Category Archives: Essays

The function of Art in Korea

Art and culture in Korea tends to be a product for consumption, and increasingly a commodity. To have art on the wall is a way of showing others that one has more money, that one is more sophisticated, demonstrating that one is from a higher class. And sadly that culture, that art has been overwhelmingly Western because the West is assumed to be superior.

The problem is rather how does one establish a strong identity for Koreans? The solution is not a simple question of elementary school teachers telling students how great King Sejong was, or stressing how much feeling (정) Koreans have. The primary issue is rather for Koreans to see their culture, their art, as being something more than a commodity. Culture should not be something static, something that one “possesses” like bars of gold. Korean culture is not merely a collection of habits, ideas and patterns collected over 5000 years of history. That sort of culture is more the storage vault of an art museum.

The full range of that culture must be presented constantly for the present day, constantly reinterpreted for citizens of contemporary Korea. But making it modern does not mean making it into a commodity, something that can be sold to anyone. That sort of vivid reinterpretation of Korea’s past to meet the needs of the present is what is most sadly missing around us.

There are several ways to make Korean identity more vital. Let me provide one. If Koreans see that their lives are a model for what others do in other countries, that if Koreans care for the environment, are not wasteful and are not corrupt, that people in Vietnam, and Mongolia and Uzbekistan will see that model and emulate it (or vice versa will copy Korea’s worst habits). Then culture becomes something ethical, something bigger than just consuming for pleasure.

Korean cultural identity is what is produced in the process of applying the full range of Korea’s past to address the new challenges of the present day.

Being a Korean is the process of doing one’s best to find in the full complexity of culture and history parts that will make a better future. The sense of history, of mission, and of purpose can transform Korea and its identity. But it cannot be done by building big monuments to dead people. That past must be interpreted for the present, and above all for young people.


Multicultural Korea

Koreans must take control of their own historical and geographical narrative and create our own history by reading the past against the present, projecting the truths hidden in previous experience onto the challenges of the current day so as to help us to understand the complexity of past culture. But we must avoid falling back, out of laziness, on a simple form of cultural determination, or a racist or ethnic purity argument.

We live in an extremely uncertain time when economic disruptions are going to make people’s lives more stressful and more painful. There will be a profound need to belong to something, to find something simple that connects us all now that we have drifted so far apart. Without any doubt, arguments about how we are all one people, with one blood, will be immensely popular for many and there are already signs of an anti-foreigner mood in some places in Korea. Those trends are dangerous, if they are perhaps inevitable. But Korea is not in a position to accept such arguments, no matter how pleasing they may sound. Korea has an extremely low birth rate and will need the help of its increasing multi-ethnic citizenship.

There is simply no way for Korea to turn to such an isolationist xenophobic culture. What we need, rather, to expand Korean culture to include people from other nations, to make the traditions of Korea universal 보편적 and accessible. Korean identity must evolve and expand to include those newcomers and in that process of changing will Korean identity be produced.

“The New Colossus” and hope for an open society

On the “New Colossus”

Emanuel Pastreich

January 28, 2017

Fred Lang was so kind as to share Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus” this evening with me. I had been thinking about the decisions of the so-called “Trump Administration” to build walls around the United States and to start to block the immigration of people to the United States from Muslim nations. Fred picked exactly the right poem to give a glitter of hope.

This poem is inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty and has embodied a noble part of the American tradition for the last 150 years. Of course the racist and xenophobic tradition has also a long history in the United States, and the two strands of American culture have alternated since the Civil War.

One of the reasons that the Trump people are able to run over their opposition is that so many of the words that made the best of the United States have been detached from institutions and people. The words on the Statue of Liberty, or on the Capitol Building, have been reduced to mere words. Few today have fought or sacrificed for the constitution, the Statue of Liberty or other higher values for so long time. There are of course people suffering for the cause of freedom today, but they are almost invisible in the eyes of most people. The recent national prison strike was completely ignored by almost everyone I know in the United States.

Emma Lazarus was an American poet of German Jewish origins who took a deep interest in the sufferings of Jews in Eastern Europe. The title of her poem, “The New Colossus” suggests the contradictions of the United States. On the one hand, there was a confidence that something new and more humane could be achieved here. But of course “colossus” also suggests the pomp and arrogance of Rome, the imperial disease.

The New Colossus


Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

I cannot help thinking of Percy B. Shelley’s sonnet “Ozymandias” about imperial arrogance. In any case, today it seems as if Emma Lazarus’ poem is now up for grab—an opportunity for any one, any group, or any country who is ready to stand up for the huddled masses and offer hope to our torn world.

Emma Lazarus


For those who wish to understand the psychology of climate change denial and the process by which various interest groups conspire to suppress massive unpleasant truths, please read Issac Asimov’s 1941 classic “Nightfall.” The short story describes how the inhabitants try to suppress all discussion of an eclipse of all six suns that are visible from the planet. The eclipse creates complete chaos on the planet and the destruction of the civilization. But despite the efforts of one well-meaning figure, there is nothing that can be done to stop the denial, nor the eventual destruction.

