A retrospective look on solipsism in the aftermath of Gangnam Style and Kim Jong-un’s nuclear threat
Photo by MANUELA GARAY
by SEUNG WOO BAEK
To write about Psy, or anything related to Psy, after a whole year, on the near-first-anniversary of his ascent as a global phenomenon of 2012, seems not only untimely but also a moot point. But then again, this is not about Psy. Nor is it about Korea, which was thrust into overwhelming global attention, partly due to its wanton neighbour to the north and its cantankerous rhetoric and threats that riled up both the Blue House and the White House.
It’s about that unlikely intersection of the two hot-potato news items—middle-aged K-Pop sensation and glooms of nuclear war—grown out of that small peninsula and with little help of personal chronology, how that blending came to be an unnecessarily big aspect of my spring of 2013.
To begin, here is a bit of personal (read: muddled and consciously redacted) chronology of things happened:
In early November, my close friends discussed over Skype the general cartoonish absurdity of North Korea’s execution of its army minister with a mortar round. His crime: drinking and carousing during Kim Jong-Il’s mourning period. Presumably on his execution slip (if there was such a thing) it read, “disrespect with a hint of power-consolidation process.” A friend dismissed the whole thing simply as a case of an “authoritarian dictatorship being an authoritarian dictatorship.” He couldn’t see “how this [is] at all surprising.” However, the whole mortar bit, he conceded, was “kinda funny.” In reply, I feigned indignation and mockingly admonished his apathetic dismissal of such a ripe “conversation starter.” The light-heartedness and sheer fascination were stamped with the hallmark of twenty-something insouciance.
Also that month, news of MC Hammer’s collaboration with the South Korean sensation hit our radar. This particular news seemed to fly over our heads, with me, the token Korean friend, having only an elementary understanding of cultural knowledge regarding MC Hammer’s place within the American-culture matrix, and with the rest of my friends having been interested in Psy only to the degree to which they could tease me. The media chatter surrounding the event made it out to be an iconic moment. But in my group’s collective headspace, the moment passed without much fanfare.
Early December was a wintry and dreary affair, with much late-night cramming for exams and papers. Later that month, Psy reached his world-record of a billion views on YouTube.
The period between when my father had left for Korea—post-New Year’s—and April Fools’ Day, when I quietly celebrated the anniversary of my Canadian citizenship (I know, Canadian Immigration Office is one hell of a joker) is a big haze to me now. Much of what I do remember of that period is the anxiety with which I shifted back and forth from my final papers (on the play Hamlet and another on Comfort Woman) to myriad news portals, scouring their updates for latest developments on North Korean missile deployments, on nuclear testings, on movements along the DMZ line, and on badly edited North Korean propaganda whereby the video footages of President Barack Obama, the American flag and the White House were overlaid with stock footage of translucent flames. The absurdity, this time, escaped me entirely. Or rather, I did not care to entertain certain blasé attitude that coated my banters last November.
I would be in conversation with my father, who was now back in South Korea, daily. He, just like all of my friends and professors, assured me that of course nothing would happen. It was the North Korean state trying to solidify its new leader, propping him up as formidable, someone to be taken seriously. But despite my rational, more logical side of the brain nodding its head, reminding my more terrified side that this had all happened before, that the impoverished North Korean foreign policy has come to formulate itself around the elements of belligerent-negotiation (also more colloquially known as tough-love), some more primordial, base and immediate part of me could not abandon the thread of anger and worry. I never fully came out and said to my parents how deeply unsettled I was by all the escalation, at the height of which even China was worried (and you know stuff’s going down when China gets uncomfortable in their seats). I felt like I was reverting back to some naive proto-version of myself, the test-alpha of Seung 1.0, whereby all the software for cynicism, ability to measure, scale and read patterns and compare the data to one’s history, had been entirely hard-wiped. The fact of fretting over the Would-Be War seemed to expose my self-indulgence in some twisted melodrama in the contra-posing face of certain Actual-Wars-Happening-Around-The-World. And all this swirled hard, churning up a grotesque cocktail from the deeper recess of my headspace.
