When the Western media gets it wrong
Around the time of Kim Jong-il’s death (and Kim Jong-un’s succession), there was a flood of articles on North Korea that couldn’t help but poke fun at the country and its regime. It was obvious that people – journalists included – often did not understand the difference between that which is Korean and that which is North Korean.
Probably the most popular image from this time was that of throngs of people theatrically wailing in unison. How could this possibly be real? People don’t actually cry like that, and especially not huge masses of them. That’s just not realistic. Except that in Korea it is exactly like that. A school nurse I used to work with once remarked about how Western people did not get sad at funerals. I protested and thought there must be some misunderstanding until I realized how Koreans tend to behave at funerals, which is exactly what you would imagine if you were familiar with Korean dramas. It’s a loud, hysterical wailing, a perfectly melodramatic display of grief. No wonder our severe, understated grief would not come off as sad to them (maybe it’s also the reason my Korean mother-in-law didn’t at first believe that I was in love with her daughter; I wasn’t making it obvious enough).
I suppose that a way of justifying the crying as fakery would be to reason that surely they could not feel anything towards such a brutal dictator. After all, he was not as admired as his father. However, given his obvious importance in their lives — good or bad — isn’t it entirely conceivable to think that they would have a strong emotional reaction to his death?
The rumor du jour is that in a desperate bid to better secure his ascension to the North Korean throne, Kim Jong-un actually had multiple plastic surgeries to resemble his late grandfather, the beloved Kim Il Sung. Oh the horrors of being so desperate to gain acceptance that you would surgically alter your appearance!
The thing is, I am not sure that people in South Korea would think this an extreme thing to do. In her book on North Korean refugees, “Nothing to Envy,” Barbara Demick called having plastic surgery “the ultimate South Korean experience.” In fact, the data backs this up. South Koreans, per capita, have the highest rates of plastic surgery in the world.
You will never be so inundated with plastic surgery advertisements as you are in South Korea. Go to a Korean newspaper’s website, or walk around a subway station in Seoul to see how commonplace it is.
At the funeral procession of Kim Jong-il, there were multiple articles about how North Korean propaganda had manipulated unsightly things, such as tire tracks, and other details. One article referred to it as “deceit,” as if Joseph Goebbels was behind this trickery. Well, appearances are very important to Koreans, and so Photoshop is an everyday fact of life here. At my previous school, the sad appearance of our school did not prevent Photoshop wizards from turning it into a utopia for promotional materials. Our dirt sports field became grassy, complete with a pond. The parking lot disappeared. And the small modern addition to the front became the entire building. It’s a given that if you go to a photographer here in South Korea, your appearance will be airbrushed to get rid of imperfections (and they will probably also lighten your skin while they’re at it).
Refused access to non-sanctioned areas
According to Michael Breen’s book, “The Koreans,” while trying to assess the damage done to the Busan area during the Korean War, Western forces were mystified by how the Koreans would not let them see the worst areas of the city. How could the Western forces hope to properly help these people if they couldn’t evaluate their suffering? It seemed that showing outsiders their worst parts amounted to a loss of face. Similar frustrations are still felt today in North Korea when humanitarian agencies, hoping to secure relief aid, are stymied by the North Korean government from seeing the most affected areas. This is often attributed to typical obtrusive North Korean behavior, when in fact it could be seen as a Korean way of doing things.
Cruise ship from hell
As part of an effort to modernize and bring hard currency into the country, North Korea has gotten into the cruise ship industry and recently brought along journalists to cover the maiden voyage. As documented in a lighthearted piece in the New York Times, it did not run very smoothly, and the captain even managed to crash the old ship into the dock on their return trip. While the humorous tone of the piece can be justified, some of what was mocked was also distinctly Korean. When the guests helped themselves to their meals out of “self-serve communal bowls,” it was seen as a failure of hospitality. Yet while recently waiting for my subway in Seoul, I saw the same concept in a video ad for a South Korean cruise ship.
The same goes for how they expected people to sleep grouped together on mats on the floor, which was again poked fun at. Yet when going to the Korean version of cottages or resorts (called pensions in the South), I have found there to be little in the way of furnishings at some places, and most people are more than willing to share the floor with everyone else.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s and do not represent those of Groove Korea. To comment, e-mail email@example.com. — Ed.