Michael Breen discussion at 10 Magazine

Yesterday I attended a discussion with writer Michael Breen, hosted by Barry Welsh.

Very often, when I attend a speech or discussion about a topic I know a lot about, I often think about ways the speaker/facilitator/discussant could have done better. But I didn't feel that way about Breen, it was one of those times that I really felt like I had a lot to learn and should listen more than talk. He's been in Korea for three decades, working as a reporter, commentator, communications specialist. He reminds me of Andrei Lankov in that his analysis seems to be based on observation of how things work rather than trying to get the world to fit his biases. I don't know him, so his friends may say he is a raging ideologue, but that's not the impression I had yesterday and based on his writings.

Michael Breen (L) and Casey Lartigue
I first read his book The Koreans about a decade ago. It was a delightful read, that was both warm to Koreans but also critical at times. Yesterday I did ask him about his critics, he first kind of dismissed them, but then also did seem to be a bit hurt that people thought he didn't like Korea. I suspect that "tribal worriers" snipped his quotes out of context, and labeled him as anti-Korean for having the nerve to use his brain to comment on what he saw and heard.

I also asked him about the $1 million Samsung case against him, which he discussed at length, with a lot of humor mixed in. By the way, no direct quotes here, I took some notes but not with the goal of writing an article, just a mixture of his comments with my own thoughts.

Several things I agreed with it:

* Koreans are less interested in reunification.

When I was in Korea in the mid-1990s, Koreans seemed to believe that reunification was an imperative. At that time, it was difficult to find anyone who would question the necessity. America, China and Japan were all against it, scared about 70 million Koreans being united, about Koreans having the bomb.

The difference I see now is that people seem to mouth the pro-unification phrases even when they don't really believe them (as they will admit indirectly by talking about the "gradual" process needed because of transition costs). Saying you are against reunification is like saying you hate your mother. Even if you do hate her, you don't say it.

The audience, by the way, was very interested in reunification--too much, in fact. As I've said before, there should be a limit of three reunification questions at non-reunification discussions, and preferably the last three questions.

* Koreans haven't reunified because of Koreans, and mainly because of North Koreans

I strongly agree with this point. There are outside interests, sure, but if Koreans were really interested in reunification, then it would happen. There is no way Washington could stand in the way of leaders from North and South Korea coming together and figuring out a way to reunify. At this point, Obama could take credit for it, bring troops back home, save American taxpayers money--and get those soldiers on the welfare line where Obama is putting a lot of other Americans. China and Japan have interests, of course, but if Koreans want to be reunified, then they'd have direct talks.

By the way, I have made this point to Korean leftists, and they typically lose their minds about it--I have even been accused of being against Koreans or being a CIA agent for making the point.

* Skeptical the new NK leader can make real change soon.

Breen said it well, that the new NK leader has been dropped into a system where he can't really do what he wants, even if he wants to make change. He will need the political skill 'to do nothing at first.' I read years ago that the most dangerous time for dictators is the first few years--because the interests tied to the previous regime are still jockeying for position, trying to get themselves near power. A dictator who survives the first few years is likely to die in office from old age or, after an extended reign of power, once he appears physically weak and the "selectorate" can no longer count on him.

* Don't rely on President Park

A Korean student asked about how President-elect Park will lead Koreans. Breen said that he is not a big believer in individual leaders. I have an article in today's Korea Times arguing that the various people writing Open Letters to President Park need to think more about what they can do rather than looking at her to save Korea. Presidents are limited by what they can accomplish, as even Obama has found out (four years later, he is no longer talking about lowering the sea levels or other idealistic things he talked about when he was Senator Obama).

I don't believe this only about democracy. Even capitalism will survive its many critics, because people naturally trade.

* Koreans take Netizens too seriously

I am amazed when I read newspaper articles quoting articles from Netizens. It may be Breen's journalistic bias of relying on credible sources rather than, as he said, 'Some guy waiting for his mom to finish cooking dinner.' I suspect it has to do with the (at least stated publicly) focus on democracy and need to hear the opinions of "the people."

* High level of envy in Korean society

It is a collectivist, egalitarian society (yes, things are changing, as they always seem to be). People who show off can expect to be targeted by those Netizens. Stories about rich people upset people in ways that seem psychotic to me.

There's an often-quoted Korean comment/joke about a person getting a stomach ache when his cousin buys real estate. I suspect that the development of markets has made this problem even worse in Korea--after all, under a market economy, rather than a dictatorship, it is more difficult to blame others for your failures. In an egalitarian society, it is even more difficult to explain why someone who went to school with you is now rich while you are still struggling to pay your bills.

* Korea remains a race-based society, although things are changing

Yes, I know that Korea is a race-based society, but it was interesting to hear Breen apply that to various issues. Such as, the way Koreans have viewed outsiders, based on their nationality--Americans? Freedom. British? Gentleman. French? Cultured. Of course, that is changing as more Koreans travel abroad.

He cited the analysis from The Cleanest Race that the Kim family has been able to keep power because the system is race-based nationalism, not that the country is communist. They build on the idea that Koreans are pure, innocent, have been victims throughout history--therefore, they need a great leader to protect them. That resonates with South Korean intellectuals.

As I've told people--if North Korea allowed contact from the outside world, it is likely that it would be the South Korean government that would be worried about intellectuals rushing in. And that one reason the South Korean government is concerned about allowing South Koreans go to North Korea is that many of them would come back with a good impression of the country (which I've learned to be true in conversations with Korean-Americans and Koreans who have gone to North Korea, especially those with a progressive or leftist outlook). The comparison I've made is to those Western intellectuals who visited Germany and the Soviet Union even as people were being slaughtered by those governments and came back praising those socialist/communist leaders for taking care of their people.

When I was in South Korea in the mid-1990s, I talked with many South Koreans who said they were "proud" of Kim Il-Sung. He was able to rule an entire country, to fend off America. I hear less of that pride in North Korean leadership these days.

* Lotteria, a local fast food joint, is terrible.

He said it was terrible 30 years ago when he tried it. I'm surprised the place stays open even though there are many more food choices than there were 30 years ago. I went there several times--You may like it, if you like your food consistently warm or cold.

Thing I disagreed with

* He likes dictatorship in a cynical way

It may have just been a throw-away line, but when I asked about it, his explanation was that (1) when Korea was suffering under a dictatorship that people wanted to talk to foreign reporters and (2) when people suffer under a dictatorship, they are more real, they develop traditions. Now, they just want to dance.

And I say: That's wonderful! Let them dance, if they choose to do so. I look forward to the day that North Koreans can dance in the streets or whatever it is they would do if they didn't live under a dictatorship.

I suspect Breen's comments are based on being a reporter--reporters tend to love drama. Reporting about a cat stuck in a tree isn't as exciting as reporting on the revolution. Careers get made based on dramatic situations, not mundane events.


* A "black" leader (like Jesse Jackson) could not have gotten elected, it had to be a mixed race person

Perhaps. Hard to know one way or the other. An Obama with Jesse Jackson's past would have had no chance, that is definitely true. But Obama is a slick guy who avoided controversial stands on issues or clouded the view with his double-talk so that he appeared to be a moderate.