Category Archives: Today in Korea

Korea’s True Security Challenges (Essay)

Korea’s True Security Challenges

 July 20, 2017

Emanuel Pastreich


Decay of the media and of the decision-making process

The Korean peninsula faces a daunting array of security problems that will require tremendous efforts over the long term to overcome.  But the most serious security risk of all is the complete inability of the Korean people to understand what the real threats are that they face. The media, the entertainment industry and a vast culture of denial has combined forces to distract and misdirect the Korean people away from the real dangers of this age.

Koreans are told over and over by their newspapers and TV news that the greatest risk is of a nuclear missile being launched from North Korea which will destroy Seoul. In fact, North Korea’s military posture is entirely defensive and there is no chance that they would launch a missile at South Korea except as a response to an attack.

By contrast, Koreans are all but unaware of the collapse of the ecosystem in Northeast Asia, the death of the seas (and the fish that they depend on for food) as a result of warming waters, the spread of deserts and shortage of water which threaten to engulf the Korean Peninsula in an enormous desert stretching into central Asia. They have not even started planning for the rising oceans, a massive infrastructure project that will leave Korea with no budget to pay for fighter planes, tanks or other outdated military equipment.

 As opposed to the highly unlikely attacks from North Korea that are hyped in the privatized media, the threats to the environment are essentially 100% guaranteed.  So any consideration of the issue of security on the Korean Peninsula should start out by noting that most people in South Korea are fed a diet of fictions that makes it far more difficult for them to grasp what the dangers are. They are often convinced that North Korea is about to rain down nuclear weapons on them even though that it almost impossibility.

Nor is the death of the ecosystem the only threat that the Korean Peninsula faces.

The rising inequality in Korean, and East Asian, society is tearing the fabric of society apart and will lead to serious conflicts domestically and internationally in the next fifteen years. The media covers North Korea in a less objective manner because it is controlled by concentrated capital that makes tremendous profits from military defense systems. Sources for unbiased information about how the world works like newspapers and universities are so deeply linked to the stock market and the secret world of capital investments that they are incapable of articulating an alternative viewpoint.

Although Koreans are aware that the concentration of wealth, and the death of a public sector in Korean society over the last thirty years has led to greater inequality, they do not understand exactly how and they are not encouraged to think deeply about this crisis. Even extremely liberal groups do not offer opinions on the profound contradictions of a decadent industrialized society. They do not advocate that banks or telecommunications companies should be highly regulated public monopolies. But that assumption was common sense to liberals and conservatives in the 1950s.

The death of sources of information independent from the stock market and foreign investment banks, the death of local community groups that gave meaning to the lives of ordinary people through regular meetings, cooperative efforts and mutual aid has left many Koreans exposed and profoundly lonely. We can see this fact evident in the high suicide rate for both youth and the elderly.

Life has been taken over by a ruthless consumption- driven culture that holds up as the definition of “happiness” the immediate satisfaction of the individual through the eating, drinking or watching of things that give a short-term thrill. Even politics has been reduced to a popularity show with little interest in the details of policy, or long-term developments and overwhelming fascination with the latest statement on the social media.

Such an environment makes it impossible for citizens to even comprehend what “security” is about and the politicians have become babysitters who tell citizens what they want to hear. As the old saying goes, “the people do not want leaders, they want magicians.”

The careful analysis of social, environmental and economic factors that are destabilizing Northeast Asia has been replaced by sensationalism. The rise of the video game culture has played a role in this grotesque transformation of the public sphere. Many Koreans (and Japanese), including adults, spend their time playing video games that glorify ruthless military conflict and make it appear as if shooting guns and blowing people up is not only good fun, but solves all problems. This gaming culture makes so effort to explain how security has become a more complex problem, nor to draw attention to social inequity or the collapse of the ecosystem.  Video games suggest that it is split-second response that is critical for security. That myth is critical to the military industrial complex.

So the best business is pumping up the stock value of military contractors through articles that suggest that a new nuclear submarine, or THAAD anti-missile system will protect Korea even though there is no evidence that this is the case. The profits from building submarines or anti-missile systems are staggering  but there is no scientific evidence that they do anything but increase the risk of conflict. Sadly, Korea is being pulled in the direction of the United States economic system, a criminal state  in which a large percentage of wealth is siphoned off in the interests of “defense” to pay for useless weapons systems that make the rich richer. The media is happy to play its profitable role. IN fact, because the media in general offers so little of any use to ordinary citizens, this spinning of fantasies may be their only profitable role.

