Making Connections: An Expat’s Journey Through Korean History, Politics and Economics

By Taryn Assaf

As expats, and as English teachers, many of us come to Korea not too long after we’ve finished university. At university, our lives are often transformed. We become familiar with the workings of the world- its histories, tragedies, victories and complexities. For some of us, it contributes to a richer understanding of our place in the world, and offers us a chance to reflect on how our lives are situated in a complex web of relationships that affects everyone. Many of us become politicized during this time, leading to our first taste of activism – a taste we may long for but cannot find once we’ve moved to Korea. The combination of new sights, smells, sounds, tastes and experiences in Korea can certainly overwhelm a new, or even seasoned, expat. In Korea, as with any place in the world, the experiences we have as expats are not separate from the history of our host nation, nor are they separate from its culture, politics, and economics. They are part of the complicated grid of relationships between events that have culminated to create everything we see and do. Understanding our place among those relationships necessarily requires us to delve into the history, culture, politics and economics of this great country.

Despite a constant overwhelming of the senses, I’ve spoken to many expats who desire a deeper, richer understanding of the country they now call home. They come here as politicized subjects and quickly realize that their social capital and access to resources have slimmed to a sliver of what they used to be back home. Without speaking the language or knowing what resources exist, accessing the knowledge to facilitate that desire becomes difficult- if not impossible. Amid many other easily accessible opportunities, the yearning to seek out opportunities in the political realm is swiftly swept under the rug- unless it conveniently presents itself.

I was in Korea for about 5 months, and despite rushing headlong into anything that came my way, that yearning remained. It was then that, through the blessing that is the internet, I came into contact with an individual from the International Strategy Center (ISC). For the past nine months, I have been lucky enough to participate with their media team as a writer and blogger, as well as to experience the culture of Korea by learning about its history, politics and economics. I’ve been humbled by the opportunity to meet and speak with activists, politicians, farmers and workers and to share stories over food and drink. I’ve been dazzled by the beauty and serenity of the Korean countryside as I traveled around the country. I’ve been inspired through demonstrations, conferences, songs and speeches to continue showing solidarity with the struggles facing the Korean people. And after the weekend of November 22nd, 2013, when I attended a workshop by the ISC titled “Korean Culture, History, Politics and Economics,” I have been able to reflect upon my place within it all.

The workshop was a three-day intensive study, with four lectures, 2 field trips, and plenty of discussions. Although I was familiar with much of the topics discussed, I was also introduced to much new information. The lectures were a unique opportunity for our new guests to analyze the topics, to reflect and to gain new insights.

Haesook Kim, Director of the ISC, guided us through 5000 years of Korean history, focusing on the struggles and uprisings that shaped Korea with a focus on modern history. She began her presentation with an important reminder. “We must make history the cornerstone of our future,” she said, and went on to enlighten us on the three kingdoms, highlighting how each legacy contributed to modern Korean culture. I began to connect how certain occurrences of the past are, indeed, very much present. For instance, she spoke of the Silla kingdom, which developed Korea’s rich culture, much of which we marvel at today; she spoke of Koryo (고려), which traded extensively with other countries resulting in the use of the name Korea; and she spoke of Chosun, founded on Confucianism, which informs the family values and gender relations of many Koreans today. History has acted as the cornerstone for countless aspects of modern Korean culture, and continues to drive its evolution. I began to think about how I got here. What historical events necessitated the development of such a robust English language sector in this county?

Min-A Kim, Chair of Policy for the Arts Collective for a New Era, explained the history of Korean economics before exploring Korea’s current economic policy under neoliberalism. How did Korea develop its technology sector? she asked. With nothing but curious eyes attending to her question, she began to explain two major events- the democracy movement of June 1987, and the general workers strike that occurred from July to September of that year. The strike saw the establishment of independent trade unions and was an enormous victory for workers who had, for decades, earned extremely low wages working in factories. Workers could no longer be exploited as they had been in the industrial era, and so the economy began shifting into the higher value added technology industries. With the success of the technology industry, Korea’s economy gradually became less dependent on the U.S, which had been supplying it with economic aid. In 1997, foreign investors pulled their money out of the country within a month and the U.S simultaneously demanded that Korea pay back all of its debts. This “tactic” has been used in many countries, including Mexico and Brazil, as a way to coerce nations into adopting a neoliberal system of economics. In Korea, it lead to a liquidity crisis. With no money to pay back its debts, Korea had no choice but to enter into agreements with the IMF and World Bank, ushering in an era of neoliberalism which guides economic policies to this day. I began to wonder, how is the Korean and world economy connected to my role as an English teacher? Am I somehow supporting neoliberalism through that role?

