Monday, December 22, 2014

Are you from North or South?

Note: I do not support censorhip, especially censorship predicated on terrorism, in any way. This article is not a commentary on Sony's decision to cancel the release of the movie. Instead, it's a commentary on the movie itself, as well as Americans' perceptions of the two Koreas.

"Are you from North or South?"

I've been asked this question many times in my life, and I know that a lot of other Koreans have too. Personally, I try not to take offense because I give people the benefit of the doubt that they are just being curious without malicious intent. Kind of like when they ask me where I'm "from." Sure, I might think that they're being laughably ignorant in thinking that the Korean peninsula is something like California: "NorKor or SoKor?" But on the list of things that you could say to me based on ethnicity/race, it's not that high on the Totem Pole of Racist Bullshit.

It is, however, alarming that a lot of people see someone like me and think that I have as good a chance of being a North Korean as I would a South Korean. It seems that—going just by name, appearance, and/or general ethnicity—a South Korean like me could very well be a North Korean in the eyes of many. I see it happen all the time, especially in international sports. Whenever the World Cup happens, there will inevitably be an announcer for a (supposedly) world-class broadcasting organization who makes a mistake about the Koreas. For example, in a 2010 World Cup match between South Korea and Argentina, a German announcer said that the Koreans were 10cm shorter on average than the Argentinians. Actually, the average height of the South Korean team was significantly higher than that of Argentina's. He probably meant the North Korean team (though he would've also been wrong on that account, since North Korea and Argentina had the same average heights). Later, when FC Barcelona swung by Seoul on its Asia tour, Dani Alves complimented the South Korean national team for having played quite well when they had played Brazil in the 2010 World Cup. Except that it had been North Korea who played them, not South Korea.

North. South. Interchangeable.

At first glance, can most people tell whether this is the South or North Korean football team?

And that's my issue with The Interview and Kim Jong Il/Kim Jong Un jokes. A lot of the ire directed at North Korea could easily be redirected, either intentionally or not, against South Korea. Yes, I know that most people are specifically directing their ridicule at one particular repugnant leader and one particular backwards country. But Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un are also the most famous Koreans in the world. Sure, Kim Yuna is the most dominant figure skater of all time, Park Chan Wook is one of the premier auteur filmmakers in the world, and Ban Ki Moon is the UN Secretary General. But none of them have anywhere near the "Q-rating" of the Kim dictators, at least in America. There's no other Korean, living or dead, about whom Hollywood would make a movie.

Just as a refresher, remember what happened with Red Dawn? There were plenty of people who left the theaters being angry at "Asians," not just "North Koreans." In the end, do people really know how to tell the difference between Kim Jong Un and Park Geun Hye? Can they tell the difference between Pyeongchang and Pyongyang? Do they even care to?

If I told people on the street that this was the North Korean Prime Minister, how many would rightfully call me out for being a dumbass?
I haven't seen The Interview and will probably never get to (even if I wanted to). But apparently, there's a scene where Kim Jong Un cries and then craps his pants. And there's a North Korean female character who falls for the Seth Rogen character for some reason and has sex with him. And there's a lot of bad accents and mock Korean spoken by the two White male lead characters. Who wants to bet that there's a small dick joke somewhere there as well?

Neutering and ridiculing of an Asian man? Obligatory sexual relationship between White guy and Asian woman? Ching-chong and switched Ls and Rs? This just sounds like the Hangover movies.  There would at least be some value in all this if the North Korean regime wasn't already a joke in every country not called North Korea. And guess which country will end up being the one country that won't possibly be able to see this movie on a wide scale?

Say I go watch this movie and people in the audience laugh uproariously (hypothetically speaking, since the movie has gotten terrible reviews). When they laugh, what should I, and other Koreans, think? Should I trust that they're laughing at just Kim Jong Un? Or are they laughing at him and his cronies? Or at his whole country? Or Koreans or Asians in general? Should I laugh louder than everyone else to prove that despite how I look, I am most definitely one of the good guys?

Pardon me if I seem a little paranoid. But you know, I just think of all the times I've been asked:

"Are you from North or South?"