| Myth Becomes Granite "Reality": Steps leading to the "Mausoleum of King Tan'gun" in Kangdong County, northeast|
of Pyongyang (Photo by J. Scott Burgeson, Copyright 2010)
In 1957, the French semiotician and culture critic Roland Barthes published a landmark collection of essays entitled "Mythologies,"
in which he argued that we live in a world dominated by modern myths. For Barthes, the essential function of myth is to disguise
and distort social reality: It does this by substituting narrowly ideological interpretations of the world for what it hopes others will
view as innocent, unvarnished representations of the truth. More simply, myth is a way of naturalizing or universalizing the values
and beliefs of particular groups, while at the same time marginalizing the values and beliefs of other competing or rival groups.
And while it is certainly true that the myths of more powerful interest groups tend to be more powerful themselves – thereby
helping to perpetuate the social status quo – it is also demonstrably true that the game of creating and promoting modern myths
is often played by individuals and groups who may not necessarily be a part of the power elite at a given moment, but who hope
one day to grasp the levers of power themselves. With the rise of the Internet as an influential and relatively unregulated alternative
to the traditional mainstream media, this should not surprise us at all; indeed, the Internet is a magical and infinitely productive
myth-making machine like none other.
A quick glance at modern Korean history will allow us to see the operations of myth in action. In 1908, Shin Ch'ae-ho, the
immensely influential "father of nationalist Korean historiography," published "Doksa Shillon" ("A New Reading of History"),
in which he defined the Korean 민족 as a single, uninterrupted bloodline stretching back to Tan'gun, the legendary founder of
the first Korean kingdom of Kojoson in the third millennium B.C. By placing the Korean 민족 at the center of Korean history,
Shin aimed to establish an autonomous historiography that was both independent of Korea’s traditional orientation towards China,
as well as resistant to encroaching Japanese imperialism. Of course, Tan'gun is today generally recognized as a mythological figure
in the classic ancient sense, but the 민족 concept that Shin deployed is itself a classic myth in the modern sense described by
Barthes: In fact, the term was a neologism at the time that Shin penned "Doksa Shillon," for it had been first coined in Meiji-era
Japan (the characters 民族 are read as "minzoku" in Japanese) and then taken up by Korean writers and intellectuals only in the
late 1890s and early 20th century. Yet instead of treating "the 민족" as a modern ideological construct that radically homogenized
Korea’s regionally, socially and culturally diverse past (and consciously excluded minority ethnicities that fell outside the primary
Korean bloodline), Shin presented it as an ahistorical, natural entity that could easily be projected backwards thousands of years
into the Korean past. A hundred years later, the myth of the pure-blooded Korean 민족 still holds considerable sway in the
imaginations of many Koreans; ironically, however, Shin himself moved beyond 민족주의 in his later anarchist period, preferring
to privilege the more open-ended concept of "the 민중" as the democratic center of his struggle for genuine revolution.
In the postcolonial period after 1945, the emergence of rival regimes on opposite sides of the 38th parallel has directly contributed
to the proliferation of nationalist myths in both the North and the South – often at the expense of the "미제침략자," as my
compatriots are commonly referred to in the North. For instance, although Kim Il-sung did indeed distinguish himself as a leader
of the anti-Japanese guerilla resistance in Manchuria in the 1930s, he was certainly not the "liberator of Korea" who along with
his fighters "single-handedly defeated the Japanese," as official North Korean mythology would have it; in fact, he spent 1941-45
hiding out at a camp near Khabarovsk under Soviet protection, and according to Soviet sources did no fighting in Manchuria
himself during that time – and only returned to Korea on 19 September 1945, well over a month after official liberation. Of
course, the decision by U.S. President Harry S. Truman to drop atomic bombs onto Hiroshima and Nagasaki probably had much
more to do with Japan's surrender to the Allied forces and the consequent liberation of Korea (the Soviet Union's late entry into
the Pacific War was also a decisive factor), but the mythic narrative of Kim Il-sung as the "liberator of the homeland" is crucial
to the North Korean regime’s self-identity as the only legitimate Korean state. At the same time, by regularly demonizing the U.S.,
North Korean propaganda has traditionally been able to discredit the South Korean "괴뢰 당국" given the closeness of the U.S.-
R.O.K. alliance. Thus, the U.S. is even blamed in the North for starting the Korean War, despite all historical evidence to the
contrary (I have a state-published English-language book I bought in Pyongyang in 2005 that clearly states in its title: "The U.S.
