Stepping down from the podium

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Stepping down from the podium

If you are engaged in anything even slightly “public” - writing a newspaper column, for instance - there will be those who like you, and those who think you are an utter moron. In my case, criticism bothered me at first. But then I came to accept it, and eventually started to take it as motivation.

One criticism that always amused me was the type that went “does he think his own country is any better?” whenever I made an argument against something happening in Korea - as though I were trying to attack the whole Korean nation on behalf of imperialistic old England. Ad hominem will sadly never, ever die, but regardless, the answer is “no,” I do not think it is any better. Part of the reason I am back in England now is what I see as an opportunity created by certain problems that we are experiencing in mine and other Western countries.

Many complain about media restrictions in Korea, and assume that a country like mine would have a better media environment. I would say that we used to, but no longer do. On one hand, we have powerful news organizations that blatantly shill for whichever political party is less likely to regulate them or force their tax exile owners to pay up (this is exactly what is happening right now ahead of the May 7th U.K. election), and on the other, low-quality, celebrity-focused “yellow journalism” driven by the need to get as many clicks as possible - an attempt to cling on to evanescent advertising revenue.

A Korean friend and I are setting up a crowdfunded independent journalism venture in London, in the (possibly quixotic) hope of making some small difference to this.

And here’s another thing: though we are in the UK, our development team is itself 100 percent Korean. While I generally prefer UK education to Korean, one must admit that on the technical side, Korea wins. We have all that critical thinking and creativity stuff in abundance in the United Kingdom, but we have relatively few people who can, for example, build an amazing website quickly.

Returning to the main topic, the other negative reaction that often came up was also based on origin: “Why do we always listen to what Westerners say?’ This isn’t so much a criticism of me in particular, but still, I couldn’t get past it - the reason being that I knew it to be completely true. There is still, sadly, this tendency in Korea to put far too much credence in what any Western journalist, businessperson, or so-called expert in any field, might say.

Recently I heard from a friend who went to a reserved army training that the army were mentioning a previous book I wrote in lectures as an example of why Korea is so proud a country - foreigners like me, they said, were praising Korea, and therefore, Korea is good.

But Korea is good because Korea is good, not because some foreigner says it is (Sadly, they were also twisting the meaning of my book - they were claiming it was simply called “a country that made a miracle,” when actually it is “a country that made a miracle, and a country that lost happiness”).

It is sadly possible for a Westerner - and more specifically, a white one - to become quite well-known in Korea just by being him or herself. You don’t need any specific talent, other than the ability to make a few sentences in Korean, and the willingness to express an opinion on something. Entire TV shows are devoted to this, and are, for reasons I will never fathom, popular.

I always hoped to make up for some of the undeserved credit I received by trying to write interesting, un-stereotypical things. I don’t know if I managed to do that, though I did always try. But as mentioned, I have been based in London lately, and feel as though I am losing touch with Korea.

Knowledge of culture, vocabulary and events are all slipping away from me, and I question my ability to actually add anything worthwhile to the discussion on all things Korea-related. Last year, I wrote a manuscript for a book on Korean politics that is still waiting to come out. When I read parts of it back now, I think “If I had to write this again today, I wouldn’t be able to.”

So this column today is something like a resignation letter, or a request for a leave of absence until I feel worthy again of the space that has been afforded to me here. Thank you, and have a wonderful summer. I hope we meet again!

JoongAng Ilbo, May 2, Page 24

*The author, former Seoul correspondent for The Economist, is co-founder and chief curator of Byline and the author of "Korea: The Impossible Country" and "North Korea Confidential’’.

by Daniel Tudor

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