Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Ambiguous Kim Young-sam Legacy

Kim Young-sam (1927-2015)
I'm curious to see how Korea will remember KIM Young-sam, a man who always wanted to leave his mark on History, but could end up as a more controversial, transitional figure. Anyway, a very interesting character in Korean politics.

A democracy fighter turned political weather vane, an enemy of PARK Chung-hee and CHUN Doo-hwan turned nemesis of KIM Dae-jung, a bold reformer of the financial sector turned victim of the IMF crisis, KIM Young-sam almost seems to have both reached and left Cheong Wa Dae like a thief. 

By running against DJ, YS helped ROH Tae-woo make history: return to democracy, establishing relationships with Russia and China... An historic meeting with KIM Il-sung would have secured his own legacy, but the North Korean leader died on him.

Like Saemangeum, his dream project (see "Ari, Arirang, Ari, Ariul City"), KIM Young-sam's legacy is a gigantic oddity still in the making, and like himself, a consuming ambition still looking for a purpose, a place in History.

Now let's see how PARK Geun-hye presents this predecessor of hers, particularly his 'democracy fighter' side. The opposition will also have a tough job, but somehow KIM Young-sam is a mirror exposing all the beauties and flaws of this nation's complex psyche.

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Thursday, November 12, 2015

Tokyo Trials on trial: after Japan, Abe forces the US to chose between Imperial Japan and postwar Japan

This morning, Shinzo Abe showed his smile on CNN International, at the end of an ad on Japan's positive contribution to the world (as it happens, revolutionary prostheses that help people walk again). His government usually airs such campaigns each time his image needs a boost overseas ahead of tricky moments - typically before Abe's speech to the US Congress, earlier this year*.

Maybe that was just about paving the way for the G20 and his upcoming visits to Turkey, the Philippines and Malaysia.

Maybe Abe is expecting some reactions to his latest controversial initiative: the revision of Tokyo war crimes verdicts and the Allied occupation of Japan.

Officially, this new panel reporting directly to the PM will simply study the issues, and unlike the one on 'collective self-defense', without drawing any conclusions**. But make no mistake, the aim of Abe's game remains the same: rewriting history, denying war crimes, and ultimately restoring Imperial Japan.