Imperialists Started the Korean War"). Actually, in the year or so prior to North Korea's initiation of full-scale hostilities at the
Ongjin Peninsula on 25 June 1950, Syngman Rhee and his military commanders were itching for war and were only restrained
from invading the North first by the evil 미제야수, but we understand why the Northerners would rather not let such bothersome
details get in the way of telling such a good story: After all, North Korea has only ever wanted "peaceful reunification," and would
never want to harm its blood brothers and sisters in the South for no reason!
Meanwhile, here in the democratic South, it would be yet another myth to assume that myth is not also regularly mobilized in the
service of nationalist ideology; by necessity, it merely functions in a more subtle and sophisticated manner than is generally the
case in the totalitarian North. Consider Korea’s liberation from Japan: If North Korean propaganda prefers to boldly rewrite this
history, in the South we note a widespread tendency to radically underwrite this same history in the interest of patriotic mythology.
Despite the overwhelming role that the U.S. military played in defeating Japan during the Pacific War (a brutal, nearly 4-year
island-hopping campaign in which some 8 million American service members fought and over a hundred thousand were killed
in action), a survey of half a dozen contemporary, state-approved middle-school and high-school history textbooks finds that the
U.S.-led Allied victory over Japan is either minimized, glossed over or ignored to such an extent that it becomes a mere footnote
to the larger narrative of Korean Independence Movement-inspired "liberation" – thereby standing history on its head and reducing
it to an effect or byproduct of triumphant Korean nationalism (thus, a middle-school textbook tells us, "국내외에서 꾸준히
전개한 독립 운동은 광복의 밑거름이 되었다," while another high-school textbook declares, "궁극적으로 광복은 우리 민족이
국내외에서 줄기차게 일제와 싸워 온 독립 투쟁의 결실이었다."). More noticeably, it almost seems taboo among the South
Korean media and national political leaders to even mention how Korea was actually liberated whenever Liberation Day rolls
around each year on Aug. 15th, as all manner of circumlocutions are used to avoid giving credit where credit is due (President
Lee Myung-bak’s 2008 address on the 63rd Anniversary of National Liberation follows this pattern perfectly, eschewing any
reference to the U.S. or Allied forces entirely during his celebration of "the liberation of the nation"); in this way, the primary
cause of Korean liberation becomes a kind of "absent presence," which closely parallels North Korean propaganda more than
many here in the South may realize or care to admit. And then there is the persistent, popular myth – particularly resonant among
the South Korean left and the 386 Generation – that the U.S. was somehow complicit in or responsible for Chun Doo-hwan's
bloody crackdown during the Kwangju Democratization Movement of May 1980: Again, the historical record clearly refutes this
version of events, since the U.S. had no operational control of any of the Korean troops used in Kwangju at the time, was unaware
of the crackdown either beforehand or during its initial stages, and issued repeated urgent calls for "restraint" and "dialogue" as
soon as it received first reports of the unfolding tragedy there (which, it should be noted, were regularly ignored or distorted by
the state-controlled Korean media then operating under martial law). Of course, we understand the function of this particular myth
all too well – to demonize and discredit the "미제" and its reactionary "앞잡이" here in the South, and in so doing promote a
specific type of "progressive" nationalism – but really, sometimes the level of absolute power and influence attributed to the
미제승냥이 is so exaggerated, paranoid and far-fetched that the real enemy becomes logic itself. Indeed, the U.S. is also often
blamed simply for "standing by and doing nothing" to stop the violence in Kwangju, but there’s just one problem with this line
of reasoning: Suppose for a moment that the U.S. had intervened directly during the latter stages of Kwangju either politically or
militarily; wouldn't that itself have been a clear violation of South Korean sovereignty? In other words, given Chun Doo-hwan's
refusal to listen to all U.S. appeals for "restraint" and "dialogue," the only way the U.S. could have ended Kwangju sooner was
by behaving precisely as an "imperialist aggressor" and trampling on South Korean national sovereignty. Are we now to blame
the 미제침략자 for not behaving as imperialist aggressors?
