Thursday, November 20, 2008

Philanthropy, red scares and cyber bullying

[Update - Ask A Korean has posted translations of the best of the worst of Ji Man-won's writing regarding Moon Geun-young, as well as netizen commentary.]

So last week, we were told that
The anonymous donor of W850 million over the last six years to the Community Chest of Korea stands revealed as 21-year-old actress Moon Geun-young. The Community Chest of Korea on Thursday said the actress denied online rumors that she was the donor, but her agency okayed the disclosure, so the organization decided to make it public.

Since Nov. 2003, Moon has been donating all or part of her earnings from commercials, films and soap operas. Her donations were used to build children’s libraries and subsidize hospital costs for children suffering from leukaemia or cancer. Apart from the Community Chest of Korea, Moon has also given several hundred millions of won to scholarship foundations.

She's also donated money to build a Korean library in Sydney and visited North Korea to donate 50,000 blocks of compressed charcoal back in 2004. Her charity work was brought up in a 2005 Joongang Ilbo article:
Ms. Moon also made quite a name not only on screen but also as a philanthropist, as the news of her charity got out last year. But Ms. Moon, however, just smiles shyly and plays down her contributions, saying that they are not as significant as people say.
Another Joongang Ilbo article from last week brings up her family ties and Koreans views of philanthropy:
One of the reasons she didn’t want to reveal her name as a donor lay in having suffered from vicious rumors that accused her of pretending to be good, talk that followed her good deeds after her debut.

Instead, praise is pouring in, and there is even mention of her family background: Her maternal grandfather was a unification activist.

Moon’s good deeds seem to have challenged some of the public’s disjointed views of celebrities’ charity. Here, we mean the skepticism over the truthfulness of celebrities’ good deeds, accusing them of greed for honor and ostentation.

Of course, hidden here is the public’s mistrust of powerful people “doing good” and a sense of inferiority, the idea that people can’t succeed by only being good. Moon has proved this way of thinking to be invalid and hypocritical. She has made people believe in the power of a good heart.
Apparently, believing in the power of a good heart is no longer in style this week. According to the Korea Times,
Following the revelation, however, she was subject to cyber attacks by people who called her donations politically motivated. Her private blog and articles praising her behavior were bombarded with numerous nasty comments belittling the donations as a way to enhance her reputation and her career.
This Chosun Ilbo article notes that "Some are posting comments saying her good deeds were merely a moneymaking publicity stunt, while others accuse her of hogging the limelight. Moon is also being accused of regionalism with her donations." Yonhap provides quotes like "It is only an image-making stunt to raise her pay," or, "She pretends to donate anonymously as the only good girl."

That Yonhap article, "Donations by Korean Actress Raises Specter of Red Scare," is especially good, delving into Korean views of philanthropy. Before we get to that, we should mention that
Some of her liberal fans linked Moon's exemplary deeds to her grandfather, a teacher-turned-political prisoner. Ryu Nak-jin, who died of old age in 2005, was a pro-North Korea guerrilla fighter operating around Gwangju, a traditional progressive stronghold, before he was jailed at the end of the Korean War. He was released but imprisoned again on charges of spying for North Korea in 1971 when then authoritarian government of Park Chung-hee apprehended more than 150 such suspected spies. He was released on a special amnesty in 1999.
According to wikipedia, he joined the South Korean Workers Party in 1947 and after being caught while fighting as a guerrilla, served five years in prison between 1952 and 1957 (after initially being sentenced to death). Also worth noting is that his brother was killed by soldiers during the Kwangju Uprising in May, 1980. That such a well known actress (who is from Kwangju, and who was only allowed by her mother to begin attending acting classes in 1997 if Kim Dae-jung won the election) has such a pedigree, and that such descriptions as "Her maternal grandfather was a unification activist" were being bandied about certainly grated on at least one commentator:
Some critics suspect a masked ideological campaign behind the donations. Ji Man-won, an ultra conservative military critic, wrote in his blog ( that Moon serves as partisan propaganda material for leftists.

"Not only do they beautify the deeds with videos and messages on the Internet, but they are also playing at a kind of conspiracy. There is a hidden message to sublimate a non-converted Communist prisoner into a unification activist," Ji wrote.
As the Times quotes him,
"This is part of communist-led psychological warfare aimed to beautify a descendant of the communist. Articles speaking highly of her donations help make people respect communists as activists striving to reunite the two Koreas."
[Translations of longer excerpts of several of his posts can be found here.]