War criminal and former PM Hideki Tojo at the Tokyo trials

Rejecting the Tokyo Trials may sound outrageous, but as we've seen before, it's always been on Shinzo Abe and Nippon Kaigi's agenda, it's a logical step following their restoration of militarism, and both the US and Korea had it coming this year, the former for unconditionally supporting a morally hazardous character in his anti-constitutional crusade, the latter for failing to show the right example in the way of coping with its own history:
1) This is quintessential Shinzo Abe:
  • Historical revisionism has been at the core of his whole career. The man has a personal stake in the redemption of war criminals that he and his friends not only consider as national heroes, but also worship as gods at Yasukuni.
2) This is quintessential Nippon Kaigi:
Japan's dominant revisionist lobby has always denounced the Tokyo Trials as a "victor's justice" to be undone as soon as possible on the way to the restoration of Imperial Japan. Tellingly, this panel:
  • was heralded by a Nippon Kaigi supporter: Tomomi Inada, who said last June "the perception of history on which the rulings of the tribunal were based were way too poorly constructed - we are in need of an examination by the Japanese"** 
  • is headed by a Nippon Kaigi supporter: Sadakazu Tanigaki, hereby officially enthroned as Abe's heir (but we already knew that when he refused to run against his LDP rival). NB: the very fact that this panel is being set up on this topic to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the party speaks volume about how revisionists set the agenda.
  • was announced on November 12, exactly 67 years after Hideki Tojo and co were sentenced to death, and one day after Abe's preach to the choir at a Nippon Kaigi meeting
Shinzo Abe to Nippon Kaigi: "mission (almost) accomplished" (
Martin Fackler: "PM Abe tells 10,000-member Nihon Kaigi meeting "the bridge to Constitutional revision has been readied" (
3) This is a natural step following Abe's restoration of militarism:
  • Yearned for by Abe and Nippon Kaigi, the restoration of Imperial Japan starts with its empowerment and the destruction of all its criminal records. In 2015, Abe has already castrated the Article 9 of the Constitution, and nullified the already sybilline apologies issued by previous PMs (see "Decoding the Abe Statement: "why apologize for crimes Japan never committed?""). Why not push his luck and try scoring a hat trick? He must feel that nothing will stop him: so far, the US didn't object to anything, and the few who did at home were, like the constitution, treated as if they didn't exist. 
  • The period studied by the panel is fundamental for people who consider that "the 67 years since the end of World War II have been a history of Japan's destruction" (Hakubun Shimomura - Abe's Ministry of Education and fellow Nippon Kaigi supporter). Somehow, Imperial Japan revivalists also want to declare their liberation from occupation forces and international scrutiny. 
  • Further notable steps in their program include the revocation of all peace treaties, or the restoration of the Emperor as the supreme political and religious leader (that one is not likely to happen as long as Akihito lives... but don't worry, these revisionists still have lots of surprises in store for you!)
4) The US had it coming:
  • From the beginning, even before the Tokyo trials started, the main criticism came from Allies, who said that the US were making a mistake by protecting such key figures as Hirohito or Shiro Ishii. I can understand the decision to maintain the imperial family, but then, MacArthur shouldn't have refused the Emperor's apologies, which would have silenced revisionists forever. Regarding Shiro Ishii and his abominable Unit 731, needless to remind you how they're an inspiration for Abe (see "Can't top that? Shinzo Abe posing as Shiro Ishii, the Josef Mengele of Imperial Japan")...
  • Harry Truman did warn that the Japanese far right had to be absolutely prevented from returning to power, and the SCAP did make sure that their propaganda was silenced during the Allied occupation of Japan, but no sustainable safeguards were planned to truly secure the Japanese democracy, and the rise of Shinzo Abe and Nippon Kaigi illustrate perfectly the consequences in the long term. 
  • Worse: misjudgements keep piling up. When Abe pushed for collective self-defense, I wrote that it was a historical opportunity to fix part of the damage, the moment to act as a true "pivot to Asia" by demanding a clear and unequivocal repudiation of Imperial Japan. Unfortunately, the US simply gave up and in, without even using the old he's-a-s.o.b.-but-he's-our-s.o.b. excuse. At times, they even seemed to be siding with the revisionist narrative (see "The USA And Shinzo Abe: From Ostrich Policy To Complicity?"). If the idea was to secure US bases and role in the region, time to change strategies. If you intended to strengthen China and hardliners across Asia, keep up the good job.
  • The US not only decided to unplug their moral compass, they also forgot to add a "moral hazard" clause: they took the risk of supporting a notorious troublemaker without having him bear any burden. They've given the keys of the region to a bad cop, and they've showed him on many occasions that the good cop was either looking the other way, or on permanent leave. 
  • So now, they shouldn't be surprised if he dares bite the hand that caressed him; if you expect a second trial of Hideki Tojo and co, get ready for the trial of Douglas MacArthur and co; if you expect mentions of atrocities perpetrated by Imperial Japan, get ready for more vibrant mentions of the victims of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Tokyo bombings...
5) South Korea had it coming: I'm tired of repeating the same mantra about that other tragically wasted historical opportunity. If Park Geun-hye truly wants change from Japan, she knows what she has to do: to firmly stand not against Abe but for postwar Japan, to squarely face Korea's (and her own family's) history, to help both nations restoring their honor by showing the right example, and certainly not to do the very thing Abe is trying to do (see "Yet Another Textbook Textbook Controversy")... unless provoking new provocations was the actual aim of your game, in which case your imposture is worth their own.
I could add that Japan had it coming; after all, only the Japanese voters have the power to get rid of the worst enemies of their democracy (see "Saving Japan - Let's fall the Indecision Tree")... but only a minority of Japanese voters is aware of what's at stake, only a minority is aware of what happened in the past (or even what the Tokyo trials were about), and Shinzo Abe and his friends - including in the media and in the classrooms - are working hard to erase the truth from the collective memory.

