What if Korea faces similar choiceBeing an Englishman, not writing about “Brexit” in my monthly column today would be a strange choice — as strange as a politician trying to lose an election by a narrow margin, or a football manager telling his main striker to take corners. But we’ve also had two weeks of constant commentary on “Brexit”, making it frustratingly hard to say anything original.
Here’s a thought experiment, set in the future. Imagine you are a young boy or girl. Your father works at a shipyard in Geoje Island, which ends up closing in the late 2010s. The government does nothing to stop it or cushion the blow, and you grow up in a once-rich community where nobody has a decent job any more, or any money. You cannot get a proper education, and in any case, the sense of failure and indignity felt by everyone around you makes you think it pointless even to try.
Ten years on, you leave school and find that the only jobs available to you are those that pay minimum wage — and will still pay minimum wage years later. You see your life laid out before you, and it doesn’t look good. One day you visit Seoul, you realize that people there have a lot more money than you, and look down upon you as well. They think you’re ignorant and lazy, and they laugh at your accent and the way you dress.
Korea signs up to an economic and (of sorts) political union with several other Asian countries. There is free trade and free movement — you can do business in Indonesia, buy an apartment in China, or go and live in Japan, just as easily as in Korea. Except you can’t, because you don’t have the money or language skills. At the same time, lots of hard-working people from Vietnam come to your hometown, highly willing to do your job for the same minimum wage. Those Vietnamese pay tax, some start businesses, and improve the local economy – but all you see is the immediate threat to your job.
The two main political parties like this Asian Union, as does the business community. They constantly tell you how great it is for economic growth and jobs — which never seem to come your way. Meanwhile in matters of general policy, the main right-wing party ignores you as before, and the main left-wing party starts filling up with elite people from SKY, who say progressive-sounding things but don’t actually know any working-class people. You get the feeling that they look down on you as well.
Then one day, a plain-talking politician comes along and tells you that the Asian Union is the source of all your troubles. You admit you don’t know anything about politics — but this guy doesn’t sound like the others. You can imagine having a beer with him. Then the newspaper you read starts running articles full of lies about the Asian Union.
Both the politicians and the newspaper tell you you’re a “real Korean”, unlike those elitist, cosmopolitan Seoulites and the hundreds of thousands of newly-arrived foreign workers who build their apartments and serve them in shops. They tell you that those negative thoughts you have about foreigners aren’t racist, they are natural. For the first time in life, it seems like someone authoritative respects you and wants to represent your interests.
The government then offers you a vote on whether you want to stay in the Asian Union or not. What choice do you make?
In 2016 Britain, I’m fully in support of “stay.” I think the European Union has been unfairly scapegoated by a coalition of the jingoistic and the opportunistic. The EU is a somewhat flawed but valuable institution that offers diverse benefits: it supports human rights and anti-monopolism; protects us against the machinations of Vladimir Putin; gives us better cultural and business opportunities; enables us to stay relevant in a world where no European country is as important as it used to be; and, ties us so that we are less likely to fight each other. I want to be in the EU, and I think “Brexit” was won on lies. But if you think that voting for “Brexit” makes someone an idiot, you’re wrong.
Apparently liberal Rhyu Si-min thinks Britain is going to fail because of “Brexit”. He said Britain will collapse if it voted for “Brexit”. But in one way we’ve already failed, in allowing mass unemployment in former industrial heartlands and the resulting rise of an underclass. And though Korea will never be part of an Asian Union, there are already dark clouds gathering in places like Geoje Island. Will Korea’s politicians respond as Britain’s did?
*The author is co-founder and chief curator of Radish Fiction and author of ‘Korea: The Impossible Country’ and ‘North Korea Confidential’’. Twitter: @danielrtudor