[KS] What's So Good about Korea, Maarten?

Maarten Meijer mpmeijer at gmail.com
Sun Jan 21 21:50:32 EST 2007

Dear Scott Burgeson,

First of all, let me express my appreciation for your constructive criticism
of my book. But let me also respond to some of the points you make.

Social criticism is not an exact science. This understanding has increased
the level of modesty of most modern historiographers, who in more recent
years of the enterprise have begun to confess that most of their work is
"interpretative" in nature. Hence, "*A* History of...." rather than
"*The*History..." A notable shift.

In this context, identifying "errors" is quite tenuous. Your example of
taegwondo is innocent enough. True, the official incorporation of the
martial art took place a mere five decades ago, but its roots go back quite
a bit further than that. In this instance I could be found guilty of
"simplification" at worst. I would suggest "interpretation" as a more
adequate characterization. I am speaking of an "art" here, not an
"incorporation," and the martial discipline was included in the section of
my book entitled "The art of living" and not in a separate chapter on
politics, which is notably and intentionally absent from the book.

The debate about Korean social and cultural trends seems, in particular, to
easily become overheated. Korean participants in this discussion also are
fond of listing "errors" on foreign websites dealing with Korea. Naming the
"East Sea" the "Sea of Japan" is a noteworthy example. Clearly, there are
sources that are consistently referring to the coveted body of water as the
East Sea, but that makes the issue no less disputable.

More serious is your concern over the "conservatism" of my book. I would
like to remind you that in the introduction I clearly and unabashedly state
that the tone of my book is "subjective" in nature. I will not take up the
gauntlet here and argue against your notion that Breen's book is "more
objective." He wrote a good book; I have tried to do so as well, in my own
way. I would refer back to what I said earlier about "interpretation" -
something that happens, by the way, both on the part of the writer *and* the

When it comes to measuring "political biases" in the field of social
analysis, journalism, and the like, I would like to suggest that the dial on
the scale gauging "conservative" or "liberal (US) / progressive (EU)"
leanings has over several decades decidedly been skewed in the favor of the
latter. According to one report, 86 percent of US journalists vote Democrat
- what will that do to evenly balanced coverage, one may wonder.

Likewise, I am amazed when I hear people refer to the "conservatism" of the
Korean media. This is more of a socio-critical axiom than an actual measure
of the local journalistic practice. The Chosun or JoongAng may be
"conservative" in a narrowly international-political sense: "US good;
N-Korea bad." But in terms of social commentary this is decidedly untrue -
particularly where it concerns the English-language versions of these
dailies or their affiliates. I find the JoongAng championing the causes of
such luminaries as Margaret Cho and Kim Boo-sun. Quite conservative, I dare
say... So when the paper recently published a scathing condemnation of my
book, I shrugged my shoulders because I know what this is motivated by.
(This in order to counter the possible misconception that the media were
unanimously enamored with my book... But please do read the review in the
JAD online, and some of the responses it generated. They make engaging

So then, let my book be "conservative." May it be a healthy antidote to some
of the good "liberal" material that already is available in the marketplace
of ideas about Korea.

I thank you, again, for your gracious response.

Maarten Meijer
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