Wednesday, June 30, 2004
Tuesday, June 29, 2004
Angry Letter to the Korea Times
I sent the following letter to the Korea Times to protest their ridiculous article, "Korea Blocks 40 Web Sites to Bar Spread of Victim's Video." I doubt they will respond. But, they should at least know that someone notices their ineptitude.
To Whom It May Concern:
My name is Isaac Kerson. I am a 4-year resident of Seoul, Korea and an occasional Korea Times reader. I am writing to correct Kim Tae-gyu's article, "Korea Blocks 40 Web Sites to Bar Spread of Victim's Video," in the June 28 edition of the Korea Times. It was poorly researched, misleading, and inaccurate.
The Ministry of Information and Communication has not blocked 40 web sites. It has blocked whole domains, such those provided by blogspot.com, blogger.com, blogs.com and typepad.com. These domains host thousands of websites, which include those of South Korean citizens, not simply the nebulous "foreign-based sites" your article repeatedly mentions. Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of the sites the MIC blocked are completely unrelated to Kim Sun-il or even South Korea.
It is clear from your report that you unthinkingly took one-sided, misleading information from the Ministry of Information and Communication and reprinted it. You never bothered to check the facts or do additional research. A quick search of the Internet or competitors' stories would have told you the MIC information was a distortion. This is extremely lazy reporting.
In your negligence, you have relegated your paper to a second-rate outlet for government propaganda. How can I take your future reports seriously when I know your reporters don't check their facts and unthinkingly reprint what the government feeds them? But, more importantly, you did yourself a disservice. You missed an important, compelling story about South Korean government censorship, infringements on freedom of speech, and constitutional violations.
If you do not do something to rectify the glaring inaccuracies in your article, it will lead me to conclude that your blunders were not simply the result of lazy reporting — which is bad enough — but rather your mistakes were part of the Korea Times larger, more dangerous practice of willfully using distorted information and misleading the public in the service of the government. I would certainly never read a newspaper that I though engaged in such practices. But, more importantly, such a newspaper will not survive in today's free and open media climate.
You make the choice. For your sake I hope it is the right one.
Monday, June 28, 2004
South Korea: Back to Dictatorial Censorship
It’s official. The South Korean government and Internet providers are actively censoring its people. The Korea Times reported on June 27, “40 foreign-based Web sites, which contain the video footage showing the beheading of a South Korean hostage in Iraq…. in fear of causing extreme anguish to already-horrified Koreans.” However, this report is willfully misleading.
The Korean Times article suggests the Ministry of Information censorship operation is limited, careful, and considered. But, it is indiscriminate, sloppy, and knee-jerk. The government has blocked access to whole domains, including blog host sites such as Blog*Spot and Typepad. Blog*Spot alone boasts 1.3 million members. The overwhelming majority of sites have nothing to do with the Kim video much less South Korea. They include Jerusalem Wanderings, a record of a Jewish resident of Jerusalem’s thoughts, Andy Kaufman Returns, a running gag about Kaufman’s resection, and Piggy Lov3, about a 13-year-old girl who likes “toking on the phone, listenin to music and sleeping.” Meanwhile, the idiots in charge of this nonsensical fascist operation are too stupid to block mirror sites and anonyms browsers such as Unipeak, which allow users to access Kim’s exaction video from South Korea.
But the ultimately pathetic thing is the government, which is so up in arms over Kim Sun-il, took no precautions to block access to other widely available beheading videos, such as Nick Berg’s. In fact, the Berg execution video was widely downloaded and circulated in South Korea. This behavior indicates a widespread racism in South Korea. Large portions of the Korean public are unperturbed by watching murderers decapitate citizens of other nations. However, when the victim is South Korean, the public is enraged and the government takes precautions against causing its citizens “extreme anguish.” I don’t know which is worse the public’s racist hypocrisy or the government's active enabling and encouragement of these racist ideas.
It leads me to wonder if there isn’t some validity to one of the conspiracy theories floating around the Korean blogger community: the Roh Administration is not as concerned about damage to South Korean psyches as it is about damage to itself when the public hears Kim’s last words: “President Roh Moo-hyun! … This [the troop deployment] is a mistake. Please, Korean people support me … I want to live. I go to Korea.”
Below is an eloquent letter from Kevin Kim, AKA Big Hominid, a fellow blogger in South Korea and links to other blogs with further news on the recent censorship by the South Korean government, South Korean Internet providers, and the Ministry of Information.
I am sending this message to the bloggers on my blogroll (and a few other folks) in the hopes that some of you will print this, or at least find it interesting enough for comment. I'm not usually the type to distribute such messages, but I felt this was important enough to risk disturbing you.
As some of you may already know, a wing of the South Korean government, the Ministry of Information and Culture (MIC), is currently clamping down on a variety of blogging service providers and other websites. The government is attempting to control access to video of the recent Kim Sun-il beheading, ostensibly because the video will have a destabilizing influence. (I haven't seen the video.)
Many Western expat bloggers in Korea are in an uproar; others, myself included, are largely unsurprised: South Korea has not come far out of the shadow of its military dictatorship past. My own response to this censorship is not so much anger as amusement, because the situation represents an intellectual challenge as well as a chance to fight for freedom of expression. Perhaps even to fight for freedom, period.
South Korea is a rapidly evolving country, but in many ways it remains the Hermit Kingdom. Like a turtle retreating into its shell, the people are on occasion unable to deal with the harsh realities of the world around them. This country is, for example, in massive denial about the atrocities perpetrated in North Korea, and, as with many Americans, is in denial about the realities of Islamic terrorism, whose roots extend chronologically backward far beyond the lifetime of the Bush Administration. This cultural tendency toward denial (and overreaction) at least partially explains the Korean government's move to censor so many sites.
The fact that the current administration, led by President Noh Mu-hyon, is supposedly "liberal"-leaning makes this censorship more ironic. It also fuels propagandistic conservative arguments that liberals are, at heart, closet totalitarians. I find this to be a specious caricature of the liberal position (I consider myself neither liberal nor conservative), but to the extent that Koreans are concerned about what image they project to the world, it is legitimate for them to worry over whether they are currently playing into stereotype: South Korea is going to be associated with other violators of human rights, such as China.
Of the many hypocrisies associated with the decision to censor, the central one is that no strong governmental measures were taken to suppress the distribution of the previous beheading videos (Nick Berg et al.). This, too, fuels the suspicion that Koreans are selfish or, to use their own proverbial image, "a frog in a well"-- radically blinkered in perspective, collectively unable to empathize with the sufferings of non-Koreans, but overly sensitive to their own suffering.
I am writing this letter not primarily to criticize all Koreans (I'm ethnically half-Korean, and an American citizen), nor to express a generalized condemnation of Korean culture. As is true anywhere else, this culture has its merits and demerits, and overall, I'm enjoying my time here. No, my purpose is more specific: to cause the South Korean government as much embarrassment as possible, and perhaps to motivate Korean citizens to engage in some much-needed introspection.
To this end, I need the blogosphere's help, and this letter needs wide distribution (you may receive other letters from different bloggers, so be prepared!). I hope you'll see fit to publish this letter on your site, and/or to distribute it to concerned parties: censorship in a supposedly democratic society simply cannot stand. The best and quickest way to persuade the South Korean government to back down from its current position is to make it lose face in the eyes of the world. This can only happen through a determined (and civilized!) campaign to expose the government's hypocrisy and to cause Korean citizens to rethink their own narrow-mindedness.
We can debate all we want about "root causes" with regard to Islamic terrorism, Muslim rage, and all the rest, but for me, it's much more constructive to proceed empirically and with an eye to the future. Like it or not, what we see today is that Korea is inextricably linked with Iraq issues, and with issues of Islamic fundamentalism. Koreans, however, may need some persuading that this is in fact the case-- that we all need to stand together as allies against a common enemy.
If you are interested in giving the South Korean Ministry of Information and Culture a piece of your mind (or if you're a reporter who would like to contact them for further information), please email the MIC at:
(Blogspot is currently blocked in Korea, along with other providers; please go to Unipeak.com and type my URL into the search window to view my blog.)
For more information on the Ministry of Information's Nonsence follow these links:
My Grandmother is Fat
My Grandmother is Fat
One day I’m going to write a book titled, “My Grandmother is Fat and Other Stories From My Years in the Insane Asylum.” The picture above will be the front cover and the book will open with a story about its designer.
His name is Tae-in. He was among the first group of intensive preschool students I taught. He was a freak. There were several other freakish kids in that class. But he was the king. One day we were studying adjectives. We read a story about a girl and her family. “My mom is helpful,” said the girl. “My dad is strong,” she said. “My brother is smart.” “My grandmother is kind.”
We talked about the story a bit and brainstormed other descriptive words. The kids weren’t into it. They came up with nice, pretty, beautiful, and good.
I gave them blank papers. I told them to write a short sentence about one of their relatives and draw a picture of them. I wrote on the board, “My _____ is ______,” and wrote a long list of family names. I passed out the crayons and pencils. They went at it.
Five of the eight kids asked me how to spell kind. They begin diligently writing M-Y-G-R-A-N-D-M-O-T-H-E-R-I-S-K-I-N-D. They drew their grandmothers in puffy white dresses decorated with flowers and hearts. The women wore red bows in their hair, had full red lips, and were cooking.
