September 9, 2009

Prof’s Respectful Bow Leads to Media Buzz in S. Korea

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All Mark Selden, a senior fellow in Cornell’s East Asia program, did was bow, but the viral buzz it made would seem to indicate that he did much more. Selden made the news on several Korean media outlets for the culturally sensitive manner in which he paid his respects to former President of South Korea, Kim Dae-jung.
Although his deep bow (a version of the kowtow) merely followed standard Korean custom, the media attention on Selden reflects larger political issues circulating in Korea in the wake of Kim’s death.
Selden noted the perception of Americans in South Korea and in many global countries as one reason the picture of him bowing had such an impact. “Who are Americans?” Selden asked. “Americans are the most arrogant people in the world, they tell the Japanese what to do.” He noted that American troops have been in Japan and Korea for 60 years. “[Americans are] not known for cultural sensitivity; they are the boss, so people thought this seemed out of the mold and it came out of a time of incredible rethinking. … Kim’s death is a major turning point.”
“Of course, seeing a foreigner perform the traditional bow made quite an impression on the Koreans,” remarked Ines Min, a reporter for The Korea Times. According to Min the photograph of Selden has been circulating through the blogosphere. But, Min added, the big news of the week was Kim’s funeral, “the bow was just an aspect of it,” she said.
Selden arrived in Seoul the day before Kim’s death to attend the third International NGO History Conference, and he later went to pay his respects with his professorial colleague, Wada Haruki, who was also featured in the photograph. Wada, from Tokyo University, played an active role in the release of Kim from captivity by the former military dictatorship during the 1980s, and has been an important figure in Korea-Japan relations.
“There was no interest in me, but a lot of interest in Wada. … When we went up there, [there] were a lot of Korean cameras watching,” Selden said.
Selden learned how to perform the bow properly while he was standing in line to pay his respects to the late president at Severence Hospital in Seoul. He learned the proper customary decorum while observing the other Koreans.
“I had it in my head the way Koreans bow,” Selden explained.
Selden downplayed the incident that has garnered him so much media attention, by saying the true issues are those surrounding Kim’s death.
Selden referred to Kim as “the single most important figure in Korean democracy and transforming the politics of North-South Korean relations.” In light of Kim’s death, many Koreans have begun comparing his administration to the current one, headed by President Lee Myung-bak.
Under Kim, Koreans were allowed to cross the North-South border to visit relatives, and railroads were built to connect the two countries. “He reopened the potential for North-South relations,” Selden said. Kim championed greater governmental transparency and received the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in improving relations between the North and South after half a century of war and recrimination.
Kim’s successor, Roh Moo-hyun, who committed suicide this past May, was also an advocate for rapprochement in North-South relations and increased transparency in South Korean politics, establishing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to examine past cases of violence committed under the former dictatorship.
Current president Lee, whose party has ties to the former dictatorship, is looking to terminate the Commission. His policies lean sharply to the right and since his presidency relations between North and South Korea have deteriorated. However,
North Korea did extend a peace gesture in the wake of Kim’s death, sending five envoys to attend the funeral and engage in talks with the current political party.
Selden compares Korea’s current state in the wake of Kim’s passing to the inauguration of President Barack Obama. He also said there were similarities to the uncertainty of the times that followed President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. He attributes the extensive media coverage of Kim’s funeral and the making of his bow into an “Internet phenomenon” as a sign of hype in Korea. “The important fact is that the Koreans are in the midst of serious rethinking … and that can include the U.S.-Korean relationship,” Selden said.
In looking to the future, Selden remarks that it is too early to tell how people will respond. However, he does predict that many political issues will be opened for reconsideration and the current government may feel pressure to re-engage in North-South Korea dialogues.