A man of the people belongs to no one nationPark No-ja, also known by his Russian name, Vladimir Tikhonov, is a scholar of Korean history. Until he was naturalized as a Korean citizen in 2000, he spent his adulthood in St. Petersburg, where he studied Korean history at college.
He has written several critical essays about Korea and international society, on issues ranging from Southeast Asian workers in a “3-D” industry to problems of the global economy. Mr. Park is particularly known for his vivid critiques about nationalism in Korea: He viewed the mobilization of the “Red Devils,” the national cheering squad in the 2002 World Cup, as a fascist revelation.
In his latest book, “The Empire of the White Mask,” Mr. Park delves into post-colonial tensions worldwide and how Koreans have inherited the world’s racist visions in reclaiming their identity. Currently, he teaches East Asian history at the University of Oslo, Norway, and regularly writes columns in Korean for various publications. IHT-JoongAng Daily recently conducted an e-mail interview with Mr. Park.
Q.IHT-JAD: You are a Jewish-Russian, but you chose to become a Korean citizen. Now you live in Norway, teaching Korean history. You choose to live your identity in so many different ways. How do you go about doing that?
A.Park: There are several circumstances that help me not to get lost in the limbo between what may look as very different cultural spaces. First, in Buddhism, “identity” is not something fixed and pre-determined, but a moving stream. It is even hard to call it “identity,” because it takes a new form. So I don’t see any reasons to treasure my “Russianness,” “Jewishness” or any other imaginary construction of this kind more than, say, the chirping of a bird on a tree.
Second, in modern times we have lots of international, global discourses, in which all these national borders are already much relativized. For example, scholarly inquiries in the field I am currently most interested in ― post-colonial re-reading of history ― are written largely in the same way in whatever language I read them, Korean, Norwegian or English.
Third, with the advent of the Internet you can afford yourself not to leave a country mentally even if you left it physically. You can continue to maintain a sense of belonging by following everything on the Net. So I remain a Korean “netizen” even being a Norwegian resident.
Q.But the fact these scholarly inquiries are written in the same tones all over the world may be an indication that we are “importing” Western models of academic discourse. Wouldn’t it be a mistake to view that as a sign of cultural assimilation among different nations, as you put it?
A.Yes and no at the same time. Even so far as the Western post-colonial studies are concerned, the people who have been spearheading it ― the late Edward Said in Middle East Studies, Partha Chatterjee in the writing of Indian history, Rey Chow in Sinology, and so on ― are mostly the academics of non-Western background, who always were critical of the ways the non-European “Other” has been represented by the mainstream scholarship. At the same time, it is a shame that Korea’s own anti-imperialist legacy ― the writings of the great left-wing theoreticians of the 1920s, like Yi Yosong or Kim Myongsik (the one who wrote also very sharply in 1932 about writer Yi Kwangsu’s fascist tendencies) ― is almost completely ignored today, while fashionable French theories, for example, are paid so much attention.
Q.About your experience of obtaining Korean citizenship: You almost seem to refer to it as an act of protest rather than a personal need. What does citizenship mean to you, especially when you don’t live in the country to fulfill civic duties?
A.Well, citizenship in the formal sense of the world ― passport and so on ― is just an indicator, a symbol of some deeper and more intimate form of belonging for me. When I am reading some of my favorite authors like the great Buddhist Han Yongun (Manhae: 1879-1944), poet Kim Suyong (1921-1968), or novelist Yom Sangsop (1897-1963), I feel that a certain part of my intellectual or emotional ego at this moment of time belongs to the same discursive milieu and the very similar stream of desires and emotions.
Citizenship, in the formal, bureaucratic means, isn’t of much importance given my anarchist attitude toward all the states in the world. I believe that a modern state is basically an evil, oppressive and enormously wasteful organization with absurd pretensions to the loyalty of its subjected populace.
But if various kinds of evil may be compared, the Russian state to which I was supposed to “belong” before, is undoubtedly more dangerous than South Korea, due to the strength of its military-industrial complex and very unsavory militaristic traditions.
Q.As a social critic, do you feel you have more freedom discussing issues within Korea now that you are “one of us”? Also, do you think the public would feel less threatened to hear criticism from you, now that you’ve obtained Korean citizenship?
