South Korea

Photo by Sean Sprague / Panos

If you visit a South Korean school, chances are you’ll be greeted by a vast picture of Mount Baekdu’s photogenic crater-lake prominently displayed. It isn’t just that many Koreans love mountains – which cover much of the land – and hike on weekends in national parks. Bridging the Sino-North Korean border, Mount Baekdu is associated with Dangun, the mythical founder of Korea, and symbolizes people’s yearning for reunification. Wander further along the school corridors and you may spot reunification-themed artwork on the wall, or a special classroom for education related to tong-il (reunification).

Flag of South Korea

When South Korean TV series are broadcast in mainland China, the Chinese glimpse the sort of affluent society to which their country aspires. Yet material poverty and hardship are well within living memory in South Korea, thanks to the Korean War of the early 1950s and its aftermath. Today, elderly vendors continue to sell silkworm larvae (bondaegi) on city streets, a reminder of times of scarcity.

South Korea suffered much trauma in the course of the 20th century. Koreans were ordered not to speak their own language under Japanese rule (1910-45), the peninsula was split in two in 1948, and the 1950-53 war claimed four million lives only to confirm the existence of the two Koreas. South Korea may have sped to prosperity as an ‘Asian Tiger’, lauded by economists, but it also suffered under brutal military regimes. It was only after 1980’s Gwangju Massacre (known in the city as the ‘Democratic Uprising’) that widespread popular resistance led to elections in 1987 and a transition to democracy under Nobel Peace laureate Kim Dae-Jung from 1992 onwards.

Today, those hard-won democratic rights are under threat from President Lee Myung- Bak. Many now wonder whether they were ‘complacent’ about the strength of South Korea’s democratic foundations when they went to the polls in December 2007.

President Lee, a former CEO with Hyundai, has ingratiated himself with big business while steadily eroding democratic rights. The most recent wave of resistance to Lee’s authoritarianism was spurred by the Yongsan tragedy of 20 January, in which iron-fisted action by a newly appointed police chief led to six deaths in a fire. From Seoul to Busan, there have been peaceful anti-government demonstrations through a cold and discontented winter – and legions of police with helmets and shields conspicuously stationed on streets. Due to a legal ban on after-dusk demonstrations, protesters may hold candles so that their demonstration can qualify as a ‘sing-along’.

Some 26 million South Koreans inhabit high-rise apartment blocks branded with company logos such as Samsung and Hyundai. You’ll find all the trappings of physical comfort in South Korea, including homes rendered cosy by underfloor heating (ondol), and communal bathing in public mogyoktang. But there are plenty of have-nots: beggars wheel themselves, belly-down, through downtown Gwangju, or sit in underpasses. And despite Confucian respect for age, you’ll notice elderly people who beg or have tough jobs.

The worst, patriarchal interpretations of Confucius remain intact in South Korea as in Japan, relegating women to a subordinate role in public life, though this is gradually changing. Sexual diversity remains unacceptable to the point of virtual invisibility, as in the West of the 1950s, unless you care for the seedy Seoul district of Itaewon.

South Korea’s religious landscape differs sharply from that of China, Japan and North Korea. At night, cityscapes are illuminated by neon red crosses – roughly a quarter of South Korea’s people are Christian, though some branches of Christianity frown on others. The Zen of Japan may be better known overseas, but similar approaches to Enlightenment exist in South Korea as Seon, and roughly a quarter of South Koreans are Buddhist. Fine Buddhist temples, exquisitely decorated with the greens, pinks and blues of ‘cosmic design’, nestle amidst mountains. Both Christianity and Buddhism have dedicated TV channels.

Jacob Lotinga

Map of South Korea

Public service

Nescafé promotion at Tsinghua University, Beijing.

Jacob Lotinga

I lived in China like a travelling educational storyteller, though technically I was an English teacher at three universities over the course of two years. One of my pet themes in class was advertising – both because it made for a creative, varied lesson, and because I found myself bewildered and frustrated by the naïve views I encountered, even when working with a highly educated and critical section of society, namely university students (and sometimes teachers). Chinese students assured me that advertising was a source of useful information about exciting new products. If I had 100 yuan for every time I’ve been told adverts make our lives more ‘colourful’ – a word so overused it began to grate on my ears – I would by now be rolling in red notes with portraits of Mao printed on them.

Last summer I tested my advertising lesson at a prestigious university in north-eastern Beijing: a debate, analysis of real adverts, and then working in groups as ad executives to flog a paperclip at an outrageous price. The vast majority of students, including a lecturer or two, saw no problem with the notion of advertising as a ‘public service’. How else would we know what wonderful consumer goods we could buy? Helped by a couple of students who took a more sceptical view, I countered that advertising was about profit, about big companies with pots of money aggressively pushing products. I must then have said something about the celebrities such as basketball idol Yao Ming and Taiwan pop stars A-Mei and Jay Chou, who were no doubt paid a handsome sum to act as the face of McDonald’s, Lemon Iced Tea and the clothing chain Metersbonwe respectively. Curse it – I had become a preacher!

If attitudes in universities are any indicator, mainland China’s relatively recent Open Door Policy and its embrace of cut-throat capitalism under Deng Xiaoping have left people’s understanding of advertising lagging behind. After 1949, the main form of ‘advertising’ was party propaganda, which still plays a major role.

Today, fast-food chains that for many Chinese people represent ‘Western cuisine’ advertise aggressively. Pizza Hut signs hang like fruit from trees in Chongqing: their adverts seem to target affluent, elegant families who are depicted eating happily together. The cheapest pizza at the Hut costs twice as much as many working people’s daily earnings. And don’t get me started on the ice-cream company that charges 25 yuan – more than a day’s salary for many – for a single luxurious scoop! On Shanghai’s Bund, people beg abjectly beneath shrubs sponsored by Häagen-Dazs.

Starbucks is almost an index of sophistication. While Starbucks seems to spread simply by virtue of being Starbucks (despite insisting on Western prices), Nescafé appears on a mission to convert all inmates of Tsinghua University, Beijing, to the joys of caffeine addiction. The main canteen boasts its own Nescafé coffee lounge, where visitors can admire images of attractive people drinking Nescafé. There’s an arrow ‘leading you to the great taste of Nescafé’. On the wall there’s a go-getting guy holding a Nescafé mug and clenching his fist, and a stylish girl with sunglasses propped on her head. The Nescafé room regularly hosts special events – an art and architecture presentation, the launch of a new student poetry society.

There are also promotions. The shopping street or the supermarket is taken over by stands loaded with boxes of Nescafé, coffee flows in unlimited supply for a few days, soothing music plays, attractive young students from other universities ask us if we’d like a cup.

With Western-style advertising come Western-style notions about consumption. In the canteens and shops on campus, sometimes a soft drink is the only option – edging out more traditional tea, soya milk or boiled water. Disposable plastic bottles or paper cups are replacing the reusable flasks and cups that many Chinese people carry with them.

Britain – not China – made me cynical about advertising. In Britain you can answer the phone to hear a pre-recorded advert, not even a tele-sales human being bothering to waste their time peddling double-glazing. Advertising in Britain through its sheer pervasiveness either distorts our sense of reality or, if it doesn’t manage that, irritates the hell out of us. In China, it is well on its way to the same wonderful destination. The only difference is that people on the Chinese mainland (as opposed to Hong Kong) appear to be almost defenceless against this level of indoctrination to consume.

*Jacob Lotinga* spent two years teaching at three universities in China and has contributed to *NI* publications.

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