Hopefully, the Japanese people have started to wake up, and more seem eager to defend democracy (see "Japan taking a stand against ABEIGNomics?"). Not to the point the ruling party can be defeated, but to the point the silent majority may start showing some unease with its corrupt political system. That's a very long path, and as we see with people like Sadakazu Tanigaki, change within the LDP wouldn't necessarily mean the end of the Nippon Kaigi domination.

So for a second, let's stop playing the game some impostors want us to play here and there:
- if you think this has nothing to do with you, don't complain if bad things tend to happen and if bad people tend to stick around
- if you're Korean, know that Abe and co want you to believe that this is all about Japan against Korea, when actually they're waging a war for Imperial Japan against postwar Japan, so try to see Japan as a democracy in danger, and to consider how Korea could help without fueling tensions, preferably by becoming a model in coping responsibly with its own troubled past
- if you're American, know that you can't dodge history issues anymore: Shinzo Abe has invited you to the party, and forced you to chose between Imperial Japan and postwar Japan. He may be pushing his luck, but at least he didn't forget to add a moral hazard clause: in the process, you may have to face your own past.

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* see ""History is harsh" and other sick jokes"
** see "LDP to set up panel to review Tokyo war crimes verdicts and GHQ policies" (Asahi Shimbun 20151112),

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Korea-Japan: it ain't necessarily thaw

As far as diplomacy goes, last Sunday's summit in Seoul between Korea, China, and Japan appears to be more about tactics and communication than about strategy and issues.

Yes, trilateral summits are back, and in a more formal manner than last year's distant encounter of the third kind between Barack Obama, Shinzo Abe, and Park Geun-hye in The Hague (see "The Tripartite Summitulacra"). But that 56-point joint declaration* is pointless.

And fundamentally, nothing changes. And body language keeps betraying clear rifts, like on this Yonhap picture where Shinzo Abe struggles to get the attention of a Park Geun-hye - Li Keqiang couple that makes good eye contact, but where Korea is eager for more affection from a China obviously calling the shots.

China's top man is not even on the picture, because this non-event is not at Xi Jinping's level, even if he does go well with Park, and even if he warmed up a bit with Abe recently. That last bit was actually one of the countless reasons why Park was forced to accept a summit with Abe. In order for her to save face, it had to happen in Seoul, and with the alibi of a trilateral moment, and with a promise that some progress would be made regarding the 'Comfort Women' issue. 

As if Park were the one who reconciled everybody! As if Abe intended to make any move in favor of the victims of Imperial Japan's sexual slavery system! As soon as he came back to Japan, the revisionist PM naturally confirmed that no agreement would happen during the proposed time frame**. Abe will play the next summit on his home turf, and will as usual, as we frogs say, "try to drown the fish".

No one is fooled: Shinzo Abe has claimed back his respectability, and effortlessly gained a lot of time, and Korea can only contemplate the time and opportunities wasted over the past months. When you think that Park's main concern, ahead of the summit, was to push if favor of an old Abe dream, state-issued history textbooks, instead of showing the example by leading a long overdue truth and reconciliation movement (see "Yet Another Textbook Textbook Controversy")...

Otherwise, The Middle Kingdom confirms its posture as the hyperpower guaranteeing peace and stability in the region. You can easily guess why the US didn't win the day...

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* see "Full text of joint declaration of trilateral summit" (Yonhap - 20151104)
** see "Comfort women agreement with South Korea not likely by year-end: Abe" (Japan Times - 20151102)

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

And the winner is... I.SEOUL.U (not Seoul?)

Earlier this year, I joined the Seoul Branding effort because I love this city and I wanted a better signature than 'Hi Seoul' to represent it.

I prefer such expressions as 'signature' to 'brand' because Seoul doesn't need branding. As Roy Disney famously said, "Branding is something you do to cows. It makes sense if you're a rancher, since cows do tend to look alike".

Anyway, it couldn't get worse than this...:

... could it?

I knew that I had to brace for the worst when I received an email, last July, giving the team its first true 'mission'*: doing some SNS PR for PARK Won-soon's trip to China...