To be clear, my purpose here is not to write as some kind of apologist for American empire; the U.S. certainly has a long and
frequently shameful history of imperialist aggression around the world, from the Vietnam War to its invasion of Panama in 1989
to George W. Bush's Iraq War, to name but a few more egregious examples in recent modern history. Rather, my aim is to call
attention to and highlight that which is often obscured, ignored or simply forgotten: Not only is reality crisscrossed and covered
by a dense spider’s web of myths masquerading as truth; myths often harden into accepted realities themselves when the basic
ideological function they serve becomes indispensable to their makers and adherents. At one extreme, the process of mythic
reification can seem merely fantastical and quaint: In North Korea, for instance, the myth of Tan'gun is taken so literally by the
hypernationalist state that in 1993 authorities there actually claimed to have discovered the skeletal remains of both Tan'gun and
his wife in a tomb just northeast of Pyongyang, which they "scientifically" dated at the time to be exactly "5,011 years old"; well,
given that the oldest surviving historical document mentioning Tan'gun is the 13th century "Samguk Yusa" ("Memorabilia of the
Three Kingdoms") – compiled over 3,500 years after it states that Tan'gun established Kojoson – you must forgive me for now if
I remain skeptical about the true reality of a supernatural being born of a cave-dwelling bear-woman and Hwan'ung, the Son of
Heaven (one who ruled for "1,017 years," according to the engraved stone monument to his tomb unearthed in North Korea, and
even longer than that according to "Samguk Yusa"). At the other extreme, however, myths that become "facts" and "realities" unto
themselves can be downright dangerous and even deadly: In the case of the Iraq War, we now know that the Bush administration
intentionally lied and fabricated intelligence in order to construct a mythic narrative that directly linked Saddam Hussein and his
alleged "weapons of mass destruction" to al-Qaeda and the terror attacks of 9/11; in this way, the invasion of Iraq was justified as
part of the broader post-9/11 "War on Terror," when in fact it was a neocolonial war of aggression that had been conceived by
Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and their fellow neoconservative ideologues well before 9/11, and whose primary aim was the
projection of U.S. hegemony into the heart of the oil-rich Middle East. Of course, no weapons of mass destruction were found
in Iraq post-invasion, and any connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda or 9/11 has been decisively debunked as well,
and yet the story that Bush was selling has in a certain perverse, ironic sense become a self-fulfilling prophesy (one which he in
turn repeatedly invoked to further legitimize his illegitimate war): No sooner had the U.S. invaded Iraq on 20 March 2003 than
foreign jihadists and al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists from around the world began to flood into Iraq as a direct consequence of the
sudden power vacuum there and total collapse of civil order, and by 2004 "al-Qaeda in Iraq" was at the front lines of the bloody
insurgency and deadly sectarian violence ravaging the unfortunate nation. Tragically, myth has unleashed a true "reign of terror"
upon Iraqi reality. When we consider that according to reliable estimates, over one million Iraqis have died because of the Iraq
War, it does not seem to be an exaggeration to say that George W. Bush the Mythmaker is a greater terrorist than even Osama
bin Laden himself; at the very least, he is certainly a war criminal who should be tried for crimes against humanity at the
International Court of Justice.
