By Saswat Pattanayak
Psy has surpassed every artist in history by attaining one billion views, but that alone is not instructive. The measure of greatness in Park Jae-sang remains in his consciousness-raising about capitalistic contradictions and imperialistic warmongering in undiluted terms.
In a Eurocentric world dominated by the disturbingly unifying English language, where American narratives grip past and the present times, it is easy to wonder why a Korean wields such an influence. The answer is as easy: why not.
After all, Korea is like no other. It indeed is the center of the universe – the site for contestation of ideologies. The country that sparked the Cold War and divided not itself, but the world into two. Who can better define its historical role than the most savage of chroniclers, Winston Churchill: “The importance of this bloody place lies in the fact that it has led to the re-arming of America.”
Korean resistance against the imperialists led to Truman’s NSC 68 – the most significant document outlining American ambitions to control the world. In 1951, America’s annual defense budget of $13.5 billion for the first time more than quadrupled to $54 billion. In major American cities over 50 percent of county residents started working in defense and aerospace sectors, which started accounting for nearly 80 percent of all manufacturing. NATO formally became the tool of American expansionist tactics. While Koreans unitedly were fighting the Japanese colonizers under a broader leftist umbrella, fearing political repercussions, America did everything to sabotage the freedom struggle and actively aided the pro-Japan reactionaries. The provisional government Korean People’s Republic (KPR) which was formed by prominent Koreans of all political leanings was finally suppressed by the West because it sounded too progressive for American taste. To eliminate any iota of communism in Korea, America employed chemical weapons in the Korean War and while taking control of the South, the war resulted in the deaths of 4 million Koreans, out of a total population of 30 million.
Anyone surprised by the success of Gangnam Style would also be surprised by the existing anti-Americanism in Korea. Western militarism has effectively divided the country into not just two economic zones, but have also presented them to the world as two ideologically opposing regions. World is constantly fed with a glorified image of South Korean freedom and North Korean oppression, whereas the differences are far more subtle. The widening class society in South Korea is as much of a problem as the stagnant North Korean economy. And modeled to excel within the market capitalism, South Koreans amply confuse their limited sense of freedom with unbridled consumerism. Psy’s satirical take of Gangnam district is precisely a commentary on this contradiction.
Psy reminds us that even as Korea today remains divided along two opposing lines, it was not meant to be so. Following the Second World War, the Soviet Union and the United States occupied Korea to expel the defeated Japanese, but the demarcation line 38th Parallel was not meant to create two different countries. As the erstwhile allies turned into hostile foes with Cold War setting in, the United States changed strategies and aided pro-Japanese camps in order to defeat communism at any cost. Towards that end, American forces defeated the very purpose of the occupation, which was to recognize Korean struggle against feudalism and imperialism. Indeed in the name of Korean War, the United States recolonized the land by installing the deeply reactionary and unpopular Syngman Rhee regime, so Korea could henceforth be easily controlled by the West. With China going to Mao, Japan could not afford to let go of Korea, and the United States targeting Asian “markets” had to control further communistic expansions.
Being a culturally proud people, Koreans had long resisted feudal and imperialist forces, and they refused to be the experiment for American expansionism. Their freedom struggle against Japan was equally a freedom struggle against the American invaders. Blatantly ignoring their pleas, Rhee was flown into Korea in one of MacArthur’s airplanes as a stooge of the US Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK) which was firmly opposed by the freedom fighters united under KPR. After remaining for 35 years under the Japanese feudal/colonial brutalities, Korea had demanded absolute freedom, but American military government not only appointed various Japanese officials to positions of power, they also eliminated those who rose against feudalism. Whereas the North implemented widespread and effective land reforms and ensured women’s equal participation in decision-making levels, South Korea refused to even enact a law to bring about land reforms, and when they finally did, it went unenforced, eventually giving rise to vast economic inequalities marking the Korean territory today.
Long standing wars waged by the Koreans against Japanese and domestic feudal lords have been constantly ignored by the corporate media worldwide. South Korea has merely been rendered to be a glorified market for American capitalism. So far as strategic partnerships go, South Korea is merely a military base, and its only relevance is underscored by its ability to wage a war against communist North. Unlike the Americans, Koreans are subjected to conscriptions to remain forever prepared to defend their land against communism. And in the name of democracy, they continue tolerating totalitarian regimes that are adequately assisted by global capitalism. Since April Revolution of 1960, South Korea has faced similar outbursts against its dictators ruling over “democracy”, but the protesters have been massively crushed down and largely ignored by the world media.
