My contribution to VCinema’s 2012 Year in Review is to pose a question that I can’t answer definitively. Was 2012 South Korea’s multicultural moment?
Before I elaborate, I want to consider the other question that could be posed about South Korea’s 2012 – was it South Korea’s ‘Feminist Moment’? This question is prompted by the election of South Korea’s first female President, Park Geun-hye. But as Stephen Epstein argues on a recent interview with Kim Hill of Radio New Zealand, Park’s victory, however historic, does follow a trend of women leaders of Asian countries hailing from already politically established families, such as India’s Gandhi and Pakistan’s Bhutto family dynasties, Park being the daughter of former South Korean President Park Chung-hee.
Plus, I am presently reading Rachael Miyung Joo’s fascinating ethnography of South Korean media sports entitled Transnational Sport: Gender, Media, and Global Korea (Duke University Press, 2012) and from what I’ve read so far, it appears a more accurate pinning of South Korea’s ‘Feminist Moment’ might be 2002, when the national excitement of the Red Devils, South Korea’s national soccer team, found South Korean women breaking through into public spaces where they were previously heavily ‘policed’ by the patriarchy. (I remember a Korean-American friend of mine telling me how she was accosted on the street by an older Korean man for daring to smoke in public in 90’s South Korea.) Describing the 2002 World Cup crowds of scarlet-ed Koreans, Joo notes “The crowds were characterized by new modes of spectatorship derived from women-centered modes of viewing and participation. The feminized crowds highlighted a new place for women within Korean national publics” (p 28). So I wouldn’t call 2012 the ‘Feminist Moment’ for South Korea, but, ironically, the year of the men’s football World Cup instead, 2002.
With claims for South Korea’s ‘Feminist Moment’ dissuaded, it’s another member of President-Elect Park’s Saenuri Party (formerly named the Grand National Party until February 2012) that has me tentatively marking 2012 as South Korea’s ‘Multicultural Moment’. And that party member is Jasmine B. Lee, the first non-ethnic Korean elected to Korea’s National Assembly.
Lee is Filipina by birth, but married a South Korean seaman with whom she had two children. Lee became a naturalized South Korean citizen in 1998 and is fairly fluent in Korean. Plus, as Kim Kyu-hyun notes at Koreanfilm.org, she can act, appearing alongside Song Kang-ho in Jang Hun’s Secret Reunion in 2010 and as Yoo Ah-in’s mother in Lee Han’s 2011 film Punch. Her appearance in those films demonstrate the multicultural chigae that’s been bubbling up for some time in South Korean media. From the If You Were Me series of human rights omnibus films where racial prejudice in South Korea featured prominently to Pittsburgh Steeler Super Bowl XL MVP Hines Ward’s visit to South Korea that was as much a celebration of Ward’s achievements as an effort to address South Korean prejudice towards multi-racial Koreans (particularly those with African-American parentage) to Shin Dong-il’s 2009 film Bandhobi where Bangladeshi migrant Mahbub Alam played Baek Jin-hee’s love interest; to the inclusion of diasporic Koreans in KPop groups like 2NE1 (Park Dara, who spent her formative years as Sandara Park in The Philippines and as a result her English is inflected with the rhythms of Tagalog); to the similar inclusion of non-Koreans such as the American born Thai-Chinese member of 2PM (Nikhun); to the truly excellent, and truly fluent in Korean, actors Abu Dodd (from Ghana) and Enes Kaya (from Turkey) who shined in Kim Min-seok’s 2010 film Haunters, South Korea has been preparing for this moment. Although these portrayals happened before 2012, Lee’s actual election to National Assembly this year shows us multiculturalism is ready for it’s Korean close-up. It’s one thing to present stories and fantasies of multiculturalism on screen, it’s another thing to enable multiculturalism at the ballot box.
Yes, xenophobic internet trolls have taken to the web to attack Lee just as they did Alam’s role in Bandhobi, but that’s the ugly part of the un-filtered internet. For now, let’s just ponder what might be blossoming in South Korea’s second decade of the 21st Century.