On Media-Induced Ennui (or Foreign Coverage of Moon, Part II) — B.R. Myers

If I may adapt something G.K. Chesterton said about the English and Ireland: Americans will speak to Korea, and speak for Korea, but they will not hear Korea speak. Least of all do they care to hear Koreans speak to Koreans. Our journalists present President Moon’s approach to the North not in the context of a decades-old movement and ideology, but as the product of his personal commitment to peace. Because everything must revolve around America, this commitment is often explained — though I don’t get the logic myself — with a backstory about how the US military helped Moon’s parents escape the North.

The following is from the latest TIME cover story on the man. The headline: “South Korean President Moon Jae-in makes one last attempt to heal his homeland.”

Moon’s parents and eldest sister fled North Korea on Dec. 23, 1950, aboard the S.S. Meredith Victory…. The boat docked at South Korea’s Geoje Island, where Moon was born two years later. Today, the refugee camp his family called home has been turned into a memorial park; diorama displays surround rusting planes and tanks, an enormous concrete flyover looming overhead. The scars of this tumultuous background guided Moon into student activism, human-rights legal work and ultimately the Blue House….

I sense a little confusion with the P.O.W. camp for which Moon’s father did manual labor during the war. In any case, the strong implication is that the future president was born in a refugee camp. The honor actually goes to a house in Namjeong, a village on the island where he lived for years until the family moved to Busan. Having enjoyed an island childhood myself, I’m curious as to how his parents’ background translated into scarring tumult for the boy. That according to Moon’s memoirs (2017) his parents traveled not on the famous Meredith Victory but on a US military LST or tank landing ship; that his most famous “human-rights legal work” was done for perpetrators of a deadly arson attack on the US Cultural Center in Busan; that as president he sent two North Korean fishermen back to North Korea, where they were certain to be executed on murder charges: these pertinent facts are of course omitted. Then again, it’s always easy to fault someone for leaving things out.

Much of the article reads like the ones we got from the Western press in what for Moon were happier times. He’s a good ally who wants what we want; he just has a different way of going about it, etc. Alas, he is “so invested in rapprochement … that he has lost support from those who put him in power.” Once again, then, we have a foreigner putting a more flattering spin on things than even the Hankyoreh would now attempt. The consensus here is that the administration was undone to a much greater degree by its unpopular war on the prosecutors’ office. It began right after the chief prosecutor turned his attention to Moon’s inner circle. A left-wing and now anti-government legal activist has just put out a book on this very subject. The TIME article makes no mention of the Cho Kuk scandal-cluster, an omission comparable to, say, a Korean correspondent in Washington circa 1988 looking back on Reagan’s rule sans mention of Iran-Contra.

But I write this post to take issue with the final paragraph:

Certainly there are few original ideas on how to break this [inter-Korean] cycle: engagement, negotiation, provocation, estrangement, rapprochement. The next attempt, when it comes, will be clouded by the inevitable sigh of ennui. “There’s no real solution to this problem,” says [CSIS analyst Sue Mi] Terry. “It’s been like this for over 30 years.” That might, after all, be Moon’s true legacy—the grim realization that if he couldn’t fix things, perhaps nobody can.

This seems to be the current orthodoxy among Western journalists and pundits, most of whom, I suspect, will sing a different tune the moment another summit is announced. For now of course their ennui is very real. Infectious too; how dull they make even North Korea seem! Kim Jong Un tightens, loosens, tightens control of the economy; his sister is more, less, more powerful; the regime wants, doesn’t want to talk to Washington – around and around the speculation goes, through stations that were once exotic and are now drearily familiar, often calendar-predictable: New Year’s address, missile test, party-gathering, anniversary parade. Neither infusions of fresh trivia (“Kim’s floating amusement park appears headed for Wonsan”) nor the occasional 9-day wonder (is he in a coma?) can dispel a mounting sense of otioseness — the sense that one could skip the coverage for months on end and be no worse off. The South Korean news delivered in fits and starts to the American public is hardly compelling either: Inaugural promises of reform, of a new approach to North Korea, setbacks on these fronts, a string of ruling-party scandals, crushing electoral defeat – how many times have we seen this play out since the 1990s?

But the impression of an eternal peninsular return results in large part from the commentariat’s refusal to discuss Korean nationalism. Beating around the bush is an inherently circular and boring affair, even when, or especially when, the bush itself is flourishing in fascinating ways. The truth is that in only four years Moon has transformed South Korea’s political culture, perhaps irrevocably. From mid-2017 to mid-2019 his administration made full use of its power and popularity to control the discussion of North Korea in media and in education, and even to shape the depiction of it in government-subsidized movies and television dramas. Meanwhile principled critics of the drive for a “peace system” were excluded from television news panels and hounded from the boards of broadcast companies. (They have not returned.) In this manner the administration succeeded in framing opposition to North Korea as the anachronistic, nation-dividing obsession of the “pro-Japanese faction,” a largely mythical caste supposedly comprised of former supporters of colonial rule and their descendants.

Conservative politicians’ Pyongyang-bashing had long been more of a vote-getting device than the reflection of deep conviction, as I tried to make clear in a blog post last year. After some early failed efforts to whip up public anger at  Moon’s appeasement policy, the right concluded that it could gain more votes — and win more television viewers and newspaper readers — by adjusting to the times. I knew a big change was afoot in April 2018 when the Chosun Ilbo carried a friendly interview  with Kim Jae-yeon, one of the most prominent pro-North radicals in the country.

The opposition party did so well in the April mayoral elections precisely because it steered away from ideological issues, instead presenting itself as a more competent, less corrupt alternative to the ruling party. Hardly did the new mayor of Seoul take office than he expressed support for his predecessor’s proposal for a Seoul-Pyongyang Olympic Games in 2032. He has also allowed the country’s leading nationalist-left demagogue to remain on the city-run radio station — another sign that while the right may slow down the cultural revolution in progress, it lacks the will to reverse it. Busan now has a conservative mayor too, but when I went to the City Hall a few weeks ago the same anti-USFK activists were still ensconced in the center of the lobby — with no counter-force in sight.

“US troops out!” Part of the anti-USFK installation in Busan City Hall. Photo (B.R. Myers) taken in May 2021.

A conservative presidential contender recently called for the legalization of sales of Kim Il Sung’s ghostwritten memoirs, on the grounds that no one in his right mind will believe them anyway. But he has also called for the arrest of North Korean defectors who assert a North Korean role in the Gwangju uprising.

A few months ago, 30 conservative parliamentarians – including the defector Thae Young-ho — voted with the ruling party to amend an inter-Korean cooperation law so as to allow projects to bypass the Ministry of Unification. Meanwhile provinces and municipalities continue pledging  to strike deals with North Korean entities as soon as the Americans say it’s okay. Joe Biden’s signed expression of support for inter-Korean cooperation, marked as it was by the sort of “affable imprecision” that Harold Nicolson warned diplomats against, may well come back to haunt the alliance.

Arguably the most important division in South Korea’s political class right now runs through left and right, not between them: I mean the division between supporters and opponents of a semi-presidential system. If the former carry the day, the constitution will be revised in more ways than one — and South Korea will take a big step toward the “peace system” Moon envisions. Whether our media deign to cover it is another matter.

Source: sthelepress.com

On Media-Induced Ennui (or Foreign Coverage of Moon, Part II) — B.R. Myers