Only after “Gangnam Style” was interpreted as a criticism of capitalism, Psy’s “villainous” sides and that of his huge fan base are being further explored. How could a visibly comical pop singer expose capitalism’s core philosophy as inherently corrupt by alluding to sky-high credit card debts in South Korea? How could it be that the country that so far exemplified all that are known as capitalistic virtues suddenly is getting its vulnerabilities exposed through Psy’s powerful rendition that attacks quite consumptions of class society ethos? Thanks to him, attention has now embarrassingly almost shifted from the North to South Korea with the vicious nature of capitalism now wide open for greater critique than ever before, what with Psy’s enormous popularity across the globe. Gangnam Style has started to bother western propaganda mill which traditionally attacked North Korean communism by contrasting it with the flourishing South Korean capitalism. Turns out, that Gangnam is the neighborhood of South Korea’s biggest brands, accumulating seven percent of the entire country’s GDP in an area of just 15 square miles. The richest one percent of South Korea continues to thrive at the expense of the rest for whom the average credit card debt exceeds 155 percent of their disposable income (Max Fisher of “The Atlantic” compares it with 138 percent debt noticed in the US sub-prime crisis).
With Psy making fun of every aspect of Korean consumerism, (and the nouveau riche obsession with coffee) it has led to further interrogation into his vociferous criticism of American imperialism. Indeed in a 2004 live concert, he was quite simply asking for destruction of the American military. His lyrics sampled and translated reads: “All those — Yankees been torturing Iraqi captives and // All those — Yankees who ordered them to torture // Kill their daughters, mothers, daughters-in-law and fathers // Kill them all slowly, kill them all painfully.” Not only did he sing these lines to a jubilant crowd, he also physically destroyed an American tank on the stage smashing it several times in sheer display of hatred towards American occupation that has held Korea hostage till date.
When it came to Gangnam Style, Psy did not employ an image of a tiger – the South Korean national animal – to be sarcastic about Gangnam. He instead chose North Korea’s national emblem, a winged horse. His march upon the “Chollima” – the revered symbol for Asian communists is clearly intentional. After refusing to be conscripted by South Korean army, and protesting against American occupation of Korea, Psy is now taking on the capitalistic world, riding to victory against militarism on his North Korean horse – and transforming the world with – to quote Kim Il Sung in a different context, a “rush as the speed of Chollima”.
Psy has shattered a few more, albeit less visible, grounds. He has embarked upon a path that is destined to alter the fascist standards of beauty/acceptability as we know them. By convincingly overshadowing Justin Bieber, he and his team of Korean performers have finally overthrown the typical young white male/female image associated with the word “sexy”. Western obsession with fascist standards have conventionally benefited from a racist societal structure that defines beauty and laws of attractions. Psy is not young, tall, lean, or muscular and his is no “angel eyes” – the very criteria that all western publications and leading modeling/acting agencies in the world take into account while declaring their annual lists of sexy men and women.
Invariably all western media outlets found it quite funny when a liberal publication priding itself on progressive values called “the Onion” recently declared North Korean communist leader Kim Jong-Un as the “Sexiest Man Alive”. But, China’s People’s Daily did not ‘get the joke’ and it applauded the Onion’s recognition of the Korean leader: “With his devastatingly handsome, round face, his boyish charm and his strong, sturdy frame, this Pyongyang-bred heartthrob is every woman’s dream come true. Blessed with an air of power that masks an unmistakable cute cuddly side, Kim made this newspaper’s editorial board swoon with his impeccable fashion sense, chic short hairstyle, and of course, that famous smile.”
And yet, seeped into racist mindsets as the Americans and their allies are in the world, they all started laughing aloud for having taken the Asians for a ride. How dare these Asians think they will be declared the sexiest people in the world? If the West has been successful in relegating to its racist dustbin the anti-imperialist dragons in the form of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, how can the anti-capitalist horses in the form of Psy and Kim Jong-Un prove victorious now? Not just the Onion, even the New Yorker made fun of Kim Jong-Un by publishing that failing to test a rocket, the Korean leader could try launching a signature fragrance titled “Number Un”. Little do such fascist reports by Borowitz sense that missile launches are worse offenders than actual perfume sets. And little do the Onion and its sadistic audience realize that the world has already started to gradually replace the existing standards of socio-political values, and like Gangnam Style visually depicts, what appears at close uncritical quarters is vastly different from what truly is happening, once the focus shifts to include the larger context.
(Written for Kindle Magazine)