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Why Korea cannot put forth a Korean perspective?

Why Korea cannot put forth a Korean perspective?

July 22, 2017

Emanuel Pastreich


One of the great mysteries about Korea is why it is that although Seoul is full of many extremely educated and capable people with degrees from Harvard, Yale and Stanford, people who are extremely knowledgeable about topics from mechanical engineering to public policy and diplomacy, Korea is virtually incapable of advancing a Korean vision or perspective on current affairs. Extremely well-educated Koreans struggle with all their might to absorb and interpret the writings about North Korea and East Asia put out by American experts like Michael Green at CSIS or John Ikenberry at Princeton even though they have far greater understanding of the issues than those experts do.

The problem is much more serious today than ever before for the simple reason that Washington D.C. is incapable of making policy anymore. Paralyzed between a cabal of billionaires and their loyal minions who see the office of the presidency as a means to make large amounts of money and a professional class of bureaucrats and politicians who work for investment banks rather than for the national interest, Washington D.C. cannot formulate any long-term plans for itself, let alone respond meaningfully to recent developments in Japan, China or North Korea. Currently, the tendency in the United States is to paper over the increasing authoritarianism of the Abe administration, to present a caricature of Kim Jung Eun taken from a B movie and to make dark insinuations about a rising China threat at every opportunity. All this effort is linked to a deep level of denial about institutional decay in the United States itself.

South Korea has a more legitimate president than just about any other country and it has the expertise and the know-how to formulate its own policy and to make proposals for the future of East Asia. But if it relies on the United States and Japan to give it guidance, it will find itself increasingly at sea.

Why is it that Koreans have become so dependent on Western, particularly American, perspectives on economics, governance, security and diplomacy when Korea is far better positioned to put forth new approaches and launch initiatives, than the United States is? If we look at the question of engagement with China, there are far more Koreans who speak Chinese, who understand Chinese politics and economics in depth and who have a high level of education. And now with an isolationist and radically anti-intellectual Trump administration installed in Washington D.C., it should be the Koreans who are giving advice to Washington D.C., not the other way around. Read more of this post

“The Empire of Mathematics” (JoongAng Daily June 26, 2017)

JoongAng Daily

June 26, 2017

“The Empire of Mathematics”

Emanuel Pastreich


I am deeply disturbed when I hear my students speak about their futures and relate worries about what they will do.

It is not simply that they are not certain that they can find good jobs. Rather they feel that there is some hidden force beneath the surface that keeps reaching up to grab their feet. Korean society does not want to recognize that they have an innate value in themselves as humans.

It seems to be an inviolable law that whatever Koreans do must be converted into numbers and then ranked before its significance can be appreciated. Moreover, the ranking must be based on some objective criterion out there that is far from daily experience.

We do not judge people based on how they interact with those around them, or by how they contribute to our culture and to organizations through their daily activities. Rather we use mathematical equations to determine value: number of widgets sold, number of SSCI articles published, number of automobiles serviced.

Mathematics has become the final arbiter of value in Korea and any contributions that cannot be assessed in terms of quantity cannot be appreciated or recognized.

I think my students are confused because there is a terrible violence in Korean society of which they are unaware. The full complexity of human experience, the nuanced and multidimensional nature of one’s interactions with family, community and the natural world is constantly rendered into two-dimensions as a ranking, a single number on a scale that represents the worth of the individual, or of the institution or of the nation.

The original source of this drive for an artificial mathematical rendering of value stems from concerns that if Koreans are left to judge other Koreans, that corruption will inevitably set in and therefore mathematical assessment will be more objective.

This two-dimensional approach to the human experience has flattened it and left us feeling empty. Read more of this post

“Moon’s Checklist” (Korea Times June 28, 2017)

Korea Times

June 28, 2017

“Moon’s Checklist”

Emanuel Pastreich


At this point, I fear that such a breakthrough is impossible. The United States military does not take orders from the inexperienced and self-centered Trump, but gives them to him. The military is itself in the midst of enormous internal conflicts concerning what the United States will do in the coming months against Iran and Russia.

