Funny things

Psy Gangnam StyleA funny thing happened on my way to Seoul two weeks ago.

I headed out in search of K-pop – and found a nuclear confrontation.

So not funny, ha-ha.

But funny as in odd, ironic, surreal.

And I have to say this:

I’m now very glad to be “home” in Hà Nội before somebody does something tragically stupid up on the Korean peninsula.

My dream was never to be a war correspondent.

The oddness comes in layers, and I’m still trying to figure out if there’s some deeper meaning here, or perhaps just a shallow one.

Maybe something about the state of international journalism, and perhaps Việt Nam’s modest place in News World Order.

When the Obama Administration promised a foreign policy “tilt” toward Asia, many people figured Southeast Asia and China were the chief concerns.

Now it’s tilted toward Northeast Asia and China.

Understand that when I first moved to Việt Nam two and a half years ago, I certainly didn’t envision reporting out of South Korea.

There would be a healthy appetite, I figured, for stories out of Việt Nam – even without war, terrorism, economic calamity or natural disaster that tend to fill up the foreign news page.

But with the Internet reshaping the economics of journalism, there is precious little space for foreign news in print media, and most of it is understandably used up by war, terrorism, etc.

Việt Nam and the Vietnamese would benefit from more and better coverage for a wider audience.

But then, South Korea – a major investor in Việt Nam, and something of a role model as well – would like to be less newsworthy right now.

And, in fact, it was less newsworthy just a couple months ago.

I was surprised when the editor of a publication that for now will remain nameless offered to send me to Seoul to do a cover story about “the Korean Wave” – not just K-pop, but how this small nation (with about 49 million population, compared to Việt Nam’s 89 million) had swiftly become global business and cultural trend-setter.

Companies like Samsung Electronics and Hyundai Motors are competing with powerhouses like Apple and Sony, Toyota and Ford.

But I had this nagging suspicion that, ultimately, this story may not have been assigned at all but for the goofy, stupendous success of party rocker PSY and his “Gangnam Style” video, the biggest hit ever on YouTube, 1.8 billion views and growing.

Now, the journalism biz being so lean these days, the editor also asked me to help write a proposal for a travel grant from a journalism foundation that supports international reportage and shall also remain nameless.

The proposal, while emphasizing the Korean Wave, duly noted the tensions between the governments of Seoul and Pyongyang – but at the time it seemed like background noise, just business-as-usual.

The foundation turned us down.


Apparently the story “lacked sufficient conflict”.

The foundation, I presume, wanted to save money and such – and, sitting at their desk, I probably would have made the same call. I would have thought:


They think we’ll fund a trip to write about ‘Gangnam Style’ and Galaxy phones?”

But that was then.

As I was preparing for the trip, Pyongyang’s threats grew louder and angrier, offering visions of Seoul turned in a “sea of fire” and “pre-emptive” attacks on the American “imperialists”.

The editor said she felt like phoning the foundation:

“Is that enough conflict for ya?”

Before this eight-day visit, I had only spent a few hours in Seoul, a thoroughly modern and thriving city where people go about their lives without showing obvious stress about the missile installations just 50 kilometres away.

The Vietnamese achieved reunification, in a terribly bloody process, 38 years ago.

The end of the Second World War liberated but also divided the Koreans 68 years ago.

Both South Korea and North Korea insist they want unification.

But as time passes, and experiences diverge, people are increasingly wondering if Koreans are now really all part of the same great tribe – or have they grown too far apart?

If not, then why do the threats and the rhetoric keep escalating?

It was only 13 years ago that the athletes of both Koreas marched together into the Sydney Olympics under a flag depicting a united Korea.

That year, South Korea’s president was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

If only Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un wanted one of those. . .



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