Current Events Korea

The West’s Confucian Confusion: How More Confucianism Might Have Saved the Sewol

by John Bocskay

Whenever a tragedy strikes Korea, many Western observers can’t resist the urge to attribute it to Korean culture. This tendency owes much to Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book Outliers, in which Gladwell attempted to pin a fatal 1997 Korean Air crash in Guam on Korea’s Confucian-inspired practice of showing deference to one’s guam1seniors. Since Outliers, Confucianism is the prime suspect in just about every Korean disaster short of an earthquake, so when the Sewol ferry sank in waters off Jindo on April 16th, taking with it over 300 young Korean souls, I braced for the wave of western cultural critique.

I wasn’t disappointed. Writing for the South China Morning Post, Andrew Salmon wondered whether the accident was made worse by Confucianism. Salmon noted that in the initial minutes of the accident, the captain ordered passengers to stay where they were, and most of them obeyed “even as the ship listed steeply and water flooded in.” Based on this observation he asks whether the high death toll “was a symptom of a hierarchical culture in which young people are taught to obey authority figures without question.”

Ralph de la Cruz of The Dallas Morning News was more blunt, calling it “death by obedience,” and opining that the tragedy was so terrible because in Asian cultures “compliance is de rigueur.”  He then provides the inevitable comparison of the young Korean victims to American teens, whom he contends “would have been finding any and every way to get off that ferry,” presumably because they are taught to “think rather than simply obey.”

There’s some irony in de la Cruz’s analysis, as his home state of Texas has recently seen measles outbreaks for the first time in years, precisely because many Texans “think” that the vaccine is linked to autism, despite overwhelming evidence that it isn’t. If you’ve been keeping score in Texas, your card should read: Obedience – 1, Thinking – 0.

There are also a few assumptions at work here, not the least of which is that rational and effective emergency management is the inevitable result when hundreds of scared teenagers ignore orders in dangerous situations and start “thinking” –whatever that means. Another assumption is that it should have been obvious to the students that by staying put they were endangering themselves, and that when it did become clear they needed to get out, that they were physically able to do so. Jakob Dorof’s April 21st piece on vice.com makes a strong case that by the time it was apparent that the students needed to get out, it was already difficult or impossible for many to escape.

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The stricken ship, listing hard to port.

As Dorof’s piece and subsequent survivor testimony should be making clear by now, to believe that the passengers’ hierarchical culture overrode their more basic animal instinct for self-preservation requires one to accept a series of increasingly dubious suppositions: that from the initial minutes of the predicament it should have been immediately obvious to a large group of 18-year-olds, nearly all of whom have never been on a large ferry before, to not only determine that a listing ship was absolutely going to sink, but to be so certain of it that he or she would feel emboldened to ignore a series of direct orders from the captain, and then, assuming the angle of the ship still made movement possible (which, by most accounts, it did not), to climb to a higher deck and jump down several meters into a frigid and turbulent sea, at least some of them without a lifejacket and before any rescue ships had arrived.

Viewed from this perspective, their compliance with the captain’s order to stay where they were in the early minutes of the unfolding calamity doesn’t seem to require a patently irrational preference for social hierarchy but simply a combination of confusion, immobility, and common sense.

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A free-thinking Black Friday shopper struggles to pursue her own rational self-interest.


Salmon also states that the students who survived were those who ignored the orders and “took personal initiative”, much like de la Cruz’s idealized American teens would have done, but this assertion now appears to contradict much of the evidence that has emerged from survivors who were plucked from inside the ship by rescuers who shattered windows to reach them. At any rate, the implication is clear: Koreans would be better served in an emergency by having hundreds of free-thinking adolescents ignore the orders of authority figures and independently make prompt assessments of chaotic situations, and then to pursue the course of action that each person had decided was best for him- or herself.

Why doesn’t that strike me as a recipe for effective disaster management?

Because it’s ludicrous. It’s at moments like these, when a disaster occurs and the tendency to panic is greatest, that obedience is most essential, which brings me to one of my biggest beefs with Confucian Theories of Korean Disasters: to these critics, Confucianism is nothing more than a mindless system of deference to one’s superiors, who may or may not be worthy of the public trust. Confucianism demands obedience, they point out, so those at the bottom “blindly” follow those at the top, sometimes with disastrous consequences.

