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Out of Africa and Into Andong
'The Marmot' on blogging, politics and his love of Korea
Todd Thacker (internews)     Print Article 
Published 2004-05-31 16:49 (KST)   
©2004
Traveling back from Malawi to the Tanzanian capital of Dar Es-salaam, Robert Koehler caught a slow-motion glimpse of death.

As his packed bus rumbled along a road sandwiched between a river gorge littered with burnt out buses deep below and a wall of boulders, the aging vehicle's rear axel snapped. It veered away from a fatal plunge only by smashing into rocks and trees.

"I got a pretty nasty gash at the top of my head, but there were many hurt a lot worse," recounted the Swahili-speaking Georgetown University student of Foreign Service, who was on a yearlong stay there in 1995.

While he and other passengers were helping the injured into passing trucks to get them to the nearest hospital some four hours away, his backpack with nearly all of his worldly possessions was stolen, setting off a sequence of events that would eventually find him gravitating to Korea.

Spending the night in hospital with only the blood-splattered clothes on his back, Koehler began to form a new perspective on life that he would only later learn was that of a Confucian scholar. From that point on he lived simply, wore only local garments (a practice he would continue in Korea) and rejected most Western sensibilities.

"You learn to take life less seriously. And I'll tell you, the fewer your possessions, the less your stress. The next six months I spent in Tanzania were some of the best days in my life."

Koehler, 29, who goes by the blogging handle "The Marmot," is now an earnest Koreaphile who first arrived in 1997. He had wanted to return to what he called "the motherland" with the Peace Corps, but he was thrown a curveball. Despite his college major, Swahili and experience in Africa, the Peace Corps rejected his application to East Africa.

"(It's) a bureaucracy so they were going to send me to Southeast Asia to teach English," he groaned. As a reason for not sending him to the region of his choice, they cited his asthma, which he hadn't had since middle school.

"So I said, 'Screw it.' If I go to Asia to teach English I'll go on my own and get paid to do it." He found himself in the small former coalmining town of Mungyeong, not far from Andong.

"I didn't think I'd like it at first, but something felt right about Korea."

He ended up teaching English for three years, traveling all over the country and learning Korean as a third language, before entering Kyung Hee University's Graduate School of Peace Studies.

Koehler said he was initially lucky because the expat community in the town was well adjusted - they liked being there - as opposed to expats who can be "quite down on Korea." And the area around Mungyeong was full of cultural attractions and devoid of modern distractions, allowing him to concentrate on absorbing all things Korean.

"It's a really great area. The culture radiates out of Andong. It's the heartland of the Confucian gentleman," he enthused. "Every part of Korea is so unique. For such a small country, there is a lot of diversity, but Andong is definitely something."

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The Internet has enriched Koehler's life in two significant ways. He met his Mongolian wife Solongo while discussing economic development projects in central Asia in an Internet group for his graduate thesis. Then there's blogging, which he began in spring of 2003 as an outlet for his political and social musings.

"Blogging was an interesting idea and I was interested in politics so I had a lot to say," he recalled. "It's an interesting format. I had a Web page but it was kind of static, so I got hooked."

"I think people come to my blog to get to other blogs," he smiled, referring to the comprehensive list of Korean blogs on his blog's right-hand sidebar. However, the consensus among the online expat community here is that the Marmot's Hole is the place to go. As Jeff Harrison's "Ruminations in Korea" Friday blog roundup recently summarized, "The Marmot - Just read everything as usual."

"First it was for myself. It is my personal blog, after all. But then I got lucky and people started to read it. As I began getting more readers and attention from larger blogs, that changed things. Also, a couple of journalists read it, so that influenced me. I then wrote more about what I thought people should know."

Koehler was aiming to please his readers and educate them too, with a different opinion on issues that appeared in the news and stories which appealed to him. He also translated Korean pieces and tried to frame the story for his English audience. But one thing he quickly changed in his style of blogging was the use of "vulgar" words, which his readers reported to him were detracting from his otherwise useful posts. "I started toning it down," he said.

"I'm coming from right field (politically), so I got some attention from conservative bloggers. Most of the blogs from Korea are said to be left wing, but I don't know if that is fair."

