Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Ha Ri Su hits the big time; WaPo looks at SK society

Ha Ri Su catches the attention of the Washington Post:

SEOUL -- Under the glaring neon lights of a chic entertainment district, South Korea's newest and most unlikely teen idol sauntered down the busy streets clad in second-skin jeans and a tiger-patterned coat with fur fringe. "Oh, you're so pretty! We love you!" a group of star-struck adolescents gushed as she passed by.

Lee Kyong Eun smiled and waved with the nonchalance of a woman used to stares. "Ten years ago, my country would never have allowed me to have this fame. The things they said to me on the street were far more, um, colorful than, 'You're pretty' or 'I love you,' " said the petite 28-year-old entertainer. The son of an office clerk, she had a sex-change operation in 1995 and took a woman's name. Now, Lee is known by her stage name, Ha Ri Su, taken from the English for "hot issue."

The Post article zooms back to discuss a larger issue: the liberalization of South Korea's mores.

Yet perhaps the most surprising thing about her success in one of Asia's most conservative societies is that while Ha Ri Su is hot in South Korea, she is not an issue.

A government-run TV station broadcast a flattering four-day feature on her life that brought even Korean grandmothers to tears. Authorities allowed her to change her sex on official documents from male to female in a much-heralded media event. She has starred in a feature film about struggling Korean artists, playing the role of a transgendered woman, becoming a staple on variety shows and in fashion magazines.

"South Korea entered the new millennium as a different, more open nation," Lee said, sipping a cup of traditional citron tea at a fashionable Seoul café. "Gay rights, transgender rights and women's rights -- things we would never have dealt with before -- are now open for debate. We are living in a changing society. I am proof of that."

Tolerance and personal freedoms are coming in fits and starts, and South Korea remains a far less open society than the United States or Western Europe. But a decade and a half after the end of authoritarian rule in South Korea, analysts say this nation is witnessing a renaissance of progressive thought. The country is at the forefront of the debate over changing social norms now raging in other traditionally conservative Asian societies from China to Singapore.

A number of factors are driving South Korea's social revolution. The change is in part an outcrop of greater freedoms following the end of authoritarian rule in 1987. The strengthening of democracy, analysts say, has lifted the strict military conventions that had long dominated society. But many observers also credit the rise of the Internet and today's university students, many of whom are strongly rejecting the conservative ideals of their former military rulers.

Unfortunate side effect of liberalization: the tendency to forget one's past in favor of a romantic and irrational vision of the future. The tendency to say things like "communism has its merits, too," then vote in droves for appeaser presidents. Ah, youth.

A very informative snippet about women's rights issues in Korea-- a subject about which I still know little and would like to learn more:

Women's rights groups are pressing their case through increasingly provocative means. Smoking in public, for instance, is still considered highly offensive if done by a woman, although not if done by a man. Women who smoke in public risk being scolded by men or older women, who see such behavior as unfeminine. In response, a group of female university students in Seoul held a "smoke-in" this year and marched down the city's streets puffing for all the world to see.

"Korea is the ultimate example of condensed growth. The country grew from ashes after the Korean War to the 12th-largest economy in the world in just half a century," said Kim Mun Cho, professor of sociology at Korea University. "The mind-set is on rapid change, and now, Korean society is breaking out of the old Confucian mold, especially in the area of culture."

I'm not so sure South Korea's really breaking out of the Confucian mold. If that were happening, we'd see bigger changes in the language itself, but the various registers still remain in use (even if "royal" constructions like "ha-omnida" are only heard on TV historical dramas these days).

Confucianism is highly relational, whereas something like "rule of law" arises from a more absolutist conception of morality-- an inflexible logos-principle sitting out in space to which we must cleave, clearly demarcating right and wrong, and very much a function of the monotheistic "law doled out from above" mentality we take for granted-- especially in those moments where we say, "You know, some things are simply wrong."

The Korean Confucian ethos, in practice, does break down into such black-and-white "moments," but these moments are a function of context, not cosmic principle. The moral maxim "don't dick people over," for example, isn't treated in a Kantian deontological manner in Korea. Whom to dick over (or not dick over) is determined by such factors as, "Is the potential dickee a relative? A boss? A spouse? A good friend? A relative's friend?"-- etc. It's pretty black-and-white that a good son (Sino-Kor. hyo-ja, more like "filial son") should never mistreat or otherwise disrespect his parents. But this doesn't translate to a universal maxim.

And this is why so many (Western/expat?) Koreabloggers doubt that South Korea has truly internalized core Western values. I personally have doubted this, too. For me, the issue came up while thinking about what we hope to accomplish in Iraq. As I listened to people touting Japan and Germany as shining examples of the fruits of successful nation-building, I thought to myself that Germany and Japan are apples and oranges: the Japanese may have accepted the trappings of Western civilization, but they certainly haven't "gone Western" as these people were implying. We face an even more grueling battle of the mind in Iraq-- in the Middle East in general. I'm for the current project, but have my doubts about where it can go, and reject the idea that blind confidence in the project will make its problems go away.


Some credit changing political tides as South Koreans elect increasingly progressive leaders. The current president, Roh Moo Hyun, is a longtime liberal and human rights lawyer. In a gesture of the new, open South Korea he hopes to create, he recently allowed regular tours of the Blue House, the fortified presidential compound long closed to the public.

The Internet also plays a role in the change; more than 70 percent of homes now have high-speed Web access.

But the momentum seems to come largely from young South Koreans able to take risks. In one recent performance piece, a acting troupe posed nude for painters as the audience watched.

"This was unheard for South Koreans before," said Kwon Eun Jin, 35, one of several actresses in the performance. "We did get one old man who scolded us, and shouted at us from the audience to go put on some clothes. But the shows were sold out and got great reviews. People responded like adults, not with a reactionary sense that we were violating tradition."

This is impressive; I don't mean to knock this. But whether these changes signal something profound is open to debate.

And I'm not implying that South Korea needs to become America. It doesn't. As far as I'm concerned, there's no objective standard for "satisfactory cultural progress." As an American, I have my standards, but I realize they're American, not universal, not somehow engrained in the rock of the cosmos. So of course I'll feel free to judge according to those standards. People who call this "oppressive" are fooling themselves and playing the victim card-- in part because of their own arrogant assumption that my stance admits no empathy, no openness to dialogue with other worldviews. Not a good assumption to carry around.

One of the healthiest aspects of South Korean public discourse these days is the non-stop jabbering between progressives and traditionalists about "Who ARE we, exactly!?" Having attended Georgetown U., where the question of Catholic identity was constantly being batted about, I'm familiar with how salubrious this neverending discussion can be. It dynamizes Georgetown, keeps the intellectual ambience jumpin', highlights issues that need to be addressed. South Koreans engage in their version of this discussion with a lot of passion; that's good, and that's where, I suspect, we'll start to see meaningful, deep changes. Accidents of culture, like the Ha Ri Su phenomenon, might tweak the public consciousness, but the great engine of social evolution is The Unrelenting Dialogue.

So anything's possible. Countries like Japan and Korea might not have internalized Western values, but there's always the chance they will. We might not see clearly the moment that that occurs; it may require the hindsight of several generations. And we have to accept the possibility that such internalization may never happen at all.


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