Still, the crowdsourcing effort across the capital did bring a lot of suggestions (over 16,000), including decent ones: even if the old 'Infinitely Yours, Seoul' had been dumped, such newbies as 'Find your Seoul' sounded promising.

Since I was out of town during most of the process, I don't know how the 3 finalists made it: the utterly unhashtagable "I.SEOUL.U" looked and sounded like an insult (as in I.EXPLETIVE.U), and "Seoulmate" like a dating site for corporate designers of the eighties. If Seouling didn't make much more sense, at least it mirrored the city's elusiveness, and anyone could make anything out of it, without being forced into a Relationship in capital letters.  

  • Note that, as often the case here, nothing seems to have been done to protect the 'brands' or their URLs (typically: will Seoul City move its Facebook page from, or wait for its next avatar?)...
The winner was decided by the combination of 3 votes (50% for the first, 25% for each of the other two), starting with a popular one open to everyone and closed a few days prior to yesterday's event, where a poll of 1,000 citizens (who turned out to be 1,140) and a panel of 9 experts voted with an electric device guaranteeing the one voice one vote ratio. The first vote brought 121,000 ballots (76,000 online, 45,000 offline), and there's no way to tell how many people voted how many times - in my case, once, and online.

Yesterday, I came to Seoul Plaza to vote as a Seoulite who barely speaks Korean, and only slightly better English, but with a personal experience in each of the city's 467 neighborhoods, and a professional experience in branding. Which made the choice even more cruel. I opted for 'seouling', since I've already been seouling for over almost a quarter of a century - whatever that means.

The winner, I.SEOUL.U, claimed only 36.5% in the open ballot, but 59.8% of the citizens present yesterday. I bet many voted for a team rather than for a logo, and I even saw one of my neighboring clapping ajumma change her mind after watching what turned out to be the best video and the cutest team. The fact that 100% of the expert panel supported I.SEOUL.U made me wonder, as a giant flag with the winning logo was unfurled over the audience just minutes after the verdict, if similar flags had been prepared for the other finalists...

Seoul Brand: citizens vote for I.SEOUL.U (NB worst brand but best video tonight)
To wrap up this democratic fest, PARK Won-soon danced on stage in a mini musical. I left in the cold Seoul night when the first k-pop group popped up.

Now get ready for the I.SEOUL.Uization of your environment: a CCL (Creative Commons License) makes sure it will spread everywhere, and the city plans 'brand sculptures' for this December.

Happy Halloween indeed.

---20151029 ADDENDUM---
Speaking of Seoul brand's latest avatar: I.SEEOUL.U?

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* Before that, we'd been asked to suggest names for the team (I proposed to keep a simple 'Seoul Friends').

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

'Horizontal Housing' shouldn't mean 'mini-apateu'

Here's the design selected for Seoul's 'Horizontal Housing' test in Myeonmok-dong, Jungnang-gu:

Nothing disruptive: for years, small developers have been building this kind of things by the dozens in clogged 'villa' areas like Gangseo-gu. If this fits the Hausmman-friendly 6-7 levels limit, it still looks like a 'mini-apateu'... and certainly doesn't deserve being heralded as an 'alternative to the New Town model' and an example of 'urban regeneration. 

This is precisely the kind of architecture that's destroying Seoul streets: a lifeless ground floor where cars matter more than humans. Call it a 'low-rise block' if you want, but if you intend to deliver serious urban regeneration, please go back to the drawing board.

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Monday, October 19, 2015

Yet Another Textbook Textbook Controversy

History belongs to those who write it, and in utterly politically divided South Korea, each side accuse the other one to push its own propaganda.

PARK Geun-hye recently announced her project of a single 'correct', State-issued textbook to replace today's choice between eight private publishers. Needless to say, Korean History Research Association scholars boycotted it.

PGH's project is clearly troubling: the last South Korean leader to do so was her dictator of a father PARK Chung-hee in 1974, and even Textbook Revisionist in Chief Shinzo ABE hasn't succeeded - so far - in restoring State-issued history textbooks in Japan, where they were banned at the end of WWII. Japanese activists actually fear Korea's project could serve ABE's agenda*.

