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Eureka: A fireside chat on Korea Eureka: A fireside chat on Korea
by Jay Gutman
2017-12-14 12:13:05
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The only constant is change. We in the West tend to be comfortable with consistency. We tend to have a problem with people who are vegetarian Buddhists one day, meat-eating evangelical Christians the next and then Kosher keeping Jewish converts before deciding Islam is their real thing. We tend to think of such people as insane. Not in East Asia.

Let me give you an example of how things evolved in South Korea. In the 1950s and 1960s having a government job was the real deal in South Korea. If you had that you had all the respect. Then having an office job became hype, government jobs were considered low-paid. Then suddenly being a college-educated office-worker became hype, those without college degrees were losing their jobs. That's before college was no longer enough, and being a doctor was the real thing to be respected. Then things changed again and being a doctor or college educated was no longer enough, you had to go to the three best-ranked universities (Seoul National University, Korea University, Yonsei University, known as SKY) to be considered serious marriage material. A few years forward and SKY was considered low-rated, you had to go to Harvard or Stanford to be considered marriage material. Now Harvard and Stanford are ditched, and the new hype is to have very rich parents. Tomorrow who knows, rich parents won't be a thing, and perhaps being one of those start-up self-made millionaires will be the real deal.

kor00001_400Things in Korea change all the time. Food, fashion, politics, you name it. And change is not always consistent. Political parties in South Korea change names about every 3 or 4 years on average, few lawmakers are reelected more than twice. The President has vast powers but can only be elected once for a five year term then gets replaced. Government ministers could walk in the streets of Seoul without being noticed or recognized. Views, policies and perceptions on North Korea change about every year, and have no real consistency. The general public tends to vote at elections, but is generally apathetic and only reacts if there's a scandal involving a politician. Day to day legislation is a no-brainer, politicians can vote unpopular laws without making a splash, although labor laws tend to be monitored by labor unions and education laws and military service laws are carefully monitored. The rest is a free game.

In a consistent, predictable world, North Korea would probably not have bothered with nuclear weapons. North Korea has had its share of inconsistency, basically went from banning or closely monitoring phone calls and fax machines to allowing internet access virtually overnight. Like in South Korea, in North Korea free markets are tolerated but business laws are known for very whimsical changes. Products can be imported one day, banned the next. Street food is celebrated one day, banned the next.

In this chat I'll talk about North Korea first. Then I'll talk about South Korea. Then I'll talk about inter-Korean relations. At the end I'll talk about Korea's place in international relations.

Unlike what news reports may suggest, North Korea is a living, breathing society. Mainly agricultural, patriarchal, Confucian. Women tend to plow the land while men do farm administration-related tasks. Marriages are traditional. Medicine tends to be primitive and connections are very useful to have access to the local hospital. Having a son or a daughter in Pyongyang means you have a rich son or daughter. Men tend to be authoritarian in the household, chatting is frowned upon, friendship is something for school children. Adults tend to have few or no friends. Farm life is regulated, nationalist music is played every morning to wake farmers up. Droughts and floods tend to be blamed on the farmers, because government officials in charge of doing the accounting aren't always allowed excuses.

Factories in North Korea tend to be small, bureaucratized, electricity is scarce, but tends not to be an excuse for low production. Factory workers read or knit when there are power cuts, they don't talk or chat. For both factory workers and farmers drinking alcohol is done after a long day at work and is a family activity, which is done in silence. Those who have grandparents in the household will tend to hear stories about the past while enjoying a few cups of alcoholic drinks.

The intellectual in North Korea is the prized job. You have people in government administrations, teachers, professors, journalists. They are not the loud intellectuals we tend to see in Western countries. They work in quiet offices. They are prized jobs because schools have ranking systems and only those on top of the rankings, plus a little bit of luck (for example no South Korean ancestors) will get you the prized job. Teachers and professors memorize books and recite them in class, nothing too creative.

Everyone in North Korea has a party membership card and a rationing card. On April 15 and February 16, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il's birthdays, North Koreans get extra rations and gifts, as well as on the Lunar new year and harvest festivals. In the past, there have been problems with rations, and in the 1995 to 1998 period ration parlors were empty a lot of times. Markets exist, but the choice tends to be the kind of choice you would get at a small flea market or garage sale in the West. Nothing too fancy, maybe a bottle of good liquor or a few healthy vegetables.

