Making Connections: An Expat’s Journey Through Korean History, Politics and Economics


By Taryn Assaf

By Taryn Assaf

As expats, and as English teachers, many of us come to Korea not too long after we’ve finished university. At university, our lives are often transformed. We become familiar with the workings of the world- its histories, tragedies, victories and complexities. For some of us, it contributes to a richer understanding of our place in the world, and offers us a chance to reflect on how our lives are situated in a complex web of relationships that affects everyone. Many of us become politicized during this time, leading to our first taste of activism – a taste we may long for but cannot find once we’ve moved to Korea. The combination of new sights, smells, sounds, tastes and experiences in Korea can certainly overwhelm a new, or even seasoned, expat. In Korea, as with any place in the world, the experiences we have as expats are not separate from the history of our host nation, nor are they separate from its culture, politics, and economics. They are part of the complicated grid of relationships between events that have culminated to create everything we see and do. Understanding our place among those relationships necessarily requires us to delve into the history, culture, politics and economics of this great country.

Despite a constant overwhelming of the senses, I’ve spoken to many expats who desire a deeper, richer understanding of the country they now call home. They come here as politicized subjects and quickly realize that their social capital and access to resources have slimmed to a sliver of what they used to be back home. Without speaking the language or knowing what resources exist, accessing the knowledge to facilitate that desire becomes difficult- if not impossible. Amid many other easily accessible opportunities, the yearning to seek out opportunities in the political realm is swiftly swept under the rug- unless it conveniently presents itself.

I was in Korea for about 5 months, and despite rushing headlong into anything that came my way, that yearning remained. It was then that, through the blessing that is the internet, I came into contact with an individual from the International Strategy Center (ISC). For the past nine months, I have been lucky enough to participate with their media team as a writer and blogger, as well as to experience the culture of Korea by learning about its history, politics and economics. I’ve been humbled by the opportunity to meet and speak with activists, politicians, farmers and workers and to share stories over food and drink. I’ve been dazzled by the beauty and serenity of the Korean countryside as I traveled around the country. I’ve been inspired through demonstrations, conferences, songs and speeches to continue showing solidarity with the struggles facing the Korean people. And after the weekend of November 22nd, 2013, when I attended a workshop by the ISC titled “Korean Culture, History, Politics and Economics,” I have been able to reflect upon my place within it all.

The workshop was a three-day intensive study, with four lectures, 2 field trips, and plenty of discussions. Although I was familiar with much of the topics discussed, I was also introduced to much new information. The lectures were a unique opportunity for our new guests to analyze the topics, to reflect and to gain new insights.

Haesook Kim, Director of the ISC, guided us through 5000 years of Korean history, focusing on the struggles and uprisings that shaped Korea with a focus on modern history. She began her presentation with an important reminder. “We must make history the cornerstone of our future,” she said, and went on to enlighten us on the three kingdoms, highlighting how each legacy contributed to modern Korean culture. I began to connect how certain occurrences of the past are, indeed, very much present. For instance, she spoke of the Silla kingdom, which developed Korea’s rich culture, much of which we marvel at today; she spoke of Koryo (고려), which traded extensively with other countries resulting in the use of the name Korea; and she spoke of Chosun, founded on Confucianism, which informs the family values and gender relations of many Koreans today. History has acted as the cornerstone for countless aspects of modern Korean culture, and continues to drive its evolution. I began to think about how I got here. What historical events necessitated the development of such a robust English language sector in this county?

Min-A Kim, Chair of Policy for the Arts Collective for a New Era, explained the history of Korean economics before exploring Korea’s current economic policy under neoliberalism. How did Korea develop its technology sector? she asked. With nothing but curious eyes attending to her question, she began to explain two major events- the democracy movement of June 1987, and the general workers strike that occurred from July to September of that year. The strike saw the establishment of independent trade unions and was an enormous victory for workers who had, for decades, earned extremely low wages working in factories. Workers could no longer be exploited as they had been in the industrial era, and so the economy began shifting into the higher value added technology industries. With the success of the technology industry, Korea’s economy gradually became less dependent on the U.S, which had been supplying it with economic aid. In 1997, foreign investors pulled their money out of the country within a month and the U.S simultaneously demanded that Korea pay back all of its debts. This “tactic” has been used in many countries, including Mexico and Brazil, as a way to coerce nations into adopting a neoliberal system of economics. In Korea, it lead to a liquidity crisis. With no money to pay back its debts, Korea had no choice but to enter into agreements with the IMF and World Bank, ushering in an era of neoliberalism which guides economic policies to this day. I began to wonder, how is the Korean and world economy connected to my role as an English teacher? Am I somehow supporting neoliberalism through that role?

Yeon Wook Chung, Chairman of the YongSan Region Committee of the Justice Party, explored the last 25 years of Korean politics as a window into the lives of Koreans while highlighting the progress and regression of Korean democracy. The most poignant part of his lecture was his investigation of Korea’s social problems. Korea is top rated among all OECD countries for suicide, divorce, car crashes, work hours, poverty among the elderly, cosmetic surgery (with 1 out of 5 women having had it) intestine and stomach cancer and low birth rate. People in every age bracket are stressed, he says. As children they are pressured to study, as young adults they are stressed by a shrinking job market, as adults they become economically sandwiched between supporting their children’s and their parents’ futures, and as they grow older they must worry about retirement. He says the growing social and economic divides are exemplified by these occurrences. Ten percent of the population controls forty percent of the assets in this country. As the income gap increases, so too does social inequality. A cycle of dependency is created when people are unable to meet their economic needs, leading to a life of stress and a society filled with less than praise-worthy number ones. I paused, How has my role as an English teacher contributed to the stress of individual students and whole families? How am I implicated in the continuation of these social problems?

Jeong-Eun Hwang, Director of Communications for the ISC, discussed the role of the ISC, specifically its organization, works, vision and direction. Her message brought everything together. “It is not about what knowledge we gain,” she said, “it’s about what we do with that knowledge. How can we put our knowledge into action?” One of the ways that she and the ISC accomplish this is by “seeing things as they really are.” The world is being crushed by neoliberalism. Economies are crashing. Poverty and inequality are rising. So they engage with the issues, they create solidarity among struggling groups and they study alternatives. In February 2014, they will travel to Venezuela for the second time to further research what these alternatives can look like.

Personally, I participate, I listen, I share and I write.  I’m trying to place myself within Korea’s robust history and determine the implications that English teaching may have on the future of this society. I’m continuing to think through my role as an educator in an industry necessitated by unequal global power relationships and fueled by the maintenance of that system. I’m starting to understand how I’m positioned within the totem pole of stress that contributes to the country’s suicide and cancer rates. And I don’t have the answers, nor do I know if answers are really what matter. But I know there are connections, and that to put my knowledge into action is to continue discovering the connections that bring us together and challenging those that pull us apart. To see things as they really are, as Jeong-Eun challenged us to do. I try to always be aware of my place in the vast grid of relationships that have contributed to the rich set of experiences I’ve had in Korea. And now I’d like to challenge you to better understand Korea, and through that journey, to better understand yourself.

Leave a Comment