If this reform is supposed to be implemented just months before the next presidential elections in 2017, PGH's presidency is now compared to the worst moments of her predecessor LEE Myung-bak, whose government terminated the much needed Truth and Reconciliation Commission (see links below), stopped history teaching at school, created a controversial museum of contemporary history (see "The Sejongno Insult"), and even issued a creationist textbook**.

Now this is not the only controversy surrounding these book: the project is motivated by the fact that, even if some mechanisms give the government its say in the editorial line, all history textbooks are deeply biased. Not just left-leaning, but at times into pro-North Korea propaganda territories.

No wonder this debate brings back such 1970s name calling darlings as 'dictator!' or 'commies!'

IMHO something definetly had to be done regarding these textbooks, but the government chose the worst possible solution by negating the historical debate. This should have been the opportunity to tackle the issue at its core, to restart the Truth and Reconciliation process. And when there is a debate on the interpretation of events, it should be reflected in the textbooks, with diverging opinions mentioned as such.


About the termination of the TRCK:
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* "Japanese civic groups protesting S. Korea’s turn to state-issued textbooks" (Hankyoreh)
** see "State-condoned creationism in Korea? A cold-blooded murder against King Sejong"

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Which model for Korea tomorrow?

(Translation of an article I recently published - in French - on the Korean paradox: "Quel modele pour la Coree demain?" - Asialyst - 20151001)

Which model for Korea tomorrow?

Seventy years after its liberation, Korea seems at the same time more present than ever on the global stage, and full of doubts. This nation has countless times proved its capacity to bounce back and to surprise, but today does it have to reinvent itself?

Diplomacy: can yesterday's weakest link become tomorrow's keystone?

With such neighbors as China, Russia, and Japan, plus an unruly (to say the least) brother up North, South Korea would have had a tough time surviving without the support of the United States. Yet as much as her spectacular economic boom (now a major contributor to world institutions, then at the other end of the charity chain), her opening to China helped her become a key diplomatic power: a UN secretary general, the first G20 host in Asia, and even for a moment the quasi-pivot to the G2, thanks to the good fit between Park Geun-hye and Xi Jinping..., and Shinzo Abe's irresistible urge to undo the democratic progresses of postwar Japan.

While waiting for an elusive reunification that would help her claim yet another dimension, Korea could benefit from perfecting her diplomatic distinctiveness. But this delicate exercise is under a double threat: between their increasing economic dependence to China, and the unconditional support of the USA to Abe's restoration of militarism in Japan, Koreans fear they might end up in the sphere of influence of the former, as hinted by Asan Institute polls.

Politics: can the democracy in the South overcome its own divisions?

If South Korea put an end to dictatorship over a quarter of a century ago, presidencies remain limited to one single term, which contributes to an unbalance of powers; between presidents gone lame duck as soon as they're elected, lawmakers plagued by scandales, and not so independent justice and media, two powers emerge: the almighty familial conglomerates (chaebol), and netizens very motivated to defend democracy, but trusting only the web... which sometimes means spinning the wildest rumor or hoax.

Adding to the traditional geographic divisions (particularly those opposing the conservative South East to the progressive South West), deep generational gaps appear between left-leaning youth and right-leaning seniors. The political debate is at best absent, at worst very contentious or polluted by extreme minorities from both sides (ultraconservatives on one, supporters of the North Korean regime on the other).

Even if they are divided, South Koreans long for reconciliation, and even reunification, a prospect as problematic as ever, but again wished by a majority. The pure, joyful communion of the 2002 World Cup seems far away, and to this day, no one has managed to reunite the South by leveraging this positive energy.

The democratically elected daughter of a dictator, Park Geun-hye had the unique opportunity to set up a new deal and to show the example across the region, but she didn't chose the path of truth and reconciliation. Meanwhile, the opposition is stuck in the quagmire of its own contradictions, and under the influence of leaders trained to resist dictatorship, feels more comfort in organizing permanent demonstrations that in building a sustainable government platform.