Which brings us to government. Reducing North Korea to Kim Jong Un is like reducing the NBA to Stephen Curry or music to Taylor Swift. I mean there's a lot of other stuff going on in North Korea. The North Korean regime does rely heavily on foreign aid and foreign contracts. Japan and China have sizeable North Korean populations and underground remittance systems. China can't get enough North Korean coal or wood. North Korean art is a source of hard currency. Then you have tourism.

Why all the missiles and nuclear tests? Different countries have different ways of dealing with being surrounded by giants. North Korea's position is unique, surrounded by Russia, China, Japan and South Korea and its American ally. North Korea developed a strategy to counter that, and calls itself the “strongest country in the world.” As I said South Korea never had a consistent policy on North Korea. Some in South Korea actually want war with North Korea, not realizing the consequences. North Korea is simply trying to hint to the South Koreans that conservative anti-North Korean factions who thought they would easily defeat the North Koreans a message. North Koreans are also sending an internal message, there's a much darker side to North Korea to what seems like the rosy picture I painted above. Abuse, torture, concentration camps. North Koreans can be very easily offended. Forgetting to say hello to your boss could land you in prison. A drought and a poor harvest could land you in prison.

Now to South Korea. I tend to see South Korea a bit like France. You have those who go to “schools” and those who don't go to “schools.” Those who go to “schools” tend to see the world kind of like their playground. And the rest of the people of the world kind of like their toys. South Korea is a country which is unique in its own way, but resembles its Northeast Asia counterparts. Rude but avoid conflicts at all costs. Some will be nice to you on the first date, but a lot of times they will go back to their rude ways and yet expect you not to engage in conflict. This dynamic is among those that fuel the conflict with North Korea. The South Koreans tend to be rude, yet are surprised when conflict arises.

South Korea has a robust economy, yet its happiness index tends to be among the lowest in the world. Winner-take-all expectations have something to do with it. South Koreans rank, rank, rank, from kindergarten to elementary school to middle school to high school to the university entrance exam to universities to rankings with universities, to rankings at the workplace. As insiders will say one month you will be ranked at the top, the following month you could be ranked at the bottom. Imagine you are constantly part of a ranking everywhere you go. If it's low stakes computer games you might get a kick out of it. But if your monthly paycheck depends on it, you probably won't be happy.

Plus the rules for rankings tend to change a lot. That's why as I said above South Koreans tend to have three obsessions: education laws, military service laws and labor laws. Basically those that involve a ranking of some kind. Laws on North Korea? They don't really care about those.

In politics, the president can think of a North Korea policy at breakfast and start implementing it by the time he's at the office. You can understand why North Koreans are sometimes called “the most paranoid state in the world.”

What are the solutions for inter-Koean relations? Both Koreas seem to confuse education with intellectualism. Education is being ranked top of your class. Intellectualism is taking informed decisions on different subjects.

North Korea rejects intellectualism for obvious reasons. South Korea rejects intellectualism because it tends not to fit the ranking scope. How do you rank ideas? How do you rank an informed decision? I have encouraged South Koreans in the past to value books over rankings. Perhaps they could use red teams and blue teams in their decision-making. Have an intellectual task force. Intellectualism has picked up in the Middle East. It has picked up in Africa. In Latin America. Even China and Japan have their intellectual task forces. If the Koreas continue to despise intellectualism, you get medieval wars with 21st century weapons. Dialogue needs to be more reasoning based and less emotions-based.

What is Korea's position in international relations? Korea's advantage is that it is not surprised by change. A lot of countries are surprised by changing dynamics in international relations. One day allies are enemies the next day. But the tendency over the years has been for countries to build win-win alliances. Almost every time I hear a leader, reciprocity is mentioned somewhere in their speeches. Korea's weakness is that a lot of agreements which are win-win in appearance, evolve over time because of the country's unpredictable nature. So a little bit of consistency wouldn't hurt.


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