Tae-in looked at the white sheet for a minute. He let out a dull, stabbing “Ha!” and asked, “How do you spell fat?” I wrote it on the board. “My grandmother is fat!” he shouted. I chuckled. “Really?” I asked. “Yeah!” he said.
He finished writing the sentence and looked up at me. “Good. Now draw a picture,” I told him. He looked back down at the paper and though. I continued around the table checking papers.
Tae-in showed me his picture. A rotund woman in a blue soccer uniform stood in front of a soccer goal with her arms outstretched. A soccer ball floated in midair to her right. She smiled widely and stared ahead. Here eyes were large perfect circles and totally empty white. She wore a gold medal on a red ribbon around her neck.
“Your Grandmother plays soccer?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Tae-in said.
“Fat people usually don’t play sports,” I said. “That’s why they are fat… And, if they do play, they usually aren’t good enough to win medals.”
“Ha!” Tae-in spat. “She is goalkeeper.”
“Good job.” I told him. “It’s a great picture.” I continued around the table.
Next time around, Tae-in pushed the picture up in the air toward me. “Here you are teacher,” he said.
“I can have it?” I asked.
“Thanks Tae-in,” I said happily.
Tae-in is the boy acting like a monkey in front.
Next I’ll tell the story of the time Byeung-yoon — the boy frowning on my right side in the picture above — stabbed Tae-in in the back of the neck with a pencil.
Into the 21st Century
Old School Sony Mavica MVC-FD73
Well Jiyeoun and I finally did it today. After much discussion we decided to move into the 21st century and get a digital camera with image quality measured in megapixals and weight measured in ounces.
We’ve been using a first generation Sony Mavica MVC-FD73. It is a mammoth, sturdy beast: measuring 13.8 cm x 6.2 cm x 10.5 and weighing in at just over a pound. It has a 2.5” 24-color LCD screen and writes directly to 3.5” floppy disks. Its images are .35 megapixals and 13-20 fit on a disk. You can hear the thing writing each time it takes a picture. You press the button, there is a second pause, the screen goes black, you hear its little disk drive writing away for a few seconds, and then you are ready to go.
It was great on vacations. You didn’t need any cables, special programs, or a computer with Windows XP. You just needed a 3.5” disk drive and off the pics went in e-mails to everyone. You could send dozens of images and never risk filling someone’s inbox. Although over the last few years, 3.5 disk drives have begun to disappear and lugging the Mavica around by its huge blue strap became embarrassing. People would look at me and wonder if I was taking pictures or on a dialysis machine.
Nikon Cool Pix 3200
We replaced the Mavica with a Nikon Coolpix 3200. It weighs 4.9 oz — less than the Mavica’s battery — and measures 88 x 65 x 38mm — smaller than the 3.5” floppies that the Sony took. Yet, it has 3.2 megapixal resolution, nearly 10 times the old camera, and Windows XP automatically recognizes the Nikon when you plug it into the computer. You can even set XP to download the images automatically. But, it does not make a cool whirring sound when it takes pictures, it doesn’t write images to disk, and it doesn’t look like a heart dialysis machine.
Right now there are 48 Sony Mavica MVC-FD73s on sale on E-bay. They range from $10-$150 USD. One guy is selling his for spare parts. But, I’m hanging on to mine for a while. In a few years, people will be nostalgic for clunky digital cameras that made crunchy noises when they wrote to disk and the Mav’ ‘ill be kitsch. Then I’ll sell it for millions.
Sunday, June 20, 2004
Photo By Chris Duggan
Awhile back, I mentioned “the old Japanese guy who recommended I beat my wife if she does not drink with me” in a post about my Love Motel speech. I said there would be “more on the old Japanese guy another time.” Well, another time has come.
There were a few old Japanese guys in my Korean class last semester. The one I’m referring to is wearing a yellow tie in the picture above. He seemed like a decent enough guy. He made a lot of jokes in class about being an alcoholic: What do you do when you’re sad? Drink. What’s the best way to cure a cold? Drink. What’s your hobby? Drinking. What did you do this weekend? Drink. Etc… But, that is par for the course among guys in Korea. Another time, when he was asked where a younger classmate could meet women, he suggested hanging out around the Kangnam metro station at 6PM when offices closed. There were a lot of very beautiful 20-something women, he informed us laughing with glee. This made me wonder a little. I knew his wife and family were in Japan.
The class went out for dinner and drinks one night. I ended up at one end of the table with Wife Beater and the Korean-American kid whose Korean speech was about drinking and going to massage parlors. In hindsight, I should have been obvious something was going to happen. But, they kept it together for a while. We talked about the Korean drinks we liked; made some small talk about finding the Korean-American guy a girlfriend; and then Wife Beater started asking about my wife. That was okay for a while, too. Where did you meet? What does she do? How old is she? Where did you get married? Did your family come? Will you stay in Korea? Does she want to go to the United States? The usual. But, then he asked if she and I drank together.
“We drink together sometimes,” I said. “But, she doesn’t like to drink much. So it doesn’t happen that often.”
“You have to hit her and make her drink,” He said.
I thought he was joking. “Hit her?” I laughed.
“Sure.” He smiled. “When she doesn’t want to drink hit her.” He moved his hand back and forth and made a slapping sound: “Tish, Tish!” He tilted his head back and laughed loudly. “Next time you suggest drinking together she’ll like it.” He lowered his head, took the soju shot-glass between his hands like he was praying, and raised his wide eyes up. “Yes, husband. Thank you,” he said in a mock woman’s voice and bowed. He turned his head left and drank the rest of his soju in the deferential Korean style. He turned, looked at me, and laughed loudly as if he’d just heard a wonderful joke.
I showed him and toothy grimace and let out a single fake chuckle. I turned to the Japanese graduate student to my right and asked how his studies were going.
When I told Jiyeoun about the incident, she stopped me after I said the guy recommended beating her. “Was he joking?” she asked.
“I don’t think so. He made slapping gestures and everything. It didn’t seem like a joke. He was smiling and laughing about it. He told me my wife would like drinking with me next time.”
“I hate hearing that. Don’t tell me any more. It’s making me angry,” she said. “So, what did you do when he said that?”
“I didn’t do anything. I just stopped talking. I changed the subject. I started talking to the other guy sitting next to me.”
“You didn’t say anything to him?”
“What should I have said? What do you say to something like that? I’m not going to fight with the guy in Korean at our class dinner. I doubt a guy like that is going to listen even if I said something. He’s in his mid-50s. He didn’t get like that overnight. I’m sure he knew I didn’t like what he was saying. I changed the subject and didn’t talk with him again.”
“If I was there I would have fought with him. I would have yelled at him. I would kill him,” Jiyeoun said gleefully.
This got me thinking. What is my obligation in that situation? Should I have said something? What should I have said? Would it make a difference? Would it have made the situation worse? By not saying anything, am I condoning his type of behavior? I’m certainly not doing anything to address it. But, maybe simply changing the subject and talking to someone else was enough.
But, you’ll notice my arm is around the guy in the above picture. (I’m the one in the blue shirt with the buzz cut.) The photo was taken after the incident in question. I chose to stand next to him. He put his arm around my shoulder and I reciprocated. Honestly, in my preoccupation with looking good for the camera, I totally forgot about the Wife Beating.
In writing this, I’ve come to realize saying something would have been the right thing . But, it was easier to let it slide, talk to someone else, and pretend it somehow addressed the situation. In the future, I hope to be more courageous. Meanwhile, this is my belated, slightly cowardly, wholly inadequate remedy.
International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women
Face to Face: The Face of Woman's Rights
Amnesty International: Campaign to Stop Violence Against Women
Ministry of Gender Equality (Korea)
National Domestic Violence Hotline (USA)
Women Matter (USA)
Saturday, June 19, 2004
Screen Quota Material
Fortuitous Wind Down
Finals are winding down. I completed a U.N. simulation on Tuesday, finished my final paper for Modern Korean History and Culture on Wednesday, and took an exam in Media and International Relations on Thursday. My last paper for Introduction to Feminist Theory is due Wednesday. It’s going to be a low-key kind of thing continuing with the Korean screen quota theme.
I posted the Political Economy of the Korean Screen Quota below. It was my final paper for Modern Korean History and Culture. Some version of it will probably end up as part of the introduction to my thesis. The timing is fortuitous. The screen quota issue has returned to the front pages of Korean newspapers after a year out of the spotlight following comments by Culture and Tourism Minister Lee Chang-dong that it was time for the quotas to be reduced. This prompted a flurry of coverage and commentaries in South Korea’s major dailies: Chosun, JoongAng Daily, Korea Times, Ohmynews.
You can read my analysis of the screen quota system from 1982-2002 and its effect on the Korean share of the domestic movie market. I looked at the actors involved in the screen quota conflict, divided them into pro and anti screen quota factions, reviewed their positions, and then explained thier effects on the decline and rise of the Korean share of domestic movie market. I find market share was directly related to changes in the aggregate power of each faction. The paper is a hoot. Enjoy.
Quota of Frustration From Oct. 21, 2003 Chosun Ilbo by Shin Kyong-mu
"Outside Cheong Wa Dae, movie industry people rally against President Roh's plan to loosen the screen quota, holding signs that say 'Strongly Against Loosening the Screen Quota' and chanting 'Roh, watch your back.' Off to the side are three staunch supporters of both Roh and the protection of the movie industry: the celebrities Myeong Gye-nam and Moon Seong-geun and Culture Minister Lee Chang-dong. The protesters say, 'What, you're not coming with us?' The three mutter, 'This is driving me crazy.'"
