Saturday, July 09, 2005

Kang Chol-hwan in the Fishbowl of Seoul

On my way to the recent Society of Biblical Literature's International Meeting in Singapore, I picked up Kang Chol-hwan's memoir, The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag, which I found in the Incheon Airport, and read most of it on the plane trip down.

Kang doesn't much care for the South Korean left. Having escaped from North Korea and arriving in the South to tell his story of 'life' in the North's prison camps, he was met with skepticism by those on the political left. Of a news conference at the Seoul Press Center a month after his arrival, he recalls:

"I found the journalist from the newspaper Hangyore particularly irritating. What place did his skepticism leave for the victims? Millions of people were dying or suffering from hunger, an entire population was being deprived of its freedom, and his only concern was our credibility" (223).

Later, he had an unpleasant experience with a university student:

"One day a discussion with a student member of Hanchongnyon, the university's leftist organization, grew rather heated. I was being bombarded with would-be intellectual arguments about class, domination, and imperialism, featuring references to people such as Pierre Bourdieu. Onlookers had surrounded us. Whose side were they on? Did they agree with my interlocutor when he said that I had a 'subjectivist' point of view and that my personal experience was no basis for a global condemnation of North Korean politics" (228).

The charge of "subjectivism" used to be a typical rhetorical tactic used by the old left in arguments of this sort. I heard it at Berkeley, too, but it was already at odds with the intellectual temper of our times, which places more more emphasis upon personal experience, subjectivity, than upon the old left's materialist arguments appealing to the scientific laws of history, the historical inevitability of socialism, the objectivity of Marxist historical analysis -- that sort of thing.

Oddly, despite the Hanchongnyon student's critique of "subjectivism," which sounds so old left, he appeals to figures like Bourdieu, who is more at home in the new left. Bourdieu himself would likely have taken issue with the Hanchongnyon student's mixing of old left and new left analysis.

But I suppose that any argument at hand is useful for those inclined to defend North Korea. I once listened to one elderly South Korean man on the left defend the North's incarceration of all Christians in the prison camps as necessary because they were agents of American imperialism.

Yet, this man taught at a Christian university in South Korea. Such are the contradictions of capitalism.


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