American Blood Paid for PSY's 'Gangnam Style'
If the upcoming Super Bowl is like many before, the most entertaining part may be the commercials, which will include a chubby South Korean singer hawking “Wonderful Pistachios.” This will mark the rapper PSY’s debut in American advertising, though he’s no stranger to the folks at home. They’ve seen him singing “Gangnam Style,” a satiric take on the “Beverly Hills” of South Korea, viewed more than one billion times on YouTube; celebrating Christmas with President Obama; and starring in a New Year’s television special from Times Square. Following the example of 1996’s “Macarena,” and “Sukiyaki” decades before, PSY has earned the affection, and money, of millions of Americans who have no idea what he’s singing about.
However, many Americans who do follow PSY closely will not be happy to see him on their big screens. “He should be deported back to South Korea,” says Bob Dumas, a Korean War veteran, adding rhetorically: “Or is he from North Korea?”
Mr. Dumas is not alone. PSY has managed to dance into a political and social minefield. Facebook pages now exist to denounce the singer, born Park Jae-sang, and numerous media reports and online comments include harsh criticism. “PSY is a talentless one-hit wonder who shrewdly took advantage of the magnanimity and forgiving nature of most Americans who fell in love with his song,” declares Korean-American Hank Song.
The displeasure stems from revelations of a vicious anti-American rap PSY performed years before he was famous, and for which he quickly apologized after it became public. But aside from doubts about the sincerity and sufficiency of his apology, it now turns out the correct translation of his rap differs from that reported by most U.S. news media. In fact, the comments were not just anti-American, but explicitly racist. Ironically, Korean Confidential’s analysis of the words and their timing, though it puts PSY in no better light, actually raises hopeful points about the larger relationship between South Koreans and Americans.
Aside from aesthetes, most Americans had no reason to dislike PSY until last month, when media reports said he rapped in 2004 that “Yankees” of the U.S. military should be killed, along with their families. This was especially galling to American veterans and others who know the history of the Gangnam in “Gangnam Style,” an up-scale district of Seoul, the Republic of Korea’s capital. “There would be no rich, affluent lifestyle of Seoul's Gangnam had it not been for the American soldiers and Marines who battled their way to clear out the North Korean soldiers,” said Mr. Song, who works with human rights groups such as NKUS (North Korean Refugees in the USA) and Inside NK, an organization founded by Shin Dong-hyuk, born and raised in a North Korean prison complex before escaping.
“What I can't understand: Where are all those people who bought his music? (Did) they really listen to (his anti-American comments)?” asked Mr. Dumas. No doubt many international and even U.S. fans of “Gangnam Style” have no idea of America’s defense of South Korea, invaded in 1950 by communist North Korea, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK. During the initial North Korean surge, the bridges over the Han River not far from Gangnam (then mostly farmland) were blown up by the South Korean military to keep enemy troops and armor from crossing. Large numbers of escaping civilians were on the spans at the time -- men, women and children were killed and thrown dead and alive into the water, near river banks that now feature parks and ritzy high rises similar to those in PSY’s video.
Once in Seoul, after massacring the staff and patients of a large hospital, DPRK troops set out to follow orders from their leaders in Pyongyang to purge the city of South Korean troops, government officials, businessmen, Christian leaders and untrustworthy intellectuals. Many were shot. Thousands more (part of an estimated 96,013 civilians from across South Korea during the conflict) were marched North. Most were never heard from again by their families. (For more, see: www.koreanconfidential.com/abductedpowkoreans.html)
Months later, United Nations forces, mostly American and South Korean, arrived to liberate Seoul. They were expected; the city was filled with North Korean fortifications. Built chest-high, barricades at many intersections were covered by enemy machine gun and sniper fire and protected by belts of anti-tank mines. U.S. infantry and armor, including at least one flame-thrower tank, had to fight block by block. Hundreds of U.S. Marines and soldiers gave their lives liberating the Seoul region. Afterward, the President of South Korea, in an emotional meeting where he re-assumed control of his capital from an American general, said: “How can I ever explain to you my own undying gratitude and that of the Korean people?" (For video of the battle, see www.aboutgangnam.com).
The war would continue for almost three more years, including another occupation of Seoul by the North Koreans and their Chinese allies, but in the end the communists were forced out of South Korea. In the decades since, America has kept thousands of troops in South Korea to prevent another North Korean invasion. Meantime, South Korea has grown from one of the world’s poorest nations to one of its richest.