A.I believe that the only meaningful criticism is the one motivated by your personal attachment to the object of your criticism. Unfortunately, a lot of the “criticisms” toward Korea that come out from Western media or from the citizens of the “core” capitalist countries who live in or deal with Korea are motivated by absolutely different things.
For example, conservative Western newspapers like to castigate “militant” Korean trade unions without mentioning how dreadful the working conditions still are for many categories of the workers, especially non-permanent workers and women, in many companies, including the ones run by Western and Japanese investors. Westerners in Korea like to chastise “impolite” taxi drivers, thus showing, consciously or not, that they cling to the old Orientalist formula of contrasting “polite and civil us” (Europeans) and “uncultivated aboriginals.”
Yes, I hope that my Korean citizenship somehow proves that I have nothing to do with all these streams of Euro-centric arrogance. But you should remember that in today’s discursive order of the “global community” (U.S.- and Europe-centered global empire), Russia finds itself in a position more or less similar to that of Korea anyway, if not worse. Its tragic 20th century history is pushed away as a worthless totalitarian past; its male citizens are looked down upon as either potential gangsters or illegal immigrants; its womenfolk are objectified and eroticized in the worst Orientalist way: Russian prostitutes, Russian brides-by-mail. So my old Russian passport was hardly any mandate for arrogance anyway.
Q.Do you think those experiences you just talked about as a Russian in Korea ― you are a Westerner, but not a “global empire” citizen ― have allowed you to view the society (Korean) differently, than say if you were British?
A.Absolutely. Humans are very much shaped by their everyday experience of power relationships on the micro-level. If you feel every day that your status as a member of Western Imperial Order “by birth” makes the non-Western people around you, consciously or unconsciously, bow down to you and assume inferior positions, then it is really hard to turn against the order that privileges you that much. Not impossible, of course, but much more difficult.
Q.South Korea is one of the few countries where nationalism is the common ideology of its people, whether you are left or right. And you criticize that extensively in your book.
Yet you don’t seem to propose practical alternatives as to how South Koreans can opt for peace and reunification on the Peninsula without ethnic attachment. If it weren’t for nationalism, some would even argue as to why South Korea should even try confronting the United States and instead advocate the North’s stance over issues like their nuclear weapons.
A.Unfortunately, I will have to argue against your first statement. Alas, nationalism ― understood as a hegemonic ideology that privileges one’s ethnical, political or cultural group over everybody else’s ― is, in reality, as rampant as it used to be a century ago, when the Western world, basking in the triumphs of “progress,” was proceeding to the great slaughters of World War I.
Nationalism, in principle, is an indispensable ideological tool for the world capitalist system built around the dominant nation-states of the West (their satellites and imitators outside the privileged club of the “chosen few”). If the majority of the U.S. citizens would not have been nationalistically brainwashed, how could they view the horrible deaths of the several hundreds of thousands of Iraqis during the first Gulf War as “our military triumph,” just for one example?
The real difference between the nationalism in South Korea and, say, Western Europe is the degree of sophistication. You will not find, for example, beaten-up and abused foreign workers, their salaries unpaid and their documents taken away in the Norwegian oilfields, ships or agrarian estates, unlike Korea.
But a Polish worker on a short-term contract here would receive tangibly less than his/her Norwegian counterpart, and society ― some sectors of the labor movement excluded ― will not find much wrong with it: “They” are Eastern Europeans, they live in poverty anyway, unlike “us,” that is “their” wage level. So the attitude toward the national/regional “Other” is more polished here.
As to the struggle against the U.S. hawks’ plans either to attack or squeeze North Korea by sanctions out of existence, I would argue that nationalism is superfluous here. We are doing it simply because we don’t wish to see our land becoming a battleground, or, to be precise, a testing ground for the American weapons industry.
... And I certainly would confront America’s trade blockade against North Korea on purely humanitarian, human rights grounds because it dampens greatly the living standards of our neighbors, our fellow human beings, and threatens their physical survival. I know that some American media are fond of calling all the protests against America’s murderous imperialism here “nationalist anti-Americanism.” But this only shows the depth of their ignorant arrogance.
Q.Then who do you think suffers as a result of nationalism here? Who are the victims?
A.Korean nationalism began to take shape in the early 20th century under strong influences of the then dominant discourse of the Euro-centered world system called Social Darwinism, which presumed that the weak were determined to be exterminated. These “weak” were, in the view of the mainstream Europeans, “the colored” populations of the “backward” regions.