"Politics it is a complicated subject by nature. Left and right try to make it a battle of good versus evil. But the world doesn't work that way," he explained. "Take international relations. Neo-cons have a stark view of dichotomy of left and right, and the left does the same. The world does work that way, as far as I'm concerned."

The Marmot takes Roh Moo Hyun and his government to task regularly for "incompetence" and not having "a firm grip on reality," but he says he that he's eased up somewhat since the impeachment back in March.

Koehler thinks Roh does say some good things about internal policy and social reform, but that he gets nervous with certain "pillars" of Korea's greatness that are being targeted for reform, like the conglomerates.

"As a former war torn country to become a power in its own right, this is a feat that African countries can only dream of. Obviously a lot of people made sacrifices. But the conservative (business community) has made its contribution to society. It's not all Chun Doo Hwan."

Robert Koehler has only worn Korean Hanbok since his arrival in 1997.
©2004 R. Koehler
Koehler came to Seoul about three months ago to take up a fulltime position translating Korean news articles into English for the online edition of a conservative daily. He has found that like most bloggers with full-time jobs and family responsibilities, he has to sacrifice sleep to upload his thoughts on a current event.

"I try to use Korean language materials for research (of a news story), as they tend to be deeper and reflect what's actually being said in the Korean media, but to make that understandable to English audiences you have to translate it, which takes time."

He cited a recent example. There was an issue where alternatives to the U.S.-Korean military alliance were being bandied about in the Korean press. He was taking the subway home and read over a hardcopy of a Korean-language OP-ED from his work at the newspaper. Koehler got to thinking about the issue, translated it for his blog, formulated his own opinions and then typed it up.

"I'm not the fastest typer, so in the end I got to bed at 6 a.m. So now my posts are shorter and I do a lot more linking simply because I don't have the time."

Unlike those who have to blog on the sly to avoid aggravating their spouse, Koehler says he does most of his blogging with his wife in the room, but she isn't too happy about it.

Koehler reflected on how some of the other local bloggers were contributing to the overall scene. He commended Jeff Harrison's "Ruminations in Korea" for his long, thoughtful posts and said that he gets a lot out of the analysis from "The Flying Yangban" aka Andy Jackson, who is actually one of his best friends and a former roommate.

"Cathartidae and BigHominid ... these guys are producing a lot of excellent material to link to. Which is fortunate if you're lazy like me," he joked.

"When I started my blog, I thought I knew a lot, I had just come out of grad school, just after the anti-U.S. demonstrations (in 2002). But as I learned more, I've learned a lot through Oranckay. I was humbled by the realization that I don't know that much."

"There are a lot of good ideas being put out there," he said, but acknowledged that the community has been criticized for being too insular. "We're sometimes known as the angry expat brigade, which is fair, since we do at times go a little too far ... for effect."

"It does at times resemble an echo chamber," he laughed. "We don't really have enough contact with the Korean-language blogging community."

Though he is careful to say he is not the spokesman for the local blogging community, Koehler would like to see more interaction between the two groups, since the Korean blogging community is vibrant and "there's a lot of good material there."

He admitted that while there are problems with communication and points of view, some Koreans do check his blog regularly and leave comments. "Some of my Korean commentators read what they might not enjoy, like me reading Chomsky," he laughed, "But they do interact."

One effort he has initiated in this regard is a Korea Blogzine. With the help of a China-based expat software designer, he is thinking of duplicating the Livingontheplanet.com network here, which is thriving in countries like Singapore, India and China

"It gives more exposure with our own blogs ... so we're trying to join up." It's still early days for the Blogzine, but Koehler said six or seven bloggers are set to contribute or otherwise help out.

"This Blogzine is important. I'd like talk about travel, culture and social issues, things that aren't so heavily dependent on political punditry."

As for the future, Koehler says he'd eventually like to retire to somewhere around Andong. He dreams of buying a small plot of land and settling into "studying in the Confucian tradition."

"I look at it as my hometown," he smiled.