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The most misunderstood 6th century Chinese philosopher of all time.

What these critics never bother to understand or to point out is that Confucianism is not a one-way street that merely demands unconditional deference to one’s seniors; it is a system of reciprocal duties that just as clearly describes the obligations of parent to child, teacher to pupil, ruler to subject, and by extension, of captain to crew and passengers. In a well-oiled Confucian system then, obedience is never blind; it is always underwritten by a social contract that obliges leaders to be virtuous and to carry out their duty with the best interests of their subordinates in view at all times.

At its core, Confucianism is relentlessly meritocratic, and seeks to ensure that leaders are chosen for their superior virtues, not their seniority, their money, or connections. In other words, those at the top of the Confucian social pile don’t enjoy their positions for nothing – they must be deserving of the public trust, and the same responsibility flows right down the pecking order. Just as the emperor occupies his station by possessing virtue, so is he obliged to promote people below him according to their fitness to lead.

Does that sound like an accurate description of Captain Lee and his crew? To be fair, there is a lot we still don’t know at this stage of the investigations, and stories of the heroic actions of some crew members are also beginning to come out. At the very least, we may note that the captain and crew members who fled the ship, by saving their own lives first while hundreds of their charges waited aboard the doomed vessel, did not discharge their duties in accordance with these fundamental Confucian precepts. Where was the concern for the lives of the passengers? Where was their virtue? And was Lee’s decision to put an inexperienced 3rd mate at the helm in unfamiliar waters in any way characteristic of the Confucian injunction to promote subordinates according to their merit?

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Captain Lee Joon-seok

If Confucian deference turns out, in retrospect, to have been misplaced, who will deserve blame, those who held up their end of the social contract, or those who didn’t? Why do none of the peanut-gallery Confucianism experts ever say, “Ah! The ferry captain clearly failed in his Confucian duty! If only he had been more Confucian this disaster might have been avoided.”

If there’s any one question pertaining to the connection between Korean culture and tragedy that is worth asking, it’s this: Why is there a recurring temptation to see Koreans as hapless victims of a defective national culture, rather than as victims of a merely human tendency to occasionally fall short of living up to what are otherwise sound ideals?


Early indications are that this is precisely how many older Koreans are viewing the tragedy – as a failure of officialdom and its shocking lack of protocol or concern – a key point that a recent L.A. Times article managed to miss:

          The botched rescue also has cast a harsh light on a Confucian culture in which young people are taught to respect the older generation.

          “I feel embarrassed as a Korean. We failed our children,” said Kim Seun-tae, a 50-year-old minister whose son attends Danwon High School,…

          The minister said he was struck by video from survivors’ cellphones that showed the mostly 16- and 17-year-old students sitting dutifully in their seats. “They were good, well-behaved kids. They followed instructions,” Kim said. “Everybody is in a state of shock and depression. We can’t look each other in the eye or speak.” [emphasis mine]

You may wonder, as I did, what exactly Kim believed his failure to be when he said, “we failed our children,” or why the parents “can’t look each other in the eye,” but the Times reporter doesn’t ask Kim to elaborate and appears content to reach for the default narrative and suggest that the parents were blaming themselves for teaching their children to “respect the older generation.”

But is that really what Korea’s elders are now beating themselves up about? That’s not the impression one gets from this Joongang Ilbo story, which deals more explicitly with the reasons parents and concerned citizens “blamed themselves for letting down their own young.”:

 “Students are in the cold sea because of irresponsible and unethical adults,” read a message on a web page dedicated to the tragic accident. “I feel ashamed for being an adult in this country and also for not being able to do anything for them.”

Another message read, “Children just listened to what the adults were saying but could not escape. I feel terrible that I’m one of the older generation that made this ugly world.

Total strangers are accepting joint, generational responsibility for a world so poorly and cynically run that the Sewol ferry did not seem to have had a proper safety examination and the  passengers were not given any safety lessons in advance of the tragedy.