These racist traits remain very strong in the popular consciousness until now: Black-colored people from South Asia, for example, are presumed by many to be inherently “backward” and very often abused, physically and verbally. ... It is really extremely sad that the Koreans, who are themselves the victims of American racism, have taken over the same wicked paradigm.
The other side of the same coin is the deplorable lack of a critical attitude toward the “white” West, which many Koreans ― who had never experienced it first-hand for any extended period of time ― associate only with “personal freedom” and “democracy.”
Q.Is that what you call the “Empire of the White Mask” ― Koreans inheriting racist visions of the world?
A.Yes, exactly ― among some other things as well. Once socialized in the Euro-centered imperialist paradigms, Koreans (and everybody else, and West-loving Russian “liberals” are among the worst!) have the tendency just to completely internalize it, faithfully believing that “the West” ― and South Korea, as much as it belongs to a semi-privileged rung of the ladder now ― has a natural right to develop the planet and run it in its “advanced” way.
Racism comes in this package of “civilized” beliefs, of course, together with the faith that per capita GNP in a particular country determines the worth of all its individual citizens (“GNP-cult”), and many other “advanced” mental constructions. But as soon as the “white mask” is thrown down, their days would be over.
Q.You refer to Norway as the political alternative to various social problems faced by Koreans today. Russia, on the other hand, is often used to refer to the past precedence of socialist ideals. But how would you conduct any relative comparison among these country models when they have such different histories?
A.Of course, I never thought about the mechanical transplanting of the Northern European social democratic model to Korea. But if we wish to live in a more equal society with better security and less dog-eats-dog competition, we can learn something from the Scandinavians ― after all, they have longer experience of making their capitalism more “civilized,” don’t they?
I always refer to very concrete things, not to the way of life as a whole: participation of the trade unions in the managerial affairs, students’ rights to elect their representatives for the university boards, “equalization” of the universities (there is no hierarchy of prestige among the Norwegian universities!), and so on. These are the things many progressive-minded Koreans are keenly interested in.
Q.You talk strongly about the use of institutional violence in a Korean society. Do you think intellectual freedom is affected by the use of violence?
A. That more than half of schoolchildren reply to the pollsters that they are still regularly beaten by their teachers, that “kihap” (extremely abusive form of hazing) remains a rite of passage in the army ― all this is absolutely terrible because it deprives an individual of her/his sense of human dignity and freedom, which forms the basis for any creative activity. Do you think that, say, a highly talented musician, artist or mathematician can go through the horror of “kihap” without being traumatized for life and losing his creative talents?
Q.What about gender as a form of social hierarchy?
A.At the point when I wrote the book, I didn’t have much knowledge in that area, but now I am very interested and trying to conduct some research in the field of gendered behavioral models in Korean society.
What I found out is that the masculinity model, which is taught in the schools, army and through the media, very much accentuates the hegemonic, dominant aspects in the behavior: “chintcha sanai” (a real guy) is supposed to be tough, and sometimes quite cruelly violent toward each other, and especially toward the womenfolk. I guess that the army experiences are the strongest component in making many Korean men violent and abusive in their domestic life.
Q.The history of Korea, the way you put it, is much about people entrenched in power. Doesn’t this mean that we are always going to have people, left or right, who want to maintain power? Do you think there is ever a hope of changing the system? Also how do you expect to change Korean society when you don’t live in the country to face its everyday challenges?
A.Well, I am planning to return to Korea for living there permanently after several years, so I guess I will have enough “everyday challenges” ahead. And the system is already being changed in very meaningful and tangible ways, despite the fact that the attachment to power still remains an important trait regardless of the position in the ideological spectrum. That, for example, the issues of military violence, conscientious objection and so on may be openly discussed itself means the beginning of the demise of the old barrack-state model. You don’t criticize army openly in the barracks, right?
And the fact that the progressive KDLP (Korean Democratic Labor Party), which wishes to cut the army down to around a 100,000 in size and end the unequal military alliance with the U.S., is getting around 7 percent approval rate in the polls, is very meaningful. Social Democracy and pacifism gradually become a part of the “mainstream” ideological paradigm of the society ― and that may help to make our lives less violent, less competition-ridden, more tolerant and diverse.
by Park Soo-mee