Millennial Traversals – Culture at Large


The forthcoming ASEAN-Korea Commemorative Summit will have been preceded by a related event, fraught with symbolic implications: the sixtieth anniversary of diplomatic relations between Korea and the Philippines (celebration ceremonies had to be postponed due to the period of mourning for the late President Roh Moo-hyun). Both countries underwent traumatic parallel upheavals in their encounter with modernization during the last century. In fact, the link between Korea and the Philippines may be traced to as far back as over an entire century, when the U.S. and Japan executed the secret diplomatic document now known as the 1905 Taft-Katsura Memorandum, a sort of gentleman’s agreement between colonizers to divide up the major Far Eastern territories between themselves – Korea for Japan and the Philippines for the U.S. For this reason I will focus initially on comparing and contrasting the two countries, before discussing Korea in relation to the larger ASEAN region.

Otherwise well-informed professors in the Philippines react with surprise when I tell them about the Taft-Katsura manuscript, about whose existence I’d learned in an English-language translation of a Korean high-school history textbook. The first half of the twentieth century resulted in divergent colonial experiences for both countries, with Korea opposing the Japanese occupation to the extent of forming an overseas exile government, and the Philippines growing loyal enough to fight alongside the Americans against the Japanese during World War II. The convergence of Korean and Philippine interests (pro-U.S., anti-Japan and later anti-Communist) continued through the Korean War, when the Philippines sent the biggest Asian delegation in support of South Korean combatants. Nationalists on both sides also expressed dismay that the conflicts were essentially proxy wars fought by the U.S. against its imperialist rivals, leaving the battleground territories (Manila in World War II, Seoul in the Korean War) utterly devastated, and with both Asian countries persuaded to subsequently assist the U.S. against the eventually victorious Vietnamese during a longer-drawn-out conflict.

Up to this point, the Philippines generally fared better. The country had a head-start in economic recovery and lucked out initially in its post-war import-substitution industrialization strategy. Its status as a long-Westernized, recently Americanized capital made it an attractive destination for other Asian citizens, so when it embarked on the U.S.-supported authoritarianist experiment that many other Third-World countries were pursuing, logic dictated that it would continue to lead the rest of Asia in finally attaining industrial development. (As partners in the regional strong-men club, Park Chung-hee and Ferdinand Marcos were able to meet up in Manila during an earlier version of the ASEAN, the 1966 conference of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization.)

The end of the periods of dictatorship all over Asia proved to be generally beneficial for their respective countries’ economies – with the egregious and embarrassing exception of the Philippines (once described as a “banana republic” by the Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman). While Filipino experts tried to figure out what went wrong and how the Marcos era’s mistakes may be avoided in future, Korea made itself over into the most impressive economy in the region, next to Japan. In fact, from the point of view of other Asian countries outside East Asia, Korea’s example is not merely worthy of emulation; it is a moral triumph. For while Japan may have had a longer run and a still-larger annual income, Korea, like the rest of the ASEAN countries, had been and has remained resolutely postcolonial: at any point in its drive toward modernization, its wealth was never achieved at any other country’s expense, and if any people had to endure suffering, it was always first and foremost its own population.

This is the (admittedly simplistic, probably reductive, and strictly tentative) logic that I use in explaining why Korea holds such a strong fascination in the imaginaries of the other ASEAN member-countries. A few observers might want to believe that the Korean pop-culture wave might be over, or that it might not even have existed at all. Yet the record of, say, Korean TV dramas dominating the ratings of Southeast Asian media since the start of the current millennium speaks for itself. A Korean performer, virtually unknown hereabouts, has leading-lady status in Philippine movies, and the latter country acknowledged last year that the number of Korean visitors has now exceeded those of all other countries in the world, displacing the previous and long-time record-holders, the Japanese.

One way of illustrating how the exceptionally high regard for things Korean persists in the ASEAN region is by contemplating an alternative situation. If another major East Asian country were to initiate its counterpart of the Korean pop-culture wave, most Southeast Asian countries would likely respond with some degree of hesitation, if not outright coolness. For better or worse, the Chinese have been marked with an overriding (though much-envied) profit motive, while the Japanese’s espionage activities prior to their World War II imperialist expansion cannot be easily expunged from the other countries’ historical memories. This partly explains why most successful Chinese or Japanese cultural products circulate in the region through Western distribution circuits.

Hence among the “senior” non-ASEAN Asian economies, Korea may well be the country that is in a position to assume an influential role in the region. Why then has its leadership function remained largely theoretical, a kind of guidance by example, when the other East Asian countries have been more or less actively staking their claims to representing the rest of Asia? There are two interlocking ways of answering this question, one internal (to Korea) and the other external, which I will attempt first. From the perspective of the ASEAN members, the organization has been doing well enough without any form of outside interference. A cultural historian might be able to argue that, were it not for the intervention of European colonization, the region could constitute an entire super-nation or subcontinent (comprising a seemingly endless array of cultures and peoples and languages) unto itself. In a sense, ASEAN fulfills this might-have-been vision through an ideal of cooperative self-sufficiency.

Korea, for its part, has always had the historical propensity to turn inward. Its comfort zone as a nation remained within its boundaries, among its people, hermitic (to use its self-descriptor) to a fault. By now its leading lights might have figured that such a response could prove debilitating in an age of globalization, just as it had proved disastrous during preceding eras of colonizations and proxy wars. Moreover, a genuine internal consolidation will be impossible for a long while, at least while the northern half of the country remains ideologically estranged and materially impoverished. Meanwhile, the Southeast Asian region remains for the most part organized, appreciative, determined to succeed on terms that do not seem all that different from what the people of this country had been able to achieve not too long ago. Spring is in the air. A period of mutual courtship is long overdue.