From Right Field: A Marmot Manifesto
Robert Koehler on domestic Korean politics

Korean Conservatism

If the nation needs reform, then the Korean right needs twice as much. Sometimes, it can be embarrassing to be a conservative looking at the way so-called conservatives behave in this country, and doubly embarrassing as an American, given some of the figures who are supposedly "pro-American." The Chosun Ilbo's Lee Seon Min, a man whose work I enjoy tremendously, pointed out in a column not so long ago that Korean conservatives need to take a long look in the mirror and figure out which way the want to go from here. Actually, the term "conservative" itself is troubling, as it suggests an aversion to change. Unfortunately, as it applies to many Korean conservatives, the term is disturbingly appropriate. Talk about stuck in the past. That's not to say the Korean right doesn't have much to be proud of, because it does - as leaders of this country, the Korean right did manage to turn Korea (the southern half, anyway) from a war-torn basketcase that was poorer than many African states into one of the world's largest economies and a world power in its own right. This is something most former colonies around the world could only dream of, and Korean "progressives" (another term I hate, especially as it applies to a number of Korean organizations that refer to themselves by it) should remember that as they bash conservatives for their admittedly many faults (and conservatives should remember that Korea's development was not due to their leadership alone; the Korean people themselves made untold sacrifices along the way, and the help of certain, ahem, other countries didn't hurt).

That being said, policy making is about the future, not the past, and no matter how hard I look, I can't ascertain what exactly the Korean conservatism's vision of the future looks like. I can make certain things out, but hardly anything worthy of calling a comprehensive outlook. I think Korean progressives' vision of the future is unrealistic and potentially disastrous, but at least they have one. A while back, U.S. Republicans realized that looks only toward the past could have no future. Accordingly, U.S. conservatives stopped talking about the "good old days" before FDR and the New Deal and started discussing issues relevant to the nation's future. Just to use one segment of U.S. conservatism as an example, you could possibly fault U.S. "neocons" for a great many things - I'm well aware that many OhMyNews readers aren't particularly fond of them - but two thing you CAN'T fault them for is lacking a future-oriented vision (even if you might not necessarily like what their future represents) or being afraid of change (even if the changes they prefer seem dangerously reckless to many). So what I'm saying is that while it's all fine and good to pat yourself on for the Miracle on the Han, it's not 1961 anymore. Nostalgia doesn't answer how you're going to rescue the economy, nor does it answer questions about North Korea, the changing Korea-U.S. relationship or the dynamic geopolitical situation in Northeast Asia.

Foreign Policy

North Korea... well, I got sick of blogging about North Korea long ago. I have no idea how Rebecca MacKinnon, the former CNN Tokyo bureau chief who runs Nkzone, is able to do it day in and day out. I've pretty much resigned myself to the fact that North Korea will be a perpetual pain in the ass until it collapses. Personally, I couldn't care less whether North Korea develops nuclear weapons or not - assuming Pyongyang is as concerned about regime survival as they seem to be, it's not going to do anything that would warrant an American response I can assure you it would not survive. Heck, if North Korea wants to waste more and more money on weapons systems it can't use, fine with me - it's that kind of decision making that has put North Korea in the hole it finds itself in.

As far as engaging the North is concerned, if South Korea progressives - many of whom, ironically enough, condemn the U.S. for its past support of dictatorial regimes in the South - would like to continue propping up Kim Jong Il, then that's their decision to make. What they shouldn't count on is the U.S. or Japan helping them do it. Mind you, I have no problem with playing nice with dictatorial regimes if it's in the national interest to do so - Kissinger and Reagan taught us American conservatives that. What I have trouble understanding is how so-called progressives, many of whom participated in the South Korean democratization struggle and condemned the U.S. for supporting Park Chung Hee and Chun Doo Hwan, could turn around and pump money and investment across the DMZ in an active attempt to prop up the North Korean regime. That's something I could see realpolitk-minded conservatives doing, but not people who constantly talk about human rights and ethical politics. Of course, this is just one irony of Korean progressive foreign policy. Apparently, the overwhelming majority of Uri Party lawmakers believe China should be Korea's primary diplomatic and economic partner. Needless to say, the idea that the heirs of the 5.18 Gwangju spirit believe it's a good idea to move closer to the heirs of the Tiananmen Square Massacre is a bit hard to fathom. Talk about irony!

