President Moon’s visit to Pyongyang and his summit with Chairman Kim Jong-un altered the cultural and political landscape of the Korean Peninsula even further than the Panmunjom summit, and most likely ushered in a permanent shift in how Koreans conceive of themselves. So deep are the changes that they remain still invisible to Koreans caught up in the process.
Since the meeting, the media in Seoul has broadcast shows introducing the unique cuisine of North Korea and Naver Maps has, for the first time, started to give some details about downtown Pyongyang on its website. The door seems to be open at last for real exchange in a manner that was not true before, even though sanctions are in place that are meant to block all economic interaction. It has been a weird moment in history for all parties.
But the meeting between Moon and Kim was not a meeting between ordinary people. For all the goodwill, ordinary people in the South are still blocked from visiting the North. The exchange was limited to high government officials and the representatives of corporations. In fact, the process by which plans are being laid down for investment in North Korea remains opaque and there have not been any serious demands in South Korea for a full disclosure of what agreements have been signed. Certainly no one is talking about environmental impact.
Korean citizens, or NGO groups, or experts on North Korea who do not have ties to big money are not engaged in this dialog. And big money is not interested in the lives of ordinary people in North or South Korea.
I found the manner in which President Moon conducted his visit to Pyongyang in September rather odd. Moon and his wife Kim Jung-sook arrived in Pyongyang where they were greeted by Kim Jong-un, Chairman of the Worker’s Party of Korea, and his sister Kim Yo-jong, Vice Director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Workers’ Party of Korea. As a foreigner watching, it looked as if the kings and queens of two monarchies were meeting up after a long hiatus, as if two princes had been reunited at last.
There is tremendous value to be gained if the leaders of the two countries hold hands and hug as if they were brothers. But such scenes were repeated over and over until I felt it went too far. Moon is a democratically elected representative of South Korea and even if Kim Jung-un runs his country like a monarchy, Moon should have stepped back after the first few photographs and explained that his mandate is limited.
I do not think the problem was simply that North Korea has different customs. Rather, in this age of increasing concentration of wealth, the model of royalty is taking over society. Television programs focus on families who are extremely wealthy and act like royalty.
The focus on personalities cannot be separated from the neo-feudalistic thinking that is creeping through the political establishment around the world today.
As assets are increasingly concentrated in the hands of a tiny number of people, and at an increasing rate, we see figures around the world emerging as king-like figures because they have the support of the super-rich, not because they are supported by the people. Today, the eight richest people have the same wealth as the bottom 50 percent, a distortion unprecedented in human history. Politicians like Trump, are billionaires themselves. Average South Koreans were excluded from the process of unification by shifts in the nature of the Korean economic structure that are never reported on in the media.
Korean society is increasingly split between ordinary people and those who live in the VIP lane. It becomes natural for the Blue House to try to appeal to the storyline of person who has such social authority. Maybe the powers that be felt as if they had to do so. But such a move by Moon shows a tremendous shift from what we saw when he tried to associate himself with ordinary citizens during the candlelight demonstrations saying he was the “Candlelight Revolution president” who would be accessible to citizens in the streets of Seoul.
And of course the Pyongyang Summit was taking place under the assumption that somehow a legitimate American president had presented a true commitment to unification of the Korean Peninsula. But Donald Trump’s administration is using the summits as cover for one of the most dangerous turns in world history. While the Korean newspapers were filled with stories about engagement with Pyongyang, and then with the controversy concerning the appointment of the far-right Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, the United States threatened to attack Russia itself (in comments made by the U.S. ambassador to NATO Kay Hutchison) and and conducted “freedom of navigation” operations that led to a near collision in the South China Sea.”
Moreover, the report released by the Pentagon in September entitled “Assessing and Strengthening the Manufacturing and Defense Industrial Base and Supply Chain Resiliency of the United States” suggests that the American economy be restructured in preparation for a war with China or Russia. We cannot help but worry that the peace process is an enormous distraction from a far more dangerous turn in American policy.
I felt that the trip to Pyongyang was meant to be a festival for media consumption. The deep intellectual content was sadly lacking, as was the analysis in the media. I did not sense in the speeches a deep vision of what was required for Koreans to succeed or a concern for the harsh reality that Koreans in the North and in the South face every day.
The most telling revealing moment in Moon Jae-in’s photo-ops with Kim Jong-un was on the shores of the sacred Lake Cheonji (Heaven Lake) that rests in an extinct volcano on the border of Korea and China. This lake, a sacred space from ancient times, represents for Koreans that deep bond between heaven, nature and man that ties them to the land. The location was perfect for a profoundly symbolic act that would set the stage for the future.
President Moon knelt at the edge of the lake and pulled out a plastic bottle he had brought with him. He filled the bottle with the sacred water from Heaven Lake and announced that he was taking it back to South Korea. It was the perfect symbolic moment for this historic meeting.
But what did that plastic bottle symbolize? After all, it was not a metal or glass bottle, or a ceramic vase from the Goryo Dynasty.
Such plastic bottles can be found everywhere in South Korea today. Drinking fountains have all but vanished from public spaces in South Korea and most everyone is forced to buy bottled water. Whether at restaurants, or in subway stations, drinking fountains have vanished in the holy pursuit of greater profits.
Many families drink bottled water from plastic bottles at home as well. Advertising campaigns have convinced people that one must purchase bottled water, hundreds of times more expensive than tap water, to protect one’s family’s safety.
But the whole campaign is a fraud, or at the least it is a rip off. If high standards are maintained for the quality of water available to the public, public drinking water will be at least as safe and as healthy as bottled water. Providers of bottled water can conceal issues regarding the quality of water more easily than can municipal water systems. So the risk is greater because of the secrecy.
The water bottles for sale use plastics that take hundreds of years to biodegrade and that are poisonous for our environment. They are disposed of in landfills, or dumped into the ocean, by people unaware that they damage the earth and water, and are made from 100 percent imported petroleum. Moreover, shipping water in bottles is expensive, wastes energy, and creates unnecessary financial burdens for citizens.
The private control of water has become a global growth industry, often whitewashed by corporations as environmental awareness or health awareness. In fact, we are looking at a common good, water, which is being privatized for the profit of a tiny number of wealthy investors.
The most disturbing significance of Moon’s decision to use that plastic bottle to scoop up the waters of Heaven Lake was that he did not mean the act to have significance at all. He most likely was only thinking about the symbolic value of taking the water back home. The bottle did not even cross his mind as an issue.
That is how completely invisible the privatization of public goods has become in South Korea; that is how completely unaware South Koreans are of the negative impact of the use of plastic on the environment, and on their own health. It is common for even Koreans involved in environmental movements to use throwaway plastic without giving it a thought. We have become pathologically alienated from our own environment.
But that ignorance is not innocent. We can easily imagine corporations stepping in to privatize water in North Korea, signing contracts to offer bottled water to the elite in Pyongyang and to encourage an irrational fetishism about brands in North Korea similar to what is found in the rest of consumer Asia. I feared that rather than the pure water of Heaven Lake being transported back to Seoul, that the disease of consumption culture