[First published June 2, 2009, in Korea Times]

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After the suicide of former Korean President Roh Moohyun, the news of the death of Kim Daejung would confirm, in the minds of democratically minded observers, the passing of an era. Those with a pan-Asian sensibility would find further confirmation of that remark in the overseas death of still another symbol of another anti-dictatorship struggle, that of Corazon “Cory” Aquino in the Republic of the Philippines: two prominent names in the parallel historical experience of two countries, linked by the involvement of the US as each country’s wartime liberator – the Philippines from Japan (Korea’s colonizer) and Korea from the Communists in the North and from China.

Indeed, an enterprising film epic might well show the paths of Kim Daejung and Aquino’s husband Benigno “Ninoy” Jr. virtually crossing each other during the Korean War, which the then-teenage Aquino covered as a newspaper correspondent. (Ninoy Aquino subsequently parlayed his reportage into a script, eventually turned into a much-celebrated but now-lost film titled Korea, directed in 1952 by Filipino National Artist Lamberto V. Avellana.) Further cinematic license, though a likelier occurrence, would depict the Aquinos and the Catholicized Kims socializing during their exile in Boston, perhaps during a spiritually uplifting celebration of Sunday Mass.

As survivors of their respective countries’ triumphant pro-democracy movements, Kim Daejung and Corazon Aquino were each seen, by commentators looking at both national experiences, as the other country’s version of herself or himself: Kim as the Aquino of Korea, Aquino as the Kim of the Philippines (and each the Nelson Mandela of Asia). The comparison may be inaccurate in several crucial areas – for one thing, it was Ninoy, not Cory, who returned from exile just as Kim did, but Kim was not assassinated upon arrival as Ninoy Aquino was – but it was widespread global acclaim that sealed the similarities between the two ex-Presidents: Cory Aquino’s “Woman of the Year” distinction in Time magazine (an honor for which Imelda Marcos would surely have gladly walked barefoot), Kim Daejung’s Nobel Peace Prize.

The outpouring of grief that attended each leader’s recent demise threatened to shape up as the latest challenge against each one’s respective current President, Korea’s Lee Myung-bak and the Philippines’s Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. At some point in the late ex-Presidents’ last few months, in fact, each one expressed oppositional dissatisfaction with her or his present-day successor, with Aquino even suggesting she could resume her presidential functions if ever the need for a replacement came up.

Yet amid the waves of nostalgia washing over the mostly middle-aged middle classes of Filipinos and Koreans, one would hear insistent rumblings of dissent, and not always from supporters of the incumbent leaders either. Kim, the allegations go, handled the aftermath of the IMF crisis in a manner that made Korea more vulnerable to foreign intervention, and pursued his Nobel to the extent of pandering (possibly including a cash-for-summit arrangement) to a regime that has proved weirdly incapable of reciprocating properly. But Kim’s Korea was Shangri-La in contrast to Aquino’s Philippines. She resisted the long- (and still-) overdue exigency of land reform in order to retain the family hacienda, agreed to repay an entire clutch of corruption-ridden foreign loans (including the ultimate white elephant, a nuclear plant constructed near earthquake fault lines and a now-active volcano), and otherwise responded to a string of horrendous political, economic, and natural disasters – including increasingly violent coup attempts, multiple and extensive daily brownouts, and the worst volcanic eruption of the last century – by hurrying to prayer, a manner admirable for a mother, or mother superior, but not a serious President, even in the Third World.

In the end it all comes down to the reality that resilient people will devise ways of coping, and good democracies enable (pardon the appropriation) people power by allowing the population to change – or retain – its elected leaders every so often. If Filipinos were too aghast then that Ferdinand Marcos’s arrogant, sexist, and self-serving prophecy – that Aquino would prove an even worse Chief Executive than he – had somehow come true, by 2009 they could take heart that Roh Moohyun’s supporters still remembered, during his funeral, to use the color yellow that Aquino, following her late husband’s prescription, had adopted for her admittedly righteous and courageous anti-dictatorship campaign.[1]

We see this principle demonstrated, down to the level of schools and families, and way across the Pacific during George “Dubya” Bush’s presidential term, where those who best embody certain cherished causes do not necessarily have equally sterling management skills.[2] But if people continue to select charismatic candidates who turn out to be utter duds (Filipino Exhibit A: Joseph Estrada), it could only mean either that they refuse to learn their lesson, or that they still believe in miracles. Just to ensure that the former scenario never fully plays out its tragic outcome, we ought then to constantly remind ourselves of our heroes’ failures, alongside their finest achievements. Such an option might keep us awake longer, but it would help future generations abide in the past more securely.


[1] The color continued to be used by the liberal opposition in Korea, with yellow ribbons festooning the City Hall vicinity of Seoul during the candlelight protests against President Lee Myung-bak’s unilateral resolution in 2008 to allow the import of US beef during the mad-cow panic, as well as the alleged negligence that led to the tragic capsizing of the MV Sewol in 2014, during the presidency of Park Geun-hye.

[2] As it turned out, the significance of the global disaster that was George W. Bush resonated in terms of his dynastic origin. As of this update (2015), the current presidents of the Philippines and Korea were children of former presidents – Park Chunghee’s daughter Geun-hye, and Cory Aquino’s son Benigno III. Like Dubya, they are also perceived as less effective than their parents, although this response may be more a matter of opposition-led criticism than (as in the case of Bush) painful and palpable reality.

[First published August 24, 2009, in Korea Times]

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About Joel David

Teacher, scholar, & gadfly of film, media, & culture. [Photo of Kiehl courtesy of Danny Y. & Vanny P.] View all posts by Joel David

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