Bruce Sterling at Lift 2008, Jeju

I thought about going to the Lift conference in Jeju, just because Bruce Sterling was talking there. I didn’t get around to it, but thanks to a post by Florence Chee, I was made aware of the online video of his talk. For anyone interested in Korea, the future, and/or SF, it’s worth checking out, since Bruce Sterling is a major SF author and futurist, and since it’s all about Korea.

Unfortunately, I think Bruce skipped the likeliest solution to the problems he outlines early on in his talk: physical restraint. I suspect that the North Korean borders will become much less permeable, rather than more permeable, when South Korea, China, and whomever else it is intervenes to stablize the North when it becomes necessary.

There are a few reasons I think this is likely:

  1. It would help fend off the influx of poverty into the South, and help fend off the influx of North Koreans who, after all, are not really people South Koreans are widely comfortable about having around.
  2. It would provide a reason to keep on operating mandatory military service requirements for Korean men. There are many serious reasons why this is on the South Korean establishment’s agenda, but the simplest way to put it is, this system is a powerful way of putting the brakes on social change, on acceptance of shifting gender roles and power, of reinforcing male identity as conservative and “traditional,” and of maintaining a relatively conservative political base. (Because even many Korean liberals are remarkably similar to right-wingers in the rest of the world.)
  3. It would provide a huge, cheap labour base for South Korean manufacturing and textiles, while offshoring a lot of the opportunity costs (pollution, say, or the unsightly factories); this would radically reduce Korean dependence on Chinese imports. If you think this is far-fetched, ask yourself why Gaesong is such a popular idea among South Korean businesspeople.
  4. It would make it easier to regulate the southward flow of people; predictably, you would see a major rise in South Korean-bound immigration of Northern women (as mail order brides, perhaps stemming the tide of South-Asian mail order brides and preventing all that “miscegenation” that’s been going on) while you would see relatively little southward movement of North Korean men. Perhaps the South Asian women would simply be rerouted to North Korea, though probably they’d go there in much smaller numbers. Likewise, human trafficking of Northern women to the South would probably rise, as Northern women would escape poverty in the North only to end up in brothels in Seoul and the countryside.

Still, I think Bruce’s talk is important and its optimism may inspire people to do better than this, because really, though I think what I’ve written above is what’s likely to happen if the people at the helm of South Korea are still at the helm when the North collapses, it’d be nice to see Korea do better.

And by the way, by “the people at the helm” I don’t mean the Lee government, I mean the whole political establishment, left and right alike. If the people running the show when fit hits the shan are the same people who remember living in Korea when there was only one flavor of ice cream, who didn’t know how to use a shower or a bed, then I’m pretty skeptical that they’re going to be able to rise to the occasion of actually launching whatever magical economic revolution that Sterling imagines.I’m sure some people can figure one out, but with a government that’s still playing McCarthy games whenever it gets a little bad press, I have my doubts about whether they’ll have the guts to embrace something unheard-of, something truly radical, something that could change the whole game worldwide after they’ve spent so long clawing their way up in the established system.

I could be wrong. I’d be pleased to discover that. But the big question whenever you want something done in Korea is, how can we get the ajeoshis to back it? And I can’t see a model for radical economic change that would benefit those rich, older men in suits who would would need to give the go-ahead, so I’m not sure I can see it happening.

Well, unless, of course, there were a groundswell of effort from precisely the people in South Korea who stand to benefit from an upheaval like this: young women, the working poor (which includes huge numbers of recent college graduates), and teenagers, especially young men eager not to have to do military service. That’s a lot of people, and they do have real incentives to harness whatever establishment-changing energies would be released by a radical reworking of inter-Korean economics. Still, whether they will rise to the occasion is a very tenuous possibility.

The effects could potentially be amazing. What if Korean business became more of a productivity-meritocracy? What if military service became a thing of the past — how would popular culture explode as young men suddenly weren’t forced to mentally and emotionally become conservative middle-aged men in their early 20s? What might happen if the majority of men had a college education that wasn’t bisected by two years of Pavlovian obedience training and unwholesome suffering? What would happen if the same economic magic worked on the North were to be worked on the less-fortunate Koreans south of the DMZ?

Like I say, I’m dubious, but I’d like to see it happen. Go on, Korea, prove me wrong. I’ll celebrate it as hard as anyone on earth.

8 thoughts on “Bruce Sterling at Lift 2008, Jeju

  1. It would provide a huge, cheap labour base for South Korean manufacturing and textiles,

    The countries around it, and those not around it, have been drooling at the chance to make North Korea the world’s largest sweatshop once someone friendlier to the outside takes power. So I’m doubting any plans of “stabalization” will have any goal outside of keeping that entire nation of prisoners where they’re at. (In all interpretations of the concept)

  2. Yeah, exactly…

    Though I imagine the exploitation will be South-Korean dominated. Korea’s government (and corporate elite) is going to be very loudly screaming, “That’s our sweatshop brethren and you need to let us exploit them put them to work in modernizing their country by making crap for us cheaply doing basic labour to build up their economy.”

    I don’t think the majority of people will be sympathetic to this plan — I think it will anger a lot of people — but I also don’t know to what degree the majority of people will have imagined alternatives or examined different models of how post-Kim-Dynasty collapse could look. And the thing is, while the Korean populace can certainly rise up about things they care about — resistance to educational reforms was pretty constant and relatively effective during the dictatorships and up to the present — there are some things they just don’t seem to feel moved to rise up about.

