29 April 2004

Visit to a Remnant of Wars Past, Thoughts on a Korea Future

Today I visited Yongsan, home of the USFK, smack dab in the middle of Seoul, under the shadow of Namsan. Yes, Yongsan was formerly a Japanese military installation, during Korea’s colonial times. And yes, many of the buildings on the base are left over from the Japanese, and many others are “temporary” structures built 50 years ago that have basically become permanent.

There is something culturally odd about Yongsan, which on one hand represents the friendship between the United States and Korea, the sacrifice of U.S. soldiers in the Korean War and the continuing presence and cooperation of the U.S. military in the protection of the South Korean people and yet on the other hand is a remnant of the imperial Japanese past, a symbol of foreign interference and oppression and a a focal point for the frustration of Koreans yearning for nation capable of determining its own destiny.

Even the current reconstruction and improvement processes on Yongsan (which includes removing Japanese imperial stars from some (but not all) of the buildings) is creating a sense of conflict between Americans and Koreans as it comes amid pledges by the USFK to leave Yongsan and return the property to the Koreans.

There is a certain bitterness amongst some of the US military personnel, who feel that they are not being appreciated and in fact are even being treated with derision by the very Korean people they are trying to protect. At the same time, there are Koreans distraught at the perceived arrogance of the U.S. military’s failure to take into consideration the humiliation of having a massive foreign military presence right in the middle of the capital city long after the Soviet forces stopped occupying North Korea. To some extent, there are some who view the U.S. military presence as a continuation of foreign imperial interference and having Yongsan on a Japanese military base does little to dissuade that impression.

It is an interesting love-hate relationship that continues to develop between the Koreans and the United States. Now by this time I should really have a disclaimer that, in any discussion of the “people” of one nation or another, there is a need to use broad swaths of generalities. Certainly not everyone holds these views, and those who do do so to varying degrees. That said, pop sociology would be impossible without generalizing.

There is a rising undercurrent of Korean nationalism that feeds into the collective consciousness, which often expresses itself in “anti-Americanism” – mainly because America is the most visible and overwhelming foreign power on the peninsula. But perhaps “nationalism” has bad connotations, raises thoughts of Nazis and Facists and such. Instead, perhaps patriotism, though even this may be a misnomer, as the new Korean nationalism encompasses more than the South Korean nation. It is perhaps best described as a newfound seeking for a sense of pride in being Korean, and a quest for a redefinition of what being “Korean” means.

There is a new look into the past by some, who fear that the constant rush of Koreans over the past few decades to try to keep up with or beat the west has been to some degree a self-defeating process, good neither for the health of Korean workers nor for the unity and integrity and understanding of history of the nation and the people. Korea, like Japan and Israel, is a nation defined by ethnicity more than nationality, and therefore has unique characteristics when expressing its sense of identity. Yet in Korea, much of being Korean, in a ore culturally historical sense, had been banned by the Japanese, upturned by the Korean War and buried by the drive for economic dominance and power.

With the world opening up more and more each day to Koreans, through the internet, travel, foreign visitors, pop culture and study, there is a sense that Koreans need to define themselves, to build a collective consciousness based on something other than a drive to make money so their children can be doctors and make even more money to take care o their parents and provide for their own children. This sense of family and family commitment, an integral part of “Koreanism,” has been mixed with the capitalist drive to create a sort of bipolarism where the drive to provide for the family leaves no time for the family.

It will be interesting to see how Koreans adapt as the government pushes forward with five-day work weeks and five-day school weeks, and Koreans end up with their weekends free as a family. Will they simply fill those spaces by sending their children to various institutes to “learn more” or will they begin to enjoy the time with family and create new bonds. That is a question best left for history and for the Koreans, as an outsider has no right to pass judgment, but it is something that will be useful to watch, not only from a sociological sense, but from even a capitalist sense, marketing products and entertainments to families that suddenly have free time together every week.

And with that ability to turn what may be a special moment of bonding and revitalization for the Korean family into a cheap marketing study on consumer capitalism, I bid you farewell for now. (Oh, and for those keeping track, the only thing odd I ate today was a hamburger while on the base...)

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