Editor’s Note: Winning the future through radical love, and a KQ milestone | By Martha Vickery (Fall 2021 issue)
Korean Quarterly has always been lucky and blessed in its complement of contributors, and it is a special benefit when there are American contributors observing Korean society while living in Korea. It is an enviable position from which to comment on Korean life.
In this issue, there are some great observations of South Korean society by two articulate South Korea residents, Seth Martin (and his student Yein Han) and Tom McCarthy.
Tom’s residency in South Korea fortunately (for KQ readers) coincided with the release of the media bomb which is Squid Game, the most-watched series in Netflix history. From it has emerged some deep social commentary in South Korea, and, through the magic of streaming services, into the living rooms of everyone within the reach of Netflix. In the Fall 2021 issue, Tom adds his insider-outsider opinion to the mix.
Squid Game is based on an over-the-top premise, in which hopelessly indebted people are locked into a sick, deadly game where winning means tons of money, and losing means death. It is, you might say, the ultimate “xtreme” sport. The exaggeration gets our attention, but the genius is in the details of the participants’ strategy and the relationships they develop in their journey. The bleak premise of the story invites all sorts of allegorical parallels; one obviously is the life-sucking effect of capitalism.
Many modern Koreans can recognize themselves somewhere this theme, which Tom explains so brilliantly in his essay. But it is a global theme too, that has repeated itself in the recent past. Aside from the crushing financial indebtedness experienced by so many ordinary people, this drama echoes other recent struggles of people globally. The pandemic has been its own life-and-death story over the last two years. So has the migration of huge numbers of people who pay a lot of money and bet their lives that they will get to a better place. So is climate change; drastically changing how we live could score a win, and we live; ignoring the problem will wipe us all out.
A subtopic of this is the way in which youth in Korea, and in some respects, youth globally, are being pushed to take on the thought leadership of the next generation, but well before their time. Tom observes that Squid Game is derived from a children’s game, which brings to mind how children in Korea are made little capitalism slaves too early, like with a grueling schedule that begins at age six or so, with regular school, followed by afternoon private academies.
U.S. society can only point fingers at itself on robbing children of the right to a childhood. Evidence of this is in the Wall Street Journal’s recent expose The Facebook Files, in which Jeff Horwitz, Georgia Wells and other investigative reporters pile up the evidence of how Facebook’s own researchers found that its photo-sharing app has negatively affected young viewers, and that its platform Instagram “is harmful for a sizable percentage of them, notably teenage girls, more so than other social media platforms.”
A Senate Subcommittee on Commerce questioned executives from Twitter, Facebook, Google, as well as Snapchat and Youtube in October, particularly about how the platforms are seemingly indifferent to this potential harm. One senator summed it up, saying that the companies know there are vulnerable teens and pre-teens on the platforms “but you continue to do it, because of the money.”
Our other frequent contributor in Korea, Seth Martin (aka Seth Mountain, which I think is either his nom de guerre or maybe his rock ‘n roll name) teaches at a high school in South Korea. In that role, he encourages his students to write about their lives in English. He persuaded a few of them to work with him to get their essays published in KQ (Summer 2020 issue) on their reflections about living through the pandemic.
The students revealed that they were a bit scared and isolated during the last nearly two years, but that it had its positive side, for example because they got to see their parents for more hours each day, and that everyone had less to do. It was encouraging to read that although the pandemic shook up their lives, it had the positive effect of helping them reorder their priorities, and reflect on what is really important.
On the topic of what’s really important, student Yein Han, one of the students who wrote a coronavirus essay last year, submitted a second essay for this issue which somewhat eerily complements Tom’s analysis in discussing the themes of desperation and life-or-death decisions. She also reflects on the need for youth to act in the face of the existential threat of climate change. She suggests that the planet can be saved, not through more agreements, treaties, and laws, but through radical love – caring as much for the long term as the short term, and caring as much about others as about ourselves. It is, in fact, the radical opposite of the Squid Game dystopia.
I remember at some years ago talking to a nutritionist about strategies to avoid a food allergen, and complaining about what a pain it is to always read food labels. She told me about one patient, a young and severely allergic child, whose mother taught him how to read labels and instructed him in how to remind teachers and caregivers not to give him anything containing the allergen. I made some comment about how smart that little boy must be, and how grown up, and she remarked, “No, not really. It’s just that it’s his life.”
The next generation are the ones who need to live longest with the world we are creating (or tearing down), so it is no wonder they are jumping into the fray instead of staying home and studying (or flipping through Tik Tok). The ones with the most at stake are the ones who get the most creative, think the deepest, and work the hardest to save others as well as themselves.
There are, however, some new inventions of the adult older generation intended to instill hope for the future. I know a group like that – it’s called Women Cross DMZ.
Founded by activist Christine Ahn, the project to organize 30 international women peace activists to cross the DMZ from North Korea to South Korea actually happened in 2015. Its journey to cross that boundary, and all the boundaries and obstacles between that event and its goal of a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War continues today, and into the future. That journey, and what came before and since, is chronicled in a new film, Crossings, by noted documentary filmmaker (and Korean adoptee) Deann Borshay Liem.
Only a few days before this writing, the film launch was announced for the Hawaii International Film Festival. Deann explained to me in a phone call that the launch will be small, due to pandemic restrictions, and that the film streaming will be temporarily limited to Hawaii.
This issue, there is only a film review. Next issue, I will be interviewing the filmmaker. This week the film was barely done; Deann was still preparing it for the film festival. However, in 2022, there will be a general release to U.S. venues still to be determined.
The film describes an unprecedented international women’s campaign for peace, and sends a message that we must overcome the existential threat of war between the two Koreas with radical love. Because Deann is a Korean adoptee, I believe (and hope) she will screen it in Minnesota in 2022 for Korean adoptees and the greater Korean American community.
KQ is 25 years old as of this issue. One hundred editions of KQ have now been published, fall 2021 marks the 101st. With this milestone, we recognize our hundreds of contributors, donors and advertisers over the years. With teamwork, we have made it happen.
Once each year, KQ participates in “Give to the Max Day“, an annual day of philanthropy in Minnesota, set for November 19. Please consider including KQ in a donation that day, or any day from now on in your end of year plans. Direct donation to KQ is also easy on the website. Our 2022 plan includes a new digital archive of every issue back to 1997. It is a big project, but we can do this.
With help from so many, KQ continues to speak from the heart of the Korean American community. Thank you!
Martha Vickery, editor
Martha Vickery is a long-time professional journalist and long-time amateur Korea watcher, co-founder of Korean Quarterly, and editor since its founding in 1997. She has raised three now-adult children, two of whom are adopted from Korea, with the help of the Korean American community in the St. Paul-Minneapolis area.