Thursday, June 17, 2004
Portrait in Black
My student, Cindy Cho, drew a picture of me and my family the other day. This is me. It's a good likeness. I rarely wear hats but, if I did, I would most certainly wear one like this bowler. It looks pretty good on me in this picture. I'm a little worried, though. It appears elephantiasis is developing in my left foot. I better get that looked at. Cindy also drew a picture of Jiyeoun saying she loved me. The pictures aren't quite to scale however. Jiyeoun's got a good 6 inches on me according to Cindy's picture. We'll have to discuss proportion in the next class.
Portrait of Isaac, by Cindy Cho
Graphite on paper (2004)
Political Economy of the Korean Screen Quota
The Political Economy of the Korean Screen Quota System: The Actors, Their Interests, and Their Effects on the Korean Share of the Domestic Movie Market, 1983-2003
The fluctuations in the Korean share of the domestic movie market over the last 20 years are directly related to the interplay of the concerned parties. In the late 80s the Korean movie industry was politically weak relative to the U.S. Commerce department and the Motion Picture Association. This allowed American interests to push open the Korean movie market and capture huge market shares. However, in the mid-90s the Korean movie industry gained strength with the entrance of Korean conglomerates and the creation of the Screen Watchers Group. Since then, the Korean local market share has steadily risen.
History of the Screen Quota System
List of Actors
Pro and Anti Screen Quota Faction Members
The major anti-screen quota parties are the U.S. Commerce Department, the Motion Picture Association (MPA), the Korea Fair Trade Commission (KFTC), the Korean National Theater Owners Association (NTOA) and the Korea Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MOFAT). The pro-screen quota parties include the Coalition for Cultural Diversity in Moving Images (CDMI), Ministry of Culture and Tourism (MOCT), and Korean conglomerate branches engaged in the movie industry. Korean Presidential Administrations and the National Assembly have been fluid actors, alternately siding with the anti and pro screen quota factions.
The U.S. Commerce Department has made movie industry trade liberalization a central concern in its negotiations with Korea at least since the 80s. The U.S. Commerce Department repeatedly cited Article 301 of the Commerce Treaty between the United States and Korea as justification for opening Korea’s movie market to American companies. They were a central reason the Korean government passed the six-revised film law, which abolished the 2:1 Korean to American film ratio system and the USD $5 million annual import quota, in July 1987. In 2003, the U.S. Commerce Department made screen quota reduction below 20% a prerequisite to concluding a Bilateral Investment Treaty between the United States and Korea. Wendy Cutler, the assistant U.S. trade representative for North Asian affairs stated, “We would not conclude a bilateral investment treaty without adequately addressing the screen quota issue…. We’d never ask for the elimination of the screen quota. We are looking for Seoul to reduce the quota to an acceptable level.”
The MPA is the international branch of the Motion Picture Association of America. It was formed in 1945 as the Motion Picture Export Association of America and renamed in 1994. Since its inception, it has “cultivated ongoing support and political power from the US government.” The first president of the MPA, Eric Johnston, and his successor Jack Valenti “relentlessly lobbied the U.S. government (Department of State, Senate, House of Representatives and the President) to try and subside and/or annihilate the film trade barriers in Korea.” The MPA has primarily argued that trade liberalization would benefit all parties. In a March 26, 1999 meeting with then president Kim Dae Jung, Valenti predicted lowering the quota to “a reasonable and commercially acceptable limit” would encourage foreign financiers to invest “several hundred of millions of dollars” into “new state-of-the-art multiplex theaters in Korea.” He claimed, “A central marketplace truth is that neither parliaments, nor presidents can command their citizens to watch movies they do not choose to see.” Valenti cited the Korean film “Swiri” and claimed, “films that entertain and attract customers don’t need artificial crutches to win audiences.” More recently Jeffrey Hardee, regional vice president for the MPA said, “We are not trying to kill off the local industry. We just don’t think that quotas are an effective tool… [The quota does] local producers more harm than good… You have to hold local films longer than economically justified… Cinemas are essentially losing money. You’re not giving them flexibility.”
The KFTC’s predecessor, the Fair Trade Division, was established in 1976 “under the Price Policy Bureau of the now-defunct Economic Planning Board (EPB).” In 1981, the KFTC was formally established under the Office of Minister. In 1994, the organization “won independence from the EPB with the revision of the Government Organization Act” and in 1996 the Ministry’s “Chairman was elevated to ministerial level from vice-ministerial level”. The Ministry’s basic organization has changed little since then. The KFTC’s self described mission is “developing competition policy and enforcing competition laws. Its goals are to “promote competition in the market and to enhance consumer welfare.”
“The KFTC enforces the ‘Monopoly Regulation And Fair Trade Act’, under which cartels, M&As and abuse of dominance in the Korean markets are major targets of law enforcement. It also handles consumer protection policy and relevant laws. Active competition advocacy and regulatory reforms in the public sector are also major concerns for the KFTC.”
The KFTC has argued that the screen quota serves the interests of the Korean film industry at the detriment of the overall economy. Kang Chul-kyu, head of the Fair Trade Commission argues, “Domestic film’s market share has gone up more than 50 percent… The screen quota needs to be relaxed to encourage competition in [the] film industry….”
The predecessor to MOFAT, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was established in1948. From the beginning it took charge of “diplomacy, external economic policy, overseas Korean nationals, international situation analysis and overseas promotional affairs.” The ministry underwent its only significant reformation in 1998. The “Ministry of Foreign Affairs was reorganized as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade with the incorporation of the newly established Office of the Minister for Trade, so as to comprehensively establish and conduct foreign policies on trade, trade negotiations and foreign economic affairs.” This change did little to alter the Ministry’s responsibilities. It simply clarified longstanding practice.
The MOFAT has said the advantages of reducing the screen quota far outweigh the disadvantages. Kwon Tae-shin, deputy minister for international affairs at MOFAT stated: “South Korea’s exports to United States amount to $33 billion a year, but American films account for $200 million in the local film market. Being swayed by some self-centered people in the film industry is not desirable at all. A failure to sign a bilateral investment treaty will damage our export industries… Local films represent more than 45 percent of the movie market, and the film promotion fund has raised over 100 billion won [USD $82.4 million]. Thus, Korea’s film market is ready to be opened.”
The NTOA is composed of independent theater owners. In the early 80s, before foreign direct distribution was allowed, theater owners were among the most powerful interests in the Korean film industry. Theater owners controlled the movie distribution process through regional cartels. Movies always opened in Seoul “and then the studio [sold] the rights to the movie theaters in the various regional divisions.” Because there were “no simultaneous nationwide film releases… it [was] difficult to get an accurate count of box office receipts outside of Seoul.” Therefore, local “studios simply [sold] the rights to the film at a fixed price to theaters in each regional division, regardless of the commercial success of the film.” This gave the regional theater cartels tremendous power to set prices and make profit. If a film was “rejected by the people in charge of the regional cartels, it usually [ended] up in storage and [was] never released.”
Independent theater owners begin to loose their hold on the local film industry when foreign direct distribution was allowed in 1987. “Hollywood-related direct distribution companies, such as United International Pictures … were known to engage in illegal practices such as ‘block booking’ (selling several films to cinemas as a package deal, typically including a hit film and several less popular movies.)” Theater owners were forced to go along with the practice and pay large sums of money for movie rights because of the popularity of Hollywood films. “The Hollywood block busters that were supplied by these distributors would be the top box-office draws of local cinemas.” This practice severely weakened the power of independent theater owners.
But, the filial blow came 1993 with the formation of the Screen Watcher’s Group, the forerunner of the CDMI. Until then, the independent movie owners were virtually ignoring the screen time regulations outlined in the screen quota in order to show high-grossing Hollywood films. The Screen Watcher’s Group began to force the Korean authorities and independent owners to follow the law. This created serious market distortions, such as in the summer of 2001, when there were only 7 Korean movies for 216 screens in Seoul. In 1995, after the number of screens in Korean shrunk for the 5th year, the NTOA filed a complaint with the Constitutional Court asking it to repeal the screen quota system on the grounds that it “infringed on their constitutional guarantee to pursue economic happiness.” The organization argued the screen quota system was unconstitutional because it inhibited the theater owners’ free choice and their right to pursue their economic interest. They believed the screen quota placed an undue burden on theater owners by forcing them to subsidize Korean movies. They blamed the system for the dramatic drop in the number of independently owned theaters over the previous decade. However, the Court ruled the “The constitution guarantees the right to pursue happiness, however, this does not guarantee unlimited pursuit of economic interest irrespective of the interest of the community.” The Court’s decision denied the NTOA’s last chance for regaining power. The number of independently owned movie theaters in Korea has continued to decline unabatedly since then.