    I was talking with a student who’d dropped by my office about the North Korea depicted in one of my forthcoming stories, and she sat there in shock, and said, “You know, nobody’s ever broken down what a post-“reunification” Korea would actually look like to me before. I’ve never even imagined what it’d look like.”

    That’s pretty scary given the amount of political lip-service given to the idea. It’s one of the dire consequences attendant to the relatively scarce inroads SF has made here, too, I think. Because where else but in SF would anyone dare ask the realistic questions that don’t get shunted aside by mutterings about the “gateun minjok”?

    It’s telling that in all the futuristic films in which we see a “reunified” Korea, all of the action happens in the South or a place that looks like the South, and no serious exploration of Inter-Korean dynamics would look like has happened onscreen.

    (I’m hoping, and guessing, that things are different in the realm of literary SF.)

  3. South Korea seems to have changed under the push of the private sector, not the government. It’s one of these countries where people think “the government is here to get away from our daily business”.

    I wonder if your view is not a bit too centered around these guys in the blue house ;)

  4. Laurent,

    That’s interesting. I think my understanding of Korean development history differs from yours. (Top-down government involvement was massive, wasn’t it?)

    It’s mostly insofar as the guys in the Blue House will be under the thumbs of the corporate elite — and they’ll have to be, nobody else in South Korea has the resources to even think about dealing with the North — the agenda will necessarily be driven by what’s good for big business. (And sweatshop exploitation is always good for business!) Besides, I suspect that by the time this happens, the population is going to be saturated with young people (and immigrants) who don’t really consider North Korea their problem, and everyone else will be so used to not knowing what’s going on up North that outcry will be fringe, at least for the first few years.

    (I think that’s part of why the room might have been silent after Bruce’s speech. Besides it being a great speech, it insists on something Korea’s not yet grokked: Korea is responsible for Korea’s future. Bitch about Japan all you want; rage at the US despite its military expenditures here; but it doesn’t erase the fact that Korea’s future is in its own hands. Some people get this. Most don’t.

    This idea hasn’t yet penetrated deeply, which is why so many regular young people wish they could emigrate, or wish they were born elsewhere. It’s a kind of national identity infused with a kind of learned helplessness, really.

    We’ll see, though: this summer showed that people can be mobilized. Maybe over a more dire issue, they can come out in greater numbers and stay mobilized. I am hopeful.

    (By the way, as for people wanting the government to be hands-off, well, yes and no. Most young people I know across the political spectrum seem eager to throw away anonymity online, and seem to accept the necessity of government censorship.)

    I will throw out one prediction, though: there is absolutely no way in hell that the borders will be open within five years after ostensible “reunification” (ie. there is no way that North Koreans will be wandering into Seoul with cell phones) and there is no way that anyone’s going to allow mandatory military service to be stopped, the latter for specifically cultural reasons. This seems to suggest the border will become much more heavily guarded.

    But South Korea will have an analogous problem with its immigrant and mixed-race population (poorer, cell-phone equipped), and now that I think about it, what Bruce is talking about applies just as much to those populations.

  5. First, thanks for the link to Bruce Sterling’s talk. I didn’t even know he was coming to Korea (I didn’t even think too many Koreans even knew about Sterling).

    You’ve touched on a lot of poltical-economic points here, and I can’t even hope to touch on all of them for this comment, but just a few points:

    1) I personally believe that should reunification occur, there should be limits on movement of people, at least temporarily. But, I give this zero chance of happening. Poor North Koreans will do everything they can to cross the border, and I doubt if South Koreans are willing to shoot North Koreans trying to cross the border for a better life. Also, think back on what happened in East and West Germany (which IMO is the most likely scenario for what will happen – and Korea is likely to repeat their mistakes as well).

    2) One of the problems IMO is that every Korean says they want reunification, but no one seems to realize that there may be very little in common between present day North Koreans and South Koreans. The people who may act as links between the two Koreas – the North Korean people who escaped before the Korean war, and remember the pre-war unified period, are now in their 70s and 80s. When they pass away, the two Koreas may have no “links” which can smooth over problems.

    3) Also, on balance of economic power and philosophy between government and businesses – the balance passed to businesses around the 1980s, though what the businesses want is probably not what economists would think of as a “free market.” There’s a lot of good Korean economic history books and articles dealing with government-led period of 1960s-early 1980s; but relatively few which deal with 1990s and beyond.

    One of these days, I’ll try to make a fuller post.

  6. Yikes, I wrote a nice long reply, Junsok, and the Internet ate it up whole.

    The gist was mostly a mix of pessimism and optimism (depending on how you see it) about #1, agreement about #2, and deferral about #3, with Canadian-socialist type caveats thrown in. I would love to see your thoughts in more detail.

    Or have a beer or coffee sometime, for that matter… Maybe when my housing situation stops collapsing around my ears…

  7. can’t see a model for radical economic change that would benefit those rich, older men in suits

    In that at least Korea is not alone . . .

  8. Oh, no, far from alone.

    But then, we shouldn’t ever count on them to make the world a better place anyway. It will have to happen despite the rich old elites. As it almost always has had to…

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