Ji Man-won fought in Vietnam (a photo of him then and a story he wrote can be found here) and eventually received a doctorate in system engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School in California (his thesis abstract is here). A Hankyoreh cartoon in 2006 criticized him for saying that the authorities in Pyeongtaek should have fired upon protesters there during demonstrations against U.S. base expansion. As Robert Koehler notes in the comments to Brian's post on this topic (love the picture of Ji that he found),
To hear his side of the story, he was taking exception with some of the reports and posts claiming she came from a good family of "pro-unification" and "democracy" activists, when the reality is a much more complex. And yes, Moon did take all the condolence money she got from her grandfather's funeral --- about 50 million won --- and donated it to a pro-North Korean group legally designated an "enemy organization" (although I seem to recall at the time this was in accordance with her grandfather's wishes).
It all goes to remind us that in Korea, history is not just something that is sitting in a book, unread - it's very alive and very unresolved (alive precisely because it's unresolved), and the place in history of leaders, pro-North guerrillas, the Kwangju Uprising, and the place within Korea of the entire Honam region are questions that are posed at certain junctures such as this one. Of course, I don't agree with Ji's views, and blaming a young woman who had nothing to do with the events of 60 years ago for the perceived sins of her grandfather - and in doing so encouraging a wave of cyber harrassment - is pretty revolting. Of course, with all the blogs with titles like "Garbage Ji Man-won" out there, I'm not the only one.
Shin Jang-sik, spokesman of the Democratic Labor Party, said in a statement, "The irrational and violent trend, fanned by an ultra right-wing critic, is dominating the Internet." Chin Jung-kwon, a German professor at Chung-Ang University and outspoken liberal critic, suspected anti-Communist paranoia planted by past military leaders may still grip Korea. "Even for the nation's little sister who willingly gave away a large amount of money, which won't be easy for others, they can't resist encircling her with a red backdrop," Chin said on the Web site of the New Progressive Party.
The article also looks at views on philanthopy, writing that, "the backlash poses some resounding questions in a country where the western tradition of philanthropy is just taking root: Why are the good deeds not simply welcomed?" As the Joongang Ilbo article above noted before the backlash,
Moon’s good deeds seem to have challenged some of the public’s disjointed views of celebrities’ charity. Here, we mean the skepticism over the truthfulness of celebrities’ good deeds, accusing them of greed for honor and ostentation. Of course, hidden here is the public’s mistrust of powerful people “doing good” and a sense of inferiority, the idea that people can’t succeed by only being good.
The Yonhap article continues:
"She did it out of good will, but some people don't see it as it is but twist it," said Yu [Soo-kyung, the charity's spokesperson]. "We are embarrassed."

Some criticize the media frenzy that forced the charity to identify her name and have demanded that the privacy of individual donors be respected. Hwang Sang-min, a psychology professor at Yonsei University, said Korea is not yet accustomed to the culture of philanthropy. [...]

"Our society is not yet accustomed to Ms. Moon Geun-young or anybody making donations," Hwang said. "For ordinary people in Korea, when we have to accept something that is not familiar, we tend to take it not as it is, but with some negative interpretation. Koreans tend to be unwelcoming toward new things."
Yes, McDonalds, Starbucks, Pizza Hut, cell phones, the internet, noraebangs, starcraft, wonjo gyoje, Emart and Seo Taeji and the Boys all bombed here when they first appeared here. Colour me skeptical. I might suggest a rereading of the Metropolitician's post about Choi Jin-sil's suicide and the jealousy and extreme frustration manifest in Korean society both online and offline. A comment I saw earlier said something along the lines of "people are just jealous and trying to drag her down to their level," which reminded me of a comment at the Marmot's Hole years ago about the game Kart Rider:
Kart Rider [is] an unintentional work of art. The gameplay itself is a perfect metaphor for Korean society - to succeed in a race you have to adopt the same strategies and mores that dictate domestic culture.

An example: The game grants you a number of power-ups with which you can cause others ahead of you to stall, thus letting you (and everyone else) catch up to their level. There are four of these. But only one power-up grants you super speed, allowing you to quickly advance to the forefront along with the other overachievers.