The most public member of the pro-screen quota group is the MCT. It is a relatively new bureau, which assumed its present form and responsibilities in 1998. Previously some of “its duties were handled by the Public Information Office and the culture division of the Ministry of Education, which were … established in 1948.” Then in “1961, the Ministry of Transportation set up a tourism department that carried out similar duties to the tourism division of the ministry.” At the same time the “Ministry of Information was established, and it took the parts of art and cultural affairs from the Ministry of Education.” Then in “1968, the Ministry of Information was replaced by the Ministry of Culture and Information.” It took charge of Korea’s “cultural property and management of the museums from the Ministry of Education.” The Ministry of Culture was set up in 1990 and “printing, broadcasting and other mass media-related affairs were transferred to the Ministry of Information.” In 1993, “the Ministry of Sports and Youth, and the Ministry of Culture were integrated into the Ministry of Culture and Sports.” And in 1998, “the Ministry of Culture and Sports was replaced by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.” The new bureau “began handling affairs relating to the print and broadcast media, which had been the responsibility of the former Ministry of Information.” Until the responsibility for mass media was returned to the newly created MCT, previous ministries were primarily concerned with film censorship. However, after a landmark Constitutional Court ruling on October 4, 1996 that concluded film censorship violates constitutional law and National Assembly revisions to the Film Promotion Codes on March 17, 1997, the MCT took up screen quota protection.
With the appointment of the Chang-dong Lee as the new minister of the MCT in early 2003, screen quota protection became the Ministry’s central concern. Lee was the former president of the executive committee of CDMI, an interest group that represents the Korean film industry. He was “inaugurated as Minister of Culture and Tourism with the help of the strong support from the Korean cultural milieu as well as the Korean film society.” He stated, “I have no plans to make any change to the screen-quota system” and argued “The screen quota is not just an issue for the film industry; it is vital to the future of our visual media industry as a whole. If we lower our guard on film, the rest of the market is lost.” He doubts that the Bilateral Investment Treaty will bring significant benefits to the Korean economy. “We will not get [USD] $4 billion in new investment be concluding a bilateral treaty… an although there would be some benefits, the nation’s cultural sovereign cannot be given up for any gain.” He claims the culture sector is closely related to Korea’s national identity and points out, “Even the World Trade Organization’s Doha Agenda on the service sector excludes culture from its negotiations.”
The CDMI was created in 1993 as a “watchdog for the Korean movie industry” to “effectively enforce the screen quota system.” The president of the group, Gi-na Yu, prior to the formation of the CDMI the screen quota system “existed in name only with many theaters ignoring it and opting to pay the inconsequential fines instead.” She claims: “Things began to change after the establishment in 1993 of the coalition, then called Screen Quota Watchers, and through their lobbying efforts, the screen quota policy began to be enforced. The guarantee of a certain number of screenings made domestic companies willing to invest more at the production level and raised the overall quality of Korean films”
Samsung’s partial investment in “Marriage Story” in 1992 began widespread corporate involvement in film production. Both Samsung and Daewoo opened production studios and distribution companies in the mid-90s. Their large distribution networks enabled them to successfully compete with the foreign direct distribution companies. Daewoo pulled out of the movie business in 1998. However, Samsung’s subsidiary, CJ Entertainment and Cinema Service, which Samsung later bought, “challenged the oligopoly of the five [American] direct distribution firms.” By the time “Swiri” was released, “the stranglehold of [American] direct distribution firms… was broken.” By 2003, CJ Entertainment and Cinema Service captured 40.8% of the local market and distributed six of the top ten most-attended movies in Seoul.
The political establishment apparently took little notice of the screen quota issue prior to the late-90s. There are no reports of politicians making public comments regarding the system in English-language papers until 1998, when then presidential hopeful Kim Dae Jung included maintenance of the screen quota in his campaign platform. As president, Kim promised to maintain the screen quota system until the share of domestic movies reached 40%. However, he did not abolish the system when the time came. A majority of the national assembly signed a petition to maintain the screen quota in 1998 and the body passed a resolution to maintain the mandatory screening period for domestic films in 1999. Roh Moo-hyun campaigned on a pledge that he would maintain the current quota system. In general, the political establishment is in favor of the current screen quota system. “Their interest is to keep the quota in order to maintain the close relations with actors and actresses, who play a critical role in drawing public votes during the election campaigns.”
History of Actors
The Actors’ Effects on the Local Market Share
Comparisons between the actions of the parties concerned with the screen quota dispute and fluctuations in the domestic share of the local market show the actors had a direct effect on market share. The shift in aggregate power from the anti to the pro-screen quota faction caused the local market share to drop and rise over the last 20 years. The two most important changes regarding the screen quota in the last 20 years come in 1986 and 1993.
At the beginning of the 80s, the anti-screen quota faction was far stronger than its rival. The United States Commerce Department had been active in Korea since its formation in 1948 and had a long history of successfully negotiated trade agreements with the Republic of Korea. Its most important tool was Article 301 of the Commerce Treaty, which restricted market protection.
The MPA, likewise, had a long history in Korea dating back to the 1950s. It had been lobbying the American Government to open closed markets such as Korea’s for decades. The MOFAT’s predecessor, the MOF, had a longstanding relationship with the U.S. Commerce department. Its stated mission was to coordinate “external economic policy.” The FTC was formed in 1981 as a department under the control of the Economic Planning Board. Its purpose was to “promote fair competition and trade.”
The NTOA, which later became staunchly anti-screen quota, was less opposed to the system in the early 80s. It was the most powerful domestic group in the Korean movie industry and had benefited under the screen quota. The regulations were not being fully enforced during this period, so it had some leeway to pursue its own interest. However, the screen quota system blocked movie owners from obtaining highly profitable Hollywood movies. But most importantly, because the national movie theater owners’ cartels were organized in regional, rather than a national, cartels they were not organized enough politically to be a powerful force.
The pro-screen quota faction, on the other hand, was far weaker. Its two most important members, the CDMI and the entertainment branches of the conglomerates, did not exist. The only permanent member of the faction, the MOCT, existed as Ministry of Information and its main concern regarding movies was censorship rather than cultural protection. The non-aliened actors, the politicians, presumably held weak views on movie industry barriers and cultural protections. There are no reports of politicians making public comments regarding the system in English-language sources prior to 1998. Judging by their decisions to reduce the screen quota 146 days in 1985 and to allow foreign direct distribution in 1987, they valued free trade or bilateral relations over the interest of the Korean movie industry.
In 1997, the Korean government passed the sixth revised film law. This marked a watershed in the domestic movie industry. Previously, Korean law allowed only Korean distributors to supply foreign movies to the domestic market; stipulated theater owners show 2 Korean movies for every foreign movie; and set a 5 million dollar ceiling on annual foreign movie imports. The sixth revised film law abolished the ratio system and import ceiling. But, most importantly it allowed American distributions companies to negotiate directly with Korean theater owners. The number of imported films rose drastically. In 1985 there were 30 imported films. In 1989, four years later, there were 264 imported films in Korea. The number peaked at 384 imported films in 1994.
The Korean share of the domestic market, which was already shrinking due to poor Korean movie quality, lack of capital, and inadequate distribution systems , declined drastically. It went from 33% in 1986 to 20.2% in 1980 and bottomed out at 15.9% in 1993.
The entrance of the foreign distributors broke the strength of the independent theater owners’ cartels. The owners were highly dependent on Hollywood distributors because of the popularity and profitability of American movies. They were forced into disadvantageous deals such as “block booking,” or buying a package of movies that included several less popular movies and one hit movie. The independent movie theater owners were at such a disadvantage by the late 90s that they were going out of business. In 1991, there were 762 screens in Korea. By 1995, there were only 577. This is a drop of 185 screens.
The drop in Korean market share of the domestic market began to reverse in 1993. The formation of the Screen Watchers Group marked the shift of power from the anti-screen quota to the pro-screen quota system faction. The relative positions of the majority of the anti-faction, U.S. Commerce Department, the MPA, the KFTC, and MOFAT, remained largely the same. The KFTC gained independence from the Economic Planning Board, but nothing else changed. However, the Screen Watchers Group immediately affected the local market share. Prior to that time, the screen quota laws were not being enforced. Theater owners regularly ignored Korean movies in favor of higher grossing American movies.
But, with the screen quota being enforced, the Korean share rose nearly 5% from 15.9% to 20.5%. This reversed a decade-long decline in local market share in the domestic movie market. The next major boost came in 1995 with the establishment of Cinema Service and then CJ Entertainment. Encouraged by the gains made since the screen quota begin being enforcement and the protections the system provided, the conglomerates sunk money, technology, and talent into the Korean movie industry. CJ Entertainment started building its own distribution network with the creation of the CGV multiplex theater chain. This guaranteed outlets for its productions and reduced distribution costs. CJ Entertainment and Cinema Service’s aggressive market strategies broke the foreign distribution monopolies that controlled the local market since it was opened in 1986.
In tandem with these developments, the Constitutional Court ruled that film censorship violates constitutional law. This forced the MOCT’s predecessor, the MOC, to shift from censorship to cultural protection. Buy the time the current MOCT was formed in 1998, the organization was fully devoted to its new mission. This included protection and promotion of the screen quota. The MOCT has been a leading public defender of the system over the last 5 years, especially with the appointment of its new minister, Chang-dong Lee, a Korean movie industry insider, in 2002.
Politicians have joined the pro-screen quota faction in recent years as well. As mentioned above, they have realized that actors and actresses draw votes during election campaigns. Therefore they have supported the screen quota. Presidents, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun campaigned on a pledge that they would maintain the current quota system. A majority of the national assembly signed a petition to maintain the screen quota in 1998 and the body passed resolution to maintain the mandatory screening period for domestic films in 1999.
This shift of power from the anti to pro-screen quota faction has caused the local share of the Korean market to rise from 20.9% in 1995 to 39.7% in 1999. In 2001, the Korean share of the domestic movie peaked at 50.1%; its highest in over two decades.