Yeon Wook Chung, Chairman of the YongSan Region Committee of the Justice Party, explored the last 25 years of Korean politics as a window into the lives of Koreans while highlighting the progress and regression of Korean democracy. The most poignant part of his lecture was his investigation of Korea’s social problems. Korea is top rated among all OECD countries for suicide, divorce, car crashes, work hours, poverty among the elderly, cosmetic surgery (with 1 out of 5 women having had it) intestine and stomach cancer and low birth rate. People in every age bracket are stressed, he says. As children they are pressured to study, as young adults they are stressed by a shrinking job market, as adults they become economically sandwiched between supporting their children’s and their parents’ futures, and as they grow older they must worry about retirement. He says the growing social and economic divides are exemplified by these occurrences. Ten percent of the population controls forty percent of the assets in this country. As the income gap increases, so too does social inequality. A cycle of dependency is created when people are unable to meet their economic needs, leading to a life of stress and a society filled with less than praise-worthy number ones. I paused, How has my role as an English teacher contributed to the stress of individual students and whole families? How am I implicated in the continuation of these social problems?

Jeong-Eun Hwang, Director of Communications for the ISC, discussed the role of the ISC, specifically its organization, works, vision and direction. Her message brought everything together. “It is not about what knowledge we gain,” she said, “it’s about what we do with that knowledge. How can we put our knowledge into action?” One of the ways that she and the ISC accomplish this is by “seeing things as they really are.” The world is being crushed by neoliberalism. Economies are crashing. Poverty and inequality are rising. So they engage with the issues, they create solidarity among struggling groups and they study alternatives. In February 2014, they will travel to Venezuela for the second time to further research what these alternatives can look like.

Personally, I participate, I listen, I share and I write.  I’m trying to place myself within Korea’s robust history and determine the implications that English teaching may have on the future of this society. I’m continuing to think through my role as an educator in an industry necessitated by unequal global power relationships and fueled by the maintenance of that system. I’m starting to understand how I’m positioned within the totem pole of stress that contributes to the country’s suicide and cancer rates. And I don’t have the answers, nor do I know if answers are really what matter. But I know there are connections, and that to put my knowledge into action is to continue discovering the connections that bring us together and challenging those that pull us apart. To see things as they really are, as Jeong-Eun challenged us to do. I try to always be aware of my place in the vast grid of relationships that have contributed to the rich set of experiences I’ve had in Korea. And now I’d like to challenge you to better understand Korea, and through that journey, to better understand yourself.


A sign of struggle: the Gwangju uprising and the politics of symbolism

By Taryn Assaf

Since the tragic incident that befell the citizens of Gwangju, South Korea, in May of 1980, events commemorating this time have stood as a symbol of strength, unity and power among citizens throughout the country. Subsequent revolutions, such as the democracy movement of 1987 and various workers movements have drawn upon the Gwangju uprising as a symbol of the fight for democracy. Although the uprising did not directly lead to democracy in Korea, it is still heralded as a leading example of the fight against oppression in the name of human rights.

A commemoration continues every year on May 18 to honor the uprising and its historical place in the lineage of Korean democratization. A variety of festivals and cultural events fill the historic Geunnamro- the street upon which the battles between citizen and soldier were fought- for the purpose of educating people about the uprising under the theme of remembrance. A variety of stalls line the street, some promoting various political causes and charities, some offering the opportunity to make Gwangju-themed woodblock art and others dressed in sketches of political satire. Cheers and songs can be heard in the distance from groups rallying for workers rights; indeed, the feeling is light and jovial. Smiles can be seen on the faces of most- and the energy is emblematic of a spirit that was first ignited in May of 1980.

The mood at the May 18 Cemetery is much more somber, as it reflects the tragedy of lives lost. The cemetery is divided into two: the old and the new. After the massacre in 1980, the bodies of the deceased were buried in what is now considered the “old/unofficial” cemetery. However, the “old/unofficial” cemetery also contains the bodies of those who struggled for democratization in the years leading to the June Uprising in 1987: students and activists who self-immolated in public displays of protests or were kidnapped and tortured to death in their efforts to expose the truth about the Korean and American government’s involvement in the massacre. These people were buried in the same cemetery as those who died from direct involvement in 1980. However, in 1997 the bodies of those who died in the uprising (as well as those who died in the direct aftermath from physical or mental injuries) were exhumed and moved to the “new/official” cemetery. The Memorial Hall Museum and the 40-foot Memorial Tower were also built there, while the bodies of those who died in the years following the uprising were kept in the humble fields behind the new project. The two cemeteries came to represent two different aspects of the uprising: the new, designed to represent a commemoration of past sacrifices and the old marked by the symbolism of a continuing struggle. Interesting to note is the suggestion evident in the process of naming. Equating “new” with “official” and “old” with “unofficial” serve to influence popular conception of the significance of the different actors involved in the uprising, their place in history, their ideologies and their legacies. Two separate ceremonies for 2013 were held in honor of the uprising and those lost, although they marked a significant difference in the approach to commemorating the tragedy. While both ceremonies were attended by family members of the deceased and members of the general public, the official ceremony at the new cemetery was also attended by Heads of State, while the unofficial ceremony at the old cemetery, was attended by labor unions, student groups and activists.  The divergent themes expressed in both ceremonies symbolized an acute polarization of opinion regarding the present meaning of the Gwangju uprising and the state of human rights in Korea, thereby coming to represent two different interpretations of democracy: one in which democracy has been fought for and attained, and the other in which democracy has yet to be fully achieved. The question lingers: does the uprising live as a historical memory or as a present example of the people’s struggle?