 “Adults escaped first, leaving the children in the sinking ship,” said a 46-year-old office worker. “I assume greedy adults who didn’t bother to fulfill their duties caused the accident. When other big accidents occurred in the past, I was surprised but didn’t feel guilty about it. However, I feel terribly sorry for the students this time because I’m old enough to have contributed to this terrible world.” [emphasis mine]

 

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A relative of a Sewol victim smacks a government official.

The people quoted in the article all strike a common chord: the problem, as they see it, is that they failed by teaching their kids to have faith in authority without fulfilling their end of the deal and ensuring that the authority figures were deserving of their children’s trust. “A big part of Confucianism – respecting older generations – has gotten shook up,” says professor Cha Seong-hyeon of Chonnam National University in the Joongang Ilbo piece, and he identifies the challenge ahead to be to “try to regain the intergenerational trust.”

As hard as it will be to regain that lost trust, something tells me that it will be even harder to persuade Western critics that sometimes a little more Confucius may be just what Korea needs.

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Dookie Diplomacy: 7 Acceptable Places to Defecate in North Korea

Dennis Rodman… oh dear.  His attempts at basketball diplomacy–while perhaps initially springing from a good place—have totally backfired. Like Kim Il-sung’s ill-fated crossing of the DMZ, Rodman’s antics up North have resulted in some serious blow back. The only people who’ve seemed to benefit are late night talk show hosts and writers for Korea-centric blogs such as this one here.

We can forgive Rodman for the first trip–after all, he thought he was doing the world a service, didn’t he? Between oaths of brotherly affection and whiskey love shots with Kim Jong-eun, Rodman thought he was chipping through the concrete of the last wall of the Cold War. He was the new American peacemaker–a 6’7″ Jimmy Carter with 5 NBA rings and a pierced cock. 60 years of hostility and intransigent ideology would melt before his magnificence. He alone would put the whole shitty situation in rebound.

The first visit to North Korea was indeed bizarre, and while we laughed, some naively hoped that just perhaps some good would come from it. By his last, however, the delusional multi-car pileup that makes up the man had become self evident.

He chose to arrive shortly after Kim the Younger purged his uncle, senior party official Jang Song-thaek (along with most of the man’s family). One report passed around Western press claimed that Jang was stripped naked and fed to starving dogs, which if you think about it, is pretty much the most ironic way for a hardcore ajeosshi to go. Eaten by dogs. Karma’s a bitch, literally. This story later turned out to be just a vicious rumor, however. The more credible version of events is that Jang was merely shot with an ANTI-AIRCRAFT GUN, which probably left less of him intact than if he were indeed served as dinner for Fido. At least we can take solace in the fact that the poor man went quickly.

That Rodman chose to visit in the wake of this horror show tells us all we need to know about both his hubris and the self-constructed bubble he must live in. In these aspects he is just like Kim Jong-eun. No wonder they get along famously.

The trip turned out to be a disaster for The Worm; first his basketball team fled the country after “losing” to the North Korean national team 39-47 in a game more rigged than a Harlem Globetrotters/Washington Generals match up. Then came Rodman’s spontaneous rendition of Happy Birthday, sung to the young dictator in front of a stone-faced crowd of Party apparatchiks. Right after that, an obviously hammered Rodman appeared on CNN, where he bellowed and raved while defending Kim. It was obvious, at this point, that the plot was lost. Soon after he boarded a plane to America, where he is said to have entered a treatment center for alcoholism.

But, as reported in today’s Korea Times, things got even worse. According to their source up North, Rodman reportedly spent the whole week catastrophically drunk, culminating the binge by vomiting and emptying his bowels in the hallway of the Koryo Hotel. That’s right, South Korea’s English-language newspaper of… um… note, is accusing Dennis Rodman of laying a deuce in the hallway of a Korean (North) hotel. And I’ve been telling people for years that there’s a difference between ‘drinking’ and ‘Korea drinking,’ yet they refuse to believe me. Look to The Worm, folks. Look to The Worm.