How was Bush able to sell his mythic crusade against Saddam Hussein to the American public so effectively? How was he able
to convince 77 out of 100 U.S. Senators to vote to authorize his use of military force against Iraq, and why did a solid majority
of polled Americans consistently support his call for "regime change in Iraq" during the months leading up to the invasion, while
much of the rest of the world was adamantly against it? After all, the U.S. was unable to secure United Nations support for military
intervention in Iraq, and in 2004 then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan went so far as to call Bush's war there "illegal." And then
there were the massive anti-war protests on 15 February 2003, in which millions took to the streets in some 800 cities around the
world – including Seoul and other major cities across South Korea. Given such strong global opposition to the violent overthrow
of an independent, sovereign nation, what went so wrong with the self-proclaimed "democratic leader of the free world"? How
could the American dream have allowed itself to be turned into such a terrible nightmare?
On 20 May 2008, during the height of the mad-cow candlelight protests here in Korea, then-United Democratic Party head Sohn
Hak-kyu made a comment to Lee Myung-bak which I believe helps get close to the heart of the matter: "이성적, 합리적 판단
못지않게 국민 생각이 중요하다." At the time, Sohn Hak-hyu was referring to local concerns over the safety of U.S. beef,
and while there is no little amount of truth to his observation, he was also engaging in a bit of mythmaking himself so as to score
populist points against his political rival and promote his own party’s opposition to the beef-import deal that Lee had recently
made with the U.S. For as should by now be clear, "국민 생각" does not exist in a vacuum, as Sohn rather disingenuously
seemed to suggest: First and foremost, it is always embedded in a specific cultural context which of course has its own ever-
changing values, attitudes and beliefs, but is also, as we have seen, constantly shaped and reshaped by the many myths that it
likes to tell itself. Indeed, myths resonate within a given society to the degree that they coincide with or affirm its own self-image
at a particular moment in time, and it was precisely this dynamic – a kind of self-reinforcing and occasionally volatile feedback
loop – which the Bush administration exploited to advance its own imperial agenda in the Middle East. Thus, in the immediate
post-9/11 climate of traumatic shock and outrage in the U.S., Bush was able to seize the "국민 생각" there and bend it decisively
to his will by invoking the patriotic language of national defense, which he in turn quickly recast as an epic "clash of civilizations"
between “radical Islam” and the U.S.-led "Free World" (“This is civilization’s fight,” he told a Joint Session of Congress on 20
September 2001. "This is the fight of all who believe in progress and pluralism, tolerance and freedom."). In so doing, Bush was
appealing to a familiar and decidedly dangerous myth that lies at the very core of the American identity: That of "American
exceptionalism," whereby American values and national interests are seen as uniquely righteous, and are universalized and
projected onto the entire global community of nations (as when he famously declared in the same speech, "Every nation, in
every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.") By cloaking the "War on
Terror" in the self-righteous mantle of American exceptionalism, Bush sought to obscure the specifically political character
of the 9/11 attacks, which in reality had been provoked primarily by the imperial policies and presence of the U.S. in the Middle
East (Osama bin Laden was always very clear about this); in other words, the "clash of civilizations" was really just another self-
serving myth. And while Bush arguably had a legitimate mandate to go after al-Qaeda in Afghanistan after they had conducted
major terror attacks on U.S. soil, he cynically abused his moral authority to "defend the nation" by next setting his sights on
Saddam Hussein, and it was at this point that much of rest of the world began to see more clearly that the "War on Terror" was
itself a myth masking a far more sinister imperial plan for Iraq. In the U.S., however, context was crucial in explaining how and
why Bush’s mythical rhetoric about the "War on Terror" continued to resonate so profoundly among the general populace there:
In effect, it had been defined as nothing less than a defense of the "American Way of Life" itself, and it was under such terms
that the totalitarian logic of nationalism asserted itself in the U.S. with full force – and with all too predictable results. Any
dissent or criticism of the U.S. government's anti-terrorism policies was labeled "unpatriotic" or even "treasonous" by both
the Bush administration and much of the U.S. mainstream media, which in turn led to a radical narrowing and restriction of
public debate on the legitimacy of invading Iraq. If the crucial watchdog role of the media in any democratic nation is to "speak
truth to power," the mainstream U.S. media simply abandoned this fundamental responsibility during the buildup to the Iraq
War: To express the problem in Sohn Hak-hyu's terms, "이성적, 합리적 판단" was largely banished from public discourse in
the U.S. during this time, and Bush was essentially given a free pass to shape "국민 생각" in accordance with his own designs.
