Recently I began a friendship with a Jewish man. He is the first Jewish person I have met in my life. We talked about Korea and some other countries where he has lived or traveled.
While listening to his experiences in Korea I felt embarrassed when he talked about seeing a jazz bar in Mokpo, South Jeolla Province, which painted on its exterior wall a portrait of an infamous Nazi SS officer standing on a tank. Really? Could there actually be a Nazi bar in Mokpo?
This reminded me of Brian Deutsch's article, ``Insensitivity About Nazism," which appeared in the April 22, 2008, edition of The Korea Times in which he discussed a Nazi-themed cosmetics ad campaign in which a well-known Korean actress appeared dressed as a Nazi officer, holding a cap emblazoned with a Nazi style logo.
I recall seeing this ad on Youtube. In the background were the sounds of shell-firing rounds, the German language and the text ``Even Hitler could not get East and West at the same time." This Nazi-themed ad was hardly an issue in Korean society and was largely ignored by the Korean media.
Frankly, when I watched this ad with my friend, we just laughed. Even though the commercial showed Nazi propaganda or made mention of Adolph Hitler, I don't think it bothered most Korean people's conscience, including mine. Surely, most Koreans have sympathy for Jewish people because we suffered similar cruelties by the Japanese invasion and subsequent occupation. I believe that when pressed, most Koreans would express having bad or negative feelings about Hitler or Nazism or fascism in general. However, the problem is that we don't appear to have much interest in people's business or problems other than our own.
I recall that my friend and I talked about what it would have been like if the actress in the above-mentioned ad had dressed in a colonial Japanese military style and the sentence was ``Even Ito Hirobumi, who was the biggest culprit behind the Japanese colonization of Korea, could not get all of Asia." At the very least, the following day the cosmetic company headquarters would have been egg-bombed by protesters, I reckon.
It is interesting that a Nazi-themed advertisement was not controversial until it stirred up discontent by expatriates living in Korea. It is surprising and shameful that after being chastised in the international news, neither the Korean cosmetics company nor the ad agency apologized and excused their actions stating they just wanted to highlight the ``revolutionary" aspects of Hitler.
The coverage from last spring is spread out on this blog over a few different posts, though they're a little awkward to read because of so many updates and amendments. The two most relevant I guess are
* "Coreana wants the ads removed from Youtube."
* "New Coreana Nazi video pretty much the same as the old Coreana Nazi video."
so give them a read if you're not familiar with the story.
Ms. Kim closes her piece with:
As a Korean and friend of a Jewish person and member of this global village, I want to apologize about the Nazi-themed cosmetics advertisement and bars that feature Nazi imagery here in Korea. I hope my apology will be considered acceptable.
There is no need for her to apologize to anyone, though it's a thoughtful gesture in a thoughtful article. Now, let's keep in mind that we oughtn't push our Western perceptions and meanings on Koreans who most likely don't hold the same values. After all, to cite a more trivial example, how sick are we of hearing about Dokdo, a territorial dispute that is of utmost importance to Koreans but meaningless and borderline offensive to Westerners? In fact, I resent being told how to call the Sea of Japan in my own language, and dislike having our language and politics dictated to us on the Liancourt Rocks matter by ethnocentric foreign special interest groups.
Obviously Koreans generally don't have such a strong reaction to Nazism and its symbols as Westerners, just as many of us harbor no animosity against the Japanese. Yet the point of the campaign last spring to remove the ads and get a satisfactory apology, and of smaller rants in protest of the bastardization of our language and culture, is to remind people that while each culture interprets things for itself, symbols oughtn't be entirely divorced from their historical context. That's why we were upset by the flippant use of Nazi imagery in the commercials, and that's why we cringe when we hear Koreans saying "oh my god!" or "sexy" all the time. It's arrogant to dictate only one possible meaning for a symbol or phrase, but it's equally so to adopt them with no regard for their preexisting meanings to other people.