Thursday, December 18, 2014

"Don't Play With a Lion's Whiskers"

Disclaimer: This conversation that I had with one of my Korean co-workers is not meant to constitute everyone in Korea. She cannot attest to how everyone in Korea feels about the subject. But I still think one story matters and chances are she is not alone.

It's not often that American pop culture is something I want to talk about in Korea. There's just not a lot of good things to say about Miley Cyrus and the human orgies we call "music videos". Most of the stuff we produce is a little provocative for Korea's more modest media. But with the latest Sony announcement to not release their comedy about North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un, I brought it up to Jiyoung out of curiosity.

"A lot of people in America are talking about this. Do people in South Korea seem to care?"

She answered easily: "Not really. I don't think it's big news."

This was surprising to me because I expected that South Koreans would either be humored or enraged and I was really curious to know which. However, her response was mostly, "Meh."

"There is a Korean proverb," she told me. "It is not wise to play with a lion's whiskers while he is sleeping."

"Yeah, I think I get that. In English, we say, 'Don't poke a bear.' "

"Right. I think America is just poking the bear with this movie."

I explained that "America" was not releasing this movie, a few Americans were. And I asked, "Is Hollywood responsible to North Korea? I think they can make whatever movies they want and if North Korea retaliates, then that's their prerogative, I suppose."

"Maybe you're right," she said. "It is their right to say what they want. But I wonder if they ever think about South Korea, how this will effect us?"

I was a bit taken back by her candor, but leaned in for more.

"You are far away from North Korea," she said. "You are the most powerful country in the world. If North Korea retaliates toward you, you'll be fine. But what if North Korea retaliates toward us?"

She talked about how North Korea is like an ornery step-brother, but still family. How it's easy for outside countries to pitch all these ideas of reunification or intervention, but South Korea is slow to act because they know what this could mean for their safety and well-being.

"You think that Korea and America have a great relationship. We really don't."

"But the U.S has military bases here. America wouldn't just go provoking North Korea without talking to South Korea first."

"America might warn us, but probably wouldn't ask our advice. We are not friends with America. We have a relationship. We have to care."

"You have to care about what?" I asked.

"About American economy. American politics. You effect us. We have to...umm...what's the word?" She reached for her cell phone and showed me the translation: tolerate.

She said that some people want the military to stay in Korea for protection, but others want them gone. I asked why. She said that sometimes U.S. servicemen are seen as troublemakers. She wouldn't go into a lot of detail but I did five minutes of research and found plenty of information supporting her claim:

-from South Korea publicly asking the U.S. to keep it's service members in line

-to a city mayor cancelling a "Friendship Concert" because of a "never-ending string of crimes by American soldiers."

-to the director of the National Campaign for the Eradication of Crimes by U.S. troops in Korea (yes, it's sad that this group is needed) seeking punishment for servicemen crimes by Korean courts versus American courts which often fail to properly carry out justice.  Sadly many establishments in Seoul have barred soldiers from frequenting their bars because of complaints from female patrons.

-and unfortunately, we have a long history of getting out of crimes during the American stay in Korea.

I understand why Jiyoung would feel some hesitance against the notion that the U.S. and Korea are friends.

"We are grateful for the U.S. and their help during the Korean war. They have provided a lot of training and protection from North Korea. We do a lot of trading of goods with America that greatly benefits our economy and people like you come here to teach English. We are grateful. But provoking North Korea with this movie is just another thing that potentially strains our relationship with America."

I asked her if she was glad to hear about the movie being shut down.

"I am relieved."