The recent demands of Saudi Arabia, with encouragement from the United States, that Qatar essentially give up its political and economic independence and end its relations with Turkey and Iran, seems eerily like the demands made by Austria, with encouragement from Germany, that Serbia surrender its independence in 1914. Those events a century ago led to the First World War and we should not underestimate the current risks.President Moon Jae-in has a tremendous task ahead of him as he gears up to meet President Trump at one of the most dangerous moments in recent history. It would be great if the two could have an honest talk about their nations’ interests, find common ground somewhere and move forward in an effort to reduce the tensions in the region.

Koreans are focused on the THAAD issue and how Korea can somehow navigate its way between Chinese and American demands, but perhaps the greater issue will be how Korea can keep from being swept up in the most immediately dangerous conflict in the Middle East and show definitively that it will not support any military action against Iran. I fear this question may not even be on the list of those preparing for the summit.

Above all, Moon must start a broad dialogue with a large swath of Americans about how Korea and the United States can work together in many fields, from education and public policy, to their responses to climate change and the establishment of international norms. This move may seem off topic, but it is much more likely to gain lasting support for Korea in the United States, as opposed to agreements with Trump that can be overturned by a Tweet.

Korea is a nation that has been devoted to multilateralism and to the establishment of global norms since the time of King Gojong and that tradition should be reflected in the actions of President Moon. He should harken back to America’s obligations to international treaties and global norms at every moment, even if such words are irritating to the Trump administration, or even to many mainstream American politicians. Read more of this post

“Post-summit syndrome and road forward” (Korea Times July 4, 2017)

Korea Times

“Post-summit syndrome and road forward”

July 4, 2017

Emanuel Pastreich


Some Koreans are congratulating themselves that President Moon Jae-in had such pleasant meetings with President Donald Trump at the White House. Certainly the two leaders affirmed the importance of the Korea-US alliance and they claimed that they are working closely together to respond to the North Korean threat.

But when President Trump spoke of the “exemplary nature of the US-ROK Alliance” it seemed so distant from what he had said previously as to raise serious doubts about whether such pleasantries mean much at all. President Trump’s willingness to let South Korea play a “leading role” in setting the stage for the peaceful unification of the Korean Peninsula may only last until the next presidential Tweet. Read more of this post

Aju Business Daily “Korea faces daunting array of security problems” May 9, 2017

Aju Business Daily

“Korea faces daunting array of security problems”

May 9, 2017

Emanuel Pastreich


The Korean peninsula faces a daunting array of security problems that will require tremendous efforts, especially long term, to overcome. The primary problem is not the threats themselves, however, but rather the complete inability of Koreans to conceive of those threats, or to respond to them in any meaningful manner.

The problem is true for those of both progressive and conservative political orientations. There is a very little concept of how serious a security challenge the collapse of the ecosystem or the rising inequality in Korean, and East Asian, society is becoming. In fact, even extremely liberal groups do not offer any opinions on the problems of industrialized society or the privatization of banks — issues that would have been taken quite seriously by even conservatives back in the 1950s.

A consumption- driven culture has taken over Korea for the last twenty years, a culture in which the immediate satisfaction of the individual through the eating, drinking or watching of things that give a short-term thrill is held up as an ideal. The media in Korea is today run for profit and faithfully generates fantastic myths about what “security” means that have more to do with video games than reality. Read more of this post

“Moon’s agenda for summit meeting with Trump” (Aju Business Daily June 8, 2017)

Aju Business Daily

“Moon’s agenda for summit meeting with Trump”

June 8, 2017


Emanuel Pastreich



It is an incredibly difficult moment for a summit meeting between Korea and the United States and it is doubtful that any real breakthrough is possible, but if necessary there are ways to go forward.

The United States is in the midst of tremendous political turmoil and it is up to Korea, and not to the Trump administration to put forth a powerful vision for what is possible.

President Moon should be innovative. For example, he might bring along the presidents of major universities and research institutes as part of a major initiative to promote collaboration in science and technology with the United States. Korea seriously lags behind in international collaboration and this issue is serious, even if it has never been highlighted before. Moon can find a consensus and support far beyond his base if Korea declares that it will be a leader in academic collaboration. Read more of this post

“The Seoul climate conference” JoongAng Daily

JoongAng Daily

“The Seoul climate conference”

June 8, 2017

Emanuel Pastreich



Around the world people are mourning the declaration by President Donald Trump that the United States will pull out of the Paris Climate Accord and recklessly charge ahead in dismantling the programs set up by the Obama administration to limit carbon emissions.

