, at least to an American who cannot understand what these people are thinking.  Two recent articles have stood out in this way.

(1)   Korea-Japan relations (or, Revenge with Poo).

Korea and Japan are not good friends, visible through such things as the astonishing lack of Toyotas or Hondas driven here (it would be like Ohio having no cars from GM or Ford.  Weird).  This “frenemy” situation has undoubtedly arisen because Japan invaded our fair peninsula a few times over the last several hundred years and made life hell for the locals.  Despite the good behavior of Japan since 1950 or so, this historic bitterness is still worthy of current news, whether about now-elderly “comfort women” (young women who were used for military sexual services in WWII), what to call the body of water between our nations (the map above is WRONG), or to what extent Korean history textbooks should acknowledge the shady dealings of Koreans themselves during the 20th century Japanese occupation. 

Another common news item along these lines concerns Japanese officials visiting the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo and what that might mean for Korean-Japan relations (because in Asia, if you can possibly read into something, you most certainly should).  The Yasukuni shrine is believed by many Japanese people to be the current home of over 2 million souls who gave their lives for the Empire. This includes 1000ish convicted war criminals and even includes some men convicted of Class A crimes against humanity. This is a rough crowd of dead people.  So, whenever a Japanese prime minister or other government dignitary visits the shrine, many Koreans read this as “jabs a chopstick in the eyes of Koreans everywhere.” (See here for more on Yasukuni shrine controversy.)

So there's your backstory.  In November, someone detonated a bomb at the shrine and a Korean man was suspected (no surprise there). Later articles revealed that the “bomb” was more like a high-class firecracker.  And that it had been detonated in a men’s bathroom on the shrine’s grounds rather than at the actual shrine.  And that no one (neither dead nor alive) was actually hurt and virtually no building damage was done.  Thus, one might think this was not necessarily worthy of national news in Korea.  But let me continue.  The suspect escaped Japan and returned home to Korea, but then upon learning that his CCTV photo was splashed all over the Japanese news, he went back to Japan to see what the fuss was about, and got himself arrested.  We are not dealing with a top-of-the-class mind here, folks.

But it doesn’t end there. Outside a Korean consular office in Japan last week, workers found a box.  With an attached ominous note signed by a very conservative (read: anti-Korean) group along the lines of “here’s payback for the shrine bombing.”  The local bomb squad was immediately called and they carefully did bomb-squad stuff, which eventually led to the actual opening of the box which led to a terrible smell…of poop.  It was not a bomb.  It was a box of dried poop.  (Whether human or animal was not known at press time.)  POOP, people! How a poop delivery fairly retaliates for a smoke bomb is well beyond my ability to understand. 

(2)   Military Commemoration: When Art Misses the Mark.

In August, two South Korean soldiers doing foot patrol along the demilitarized zone (our border with North Korea) stepped on land mines, which resulted in three of their combined 4 legs being violently removed.  Of course, suspect #1 was North Korea, and the two countries were closer to resuming war than they had been in years (the Korean War was never won or lost, you might remember, which means the delicate truce gets threatened all the time by things like whose boats were too close to whose islands and who floated propaganda over whose border in big balloons). 

Anyway.  This week's news featured a ceremonial unveiling of artwork meant to honor these brave-but-amputated soldiers.  One can imagine the thought that would go into such an important statement and the careful consideration of design and meaning.  The resulting sculpture, commemorating the soldiers' sacrifice and a physical symbol of the ongoing process of reunifying the torn Korean peninsula is (drum roll here)… a severed leg.  A human leg.  And, perhaps even worse in the “You have to be joking" category, this $200,000 bronze sculpture is called… “The Foot of Peace”  Really.  I would not, could not, make this up.  Just imagine the t-shirts that the soldiers could sell during DMZ tours: “I got my leg(s) blown off and all I got was a memorial to peace (piece!) in the form of a severed human leg.”  Oh, the photo opportunities this will provide for generations of Koreans with their selfie-sticks. 

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Am I too hard on this little country that came from abject poverty to fastest-internet-on-the-planet in just 50 years?  Perhaps I am.  On the other hand, in a world of terrorism and school shootings and Donald Trump, it’s kind of nice to live in a land where poop and foot-statues are important things to report.