“We have been protecting these people for over 60 years, and we may be protecting them for another 60 years. But to have a South Korean come over to our country and (having talked) the way he did about killing Americans in a song …” Mr. Dumas trailed off, seeming both angry and perplexed. For decades he has served as a leader in efforts to account for more than 8,000 Americans still missing from the Korean War, including his brother Roger. Declassified U.S. reports and North Korean defectors indicate American POWs may have survived in the DPRK until at least the 1990s, and were also kept by the Soviet Union and China after the war. Dozens of South Korean POWs held in the North have escaped in recent years, and some 500 are believed still held (For more on this, see www.kpows.com)
PSY, who studied music in Boston, no doubt knows of the Korean War. That did stop him from participating in an anti-American event in 2002, according to media reports, and the 2004 protest that featured his celebrated “Yankee” comments. Anti-Americanism was surging that year in South Korea. The nation’s troops were in Iraq and the death of two Korean schoolgirls, accidentally struck and killed by an American military vehicle two years earlier, remained a source of anger.
During the protest, according to many U.S. news outlets (first tipped off by an upset Korean-American), PSY rapped a song called “Dear American,” which included the lyrics: “Kill those f**king Yankees who have been torturing Iraqi captives … Kill their daughters, mothers, daughters-in-law, and fathers. Kill them all slowly and painfully.”
However, subsequent media review of the performance raised questions about whether the lyrics actually called for killing those American family members, or instead referred to what the “Yankees” were allegedly doing. Additionally, Korean Confidential’s analysis shows that PSY did not actually use the phrase “Yankee,” at least not the direct Korean transliteration of the epithet commonly employed (including in North Korean propaganda.)
In reality, the rap in some ways was more racist than ideological. It referred to “long-nosed” foreigners and something like “white bitches and bastards,” or "white lowlife," according to three reviewers fluent in both Korean and English, including a Ph.D. expert on Korea.
While no improvement from “Yankee,” the actual language does offer a glimpse into PSY’s thinking and the complexity of the U.S.-Korean relationship. Anti-Americanism has long flourished in Korea, drawing power from alleged American transgressions over the years, starting with the ship sent to “open” the Hermit Kingdom for trade in 1866 (the Koreans destroyed it) and moving to alleged U.S. diplomatic scheming with Japan before World War II; the division of Korea after the war by America and the Soviet Union; U.S. bombings and shootings in the Korean War; and Washington’s support for authoritarian South Korean regimes.
This animus has at times transcended politics, at least judged by racist verbiage that sometimes accompanies it. Certainly Americans are no strangers to racism. But many South Koreans, living in one of the most homogeneous nations on earth, view themselves not just as citizens of a country, but members of a proud nation/race now divided by ideology and the decisions of larger powers, including America. While Americans tend to focus on the stark ideological, economic and now social differences between North and South Korea, the DPRK has built much of its identity on ethnic grounds. Pyongyang appeals explicitly, on both sides of the border, to authentic “Korean-ness.” North Korea depicts the South’s government as beholden to “Yankees,” often pictured in propaganda as long-nosed predators.
To be sure, some Korean grievances are based in fact; for example, U.S. forces did kill civilians during some war-time incidents. Questions also remain about whether the U.S. should have done more to prevent human rights abuses by South Korean officials, including massacres before and during the war, and oppression after. But the historical perspective, especially in light of North Korea’s impoverished dictatorship, makes it impossible to dispute America’s contribution to South Korea. This support and protection allowed the industrious Korean people to build a rich, democratic nation that respects human rights, including the right to insult the very American troops guarding them.
Perhaps the most important element of PSY’s comments is that they no longer appear representative. His rap came during the peak of anti-American sentiment, when some observers, perhaps especially older South Koreans with memories of the war, worried the younger generation of Koreans might reject the security alliance with America. But in years since – marked by, among other factors, the killing of South Koreans by the DPRK and revelations of its widespread human rights abuses - support for the alliance has grown dramatically. According to polling from the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, large majorities of Koreans now look upon America favorably and want to maintain the security relationship (as do most Americans).
The Gangnam district government itself signed an agreement, around the same time as PSY’s anti-American rap, to strengthen relations with the U.S. military. Since then, local residents have put on more than 150 events for American soldiers, according to the U.S. Army.
The relationship now appears so strong that 84 percent of South Koreans in a recent Asan survey supported maintaining the U.S.-Korean alliance even after reunification with North Korea. The apparent reason: China’s military threat. Not only did China invade Korea in 1950, but the nations have a long, complex and sometimes unfriendly history. And yes, Koreans, like Americans, do have an ethnic slur or two for Chinese people.
So when you watch that pistachio commercial, take a moment to remember the more than 30,000 "Yankees" who died in combat during the Korean War, those still missing, and the Americans now stationed in Korea. Without them, there would be no rich Gangnam residents for PSY to mock.
Veterans may take comfort that more Koreans now seem to agree with Hank Song than 2004 PSY. “Had it not been for American sacrifice,” said Mr. Song, “they'd be doing the Pyongyang Style dance, not Gangnam Style.”