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.