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Letter to Jim 4 - Back in Korea
by Guy Hormel

.

Hey Jim,

You've been bugging me for months to tell you about the silent retreat at the Thai meditation center last summer. OK. But let me bellyache about being back in Korea first.

After a week my scalp started to itch. That's a bad sign. It means the hair follicles are gasping for breath. When I fight with my wife and our emotions rage out of control my scalp starts to itch. When I endure hostile indifference from other mammals on the subway my scalp starts to itch. When gnarly anxiety over anything less than balls to the wall economic growth permeates street level foot traffic my scalp starts to itch. And when I hear everything Korean is the global ne plus ultra... you know the rest.  

Much of the above is just big city dis-ease in general with a Hanguk tinge. And I'm a provincial bloke who's never lived in an industrial strength metropolis before.. in a country where rapid fire development catapulted it's citizens into a late twentieth century industrial consciousness with no opportunity to adapt to the enormous emotional displacements.

The architect of Korea Inc.'s economic transformation, General Park Chung Hee, was president from 1961 to 1979. He arguably was one of the most successful of the modern nation builders. He lead the 1961 military coup which toppled a nascent and ineffectual democracy. It was immortalized by the victors as the April Revolution. Initially he vilified the emerging entrepreneur class as self centered profiteers, and paraded some of the founders of future multinationals around the streets of Seoul in dunce caps. But then he had an capitalist epiphany and saw that building up personally anointed businesses was the way to prosper. Educated in Japan he used organizational skills learned there to initiate a series of five year plans to grow state sponsored businesses in what was then a command economy; in essence a form of national socialism. To accomplish this he needed financing. A master at playing the anti-communist card, he positioned his nation as a bastion against a very real North Korean threat and received some pretty cute dough from the United States. American aid represented the lion's share of Korean's GNP into the early seventies.

The Vietnam war was also a profit center for Park. He charged the U.S. government several million dollars per battalion for Korean combat troops. His "generosity" also had the added benefit of currying even more favor with the United States by supporting in an increasingly unpopular war. Not to mention giving the South Korean people a genuine source of pride by helping the American giant who contributed greatly to the preservation of their nation during the recent civil war. After misguidedly declaring himself president for life, Park was famously assassinated by his security chief while sipping Chivas Regal in the company of a gorgeous chantreuse.  

South Korea has often been viewed as the obscure little blue collar brother between China and Japan. So Park is just beginning get the attention he deserves. From Lenin in Russia to Nasser in Egypt to Sukarno in Indonesia, they all essentially failed; at least economically. Park dragged a nearly medieval, war ravaged South Korea out of it's depressed peasant slumber to become the world's tenth largest economy. No one guessed that Korea would be Asia's second tiger after Japan. Most economists thought it would be the Philippines. But Marcos' decision to kick out the U.S. military caused capital to flee the country in fear of mango republic instability. The now much maligned American troop presence has been a significant factor in Korea's rise to economic power.  

Inside Korea Park's methods are tirelessly debated. As they should be. He compared the Korean populace to an ant colony whom he believed should all think the same thoughts. He was a dictator who condoned forcing workers into virtual slavery and had democracy advocates imprisoned or murdered to achieve his ends. Although many Koreans acknowledge these "shortcomings" they still consider him a savior because they are no longer hungry and have a significant place on the world stage.

But the economic miracle on the Han River may have been calamitous from an spiritual perspective. Welcome to the developed world huh? In his patriotic zeal to lift his citizens up out of penury Park created an environment where a lot of what is uniquely Korean was destroyed. The past became a source of shame. A destitute and backward place to be avoided at all costs. When I first crash landed in Busan I wondered where old Asia had gone. It wasn't diminished. It was obliterated. Historical buildings were torn down by the score to make way for anonymous high rises. Shamanism along with it's archetypal parables was maligned as superstition. Some wedding celebrations were banned as excessive. Run don't walk became the rule to stifle reflection that could lead to dissension. The heritage that animates a country's interior life was being eliminated. And with it many of the extravagances that embody the tumultuous kineticism of the Korean spirit. Park Chung Hee helped to transform Korea into an remarkably prosperous yet psychologically bereft nation.  

I'm not so sure market capitalism is entirely good for Korea anyway. But then the transcendent ideals of democracy aside, is a pure market economy good for anyone? Too soon to tell as Mao, maybe the capo di tutti capi of twentieth century tyrants, might have said. It's inherent focus on competition may play into the resentment of others' accomplishments that embodies the more invidious side of the Korean character. I remember a few years ago one of the Buddhist orders was in the midst of a leadership struggle in Seoul. On a local news spot, I saw the monks outside their temple headquarters, bashing each other over the head with metal folding chairs.  

But what would have been the alternative? Lee Kun Hee, the founder of Samsung Corporation, believes that for a country the size of Korea a Scandinavian form of democratic socialism might have functioned better than aping an American economic system that developed out of a huge land mass with plentiful natural resources. But North Korea careened to the left and look at the nightmare that resulted. Maybe the Korean nature makes moderation in belief systems difficult. The interpretation of the Confucian analects here is the most stringent in Asia. Although if television sketch comedy is any indication, for possibly the first time, the under thirty generation is aggressively lampooning the social order of their antique elders. Sound familiar?

I can't conceive what the Korean people endured over the course of the twentieth century. Anymore than I can imagine living through the London Blitz. First the Japanese occupation with it's subjugation of sovereignty, forced labor and ravaging of natural resources. Then the war with the misery only internecine battles can provoke. I read a reliable account of the 1950-53 hostilities that stated at their conclusion only one building was left standing in North Korea. Poetic license or not you get the picture.

And while the American republic ponders the damage wrought by almost two terms of George W. Bush's rapture soaked dry drunk, the Republic of Korea is attempting to digest it's own bitter disappointments of the last decade or so. Two of the former military presidents, Generals Chun and Noh, it was discovered had stolen hundreds of millions of dollars while in office. I remember walking through the outdoor market near Busan National University just after the news was announced. The usually bustling bazaar was quiet. Vendors of all kinds were huddled around small televisions in stunned disbelief. Leaders they had been indoctrinated to obey had robbed them blind while they toiled in frequent penury. Then came the 1997 currency crisis with the realization that their first duly chosen civilian ruler Kim Young Sam fell asleep at the wheel and the country was bankrupt. Middled age housewives lined up in droves to donate hard earned gold jewelery in a noble demonstration of solidarity. But the government didn't have a clue. They bellowed slogans that were apropos only twenty years before like "Work harder!" But how now? The Koreans have the longest work week in the developed world. And finally last year the humilation when Dr. Hwang Woo-Suk admitted he had falsified his stem cell research. So much economic hope and national pride was wrapped up in his work. His explanation, both petulant and poignant, was he wanted the world to believe that South Koreans could achieve things too.

I hope the gods smile on the Korean soccer team and they do well in another World Cup. People desperately need heroes.

But it's getting windy on the soapbox and Jim, you're waiting to hear about The Siam Silence. Jeez, it will have to be another letter ....  

Until That Time,

Guy Hormel

July 16, 2006