Perhaps I should have looked at how staunchly KOSPI (Korea Composite Stock Price Index) was refusing to drop and heeded its silent words—the rest of the world is not buying it. But here I was, checking news hourly for doomsday bylines of a second Korean War and being boorish at the dinner table, and this was when my endearing friend with no malice of forethought dropped this image-macro (see fig. 1) on the Skype chat.
Source: Know Your Meme
The image-macro worked off a Snickers’ “You Are Not You When You Are Hungry” advert series; the parody was timely, the juxtaposition of two of the most well-known Korean faces of that year, great and humourous. It succinctly summed up what many commentators and political pundits took hours to elaborate and discuss. It was simple to look at but packed a lot of information.
And it made me indignant. The singular words such as “indignant” or “upset” and possibly even “furious” wouldn’t do justice as to the swirling vat of emotion that I was reeling in at that precise moment. I was “indignant” that the subject matter of my month-long worry and fear could be simply reduced into a six-panelled image, a jokey one at that; I was “upset” that my friends couldn’t see that such a posting would only be of negative impact on my current state of worry; and I was “furious” that I was overreacting, that I was feeling all these breaks and fissures of unsavoury emotions.
The collapse of the two images, one representing the comic-ludicrousness of North Korea and another more intentionally comic persona whose lyric (whether intentional or not) satirized the economic disparity of South Korea, seemed to belittle the world-eating anxiety I was buckling under. Did my month-long worry amount to just this, a two-by-three image panel?
To be fair, I’m still trying to sort out as to WHY I was so upset by this latest cropping of Internet humour—notably faceless, apathetic and ingenious to the point of cruelty—and why this pushed my button and not the jokey banters of last November. What had changed? Much, I’m sure of it. But that doesn’t quite fully exonerate my previously insouciant-self who delivered “a good one” at the story of what essentially boiled down to a man’s death. Why couldn’t I have pictured as vividly the images of a broken family thrown under the heavy wheels of ostracism, the social death, as I can of my family’s fiery doom in the heart of my former country’s capital? And just because now some remote, impalpable aspect of nationalistic “I,” the one that I thought had been stripped off me, felt to be under threat of aggression, the currently removed and safely housed “I” faraway from the actual peninsula was reacting with such unrequited fervour. Even I couldn’t understand myself.
Although I can’t fully recall, I imagine that night’s dinner was the least bit wholesome to those who would hear me out over spoonfuls of cafeteria gruel.
There is no real resolution to this non-story about non-me. The whole thing seems to have been swept out from much of the world’s attention. But the Kaesong Industrial region is still closed, and the associated South Korean firms are filing for insurance claims for frozen assets at the suspended inter-Korean industrial park, a move that is being seen as initial steps toward more permanent closure of the complex.
I’m still trying to figure out what it was that riled me up then. For now, in my limited self-understanding, I can only suggest that it all lay with contextual cues: my family was not under direct threat when the North Korean regime was ruffling its own cabinet back in November. It was only when the state turned its attention back outward and started threatening with nuclear-tipped dagger that I noticed and reacted. And the humour, timely as it was, simply inflamed what was a simmering anxiety.
The more I think about it, the muddier the line becomes: where does humour fit in, or does it have any righteous place, or is the word “righteousness” even apt in such considerations? How much do we give room for sanctity of personal experience, how much of it is public? What is the process whereby the public becomes the private and vice versa?
I’ve made jokes before this and since then, but one thing that I am painfully made aware is the role that humour and comedy plays as provocateur. Psy then represented for me all the things that humour could do to elate, and Kim Jong-Un represented all the things that humour could only do in times of utter human degeneracy, that repeats throughout our history of warfare and the wrong kinds of political intrigue. When that border collapsed, I think it was either I laugh about it or get mad. I chose one, which in retrospect I don’t think was the right response. But then again, the question becomes who gets the proverbial last laugh.