Category Archives: Essays

THAAD as a totem

Watching recent reporting about the planned US missile-defense system THAAD being deployed in South Korea,  the debate is completely absent any attempt to consider what exactly the function of THAAD is and what its role is in the true security of South Korea. In fact, there is almost no discussion about whether a missile attack from North Korea is likely at all, or what other security threats might be out there. It seems rather that THAAD has become a totem (bad or good) before which one prays in the hope that it will bestow magical powers.





Changes so slow they are invisible to us

Sadly, people cannot perceive slow changes in our society. Because they do not study history, or read books for that matter, the “coup in slow motion” is all but invisible for most citizens, and most intellectuals, having been reduced to the sellers of wears, rather than the leaders of a broad social discourse, can do virtually nothing.

Back to the stone age

Emanuel Pastreich 

April 9, 2017 



Of course we may end up back in the stone age as a result of nuclear war. I certainly would not rule that out. but there is another possibility. Perhaps this final cycle in the evolution of technology will lead us back to the culture of the hunter-gathers. 


We are witnessing the 4th industrial revolution, a process by which the entire act of making tools is being automated and spread around the world. We are at risk of losing human control of the process of manufacturing itself as computers expand their capacity. The disruption such a change is making in our society is so immense that it is hard for us to grasp it.


If humans are no longer needed to manufacture, what will be left for us?


One can see the automation of production as the start of a post- modern world, but in a sense we are returning to the stone age. If we are left out of the cycle of manufacturing tools, then we are just like the hunter gatherers of prehistoric times, even if the world around us is radically different. Technology is no longer our possession. Perhaps we are possessed by technology, or perhaps not.

The real mistakes of socialism

Here is a short list of what I think were the major mistakes made in socialist approaches to addressing poor distribution of wealth and other contradictions


Lack of spiritual engagement, denial that human experience must have a spiritual depth and therefore only reinforcing a materialist perspective, even while trying to redistribute wealth (thus assuming basic values of capitalism)

1) Emphasis on monetary value. Assuming value can be converted into cash, into numbers

2) Embrace of an industrial society and assumption that the organization of the industrailized society is the best

3) Lack of recognition for, and approval of,  traditional ways of living and their wisdom.

4) Assuming the myth of modernity as an absolute break and a modern life is absolutely superior

5) Ignoring impact of industry or policy on the environment.

6) Ignoring the role of local government and of local village economies

7) Allowing for a centralization of the economic structures that made it easy for people to take over large units, privatize them and become billionaires overnight. The failure of socialism to build in guards against this abuse was a big mistake.

8) Lack of balance of powers between different parts of government to avoid concentration of power in one institution
9) Mistaken assumption that because markets are exploitative that there is no use for markets.

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”