Another thing progressives need to do is cut the unification talk. The North Korea policies of the last two South Korean administrations have been aimed at preventing or putting off unification, not bringing it about. I'm not saying this is wrong, by the way; I live in Seoul, so the prospects of sudden unification - especially if it's accompanied by war - are not what we'd call assuring. But the rhetoric of unification makes rational political dialogue difficult, if not impossible. And it goes without saying that referring to the conservatives as "anti-unification" is particularly unhelpful, especially when one considers that the policies they support are designed to hasten unification, not postpone it. Whether or not those policies would be successful - or result in a favorable outcome even if they were - is beside the point.

Now, as far as the U.S. in concerned, look, the independent wing of the Uri Party has a point - the alliance needs to change. If there is one thing that Korean progressives and U.S. conservatives can agree upon, it's that the Korea-U.S. alliance, as it's currently structured, makes little sense at all (I'm still waiting for Korean conservatives to get with the program, though). It's a Cold War alliance in a post-Cold War world. Korea is a wealthy, powerful country fully capable of defending itself - it doesn't need 36,000 U.S. troops on its soil. In fact, by relying on U.S. power, Korea runs the danger of not only retarding its own growth as a military power in its own right, but there is no guarantee that the U.S. will stick around to protect it. The U.S. is a global power with global interests (as is Korea, whether it realizes it or not), and given that those interests are subject to change, so are its alliances. Hey, if Korea believes its national interests are best served through an alliance with the United States (as I do, coincidentally. But then I'm biased), then by all means, keep the alliance, and keep it in good working order. But it should do so as an independent power, not as a U.S. dependency. In this regard, I think an independent South Korean nuclear deterrent would be in the nation's interests in the long-run. Yeah, a lot of folk worry about sparking a regional arms race, but I tend to believe that arms race will happen regardless of what Seoul does (and you can thank your brothers to the North for hastening this along), so if you're playing in dangerous neighborhood, you don't want to be the only guy not packin'. And like I said, you don't want to depend on a U.S. nuclear umbrella that might not be there forever.

It goes without saying, by the way, that the U.S. also has options as far as its alliance with Korea is concerned. The U.S. doesn't have an obligation to protect South Korea. Some papers - the Hankyoreh in particular - at times sound like they believe U.S. power is some sort of international public good. Theoretically, U.S. power serves U.S. interests, just as Korean power should serve Korean interests. As a Great Power, the U.S. might find its interests better served by pursuing new political and power relations with the nations of Northeast Asia. It may, for example, seek closer relations with China, or strengthen its alliance with Japan (the latter is looking especially likely). Personally, I find the alliance with Korea useful, even if I think keeping 36,000 troops and two fighter wings in a country perfectly capable of defending itself is an absolute waste of money and valuable military resources. But powerful allies are infinitely more useful than dependencies (which the U.S. has enough of already), so if the U.S. wants to maximize the benefits from its alliance with Korea, it needs to let Korea develop its security capabilities to their fullest potential while understanding that as a powerful actor, Korea's interests may not always coincide with those of the United States.

If there was one piece of advice I could give Korean leaders as far as foreign policy is concerned, it's that Korean decision makers need to start thinking like the leaders of a major power with global interests. I understand that for much of Korea's history, its national interests didn't exceed far beyond its borders, and the country has been to varying extents dependent on its relations with China and later the United States. I also understand that Korea's rise to power has taken place in little more than a space of 50 years, and attitudes change slowly. That being said, Korea's a big country now, and it needs to think and act like one. China, Japan, Russia and the U.S. should no longer be the exclusive foci of Korean foreign policy concern. Seoul's interests can be found in places as far as way as the steppes of Central Asia to the markets of Rio de Janeiro. Equally as important, it has the capacity to generate the kind of influence necessary to pursue and protect those interests. All Korea's leaders need to do is have the confidence to use that influence, and more importantly, use it wisely.
Click here for Robert Koehler's recently revamped blog site.
©2004 OhmyNews

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