Is this kind of online venom directed at those better off the equivalent of the 'stall' button? If so, as long as everyone is competing for first place within such narrow parameters, the desire to hit that button in frustration will continue to be very strong. Some are more optimistic, however:
Moon and her family say they will not take measures to deal with the malicious comments, hoping they will fade away in time. Moon and her family likely made anonymous donations until now for purely philanthropic reasons. Hopefully such warmth will eventually prove sufficient to melt the cold hatred driving such malicious postings.
Others, like those who wrote the Democratic Labor Party statement, are more blunt: “Calling Moon Geun-young a commie is a sign of social pathology… We as a society must stop these abnormal personal attacks.” Whether or not the red baiting was the main reason for the statement, they're right.

Oh, and if Ji Man-won knows what's good for him, he'll put an end to his posts quickly. I mean, would you really want to run into an angry Moon Geun-young in an dark alley?


Roboseyo said...

Wow, Matt. Nice ending.

I really loved this post. . . I'd be happy if this, or something like it, popped up at The Hub of Sparkle, too.

(ps: the word verification word is "winers." hahaha)

Scott said...

“Calling Moon Geun-young a commie is a sign of social pathology… We as a society must stop these abnormal personal attacks.”

I was speaking with a Korean friend last week who made oblique reference to this situation, and my conclusion is that Korea has a severe case of "tall-poppy syndrome," as it is called in Australia. The old joke goes something like this: In the US, when your neighbor gets a new BMW, you think, "Gee, I'd like to get one of those, too." In Australia (the original joke actually refers to Britain), your neighbor gets a new BMW and you think, "Gee, I'd like to blow it up!" Isn't there a Korean proverb along similar lines?

Anyway, while I agree the overreaction by some rightwing nuts here should be condemned, I am almost equally offended by the seeming opportunism of some of the "progressives" who have spoken out on this matter, including in the above statement. I remember during the mad-cow protests this past summer that protesters were calling up advertisers in conservative papers and making death threats, and beating up reporters from Chosun Ilbo and pissing all over the lobby of the Koreana Hotel, to say nothing of protesters running amok in Chongno and physically attacking ordinary citizens. At the time, however, these same progressive political groups failed to speak out in condemnation of such violent behavior, because of course they decided to milk the situation as much as they could to their own political advantage. I remember even a moderate like Sohn Hak-kyu decided that it was more to his advantage to play the populist card and take the side of the protesters, demanding full renegotiation of the beef deal.

So I cannot help but conclude that the objections they are voicing now are based less on solid morals or principles than on self-interested political jockeying. They seem to take a rather selective approach to the culture of witch-hunting here, I must say. No doubt, the rightwingers here like Ji are even more disgusted by such apparent double-standards, which only serves to keep the hatred and extreme rhetoric here on a full spin cycle.

My conclusion is that Korea is one country in the world that really does need to decriminalize marijiuana, because there are some seriously uptight people that need to chill the fuck out.

Anonymous said...

Sidney? Are you serious? As a Sydneysider I am deeply offended. :P

(It's SYDNEY).

Anonymous said...

Tall Poppy Syndrome sounds about right. Just so happens the attacks come in the same year Moon unleashed an image-busting, monster performance as a female painter passing as man in historical drama. We're beginning to see the huge future people have prophesied for her (in a path not uncluttered with duds :D)


matt said...

Thanks,I'll try to get it up later tonight.

So what you're saying is that the DLP's self-interested condemnation of the attacks on Moon is exactly the kind of behavior that makes people distrust people in the public eye and which helped lead to the attacks in the first place?

As for decriminalization, it might lead to a decrease in traffic fatalities.

As for Sydney, sorry, it's one of my spelling weaknesses, my achilles heel if you will...

Scott said...

Matt, well, some consistency would be nice. The DLP, for example, is still leading anti-LMB protests in Chongno on the weekends, during which Lee is regular referred to as a "dictator" and sometimes even compared to Hitler. Hard to say that's no less extreme than calling someone a "commie."

Kushibo said...

When people worry so much about what anonymous Netizens have said or done—or might say or do—we are giving them inordinate and undeserved power.

The press lazily focuses too much on "what Netizens are saying" and anyone with a company or a reputation to worry about furrows their eyebrows as they fret about what the Netizens might say.

Enough is enough. Be brave and live and do as if Netizens do not control your life, as if their opinions do not matter. Real-life people are the ones you should listen to, not some anonymous troll with a keyboard and an ISP.

No matter what one does, there will be some iconoclastic Netizen who will take the contrarian view and try to tear you down. Ignore them.