The best part of this (probably bullshit) story is the alleged warning given to Rodman as he was shuffled out of the country: “You will never be welcome here again without the completion of your alcohol abuse program.” Does he have to show them a certificate of completion?

Whatever the case, I, for one, refuse to judge . Anyone who has spent any period of time hard drinking in Korea has probably laid at least one brown coil in a dubious location–whether in your pants, in an alley, or on a friend’s floor. But the opportunity to squeeze an errant shit–drunken or not–in NORTH Korea is just too attractive a concept. However, we are respectful bloggers and wouldn’t want to run afoul of the authorities, so we at Sweet Pickles & Corn have contacted our own source North of the DMZ to let us know more acceptable places than the hallway of the Koryo Hotel to crap in the DPRK. Here’s what she told us:

1. ON THE DREAMS OF THE PEOPLE

2. ON THE PLANS OF THE BRIGANDISH AMERICAN CHARLATANS AND THEIR PERPETUALLY-FONDLED SOUTHERN LACKEYS

3. IN MARSHALL KIM’S MOUTH (no really, he likes it)

4. ON ANY EFFORT TO HAVE KENNETH BAE RELEASED

5. ON ANY SURFACE EXPOSED TO DIRECT SUNLIGHT (to be dried and used later for fuel)

6. ON THE CHESTS OF THE BEAUTIFUL LADIES OF THE ‘PLEASURE SQUADRON’ (locally referred to as the “Pyongyang Steamer”)

7. ON ANY FIELD REQUIRING FERTILIZER (pretty much all of them)

Sea of Ire – One Writer’s Battle Against North Korea’s Most Worrying Mega-Cliche

By John Boscskay

In November 2010, North Korean howitzers opened fire on a populated area on Yeonypoung, a South Korean island near their maritime border, killing four people and causing widespread damage. The nearly hour-long barrage was a response to South Korea’s annual military exercises, during which the South Korean army fires artillery from Yeonypoung into waters they control but which North Korea also claims. Every year since the attack, North Korea has protested the drills, and last year was no different. Like the asshole at a nightclub who threatens to beat the crap out of you for brushing against his shoe, North Korea warned that if the drills didn’t stop, they would turn the South Korean presidential office (“The Blue House”) into a “sea of fire.”

As a writer and language teacher who has been living in South Korea for 15 years, North Korea’s warped sense of proportion is only slightly more disappointing to me than their continued reliance on the “sea of fire” cliché, which has been so thoroughly abused that it’s hard to recall a time before it was commonplace. The phrase first appeared in the inter-Korean dialogue in 1994, as nuclear anti-proliferation talks between North and South broke down. With the talks spiraling toward collapse, North Korea’s lead negotiator, Park Young Su, in an apparently unscripted outburst, declared that “Seoul will be turned into a sea of fire” and stormed out of the conference room. Concise, memorable, and suggestive of apocalyptic wrath, Mr. Park’s “sea of fire” immediately set the region on edge, but, for reasons we may never know, was considered inappropriate by North Korea’s leader, Kim Il-sung, who had Park sacked a month later.

Mushroom cloud (omegarobot)

The ominous phrase faded from use, but was apparently deemed appropriate by Kim Jong-il in 1999, when North Korea threatened to turn both South Korea and the U.S. into a ‘sea of fire’ if attacked. Throughout the following decade, the phrase was hurled about with wanton disregard for both human life and lexical variety: in 2003, when they threatened Seoul with a “sea of fire” while unleashing a barrage of unflattering adjectives on the U.S.; in 2004, when they threatened Japan with an explicitly “nuclear” sea of fire; and a year later, when they threatened to preemptively strike U.S. military bases, turning them into seas of fire while “thoroughly” wiping out anyone who helped them (read: South Korea and Japan).

MSDSTTR PA017

“Kiiiiiiiiiiiiiiimmm!!”