As her neighbors opt for ever harder lines (Xi, Putin, Abe, Kim), Korea must avoid the return of ideology, the temptation of populism, and above all the trap of nationalism fueled by Japan's unleashed revisionists.

Economy: can the XXth century's « best follower » become a « leader » in the XXIth?

From state dirigisme to ultra-capitalism, the country went from one extreme to another without reforming its main structural hurdles: its hyper-competitive education system chain produces top performers, but destroys innovators and creative rule changers; its chaebol are unable to share value or to evolve in open ecosystems, and suck up the potential for SMEs and start-ups; and social dialogue is at a standstill (like France, Korea is blocked because she bought trade unions for social peace). Besides, even as it multiplies FTAs across the World, the nation knows how to deter major international players who want to succeed in its service sectors - after Walmart and Carrefour, Tesco just called it quits.

Avis' old « we try harder » campaign against Hertz remains a textbook marketing case where #2 outdoes itself to become #1, but once at the top struggles to take on true leadership. For Korea, who built her success by always doing better than others, the toughest part is now to make her own way. If she perfectly manages to do it in certain markets such as cosmetics, she has trouble in others, like a Samsung failing to succeed beyond hardware, in software and international platforms - what Apple did with iTunes and iOS. Korea doesn't always seem to leverage as well as she should her formidable window of opportunity vis-a-vis China, who uses her as a model while catching up in the technological race.

If Korea is less exposed to speculators since she's sitting on record currency reserves, her dependence on exports persists, her middle class suffer, her growth slows down, and her short-term stimulus policies further weaken her: regarding housing, protecting constructors comes before urban planning common sense and long-term needs, and regarding household consumption, debt levels break records among OECD members

With ever sinking birth rates, some Koreans fear a Japan-style 'lost decade'. Even their legendary capacity to bounce back seems dulled, like during these never ending post-Sewol doldrums. To face the challenges of this young millenium, the Korean model must evolve, and preferably without more crises. 

The wind of change and innovation seems to be - timidly - starting to blow. The best students are not anymore following the golden path of the day (engineering, law,...), but making their own combo program by picking from the different faculties of their universities. And when they graduate, they are not anymore rushing to guaranteed chaebol careers, but ready to take risks in start-ups. If the arrival of Google Campus and other foreign players and VCs contribute to a new techno bubble, it also opened new horizons to entrepreneurs in a market previously locked by local conglomerates.

Society: can Koreans rediscover the joys of community in times of diversity?

So today, leaving the system of accepting failure is not a taboo anymore. A little bit like after the IMF Crisis of 1997-98, which came as a wake up call after a century plagued by colonization, war, and the sacrifices of development: all of a sudden, life was about more than fighting for surviving or winning more, and Korea started gearing up for leisure, family life, and culture. Seoul quickly became that city more open to its citizens and to the World, at long last a popular tourist destination.

But infrastructures can't bring all answers to the challenges of today and tomorrow. You can't pretend you can tackle upcoming demographic shocks when you boast such suicide or youth unemployment rates, when you're struggling to get mixed children accepted, when you let three hundred kids drown, or a teenager join ISIS...

Humans are back at the center of the society, and the priority goes to sharing a better life in existing living environments: instead of erasing a whole neighborhood to build a New Town, authorities involve populations in micro urban regeneration projects, and instead of adding lifesavers to Suicide Bridge, they try to revive inter-generational dialogue. Korea invests massively in human resources and pedagogy to prepare for the demographic boom of multicultural families, and for the community to give its best in times of diversity.

This can't happen overnight in a country that already struggles to promote its cultural diversity beyond extremes (e.g. gugak vs k-pop), but the political will is there, and shared across the aisle.


Korea is neither booming nor declining, but in transit between a model on its last legs and new, more agile dynamics. She can make it faster than her neighbors, and her small size represents as much an asset as a handicap. She can always count on her formidable ability to evolve, digest, try, customize, 'bibimize', as well as on the intensity she gives to everything she dares, for worse or better.

Stephane MOT 2015

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