Local Versus Imported Films
Local Market Share
Overview: Film Origin and Market Share
The above description illustrates that the fluctuations of the Korean market share in the domestic market are dependent on the interests of the predominate groups. From 1983 to 1993, the anti-screen quota faction was stronger and the Korean market share fell to 15.9%. However, as the pro-screen quota faction gained power in the period 1993 to 2002, the Korean market share rose to a peak of 50.1%.
Kim Young-hoon, “Outlook: Screen Quotas Make Little Sense,” JoongAng Daily (Seoul), 23 June 2003.
Coalition for Cultural Diversity in Moving Images, “Overview of the Screen Quota System in Korea”; [on-line] available from http://www.screenquota.org/epage/Board/view.asp?BoardID=4&Idx=81; Internet; accessed 5 May 2004
Byung-il Choi, “When Culture Meets Trade: Screen Quota in Korea,” Global Economic Review Vol 31, No. 4 (Seoul, Korea: Korea Institute for International Economic Policy, 2003), 78.
Kim Byong-Jae, “Currents: The Unmaking of the Korean Movie,” Koreana Vol.6 No.4 (Seoul: Korean Foundation, 1992)
“U.S. Aide Says Korea Not Ready for Free Trade,” JoongAng Daily (Seoul), 22 October 2003
Wikipedia: Free Encyclopedia, s.v. “Motion Picture Association” [on-line] available from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Motion_Picture_Association; Internet; accessed 13 June 2004
Brian Yecies, “Re: Regarding your Screen Quota Research,” (summary of current research regarding Korean Screen Quota System in e-mail response to inquiry, 5 May 2004).
“Valenti Discussed Renaissance of Korean Film Industry with Korean President,” (Los Angeles: Motion Picture Association of America, 1999) [online] available at http://www.mpaa.org/jack/; Internet; accessed 5 May 2004
Don Kirk, “South Korea’s Filmmakers Roll Into Action to Protect Foreign-Movie Quota,” International Herald Tribune (Paris), 11 December 1998
Korea Fair Trade Commission, “About the KFTC: History,” (Seoul: KFTC, 2004) [online] available at http://ftc.go.kr/eng/; accessed 10 June 2004.
Korea Fair Trade Commission, “About the KFTC: Organization and Mission,” (Seoul: KFTC, 2004) [online] available at http://ftc.go.kr/eng/; accessed 10 June 2004.
“Fair Trade Boss Pushes Relaxed Movie Quota System,” JoongAng Daily (Seoul), 31 October 2003
Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, “About the Ministry: History,” (Seoul: MOFAT, 2004) [online] available at http://www.mofat.go.kr/en/about/e_about_ora_history.mof; accessed 12 June, 2003.
“Officials Clash Over ‘Infant Industry’ Help for Films,” JoongAng Daily (Seoul), 13 June 2003
Joon Soh, “Screen Quota Is About More Than Money,” Korea Times (Seoul) 19 June, 2003.
Korean Film Commission, Number of Screens 1991-2002 Korea Cinema Yearbook 2003 (Seoul, Korea: Korean Film Commission, 2003), 162.
Global Film Exhibition and Distribution, “Korean Exhibition Environment,” in CJ Entertainment December 2003 Press Release (Seoul: CJ Entertainment, 2003), 6.
MCT, “About the Ministry of Culture and Tourism: History,” (Seoul: Ministry of Culture and Tourism, 2004) [online] available from http://www.mct.go.kr/english/M_about/history.html; Internet; accessed 13 June 2004
Lee Yeon-Ho, “Mapping the Korean Film Industry,” trans. Im Hyun-Ock, Cinemaya N. 37, winter 1997.
CDMI, “Newsletter – KCCD, Korean Coalition for Cultural Diversity,” (Seoul: CDMI, 2003) [online] available from http://www.screenquota.org/epage/upload/Newsletter%202003.4.doc; Internet; accessed 13 June 2004.
Park Sung-soo, “Viewpoint: Whose Interests are being served?” JoongAng Daily (Seoul), 8 June 2003; “Officials Clash,” JoongAng Daily
CDMI, “About CDMI: Who We Are,” (Seoul: CDMI, 2003) [online] available from http://www.screenquota.org/epage/about/about_01.asp; Internet; accessed 13 June 2004.
Korean Film Council, “2003 Box-office Wrap-up” (Seoul: Korean Film Commission, 2004) [online] available at http://www.koreanfilm.or.kr/news/news_view.asp?kor_news_num=24&page=3&p_part=1
&p_item=&tmp_cnt=24; accessed 10 May 2004
CDMI, “Screen Quota and the Korean Film Industry,” (Seoul, CDMI) [on-line] available from http://www.screenquota.org/epage/Board/view.asp?BoardID=4&Idx=119; Internet; accessed 1 May 2004
Korean Film Commission, “Trends of Korean Film Production and Importation 1993-2002” Korea Cinema Yearbook 2003 (Seoul, Korea: Korean Film Commission, 2003), 318.
Wednesday, June 09, 2004
I’m still in the middle of midterms. Just finished my Korean exam and a paper for my Media and International Relations class tonight. I posted the paper below. It’s a deconstruction of the nationalist rhetoric surrounding the Korean Screen Quota System. It’s heady stuff not for the faint of heart. But, it’s an interesting insight of the monotony that is my life. Enjoy!
Nationalist Discourse and Cultural Imperialism: The Problematic Rhetoric Surrounding the Korean Screen Quota System
The cultural arguments for the Korean screen quota fall into three closely related categories: protection of national identity, defense of traditional cultural roots, and guards against cultural domination. The concepts underlying these terms are highly ambiguous and riddled with flaws. Depending when and how these cultural arguments are invoked they can be highly problematic. Analysis of the movies made under the screen quota system clearly illustrates these contradictions.
The leading public defenders of Korea’s screen quota system are the Ministry of Culture and Tourism (MCT), the Coalition for Cultural Diversity in Moving Images (CDMI), and Korean intellectuals. The Minister of the MCT, Chang-dong Lee has primarily used claims of cultural domination and cultural sovereignty to defend the screen quota system. He stated, “American movies are like dinosaurs in the jungle” and argued “The screen quota is not just an issue for the film industry; it is vital to the future of our visual media industry as a whole. If we lower our guard on film, the rest of the market is lost.” He claims the culture sector is closely related to Korea’s national identity and points out, “Even the World Trade Organization’s Doha Agenda on the service sector excludes culture from its negotiations.”
The CDMI invokes national identity and cultural domination arguments in its fervent defense of the screen quota. The president of the group, Gi-na Yu, describes movies with a sort of sacred nationalism: “A film is not a chair or an ink bottle or a floppy disk that we just use and then throw away… We see it, and it stays strongly with us in our minds… It’s something very spiritual and psychological.” She explicitly describes the screen quota as a defense against domination: “The BIT tries to put us on the same competitive plane with the U.S. and that isn’t possible…. The economic power in the relationship will eventually go to the stronger and richer nation. To think of it otherwise is naive… Are we going to keep going toward a world where a minority of people rule everything? Or will we try to make a world that is more evenly distributed, where differences are accepted, and a variety of films, though they may not all be good, exist and have the opportunity to be seen?”
Intellectual elites, newspaper columnists and university professors, comprise the last vocal contingent of screen quota defenders. As a group, they have used all three arguments, national identity, traditional roots, and cultural domination, in their defense of the screen quota. Joseph Chung, opinion writer for the JoongAng Daily, states, “When we succumb to pressure from the United States to halve the requirements for local cinemas … it does not mean just reducing the days. When the distribution is halved, film production will also be reduced by half. When this vicious cycle continues … Hollywood films will be triumphant.” He sees a corrupting element in Hollywood films. “The actors Gary Cooper or John Wayne, often playing cowboys, were screen idols when I was young. I thought white men who hunted Indians were symbols of justice, and that the Indians who worked to protect their land and existence were evil-doers.” He quotes Costa-Gavras and Jacques Chirac in saying, “Our mind is not for sale, and culture is not for negotiation… Culture should not surrender to trade.” An unsigned editorial in The Hankyoreh argues, “Films are profound art forms produced by a cultural industry that strives to promote appreciation of a country’s traditional and contemporary identity.”
In this rhetoric, national identity, tradition, and cultural are invoked, but rarely analyzed. National identity and tradition are prima facie good, while cultural domination is prima facie bad. However, upon closer inspection these terms are not as clear-cut or value-laded as implied. Each concept involves a complex, often paradoxical process. In the drive to create a national identity, minority voices are excised or suppressed in order to fashion a coherent whole. The notion of national tradition freezes in a point a dynamic past and idealizes it as a symbol of the nation’s present identity. Cultural domination suggests that an outside force threatens the nation’s sovereignty. This, in turn, implies that the threatened national government represents the autonomous interests of its diverse citizenry. All of the assumptions underlying the above arguments are dubious in theory and in practice. Studies illustrate the processes that the screen quota is designed to protect against are still happening. Only the actors are Korean, not foreign.
In the screen quota discussion, national identity is posited as a coherent entity under threat from cultural imperialism. According to this nationalistic argument the sense of a cohesive national identity is fractured by the imposition of foreign ideas or values. Benedict Anderson’s definition of the nation as “an imagined political community” is useful in understanding the problems in the national identity argument. Anderson explains the nation “is imagined because members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their community.” This does not suggest that modern nations are somehow false. He points out imagined communities lead to very real killing and dying for the nation. Nor, he says, does his argument imply that there are “true” national communities. He says, “Communities are not to be distinguished by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined.”