Perhaps aware of the need to mix it up a little, in 2008, the KCNA warned that “everything will be ashes, not just a sea of fire”, which was encouraging but either contradictory or redundant, depending on how you read it. Later that year, Vice Marshall Kim Il-Chol threatened that a North Korean counterstrike would somehow be “unimaginably more powerful than nuclear weapons,” and that it would “not merely turn everything into a sea of fire but reduce everything treacherous and anti-reunification to debris and build an independent reunified country on it.” I don’t even know what that means, but it sounds eerily like a Stalinist version of the Genesis device from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan – a large torpedo that instantly reduces a lifeless planet to subatomic particles, then quickly reassembles it to make it habitable for the North Korean Worker’s Party.

Whatever he had in mind, the imaginative new threat was never elaborated, and North Korea was soon back to their old tricks. In 2010, when the South Korean military set up towers of loudspeakers at the border and repeatedly blared the song “Hit Your Heart” by the K-Pop group 4Minute, the North Koreans threatened to not only blow up the speakers (which is forgivable if you’ve heard the song) but to turn Seoul into a sea of you guessed it.

With the ascension of the 28-year-old Kim Jong-un to power in late 2011, I held out tentative hope for an end to the nuclear brinkmanship, or at least to the hackneyed phrases that accompany it. North Korean defense officials quickly squashed that, declaring that the world “should not expect any changes from us.” As if to underline the point, they warned that the “sea of bloody tears” of the North Korean people and army would turn into a “sea of revengeful fire that burns everything.”

AndersLindgren1

A box of fire

One noticeable change has however occurred under Kim Jong-un’s tenure: rather than conjuring nuclear annihilation, ‘sea of fire’ is used more literally to describe limited attacks involving any sort of fire at all. Case in point: the aforementioned attack on Yeonpyoung Island, in which incendiary shells set fire to fields, trees and a couple dozen buildings. This November, they even threatened to turn individual structures, like the Blue House, into a sea of fire, which would only seem to require a lagoon of fire, or, if you’re feeling generous, a bay. Maybe ambiguity is what they’re going for, or maybe they’re being lazy, but either way it screams rookie mistake. Here in Busan, a city more than 300 kilometers from the DMZ, nuclear missiles worry me. Artillery rounds? Not so much.


It’s hard to square such rhetorical complacency with a country whose fluency in insulting people has inspired the creation of a random insult generator, an Internet honor previously reserved for William Shakespeare. Verbally eviscerating one’s enemies is something of a national pastime in North Korea. According to defectors, this type of invective is instilled in society by the state-run newspapers, which regularly slander enemies of the state in order to rally the people around the ruling clique. If there were an international competition of political “Your Momma” putdowns, North Korea would own the podium every year. I can imagine North Korean high school kids facing off in the schoolyard:

Your mother is such a sycophantic political dwarf that her remarks often reveal her utter ignorance of Juche ideology, to say nothing of her fitness for parenting tomorrow’s revolutionary vanguard!

Is that so? Well your mother is such a half-baked philistine that she couldn’t mercilessly wipe out an enemy bulwark if the Korean people’s glorious victory depended on it!

While they do overuse stock terms to describe us Yankee “imperialists” and our South Korean “puppet” allies, the KCNA have also displayed an ability to stretch and flash their chops, especially during the “brigandish” (one of their favorite adjectives) administration of George W. Bush. The KCNA referred to the Bush team as “a bunch of tricksters and political imbeciles who are the center of a plot breeding fraud and swindle,” and often called them out singly for verbal smackdowns. President Bush, who famously tarred North Korea as a member of an Axis of Evil, was described as a “hooligan bereft of any personality…a half-baked man in terms of morality and a philistine who can never be dealt with.” When Bush had a shoe thrown at him by an Iraqi reporter in 2008, the KCNA waxed poetic, writing that Bush just stood there “like a chicken soaked in the rain.” They landed some of their best zingers on jaynebootonhis cabinet, calling Vice President Cheney a “mentally deranged person steeped in inveterate enmity towards the system [in North Korea]” and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld a “human butcher and fascist tyrant who puts an ogre to shame”.