At the official ceremony, a large stage in front of Memorial Tower was centered in between large screens and was wired with speakers, microphones and cameras; facing the stage and the tombs lining the hill behind it were hundreds of chairs reserved for guests, including politicians (Park Geun-Hye, the country’s conservative president, being the most notable), families of those killed in the uprising and members of the public. Police presence was particularly acute, with hundreds of officers lining gates and the sidelines of the ceremony. Dozens of police buses narrowed the streets surrounding the cemetery, as if warning some unseen enemy. It seemed odd, indeed ironic, to so heavily secure a memorial for the deaths of those who had fought to overcome heavy security. Nevertheless, this was the ceremony the country would see via mainstream media coverage, thus the mood was kept somber and serious; the set up, careful and elaborate; the surveillance, pervasive and intimidating. Movement was limited, as those who left the ceremony were not allowed re-entry. Taken together, the character of this arrangement was representative of the government’s efforts to control the attendance, program, and perception of the ceremony and the carefully managed themes chosen to symbolize it. This was especially evident in the Park government’s decision to exclude the singing of the song “March for the Beloved” in the ceremony, a song composed in 1981 in memory of the uprising. The song has since been sung at many, if not most, protests organized by labor unions and progressives as a symbol of the spirit of democracy. However, past and present conservative governments have viewed the song as “controversial”, indicating a conflict of ideologies that led to its planned exclusion in this year’s ceremony. After protests and an occupation at the entrance of the memorial park, the government’s final decision was a compromise: the song would be sung by a choir and whoever chose to could sing along; President Park chose not to.

Park did try to offer some words of encouragement in a speech, saying that “the ultimate goal of democracy is to ensure the happiness of the people.” The implications of this statement became unclear as she continued, “It is time to change the economic paradigm from that of one oriented toward quantitative growth to qualitative growth and to expand democracy from the social and political sphere to the realm of the economy.” This statement shifts the focus of the democratic pursuit from social/political to economic, insisting that democracy should no longer focus solely on liberating society and politics from its oppressors, but on liberating the economy from its as well[1]. This implication takes precedence away from current issues blocking peoples’ and workers’ rights- many of which stem from neoliberal economic policies- towards bolstering the conservative polity and a denial of rights violations, past and present, as they link to government and economy. The bloody massacre was inherently tied to government and economy, as it was supported by the Carter administration in order to ensure American investments in Korea, investments dependent on the preservation of the Chun Doo-Hwan government. Had the government been successfully overthrown by the uprising, it would have cost American investors millions of dollars of potential profits. The American government has never taken responsibility for their involvement in the massacre, leading many to believe that “the Gwangju issue is a U.S issue; it has not yet been solved,” as declared by one man to a crowd boycotting the official ceremony. Park’s recent visit to the U.S, where she and President Obama reaffirmed their commitment to the market economy, begs one to question her definition of “happiness” and how the issue of the economy is relevant at such a memorial. Many have also accused the President of not understanding peoples’ struggles from a peoples’ perspective. As the daughter of Park Chun-Hee (the infamous dictator credited for the development of Korea’s tiger economy but criticized as a repressive leader who restricted many personal freedoms) and nicknamed a “princess”, she has described her father’s rule as being a “revolution to save the country” and has thus been criticized for not understanding the full scope of her father’s legacy, particularly the harm it caused many Korean citizens. The unwillingness to acknowledge the full scope of her father’s rule, the banning of the song and her statements in the ceremony leads to the troubling implication that she does not understand- nor does she seem interested in understanding- the spirit of the Gwangju uprising and the subsequent movements that have adopted this spirit into their own struggles. How can the happiness of the people be achieved if the president herself cannot recognize the existence of their struggle? Indeed, this idea was presented in the speech of one man at an overnight sit-in in front of the cemetery. On the eve of May 18, a number of activists, labor unions and citizens gathered outside the main gate of the cemetery (aptly named Democracy’s Gate) to boycott the coming ceremony in protest of the ban of “March for the Beloved”. Amidst the glow of candlelight, the song was sung by the crowd between short speeches criticizing the government’s decision. “The consciousness of May 18 is our struggle’s consciousness,” declared the man, who went on to say “the fact that she (Park Geun-Hye) banned the song proves the Gwangju spirit is not inside of her.” The Gwangju spirit is one that fights for democracy in the context of human rights, not the economy. Had the president visited the old cemetery, perhaps she could have experienced what it means to possess this spirit.