Anderson argues that the rise of national media over the previous two centuries is what made mass construction of national identity possible. The style of imagining the nation is a mass-mediated process. Anderson cites the example of reading the daily newspaper. “This ceremony is incessantly repeated at daily or half-daily intervals throughout the calendar. What more vivid figure for the secular, historically-clocked, imagined community can be envisioned?”
The value of Anderson’s concept of imagined communities in the discussion of national identity is that “we can now recognize that cultural identities are not rooted in deep quasi-natural attachment to a homeland, but rather complex cultural constructions.” But more strikingly, seen in this light “National identities are, paradoxically, the cultural outcome of the very same process — expanding capitalism, Western rationality, the breakdown of ‘tradition’, the ‘mediatisation’ of cultural experience — that are said, in other discourses, to constitute cultural imperialism itself!” Meaning the process of national identity building is the same as foreign domination.
This is clear when looking at the top-ten Korean movies produced under the screen quota system. Rather then sticking to a supposed “national Korean style” the major conglomerates that produce Korean movies simply adopt “Hollywood style” in an attempt to create blockbusters. Sunji Oh reports the top-5 grossing Korean films for previous years have adopted a largely homogeneous style that closely follows Hollywood conventions. Oh conducted a content analysis of 46 recent films and compared genera, theme, character, and narrative choices in Korean movies to “classical Hollywood styles” outlined by leading film studies scholars. Oh defines Hollywood movies as “a cinema of westerns, gangster films, musicals, melodramas, and thrillers” and claims the “basic formal concern in Hollywood is story telling…. The film should be comprehensible and unambiguous and possess a fundamental emotional appeal tending toward harmony and stability.” She contrasts this with “third world films” in which “the long take, cross-cutting, panning shot, silence in films, and a different concept of the ‘hero’” are the norm. Oh tracked seven genera types: action, comedy, historical film, romance, sex, social consciousness, and war. She further assessed whether the films included the following issues: North/South divisions, Korean social and political situations, Korean social problems, and Confucianism. She noted if the narration was comprehensible and unobtrusive. And, she checked if the main characters in the films were clearly described.
Oh concluded, “Most [recent] box-office hit films … are after all faithful to Hollywood filmic conventions. Well-narrated feature films in the action, comedy, and romance genre are dominant. No more than twenty percent of the films concerned the lives of Koreas.” She attributes this trend to the entrance of major conglomerates, Samsung, Dawoo, and Cheil Jedang, in the film market in direct competition with Hollywood films. “Competing with Hollywood blockbusters, Korean filmmakers tend to imitate the Hollywood entertainment formula. Instead of films oriented by national themes and styles, commercial films mimicked the Hollywood style hits at the box office.”
Oh’s study shows the only thing that distinguishes the process of “Korean national identity building” and “foreign domination” in the screen quota debate is the nationality of the actors. If the agent of capitalism, rationality, modernization, and mediation is a member of the national imagined community, then it is termed cultural sovereignty. If the actors are outside the community, then it is termed cultural domination. It is their nationality not their actions, which are of central concern. This is a tenuous argument, however. It assumes that the domestic agents will act in the best interest of the national community. In the case of top-ten movies produced under the screen quota system this is clearly not the case. Korean conglomerates are producing Hollywood style films rather than Korean themed films.
There are similar problems in the conceptualization of tradition in the discourse surrounding the screen quota debate. The major reason for this is that most so-called traditional practices are quite modern inventions, which often borrow elements from other societies, and therefore bears little relation to the customs of primitive tribal cultures. Eric Habsbawm explains these “invented traditions” are a set of practices normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate values and norms of behavior by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past. In fact, where possible, they normally attempt to establish continuity with a suitable historic past.
He cites a long list of deliberately constructed inventions of the nation-state: the deliberate choice of the Gothic style in the nineteenth-century reconstruction of the parliament; the use of a form of Flemish in Belgium schools, which is different than that spoken by Flanders of pervious generations; the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College Cambridge, which is the emblem of traditional English Christmas and broadcast across the world, but only dates back to 1918.
The significance of these invented traditions is not so much that they are constructed. It is more that they are meant to create a sense of stability and connection between the present and a fixed past that does not exist. The concept of a fix past denies history’s fluidity and diversity. In this case, “It is not as though cultural imperialism threatens the continuity of cultural patterns in modern societies.” This continuity never existed. “Rather [cultural imperialism] poses a threat to our collective imaginings of a culturally definitive past.” It offers competing views of history.
Korean historical dramas are an example of movies produced under the screen quota system that impose fixed meaning on a fluid past. Jinsoo An’s study of Korean historical dramas documents how the genre redefines Korean tradition by projecting modern conceptions backward onto past tradition. In her words, historical drama “stresses the similarity of the other in the past” and “foregrounds the similarity by figuring the past as an extension of ourselves in the present.”
An looks at six contemporary Korean historical films, Changhibin, Yonsan’gun, Pokkŏm Yosan, Simnyŏn Sedo, Mangbusŏk, Chŏngil Chŏngaenggua Yŏgŏl Minbi, and Taewon’gun. She determines, “The court drama films are about how protagonists manage, negotiate, and circumscribe the oppressive burden of tradition/history.” But, she suggests that the central characters are uniformly portrayed as victims of history. “On numerous occasions, past events of catastrophic proportions ignite and determine the actions of protagonists…. They are ultimately seen, without exception, in profound resignation, regret, guilt, and sorrow.” The Korean historic drama therefore creates a meta-narrative: Korea as an innocent victim of historical forces beyond its control. This modern concept shapes the interpretation of the country’s past and present as well as the shared national identity and history.
Again, another argument evoked by defenders of the screen quota — that foreign films threaten to corrupt indigenous traditions — rings hollow upon further analysis. It seems the issue is not so much that domestic tradition is being reconstructed. An’s study shows that domestic movie producers are actively involved in redefining Korea’s history and tradition. Rather, the issue seems to be who is doing the reconstructing — members of the nation-state or foreign interests.
This leads to perhaps the most problematic of the disputes regarding the screen quota: cultural hegemony versus national sovereignty. The debate here boils down to a discussion of cultural autonomy. “The principal of cultural autonomy holds, roughly, that a culture has the right to ‘self-legislation’ and freedom from heteronomous control. Domination here is the exercise of such heteronomy: manipulation of control of the culture from the outside.” The problem comes in determining at which level to define autonomy: nationally, individually, or culturally. Autonomy at the national level is fairly easy to define: the sovereignty of the nation-state or the right to “self-legislation and freedom from external interference within a bounded political-geographical domain.” Individual autonomy is likewise a fairly uncomplicated concept. An autonomous person is someone who is free to pursue his or her self-chosen goals without manipulation or interference from others.
However, the concept of cultural autonomy is highly problematic. A basic precondition of autonomy is an agent, an actor with self-interests. The actors at the individual and national level are clear. But, there is no actor in culture. The nation-state or citizen can behave as a stand in, but nether is a full representative of culture. Recognizing this, it then becomes difficult to speak of cultural autonomy in any coherent way. Individuals and the state often conflict over what is in the best interest of the general culture. In cases of disagreement, how is national severity to be defined? If it is assigned to the state-level then it ignores the individual agents. If it is defined at the individual-level, it ignores the national interests. It becomes impossible to talk of a cohesive national severity. Instead, there are only diverse interests that conflict and converge with domestic and international concerns.
This dynamic is at play in the portrayal of Korean women on screen. Korean movies have projected a narrow image of women. The predominate roles for females in Korean cinema have been as mothers and lovers. Alternative female images have been submerged in favorite of feminine images that uphold the Confucian system. This imagery does not treat each individual as a sovereign subject with separate self-interests. Instead, the predominate imagery in Korean movies tends to favor interest of a minority of older men over the interests of youths and women.
Hyangjin Lee documents one prominent female stereotype, the dutiful lover, and the message it sends by comparing three movie adaptations of the Korean folktale, Ch’unhangjŏn: Shin Sangok’s Sŏng Chu’unhang, Park T’ae-wŏn’s The Tale of Sŏng Chu’unhang, and Han Sanghun’s Sŏng Chu’unhang. Lee explains the Ch’unhangjŏn folktale “features gender and class as the central subjects…. Therefore, the varied portraits of Ch’unhang can provide us with useful clues about the self-perceptions held by Koreans.” Looking at how the three versions of Ch’unhangjŏn “tailor specific aspects of the narrative according to aesthetic standards and pragmatic needs of their times… exposes underlying ideological contradictions in the established morals on sexuality and the institution of marriage” in the portrayal of Korean national identity.
After careful discussion of the three moves in question, Lee concludes, “According to Ch’unhyang’s images in these films, what defines male-female relations in South Korea is still rooted in traditional Confucian ethics, which succor differential treatments of men and women.” She finds the roles of women in these three films highly restrictive. Although Lee allows, “minor variations exist” in each film, she believes that Korean cinema “takes a positive stance toward the traditional womanhood epitomized by Ch’unhyang”. She ends by saying, “What emerges from my film analysis is the time-honored importance of the Confucian family values in Korean cultural identity, which overrides the shifting ideologies of the state…. Traditional family values still exercise crucial influence on how Koreans perceive themselves in the contemporary period…. The basic perception of woman’s place in the society and their role in contemporary Korean culture has been shaped largely by the patriarchal social order and the family centered moral codes.” According to Lee’s account, the role of woman in Korean cinema is very limited. Although she allows that there is some diversity, she sees it as minimal. The predominate image is of women as mother or lover inside the narrow confines of a patriarchal Confucian structure.
