Seoul Man: 12 Months in Korea – #13: Korea Recap – South Korea

Korea Recap
July 2004

These are strange times in Korea. Well, no stranger than usual, but eye-openingly bizarre by any ‘normal’ standards. Korea has been in the news recently so let’s recap:

Kim Sun-il Beheading:
On June 22 Kim Sun-il, a Korean translator was beheaded by an Islamic militant group, led by the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Kim was working as a translator for a Korean trading company who were supplying equipment to a U.S. army base. He had no protection and was unarmed. Obviously he would be seen as someone who was ‘collaborating’ with the U.S. forces and was a target. Unfortunately for him, he was kidnapped and beheaded despite the bumbling efforts of his boss and the Korean foreign office to get him released. A Korean civilian caught in a bad situation and paying the ultimate price.

However being Korea, things are never that simple. After his death speculation begain to mount about exactly when the Korean and U.S.
governments knew about his death. Everyone from his immediate boss to George Bush was (and is) being blamed for the death. Conveniently for the actual beheaders, they seemed to have escaped criticism. As recently as July 7th, the Korea Herald had a long front page article bemoaning the Associated Press’s ‘poor judgement’. Assorted ‘media and academic’ publicity hounds went into overdrive, accusing AP of being immoral and unethical in their handling of the Kim Sun Il case. Basically they feel that the agencies prime concern should have been getting the man released and not getting the story. The obvious response is laughter. Laughter at the fact that the Korean media are talking about ethics and morals in journalism. The Herald for example is the paper that only a few days before had an advertisement masked as an article for British American Tobacco. The article extolled the virtues of the cigarette, Here are some quotes:

“British American Tobacco Korea yesterday launched its super-slim “Vogue” brand, which has an enhanced mild taste.”

“According to consumer testing, Vogue offers a very well-balanced smoking experience and has a very high level of acceptability.”

Obviously the Korea Herald is a paper of high morals and ethics and would never think of taking a fat bribe in return for printing stories of dubious nature.

The other aspects of the beheading were no less pitiful. The family, who are now milking his death for everything they can were shown
wailing on live TV as the news that he had been killed filtered through from the Middle East. Obviously again high moral values from the media, intruding on a family in their moment of grief. There also rumours that the photo used by all the media was in fact stolen from a reporter with one of the major Korean dailies. Classy.

Immediately after the death, the media went to work and the blame game started. It was the Americans! No, it was his boss! No, it was the Korean government! Wait, it was the A.P.! The voices of reason were quick off the mark with the M.I.C. (Ministry of Information and Communications) deciding to shut down any website with any link to the pictures or videos of the Kim. This was done in order to “prevent further anguish to his family or the population”, according to the government. Nice. As is always the case, people who censor are not too bright and they also shut down a whole host of foreign weblogs which had no links to the pictures or videos. At the time of writing, these are still blocked. Hub of Asia? Where was the M.I.C. when the two schoolgirls got killed by a U.S. military vehicle? At that time the pictures were plastered all over the internet. Of course these pictures caused less anguish to their families as it was an American military vehicle which ran them over.

Vigils and demonstrations were held all over Korea ‘celebrating’ Kim Sun il and demanding that the planned deployment of 3,000 Korean troops to Iraq be cancelled. Of course in the free and vibrant Korean media, no one questioned the mental state of Mr. Kim. He apparently wanted to be a Christian missionary in the Middle East and was working in Iraq to fund his studies. This obviously was lunacy, but instead Korea celebrated his ‘bravery’ and ‘humanity’. People were ‘sad’ that he died and when his body returned to Busan there were tears all round, particularly from politicians on all sides, who despite having never met him, cared about him deeply. They cared about him more than the six Korean military who were killed during a naval clash between North and South two years ago. There were no vigils for them. No rallies. No coffins draped in flags. No letters. Yes, not even a letter. No one I asked even knows their names. But of course as anyone who has lived in Korea long enough knows there is a symmetry between the level of grief and
culprit. Here’s an example:

Killers Grief Level
North Koreans

People were ‘distraught’ over the two schoolgirls but didn’t give a toss about the soldiers. They were in ‘anguish’ over the killing of one man in Iraq (if this man was beheaded in Indonesia while on vaction, no one would give a shit) yet do not care that a shitload of people people get killed on the roads each year. What? They are killed by Korean drivers? Oh, sorry, never mind.

So, this whole mess continues, with the Korean victim complex rearing it’s ugly head again. Koreans can’t or won’t admit that they are a small country who in this case are playing realpolitik. You want American troops here? (And all polls suggest they do, despite the protests) Then you are gonna help out in Iraq. Two way street. Compromise. Unfortunately, most Koreans’ attitude to a problem is to throw money at it until it goes away, not something that is going to work this time. So what is going to happen? Well, Korean troops will go to Iraq. Some Korean troops will die. Just like American and British troops died in Korea 50 years ago. Of course, many (including myself) believe the war is wrong. But that’s not really the point. The media and ‘civic groups’ will contine to cry foul and to moan and whinge. There will be anti-American protests. And those six soldiers will still be forgotten.

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