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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.

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