The cultural argument for the screen quota is that the system protects against the redefinition of national tradition and culture by a dominant group of minority interests at the expense of sovereignty. However, the process that the system is purportedly defending against is still occurring. The three studies of Korean movies cited above illustrate that Korean popular movies made under the screen quota system adopt a largely homogeneous style, project modern concerns backward onto past tradition, and construct a narrow national identity. The screen quota does not protect Korean national identity from redefinition. It does not shield Korean traditions from change. And, it does not protect the society from minority cultural domination. This renders the cultural arguments for the screen quota mute.
The screen quota does assure domestic, rather than foreign, agents control the process. It equates big business interest with national interest and carefully protects these concerns. This begs a question outside the purview of this paper. Is protecting the economic interests of a few Korean business institutions a worthwhile goal? What are the costs and benefits and do they justify the screen quota system? Answers to these questions might justify the continuing the screen quota system. The cultural arguments do not.
1. “Officials Clash Over ‘Infant Industry’ Help For Films,” JoongAng Daily (Seoul), 13 June 2003
2. “The Screen Quota Is About More Than Money,” Korea Times (Seoul), 19 June 2003
3. “Film Quotas Manipulate Culture,” JoogAng Daily (Seoul) 15 June 2003
4. “The ‘Screen Quota’ System Cannot Be Abandoned,” The Hankyoreh (Seoul), 10 June 2003
5. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins ad Spread of Nationalism, (London: Verso, 1983).
6. John Tomlinson, Cultural Imperialism, (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991)
7. Sungji Oh, “Korean Cinema and Hollywood” in Cine Korea Forum, 1997 [paper online]; available from http://www.cinekorea.com/forum/paper01.html; Internet; accessed 29 April 2004.
8. Eric Hobsawm “Introduction: Inventing Traditions,” in The Invention of Tradition, ed. Eric Hobsawm and Terence Ranger (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 1.
9. Jinsoo An, “Cinematic Projection of the Past: Korean Historical Drama,” Korean Studies Forum Volume 1 (Seoul: Yonsei University Press, 2002), 227.
10. Hyangjin Lee, Contemporary Korean Cinema: Identity, Culture, and Politics (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000)
Tuesday, June 08, 2004
Finals in Full Swing, Baby
Finals are in full swing. I’ve got a load of papers to write, exams to study for, and presentations to prepare. I’m afraid posts are going to be few and far between for the next week or two. But, here are two more stories on Korean for you to enjoy. The first is advice for anyone planning a trip to South Korea. The second is about my trip to Taiwan last winter. I wrote them in preparation for the writing part of my Korean final exam tomorrow. Wish me luck and enjoy. As always, if you can’t speak Korean, you can go to Babel Fish and have my writing translated into English. But be forewarned, when I say, “translate,” I mean in the loosest possible definition of the term. It’s more like randomly throwing words at the page. But, it has an interesting Burroughsequ quality too it.
한국은 재미있는 것이 많고 돈이 있으면 살기 편합니다. 서울에는 사계절이 있습니다. 겨울에 너무 춥고 눈이 때때로 옵니다. 봄은 쌀쌀하고 바람이 자주 붑니다. 여름에는 습하고 너무 따듯합니다. 가을에 비가 많이 옵니다.
한국에는 맛있는 음식이 많지만 매운 음식을 잘 먹을 수 없으면 아마 한식을 별로 안 좋아할 것 같습니다. 저는 한식을 너무 좋아해서 매일 먹습니다. 제가 좋아하는 한식은 닭갈비와 냉면입니다. 날씨가 더울 때 냉면을 먹고 날씨가 추울 때 닭갈비를 먹습니다. 한식을 매일 먹으면 건강합니다.
한국에 오기 전에 특별하게 사야 할 것 은 없습니다. 한국에서 다 살 수 있고 가끔 한국이 다른 나라보다 물가가 쌉니다. 한국에 오자마자 교통카드를 사세요. 한국교통은 너무 나빠서 차가 있으면 불편합니다. 그렇지만 지하철이나 버스를 사용하면 편하고 빨리 갈 수 있습니다. 그리고 교통카드를 있으면 대중교통을 사용하기가 더 편합니다.
올해에 우리아내와 제가 대만에 갔습니다. 요즈음에 우리아내가 대만에 대해서 관심이 많습니다. 우리아내가 대만드라마를 보고 중국어를 배우고 있습니다. 그래서 우리아내가 대만여행을 다 준비했습니다. 우리는 2박 3일 동안 좋은 타이베이 에있는 호텔에 묵었습니다. 너무 재미있는 여행이었습니다. 아침마다 호텔에 있는 큰 부폐에서 아침을 먹고 구경하러 갔습니다. 우리는 박물관, 동물원, 공원에 갔습니다.
대만음식이 별로 안 맛있습니다. 처음 대만에 도작할 때 대만음식이 맛있을 거라고 생각했습니다. 그렇지만 대만음식은 기름기 많기 때문에 하루 후에는 그것을 안 좋아했습니다. 소화가 안 됐고 음식을 먹은 후에는 기분이 안 좋았습니다. 한식을 먹고 싶었습니다.
대만의 장점은 밤놀이입니다. 우리는 대만에서 밤에 온천과 시장에 갔습니다. 시장에는
여러 가지가 있었습니다. 옷과 구두와 화장품과 음식을 살 수 있습니다. 먹어 본적 없는 음식이 많이 봤지만 배가 아프기 때문에 먹을 수 없었습니다. 대만에 다시 가면 소화제를
가지고 갈 겁니다.
Sunday, June 06, 2004
Yooboo Choebap. Yummmm!
Saturday, June 05, 2004
Bloodthirsty Murderers or Altruistic Do-gooders?
On June 3, I posted “One Woman’s Deep Ambivalence.” In part, I described a conversation with a fellow Korean student about the U.S. Military presence in South Korea. During our talk, she said something to the effect of “I do think the United States sends the worst soldiers to Korea — the most stupid and violent ones.” This got me thinking.
U.S. Soldiers in Korea get a bum wrap. Their public image in South Korea is overwhelmingly negative. The media focuses on GI crime and public drunkenness. The few alternative portrayals in Korea are provided by U.S. Military press releases that are sometimes rerun in Korean newspapers. These are equally shallow and generally derided by Koreans as obvious propaganda. Neither is a holistic look.
I am not an apologist for the American Military. On a general level, I have a vague spiritual/moral problem, which I cannot fully express, with a global nation-state system predicated on military power and a general suspicion of the people who perpetuate it. Specifically, I’ve found the politics of military personally in Korea, on the whole, deeply flawed historically and factually.
I believe GIs in Korea enjoy extraordinary extralegal and legal protection as well as special material privileges denied to the general population. And, to a large extent this is the source of the Korean public’s resentment. I also think there is some truth in the image of drunken GIs rampaging through the streets of Seoul. I’ve seen it myself on several occasions and find it distasteful. Likely, I would find it even more offensive if I had a native/nationalist tie to South Korea.
However, I think it is important to present an alternative view of U.S. soldiers as a counterbalance to the overwhelming negative imagery. My hope, however unlikely, is that younger Koreans would read this account and develop a more rounded view of military personnel. Not because I feel a nationalistic/patriotic connection with American GIs, but because I feel a human bond and don’t like them being reduced to inhuman characters.
To that end, I submit three pieces: Iraq War Takes an Uneven Toll at Home, Recruiting in a Time of War (Part I), Recruiting in a Time of War (Part II). My hope is that readers would take the time to listen to these programs in full. But, if you do not have the time or interest, here is a brief summary:
Iraq War Takes an Uneven Toll at Home:
This piece discusses a report by sociologist Robert Cushing for the Austin American-Statesman, which shows that “soldiers and Marines from rural areas are dying at twice the rate of troops from cities and suburbs.” In the report, Robert Cushing outlines the apparent causes for this “statistical anomaly”: lack of rural job opportunities, high degree of patriotism, and desire for adventure and a new life. The piece ends with a discussion with Diane and Gerald Petty, the parents of Pfc. Jerrick Petty, who was killed in Mosul, Iraq. In the interview Gerald Petty says, “If we’ve got higher numbers [of deaths in rural areas], that just means that we have more people here that are more concerned about everyone else. Whether we like it or not, we support him and we are proud of him. That they’re carrying the country basically. That they are selfless in their endeavor to keep the American Way.”
Recruiting in a Time of War (Parts I and II):
This two-part programs follows Sgt. 1st Class Jimmy Bowie, an Army recruiter in Huntsville, Texas. In talking to him, the piece explores his tactics in recruiting solders and motivations behind his recruits’ decisions to join. The motivations are very much the same as those cited by sociologist Robert Cushing: lack of rural job opportunities, high degree of patriotism, and desire for adventure and a new life. The most compelling part of program is the discussion between a mother and her son over his decision to join the Army. “She’s got to understand that there is nothing here for me,” he says. “I know. I just don’t want him to die,” she responds, audibly fighting back tears.