‘My columns may have been a little rough,

but I gave you people the benefit of the

doubt every time. After all. This is
not the century to preach “The end of the
world is at hand” to Lagash. You have to
understand that people don’t believe the
Book of Revelations anymore, and it
annoys them to have scientists turn
about face and tell us the Cultists are right
after all — ‘

Isaac Asimov

You can read the full text at:

Technology, human consciousness and climate change

I have spent a tremendous time working on this issue of climate change here and in the US over the last 15 years. Personally I am starting to think that somehow exponential technological change has hooked up with the brain stem, the reptile mind of humans and drawn into that emerging connected system human society at a level that is essentially invisible to individuals.

Therefore, although we all seem to be free, we are being marched to our own death. We are aware of this truth at a certain level, but because we have bought into this mechanized consumer society at a level below consciousness, we cannot shake it off through policy or through politics. The only hope would be to modify habits, but there is not much time left for that.
The reason we cannot step back is that the technology is helping to shut down our own self-preservation instincts and our ability to engage in long-term planning. How? It is sort of like rubbing the belly of an alligator. It is the weakness of humans. Certain patterns just draw us in.

The Asia Institute has emphasized from its foundation, the most important issue is the combination of exponential evolution of technology, the change in the climate and the change in international relations (how humans around the world interact with each other). As opposed to other think tanks who feed you lies and distractions.

The bane of “shrimpism” in Korea

What does Korea have to do in this year of crisis and challenge? Well, of course we can go back to the joke about the elephant:

“What do you do if you are an elephant stuck in quicksand?”
“First, stop being an elephant!”
All too true, but perhaps before anything else Korea must move beyond “Saewooism” (saeuism 새우이즘), the belief that Korea is just a weak victim of the actions of other powers. The term is translated into English as “shrimpism.” Of course it is true that Korea is profoundly influenced by other powers’ decisions. But this fact is so obvious that there is no reason to mention it. Rather it is a good use of Korean’s time to come up with honest and brave proposals for what can be done together.

Here is a proposal for a new flag for “shrimpism”


Two remarkable quotes cited by Hope May at tonight’s Asia Institute Seminar on peace, history and memory

Tonight’s seminar by Hope Elizabeth May brought together a collection of academics, diplomats, reporters and concerned citizens for a deeper consideration of what is necessary for true peace in Korea and in Northeast Asia. Dr. May focused on the tradition of peace making that dates back to the Hague Conference of 1907. The seminar suggested how the history of peace, and the tradition of “positive history” could inspire us to use our imaginations to come up with new solutions to today’s challenges.




She Hope May professor of philosophy at Central Michigan University, cited two remarkable quotes.

“The world progresses, in the slow and halting manner in which it does progress, only in proportion to the moral energy exerted by the men and women living in it.”

Jane Addams

Nobel Peace Prize Winner


“Souls interact across time and space. The decisions people make in a difficult hour, the principles they either abide by or abandon in moments of truth, have consequences not just for their own lives, but well beyond.”

Natan Saransky

Soviet dissident

Defining “Trumpism”

Please let me be the first to coin the word for politics and diplomacy “trumpism.”

Trumpism consists of doing something so far out of left field that it confuses your opponents and allows you to take control of the situation. Trump’s suggestion that he might meet the leader of North Korea, like his enthusiastic reaching out to Putin, is typical of this strategy. But I would like to say it is an extremely high-risk approach and is unlikely to be successful in the long run.

‘Trump may meet N. Korean leader soon’

Korea Times


Professors and teaching

As teachers we should be committed to conveying truth and

wisdom to our students. To give them facts to students and ask them to repeat them

is not teaching and it is not education.

You might say that a ritualistic approach to education is a disservice to

students because it suggests that there is no greater meaning to what they read and write than the numerical grade that they receive. In fact, we should teach in such a manner that it is clear to students that knowledge without

ethical commitment and action is like blood in the veins without a beating heart and breathing lungs.


Nowhere is this problem more evident than in the case of climate change.

I talk about climate change in all my classes to some degree and I am increasing forcing myself to bring the topic up with people I meet.

Although that requires a certain degree of bravery.

More than a little. Two people whom I gave my “Stop Climate Change” pins to

then proceeded to leave them behind on the table when they left–never having put them on.

But I wonder whether a teacher who never speaks of the ethical responsibilities of the student is playing a role as a teacher.


Love and Consumer Culture

We cannot talk about sex and love without considering consumer culture. The explosion in the circulation of things since the industrial revolution, and especially over the last decade has made everything a target for consumption. Humans are no exception and we consume each other as products (saying to ourselves, as we are taught by the mass media, that it is “love”). But in fact we care much less about each other because we do not have the time or inclination.

Remember that the Romantic movement came with the industrial revolution. It was both an attempt to escape from the horror of what Walter Benjamin called “the age of mechanical reproduction” resulting from the industrial revolution and the “great transformation” remaking human society and also a product thereof. Ironically many efforts to find something human and natural that gives shelter from a world gone mad with consumption are themselves products of that trend. Starbucks is the perfect example. A cozy space that seems more human, more natural, closer to a world we wish existed. But Starbucks, or the I Phone are as much a product of that ruthless mechanical reproduction (and now mechanical consumption) as anything.

I have not seen much discussion of the linkage of the various disturbing trends in our society, in our politics, to the rate of technological change. But I would argue that if we cannot see that link, we cannot see anything at all.