Despite the chutzpah of these KCNA broadsides, reading them you soon notice that they employ an inordinate number of antiquated words like “trickster” “stooge” and “lackey.” According to Joo Sung-ha, who defected from North Korea and is now a journalist in South Korea, this is because they rely on dictionaries published in the 1960s and have few or no native speakers to proofread their diatribes. The result of this linguistic isolation is that North Koreans roll out our old verbiage in much the same way that Cubans deploy our old Plymouths, Buicks, and Chevys: keeping them in wide circulation despite a dearth of imported parts, polishing them to a surprising luster, and revving them up with obvious relish. OK – denouncing someone as a ‘flunkey’ might not achieve the same degree of cool as a Havana cabbie in a ’52 Ford Victoria, but there’s an oddball charm in the glimpse it offers of a bygone linguistic moment, painstakingly restored by those quirky curators of Cold War bombast.

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Hold on to your sphincters, Korea.

Having seen their potential, it’s disappointing to pick up the paper and read that we’ve once again been threatened by a “sea of fire”, which now sounds more like an award-winning 5-alarm chili than code for Armageddon. Will KCNA broadcasts someday swear to turn Washington into a “moldering mound of marble” or transform everything below the DMZ into a “rat’s nest of ruined rebar”? I don’t know, but the status quo has got to go.

The Revolution Will Not Be Grammaticized

arab-revolt-506

By Ralph Karst

The Arab world is on fire.  The death-throes of an old order are convulsing Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, and Syria as tyrants battle rebels, Sunnis battle Shiites, Iran proxies  battle Saudi proxies—the entire region whipping into a hellish whirlwind of civil war and fanaticism, with maybe—just maybe—a few scant seeds of democracy struggling to germinate somewhere in the desert sands. People are flooding the streets, filling the squares, storming the TV stations and the palaces, taking up arms, making history. And the question on everyone’s minds is, when will The Scorpions head into the studio to record an Arabic version of “Winds of Change?”

However, as they say, all politics are local. So what’s the local angle here in South Korea, besides rising gas prices and a 2-for-1 “revolution special” at hookah bars in Itaewon?

Well, what if I told you that one of my students—a South Korean high school student— started it all?  That a slacking, screw-up, C+-at-best student is the one single person responsible for crying havoc and letting slip the dogs of war? How could this be? How could a dim, feckless 16-year-old Korean kid uncork the rage of a region?

Go with me on this one.

True story: in May, 2010, Mr. Mustapha Khammari, the Tunisian ambassador to South Korea, visited the high-class private foreign language high school where I used to teach. Naturally, this was a fairly big deal for us, so we prepared a big to-do:  a reception where our students prepared multi-media presentations on various aspects of Tunisian culture, history, economy, and government.  The goal: to educate the rest of the school community, and to show the Ambassador that our students knew how to cut-and-paste from Wikipedia.

Ambassador Khammari was a late-middle-aged man, hair gracefully retreating and graying over his round, olive-skinned face. He was tall, a little stout, and had the friendly, relaxed demeanor befitting a person who, like most ambassadors, had an unbelievably easy job, consisting mostly of hosting dinner parties at the embassy and trying to stay awake at silly PR events like ours. He smiled warmly as he shook hands with our principle, student body president, and head of faculty. He gave out boxes of Tunisian dates as presents.  He wore a really nice suit. He spoke French with one of our students who had spent a few years in Belgium.  He was accompanied by an aide, a shorter, stouter, harried-looking man who can only be described as Sancho Panza-like. The aide scurried around and set up a video screening of a typical government tourism-board promotional video.  Blah blah blah Carthage! blah blah blah Hannibal! blah blah blah Star Wars filmed here! blah blah blah religious tolerance! blah blah blah attractive for foreign investment! blah blah blah zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Then the student presentations started. Most of them just repeated stuff in tidy Power Point form that was already on the official promotional video. Yawn-inducing for sure, but the Ambassador, really earning his keep, paid smiling attention as our students droned on (in pretty good English) on his own country’s chief exports, industrial re-investment policy, preservation of historical sites, and on and on.