For this reason, it is not at all surprising that a Time/CNN poll in February 2003, just a month before the invasion, indicated that
72% of Americans believed it was either "very likely" or "somewhat likely" that Saddam Hussein was "personally involved in the
terrorist attacks on September 11th"; clearly, the U.S. media failed to critically examine and fully vet the paranoid, fear-driven
narrative that Bush had constructed, in which removing Saddam Hussein from power was justified as an urgent and necessary
defense of the U.S. homeland. As George Orwell would have put it, "war" had somehow become "peace"; or, as Barthes would
have well understood, Bush had used myth to pull a classic bait-and-switch: American nationalism was effectively hijacked for
imperial purposes, and if American "국민 생각" was unable to recognize Bush's true intentions, that's because Bush had also
hijacked "국민 생각" itself. More than anything else, the tragic fate of Iraq was sealed by this fundamental misrecognition on
the part of the U.S. public.
It is no accident that I have described and attempted to deconstruct Bush's selling of the Iraq War here at length, nor is it a
coincidence that I have introduced the words of Sohn Hak-hyu and the mad-cow candlelight protests into my discussion, either.
Indeed, the parallels between the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the mad-cow candlelight protests of 2008 are clear and striking, for
just as the Iraq War represented a profound subversion of American democracy at the hands of quasi-fascist authoritarianism,
so in my opinion did the mad-cow candlelight protest movement represent a violent assault on Korean democracy by the forces
of ideological totalitarianism and reactionary nationalism. And just as I was disgusted in many ways by my home country during
the preparations for and ultimate prosecution of the Iraq War, so was I disgusted by much of what I saw during the summer of
2008 here in what I once naively – and rather stupidly – called my "adopted home." For if truth be told, it was during the mad-
cow candlelight protests that I feel I saw the basic, fundamental nature of Korean society, and realized once and for all that it
is nothing but a myth to think that I could ever be accepted and respected as a true individual by this society as a whole in its
present form. Most of all, however, I realized that Korea is a very sad country, which I suppose goes a long way towards
explaining why Korea is such a myth-enveloped nation.
Not only is myth a means by which Korea hides from reality and hides from itself – it is also a way for Korea to protect itself
from the sadness of being Korea.
1. "민족" = ethnic nation
2. "민족주의" = nationalism
3. "민중" = "the masses" or "the people"
4. "미제침략자" = "American imperialist aggressors"
5. "괴뢰 당국" = "puppet authorities"
6. "미제야수" = "American imperialist beasts"
7. "국내외에서 꾸준히 전개한 독립 운동은 광복의 밑거름이 되었다" =
8. "궁극적으로 광복은 우리 민족이 국내외에서 줄기차게 일제와 싸워 온 독립 투쟁의 결실이었다" =
9. "미제" = American imperialists
10. "앞잡이" = "stooges"
11. "미제승냥이" = "American imperialist jackals"
12. "이성적, 합리적 판단 못지않게 국민 생각이 중요하다." = "Public perception is no less important than rational judgement."
13. "국민 생각" = "public perception" or "public thought"
14. "이성적, 합리적 판단" = Lit., "rational, logical judgement"