Thursday, May 25, 2006

A tale of two countries

Reading through the NYTimes, I feel that once again, like a teenager fumbling around with his first girlfriend on Lookout Point, they hit on something, yet manage to not totally take it there.

Stumbling across "In Deep South, North Koreans Find a Hot Market", I finally see a story that takes an interesting look at how the South now views. For people who don't get it, why the North being popular is radical, is because for a long long loooong time the North was the bogeyman above the 38th parallel. And this was up until very very recently.

It was merely in my childhood (and I'm not that old, we're talking late 80s to early 90s here) where we were still being fed in McCarthy-era like teachings of "For emergencies, dial 119, to report spies dial 112." At least I think it was 112. There were still posters in subways warning people to be on the look out. Around '96 or '97 was the infamous "NK Spy Sub" incident where a North Korean submarine was discovered and after a frantic search for the spies, the vigilance of the search proved to be too much and the bodies of the spies who committed suicide than rather be captured were discovered. It was also in the 90s where there was the knifing incident where a prominent NK defector who had been living in the South in secrecy (considering his former government position in the North) was killed just outside the door of his own apartment. It's still unsolved to this day if I remember correctly.

At the same time, there's the whole conflict of the fact that there's still the feeling in the South that the North Koreans are their people. While as the older generation dies out it's harder to grasp this since for people up until my mom's generation we're talking about people like brothers/sisters, uncles/aunts, and parents who got separated when the parallel border got thrown up, there's still the ephemeral connection that those are "our folks" up there.

And yes, while as the articles states on one side we had to keep our eyes peeled for spies from the North's government, we were still taught the elementary school song of "Our Wish is Reunification." Especially with more anti-American feelings springing up with the youth, the separation of North and South is mostly to blame on the imperialistic containment game played by the US and the USSR (but it's still mostly the US' fault since there's not Soviet Union anymore). Just today I saw someone on the A-train downtown with a shirt saying "Corea is One" with a stylized map of North and South Korea made up by the word "Reunification."

But back to the article. One thing that annoys me is that this article makes it seem like a very very recent phenomenon when in fact it has been brewing for a while. The article mentions the song "Whistle" in the beginning, but the only reason this song is being sung is because it was a huge hit around 2-3 years ago.

The article is very right in pointing out that the attraction to North Korea has a lot to do with the fact that North Korea is like the South Korean retro. If anything, it's comparable the Germany's nostalgia about the Trabant or the Ampelmännchen.

For years, late at night there have been "Window on the North" type of shows where they show clips from North Korean news programs. There was great interest in the animation work from the North which included use of old school techniques, but where highly sophisticated. Especially with stop-motion animation. Think like the stylings of "Davey and Goliath" or "Jack Frost" but better.

North Korean dialect was also the rage. The difference not just from regional dialect, but also because in place of using words borrowed from other cultures, the hyper-nationalist North cultural policy had to rely on very literal translation of phrases. So this meant even words that have Chinese roots (because Korean written language until King Sejong invented Hangul was in Chinese...even now Chinese is's hard to explain, but if I had to draw a comparison, the usage of Chinese is like how you use Latin I suppose, but that's probably for another post). I can't remember if this is apocryphal or not, but hamburgers are actually called "meat between bread."

And everyone knows the only authentically good cold noodles are Pyongyang cold noodles.

When a delegation of female supporters/cheerleaders came with the North Korean delegation for the Asian Games, they became instant celebrities for how beautiful they were. Hell, one North Korean dancer actually got to star in a commercial with South Korea's Britney Spears Lee Hyo-ri. It just went to prove the age-old Korean saying that the best specimens were "Nam nam, book nyuh" (South Man, North Woman)

There's been cultural exchanges going on for quite some time too, with South Korea sending some of their performers to give performance in the North. So why does this article make it sound like all of this is happening at once? I must say, I do give credit to this article once again, for bringing up a fascinating cultural aspect in modern North-South relationships. I think it helps give a glimpse, but that's the problem it's just a glimpse.

I don't expect a drawn-out history lessons on the countries' relations, but it's the little touches like explaining maybe why the performer is specifically singing "Whistle," or even why there is that emphasis on beautiful North Korean waitresses. Especially how the author just says "yea up until the 90s people thought the North was evil" hardly cuts it and really there's not *that* much of an explanation of how attitudes shifted. While yes, there is that retro lovey feel, there's definitely more than that underlying as to why it the shift happened in attitudes happened, or why it was that easy to happen for that matter.

I mean, they mention Park Chan-wook's "JSA" for crying out then explain why did "JSA" resonate so much as showing the human face of the North? Because no matter how much you're taught the evils of the commies and reds up north, these people were in fact your relatives and neighbors, and you can't help but find it heartbreaking that maybe the really could have been in an alternate life. I mean, that was the point of the movie. It heart wrenchingly portrayed people of how things politics got in the way of human relations.

While "Swiri" was a blockbuster action flick about North Korean operatives, people still remember the impassioned speech given my Choi Min-sik's character about how hard life was in the North, the horrors he had witnessed while the South lived in luxury, giving people a tangible human rage to what was just the monolithic North (Trivia for you non-Koreans out there: Yes, the Park Chan-wook who directed "JSA" is the same guy who directed "Old Boy." And yes, the Choi Min-sik I'm talking about from "Swiri" is the same Choi Min-sik who played Oh Dae-su in "Old Boy," and Kim Yoo-jin who played another North Korean operative in "Swiri" is probably more familiar to you as Sun from "Lost".)

I don't know, I guess I just expected a little bit more. I feel like a lot of "Oh cool, notice this" was thrown out without really explaining why it was cool.


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