The last presentation was on Tunisian politics and government, from 1st year student Jeong-min (not his real name). Jeong-min was in a little over his head at our school — in English ability, in basic intellectual acumen, in work ethic, in study habits, and in honesty and integrity. Other than that, he was a terrific student. The best work he produced was his numerous letters of apology and pledges of better conduct to various faculty and administrators in response to this bombed exam, that missed essay, this dorm rule violation, or that Facebook expletive-filled anti-teacher rant that the whole school saw.

So, Jeong-min begins his presentation on Tunisia’s government, and the only thing I’m thinking is that it will soon be over and I can go back to the office, check the NBA scores, and eat some delicious Tunisian dates. Then the bullet-points start coming, read off by Jeong-min in a flat, lifeless monotone:

Tunisian government:

* Democracy in name only.

* Police state lacking in basic civil liberties.

* Brutal repression of political opposition.

* Rigged elections.

* Freedom of the press severely limited.

Well, cheers Mr. Ambassador! I and the other foreign teachers were sitting in the front row of the auditorium, with Khammari on the stage just a few meters away. I wish I could report on what his facial expression was as a Korean teenager shat on his country. But I was too busy staring at the floor, trying thrTips-to-avoid-sleeping-in-class-for-students-school[1]ough sheer force of will to conjure a hole in which to hide. My face and neck went crimson with shame. I heard a few teachers next to me whisper “Oh my God! and “No, Jeong-min, no!” (I’d like to stress here that neither I nor any other of the native English-speaking foreign faculty were assigned to oversee, edit, or otherwise vet the students’ presentations.  Nope, that would have made too much sense.)

When Jeong-min finally finished his PowerPoint demolition job, Khammari came to the microphone to say a few words. Everyone in the audience (at least those who knew what was going on) tightened into a collective mega-cringe. He began by thanking the students generally for their very comprehensive and well-researched presentations. He thanked the whole school community for our hospitality. He praised our beautiful campus with its blossoming cherry trees. Then he said, “I’d also like to say a few words to our young friend who made the final presentation.” (Deeper cringing—really sphincter-clenching stuff.)  “I know it’s easy to make quick, unstudied generalizations on a country or people based only on some cursory Wikipedia web-searching. Before I came to South Korea, I know I had some very inaccurate preconceptions on this country, and on Korean people, based only on what I’d seen on the internet.  But then I came here, and saw the wonderful richness of Korean culture, the kindness of its people, and the dynamicism of its economy. I hope that someday our young friend here can visit Tunisia and see the reality of who we are, and what we are trying to become.”

Well, of course.  He WAS a diplomat, after all, right?  The tenseness in the auditorium lifted, and we all unclenched our sphincters.  An international incident was averted.  Later, back in our school’s main building, a few of us foreign teachers cornered poor, clueless Jeong-min for a haranguing: WHAT! WERE! YOU! THINKING?!  His mouth hung open and his eyes flicked around in bewilderment.

“But everything was true!” he said.  “I got it all on Wikipedia!”

Imagine the sound of eight foreign teachers slapping their own foreheads, oy-vey-style.

What follows is conjecture. Some might call it fiction.  Some might call it utter bullshit.  But I’d like to think of it as the Oliver Stone, “JFK” variety of bullshit, a take on what could have happened, or an alternate view of what happened—something that captures a feel, a tone, a spirit of both the crazy events at my school here in South Korea, and the much more vital, vaster events happening these days across Northern Africa and the Middle East. Could there actually be a connection between the two? Could Jeong-min’s cluelessness really have been the flap of the butterfly’s wing that started the hurricane?

* * *

It’s early Friday evening at the Tunisian embassy in Yongsan, Seoul. The Ambassador sits alone at his desk in his corner office, leaning way back in the chair, a pensive expression creasing his face.  His assistant knocks and comes in to remind him of the appearance he’s supposed to make at 8 pm at some vaguely defined function at the Hyundai headquarters across the river  Rush hour traffic as it is, they’re going to have to get going. The Ambassador sighs loudly, still leaning back, then after a long pause that rather worries the assistant, he tells him, “Call in sick for me, will you?  Give my regrets.  Send them a box of dates.  Make it a crate, actually.” The assistant gives him a quizzical look, then nods and scurries away.