The current and future soldiers’ humanity comes across strikingly in all three programs. The image is of human cogs caught in a machine far greater than them. It is also important to note that none of this was part of the hyperbole surrounding Memorial Day in the States. All three pieces were broadcast well before May 31.
Thursday, June 03, 2004
Eleven Things Koreans Say When They See A White Person on the Street
1. Nothing [In Korean]
2. “Look a foreigner.” [In Korea]
3. “American!” [In Korea]
4. “Hello!” [In English]
5. “How are you?” [In English]
6. Stare / Strange look [In Korean]
7. “I need to study English.” [In Korean]
8. “Studying English is hard.” [In Korean]
9. “Handsome” / “Pretty” [In English]
10. “Foreigners are weird.” [In Korean]
11. “Shut up.” [In Korean]
Foreigners are weird
A Survey of Korean Sentiment
The potential reduction, redeployment, and movement of U.S. troops in South Korea is major news here. Chosun Ilbo, JoongAng Daily, and Ohmynews all ran front-page stories on the issue yesterday. The coverage is fascinating. It reveals a lot about Korea’s ambivalence regarding the U.S. Military, U.S. power, and America’s image.
The Chosun Ilbo has been vehement in its criticism of the United States. In a May 27 commentary the newspaper claimed the U.S. Military showed “arrogance in the U.S. attitude toward the Korea-U.S. alliance.” Commentator, Kim Dae-joong railed against the United States in a May 25 piece. He opened by saying: “There is one thing I just can’t understand. Why does Korea keep its relationship with the United States in this way and for what? First of all, obviously it is neither because we like the United States nor because the United States had been generous to us. Once people live in the United States and the more they learn about the country, there is a tendency in which those people begin to despise the arrogance and the lopsided ways of the powerful nation. There are many times when those experiences develop into anti-American sentiments. Eventually those feelings create impotence and fear against the power of the United States, which leads to concerns and a gloomy view of Korea’s future.” Later he went on to say, “Korea is far from taking advantage of its alliance with the United States.”
The JoongAng Daily has been a little more balanced in its commentary. On June 1, it ran an article by former Ambassador to the United States, Kim Kyung-won. He opened by criticizing U.S. 8th Army, Lieutenant General Charles Campbell for publicly speculating that Republic of Korea troops may be jointly involved in future peacekeeping missions in Northeast Asia. The primary problem with this speculation as Kim sees it is that Campbell did not consult with the South Korean government before making the statement. Kim goes on to claim, “The problem is that the United States and South Korea do not trust each other” and urge the South Korean government to work out its problems with the United States. “The important thing is that we should not make the mistake of losing the trust of our existing allies when we try to choose another ally out of strategic necessity. Throwing away something old before we get something new is not a matter of a choice between progressivism and conservatism, but between wisdom and stupidity,” he concludes. In a May 28 editorial, the paper directly criticized the South Korean government for not doing more to assume the responsibility for self-defense: “As it is now clear that the force reduction will be on a grand scale, our government needs to do more than pay lip service. How does it intend to come up with the money, and cope with the negative economic and social effects that could follow such a large force reduction are very important issues? The government needs a plan.” The piece suggested part of the plan would be to “readjust our combined command structure, currently led by the United States.”
The Ohmynews article was predictably liberal, but surprisingly well balance considering Ohmynews’ general reportage. The May 24 article titled, “Less Military Means More Peace,” argued that the U.S.’s troop reduction was an opportunity to reduce tensions on the peninsula and warned South Korea against military buildup in an attempt to fill the resulting “security vacuum”. In the author’s opinion South Korea was already capable of defending itself against North Korean aggression. He writes:
“The ‘security vacuum’ argument doesn’t make much sense. Without the strengthened military presence in and around Korea, the U.S.-Korea alliance is seen to have already secured an ‘excessive’ level of deterrence against North Korea.
Excluding the U.S., South Korea has injected three to four times more money than North Korea to buildup its military capability over the last 20 years. Today, South Korea’s military budget is almost same as North Korea’s GDP. If South Korea is losing its ability to fight with North Korea despite all the money it is poured in, the South Korean government is either lying to its citizens or plagued with inefficiency.
North Korea is indeed a great military threat to South Korea. Even though it is not able to win a war against South Korea, any military conflict between the two Koreas will claim a lot of lives and result in widespread damage. This means that preventing a war, at any cost, is a top priority.”
Wednesday, June 02, 2004
One Woman's Deep Ambivalence
The cross-section of newspaper coverage outlined in “A Survey of Korean Sentiment” seems pretty representative of general Korean attitudes. Naturally the public holds a diverse range of opinions regarding the issue. But what is more interesting to me is that the same person often expresses these contradictory, apparently mutually exclusive views. For me this gets at what is at once fascinating and intensely frustrating about South Korean attitudes toward the United States. They are extremely ambivalent. A story to illustrate my point:
The other day my Media and International Relations class took a school-sponsored trip to talk to U.S. Ambassador to Korea, Thomas Hubbard. It was a complete waste of time. The guy’s diplomatic concerns had him so tied in knots it distorted everything he said. I asked him at one point if the story in that morning’s JoongAng Daily that the United States requested the South Korean government keep the U.S. troop movement secret was true. And, if it was, why did the American Government make the request? He simply said it was not true and explained that there were mitigating circumstances that he did not want to go into. He offered no explanation why the Chosun Ilbo, the JoongAng Daily, and an unnamed source in the Roh administration were claiming otherwise.
At another point, he was asked if the U.S. decision to re-deploy troops from South Korea to Iraq was a tacit acknowledgement that the war in Iraq was going badly. He totally dodged the question and went into a longwinded talk about how the United States had consulted with South Korea before the move.
Later, another student asked what the U.S. Government was doing to address the rising anti-American sentiment in among South Koreas. Hubbard quipped, “This is it,” indicating the talk we were attending with Korean and foreign students from Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies. This got me thinking. The talk was a perfect example of why anti-American sentiment is so strong in South Korea. Most of the Americans Koreans see are bureaucrats like Hubbard or drunk GIs. This talk was an grand misdirection of time and resources. Hubbard is a top-ranking diplomat. He couldn’t really have a serious conversation with the Korean students in attendance. He is bound to contradict official U.S. policy lines in doing so. The Korean students knew that and basically stopped listening. But, more importantly it once again reinforced their stereotypical notions of American arrogance, uncaring, and cluelessness. The Korean students in the audience knew they were not going to get any honest answers. We were all just going through the motions: tossing Hubbard softballs and him lamely hitting them back to us.
If the U.S. Government really wanted to deal with anti-American sentiment in Korea, the best way to do it would be to find some halfway-intelligent GIs and train them to talk to South Koreas. Because of their position, they could talk to the public more openly. But, most importantly they would pose real, human faces against some of the ridiculous stereotypes floating around about Americans in general and enlisted specifically. Sending the U.S. Ambassador out to do this kind of work is a lost cause and a huge waste of resources.
My thoughts were partially confirmed when I got back on the bus to return to school. I overheard the Korean student in the seat across from me espousing a vague conspiracy theory regarding the U.S. troop redeployment to Iraq. It went something like this: “I’m sure the U.S. is just doing it to pressure Korea into dispatching the troops to Iraq quicker. I mean there are plenty of other places they could have found 3,000 soldiers. How come they didn’t take any troops from Japan? Why are they just taking them from Korea?”
When she fell silent, I asked her why she didn’t ask the Ambassador those questions. She said basically what I suspected: “You saw how he was answering the questions. He wouldn’t answer me.” I agreed. She asked me if I thought the troop redeployment was meant to pressure Korea into dispatching troops to Iraq quicker. I told her I didn’t know. But, I tended to doubt it. I had read the move was more likely the start of the U.S. Military’s global repositioning to effectively fight terrorism. I recounted a story to her about a Colonel that attended Yonsei Graduate School of International Studies last year. He was involved in the Status of Forces talks between South Korea and the United States and repeatedly claimed that the U.S. Military would flatly state it did not need to be in on the peninsula whenever it did not get what it wanted from the South Korean Government. Japan was the first priority; Korea was the second. I never knew how much of this was a negotiating ploy, but I thought there was some truth to the statement.
The women’s reaction was really interesting. She immediately became contemplative. First, she asked me if I thought the U.S. Military hated Koreans. I told her I never got that sense from my Colonel friend or any other enlisted. Honestly, I did not think they gave average Koreans a lot of thought. The Colonel seemed more focused on the Korean Government than its people. Next, she told me that she thought younger Koreas were “brainwashed” into focusing on the U.S. Military’s atrocities. She mentioned campus exhibitions depicting gruesome crimes committed by GIs and stories of crimes her senior classmates told her. She claimed she liked Americans and had many American friends. Then in the next breath she said, “I do think the United States sends the worst soldiers to Korea — the most stupid and violent ones.” And, again she switched. “Do you think Korean people have a reason to be angry at the U.S. Military?” she asked. “Yes,” I said. “In some cases they have done very little or nothing to solders who have committed crimes against Koreans.” The bus stopped, our conversation ended, and we all got off.
So there it is in a nutshell. Conflict, ambivalence, hate, love all mixed into one. Personally, I think all the American troops should go to Japan and South Korea should defend itself. Korea has gotten a free ride for too long. It’s time the country took care of itself. Not having the U.S. to blame will force the society to look inward for a change and do some useful soul searching. I suspect that after 5 to 10 years, South Koreas will start to talk about the mythical “good old days” when the American troops were here — a time that never existed.