But before we all start wearing black, let us think about this matter a bit more deeply. After all, could it be that rather than assured catastrophe, we have been served up a tremendous historical opportunity to make a quantum leap in the response of the international community to climate change? Could it be that we can at last set out on a brave path toward a binding agreement for a sustainable economy in name and substance without the U.S.?

After all, the U.S. and its corporations did the most to water down the Paris Climate Accord in 2015 and to make it little more than a gentleman’s agreement (read CEO’s agreement) with no framework for how the targets will be reached and no requirements regarding which technologies or policies will be used. Addicted to oil, the U.S. sadly has played the spoiled child in most every effort to come to grips with the current ecological crisis.  Read more of this post

Launch of Buam-dong Mug cup

Launch of Buam-dong Mug cup
부암동 머그컵 출범식 
buam mug cup

Sunday, June 11, 2-5 PM
6 11 (오후 2-5

야나문 카페

Janamoon Café
종로구 자하문로 240 2
02 394-0057

In recognition of the beautiful scenery and unique history of our neighborhood Buam-dong, we invite you to join a small gathering to celebrate the launch of the new Buam-dong mug cup. Please join us for a cup of coffee and celebrate our neighborhood together with friends.
부암동의 아름다운 경치 및 역사를 기념하는 새로운 부암동 머그컵 출범식으로 초대합니다.
시간이 되시면 커피 한 잔 동네 친구들과 함께 합시다.

정가:     Price 9000 Won Read more of this post

Symbolic acts in Korean society

There is an increasing awareness of class issues in Korean society today, even if people do not actually employ the term “class” (gyegeup 계급) in conversation. The issue of class comes up indirectly in terms of how people of high ranks treat those that they see as below them.

The media was filled with reports yesterday (May 25, 2017) about the arrogant manner in which the conservative assembly man Kim Moo Sung rolled his suitcase towards a young man assigned to assist him without even looking at that man, let alone thanking him.

kim mooseung

The incident was introduced in English overseas as well. The term employed for this behavior is “gapjil” 갑질 which is translated by Koreans as “abuse of power.” But I suspect that what is really implied is the increasing emergence of class distinctions in Korean society–something Koreans are more hesitant to name.

Today (May 26, 2017) there were reports about the arrival of the nominee for Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-hwa coming to work with a simple backpack. She was praised, by contrast, for this unpretentious approach.


It was also that same day that President Moon Jae-in announced that in contrast to previous presidents, he would pay for his food and basic expenses from his own personal income and not depend on taxpayers. This creative move (in part based on precedents established by Mayor Park Won-Soon, earned him many favorable comments on line. The furious battle of comments on-line has become the place where politicians are made or broken, as opposed to the floor of the National Assembly.

Yet there was something rather disturbing about the new obsession with symbolic interpretations of acts. The hearings on nominees for government positions, such as the nominee for prime minister Lee Nak-yon (former governor of Cholla Namdo Province) focused on the manner in which his wife had used an incorrect address twenty years ago to allow her children to attend a better school and the question of how his son had avoided military service.

Of course such questions are legitimate. And yet, I cannot help but be concerned that so much of the discussion comes down to such symbolic acts, rather than actual policies. It would be far more useful to concentrate on what policies the governor, or other candidates, promoted, rather than focus on his personal habits. In part, that should be the focus because policy, and how one governs is what impacts citizens. Also, we need to recognize that there are cases in which people may make questionable personal decisions but be effective and dedicated administrators. To assume that the details of personal virtue are paramount renders us myopic.

The question that needs to be asked is whether it is possible to have a politician who is not careful in his or her actions, or even commits acts which are unethical, yet supports good policies and has that political skill to implement them. Or, by contrast, could there be politicians who are upright and follow the rules carefully, but support terrible policies, or who are not capable of governance, or of implementation of policy. The answer, I believe, is that both can be true and that it is a mistake to assume that personal behavior is the primary issue to debate in the nomination process.