Alone once again, the Ambassador opens the bottom desk drawer. He pulls out a small silver flask, unscrews the top, mutters “Allah forgive me” and takes two quick swallows. He puts the flask back, rises, and moves to the south-facing window. Below him, the Friday rush hour traffic oozes out in all directions, a river of cars to match the Han River flowing somewhere out there behind the sprawl of new apartment complexes. Not an extraordinary view, by any means. Not for a capital city of a G-20 nation with a top-12 global economy. But on the heels of that thought comes this one:  50 years ago they had nothing.  Their country was in ruins. 

It’s a thought that he’s had many times, but somehow tonight this idea seems to lodge deep inside him, nestled under the ribs, like a cramp, or heartburn. Even in the mid 1970s, their GDP was neck and neck with Bangladesh.  Bangladesh! And it’s not like this is a Thailand-like economy, with all the wealth clumped in the capital and rice paddies and ringworm everywhere else. He’s travelled around this place. Cities of barely a few hundred thousand still have their department stores and E-Marts and Starbucks and plastic surgery clinics. Places like Changwon or Cheonan or Jeonju or Gumi.

From his window, he knows that without the apartment towers, he’d have pretty much a clear view  across the river to Yeo-euido, with the General Assembly and the nexus of the Korean mass media – the KBS, MBC, and SBS headquarters—all clustered together. And further to the east, the glittering nuveau-riche splendor of Gangnam and Apgujeong.  Democracy. A free media.  And cash, baby, cash. Suddenly it hits him. That kid. At that school  Giving his idiotic, tone-deaf presentation on the Tunisian government. Democracy in name only. Police state lacking in basic civil liberties. Brutal repression of political opposition. Rigged elections. Freedom of the press severely limited.

He was right.

The Ambassador knows this. He cannot deny it. The kid was right. Outside, it’s dusk, the city lights flickering to life against the gathering dark, illuminating the thrumming metropolis. South Korea, a “mature democracy” as the World Bank calls it, has dragged itself into the modern age. Why is his country so far behind? Why are his people so far behind? The answer, he has always thought, is complicated. Or is it? Can it be as simple as giving the people a stake in their own country? The keys to their own future? A voice?  A vote? A hot, tingling burst of hope rises up through his chest, warming his neck and the back of his head. Or is that just the brandy?  He crosses back to his desk, takes out the flask and takes another swig. Allah will provide all the answers. Allah will provide.

He takes out a pad of official embassy stationary and picks up a $500 Montblanc pen, a gift from some chaebol vice-president who called him “Ambassador Calimari”.  And he begins to write:

To the long oppressed people of Tunisa.  To the long oppressed but still proud, brave and righteous souls of the Arab world.  The time is nigh.  You have withered too long in the darkness of tyranny. Rise up and seize what is yours. With the infinite grace of Allah, you will prevail.

He signs his name with a flourish, and with the most urgent purpose he has ever felt in his life, he goes out the front office. His assistant is there, doing paperwork.  The assistant asks if the Ambassador is feeling better. “I’ve got a fax I want you to send,” the Ambassador says, and hands his assistant the letter.  The assistant takes the letter and reads it. His brow furrows, and his eyes almost squint in sudden concern. Then his face clears, becomes calm, almost serene.  He looks up at the Ambassador and smiles. And the Ambassador smiles back.

* * *

Could there actually be a connection between the two? Could a Korean high school kid really have sparked the Arab Spring? Nah. Not really. But sometimes it’s fun to imagine that our teaching (or lack of teaching, in this case) can have such a global impact. And really, it’s not so far-fetched to picture Ambassador Khammari – who left his post in late 2010, before the shit really hit the fan – remembering amidst the turmoil of the following months and years his little visit to our school, and remembering that kid who was just stupid enough to speak truth to power – if you could really call the Tunisian Ambassador to South Korea a figure of power. Good luck to you, Mustapha Khammari, in whatever role you’re taking in your new civil society. And thanks for the dates. They really were tasty. And good luck to the Tunisian people.  At least you’re not nerve-gassing each other and eating each other’s livers like in Syria. With luck, soon you too can have a brawling national assembly just like South Korea’s!