The “unofficial” ceremony at the old cemetery differed greatly from the new/official. Activists, journalists, labor unions, student groups, organizers, members of the public and families of the fallen mingled between the rows of graves which sloped downward toward a makeshift wooden stage against a backdrop of hundreds of tombstones sprawled over the tumbling fields of the Citizen’s Park behind it. Rather than police, the entrance to the cemetery was occupied by activists rallying to end worker’s rights abuses perpetrated by Samsung. No elaborate gates, museums or monuments decorated this cemetery, only the graves of martyrs and their altars telling their stories of sacrifice. As mentioned previously, most of those buried in this cemetery were those who died in the years after May 1980 in their pursuit to expose the truth of the uprising, as post-1980 Korea experienced a media blackout by Chun Doo-Hwan’s military government in hopes of suppressing the truth about their sanctioning of the massacre in order to maintain tight control on the nation and discourage any further uprisings. The cemetery therefore represented a continuation of the struggle – the continued fight for justice, truth and democracy. As groups traversed the rows of graves to pay their respects and offer moments of silence, Jeon Tae-Sam, brother of the late Jeon Tae-Il, who, in 1970, self-immolated in the name of worker’s rights and has since become the symbol of the Korean labor movement, spoke about his role in organizing workers and supporting workers rights.  He spoke of the importance of working together as people on the path towards social justice. His words echoed the spirit of the dead and were reminiscent of the current obstacles to securing people’s rights in Korea and abroad.

The keynote speaker to this ceremony was chairman Oh Jeong-Ryul (오종렬) who has been a leading figure in the pursuit of bringing truth to the happenings of May 18 since his involvement in 1980. He spoke passionately about the vital need for peace and re-unification in the context of the Gwangju uprising. “We need peoples’ and workers’ liberation,” he said, adding “The divided people must become one again. We must re-unify for the people of Gwangju.” He explained that the labeling tactics used against Gwangju citizens as “rebels”, “rioters”, “mobsters”, “communists” and “North Korean sympathizers” were used by the government to delegitimize the uprising and shift popular support away from a revolutionary ideology. This could not have been possible in a unified Korea. This process of labeling continues today, he went on, and thus it is as important as ever to continue to fight for justice -for peace- through re-unification. In a video letter (the transcript of which you can download here) addressed to a gathering of Korean-Americans and those concerned about Korean peace and reunification, he described the cemetery as “filled with the democratic yearnings of our people”, a statement that aptly captures the symbolic nature of the ceremony and the old cemetery which houses it each year. “March for the Beloved” was also sung numerous times and in several formats (one with the accompaniment of a clarinet). In reference to the banning of the song, Oh criticized the Park government, shouting “How dare they ban it; for a democratic country we must respect the song and its meaning.” The ceremony thus came to represent much more than a remembrance of those lost; it represented an ongoing struggle for rights, peace and liberation, and in this way, embodied an interpretation of democracy that extends beyond the history of its achievement and emphasized that in remembering the sacrifices of the dead, we must not forget the struggles of the living; for the two are implicated in the same system of oppression that continues exploit the rights of human beings today.

Sometimes, ideas present themselves through the subtle nuances of signs and symbols. In order to understand those ideas and to question their implications, it is important to deconstruct the occurrences of our everyday existence. Just as a picture can say a thousand words, a single phrase, a common action or an organized event can house a thousand meanings. What people say (or don’t), how people behave (or misbehave) and what events are covered (or ignored) can speak volumes on an issue, if only we take the time to understand what they are saying. To begin understanding the state of democracy in Korea, we must look for signs of struggle where there seem to be none. We must examine events, people, words and actions to discover what democracy means and what achieving it entails. The May 18 memorial ceremonies, both official and unofficial, symbolized two differing democratic ideologies that presented themselves through their different interpretations of the meaning of the Gwangju uprising- one places the achievement of democracy in the past while the other continues to seek its establishment. One can only hope that the legacies of those struggles continue to thrive through the actions that represent them, and that they are never, ever forgotten.

[1] It should be noted that many in the social movement are not opposed to the idea of economic democratization per se, but they do believe that Park’s notion is weak, skewed, contradictory, and ultimately unviable given the many private interests she needs to satisfy.