“Honor Thy Consumer” -- Citizen-Consumers in the New Korea

A CGV Seollal.

Forward the Future!
The very spaces of Seoul in the New Korea have come to no longer resemble anything Korean, but it is too simple to glibly call this "Americanization." It's something more, perhaps the first steps to a truly global culture that America and other capitalist democracies came to define first. The future is indeed fun, since I'm told that that Starbucks tastes better, movies in a Megabox theater are punchier and more dynamic, the comfortable cars of Hyundai, Daewoo, and now Samsung have smoother rides than the sputtering, manually operated vehicles of old. Maybe this move "forward" is inevitable? "Progress" with a capital P has become a near civic religion in South Korea that has been obsessed with its GDP and other indices of development since it's earliest inception well before national liberation. It is therefore not a very large leap to project an extremitized vision of this into the far future. Indeed, the aesthetics of an inevitable capitalist/corporatist futurescape was wonderfully articulated by author David Mitchell in his book Cloud Atlas and the film of the same name, which imagined a future slave caste in a heartless future Korea with a “Neo-Seoul” at its center. The film extrapolated from many elements of present-day Seoul that could point to a technologically advanced, dystpoic, freedomless future in which humans relations have deteriorated to the point that people have become not just former slaves to the interests of capital, but to desire itself, a reality in which the slaveclones who are often subjected to normalized sexual abuse and exploitation, have only one directive: “Honor thy consumer.”


Needless to say, the Korean movie audience and general public, as sensitive as it is to potentially embarrassing representations or criticisms of Korea, was completely nonplussed by the film, despite the fact that a Korean actress was appearing in an international, big-budget production. It is safe to say that the Korean audience completely missed the subversive, subtextual critique altogether.

Above, a key scene in the film Cloud Atlas, in which Bae Du Na plays a clone slave worker at Papa Song's who is regularly subjected to sexualized “criminal abuse.”

The Quaint Idea of the Nation in the Service of Capital
Considering the way reality looks today, the fact of fetishized femininity, the visual prostitution that is part and parcel of “Lolita nationalism,” and the many other ways in which South Korean society has become enslaved to the interests of consumer capital, with any cognitive dissonance being resolved by the rationalizing idea that all this is good for the nation, the dystopia of Neo-Seoul does not seem so far-fetched. Especially given the infamous exploits of South Korea’s prodigal son, human cloning researcher Hwang Woo-suk, the idea of putting basic ethics on the back burner for the sake of national glory – for gaining the nation another First-prize plaque on the global wall of fame – the invocation of the dark spectre of human cloning was entirely apropos. South Korea has been and will likely continue to be able to forgive any ethical slight for the sake of international vainglory.

Indeed, the identity of Neo-Seoulites as one primarily of consumer rights, as opposed to the social role-based duties of woman, man, student, or even national member, has already been born.It is important to understand that many Koreans see themselves as consumers first, with everything else being secondary.In a recent commercial From KB Bank,Watchers are Instructed to live out their precious youth (of their credit card), live according to their dreams (and their credit card), what they want to eat, and whatever they want to do, with the idea that there need be no limitations on those things because of the power of their credit card. Such ideas and marketing campaigns would be unremarkable in any consumer capitalist country in the world save for the fact that it hasn't been too long since consumerism and personal consumption were seen as antithetical to the interests of the nations development and something to be avoided by good, responsible citizens. Interestingly, the young consumers depicted in the commercial are shown as either the hero or star of their life narratives in a social sense, and are shown either enjoying themselves immensely or increasing their social capital through the act of consumption, which just so happens to be enabled by the KB bank credit card. This most obviously comes together in one of the final scenes of the short advertisement, In which the young man rolls out his own red carpet and takes a bow to the applause of his workmates and friends even as confetti floats down to punctuate the accolades he is receiving for simply being so good as to use his credit card to perhaps buy delivery fried chicken for his colleagues for one of the frequent snack breaks that are commonly taken in the Korean officeplace.

Such a sight would have seemed selfish and irresponsible in a development-era Korea possessed of a single-minded concern for development, growth, and international recognition, which are all primal urges from since before the nation had even regained its own autonomy. Until around the 1980s, consumption and an inflated sense of self as realized in the inherently  selfish desire to consume for consumption's sake, were seen as threats  to the interests of the nation. Then, amidst the government's austerity campaigns, consumption was at odds with the responsibilities of good citizenship; now, not only is consumption its handmaiden,  but consumption itself has become the primary basis of identity for modern Koreans. One can scarcely imagine social interaction or any kind of normal social participation without it. Indeed, it has become the primary basis for understanding oneself as a Korean.

Relevant readings to teach this post:

Bak, Sangmee 
“From Strange Bitter Concoction to Romantic Necessity: The Social History of Coffee Drinking in South Korea,” 
Korea Journal (Summer,2005), 37-59. 

Yeran Kim
“Idol republic: the global emergence of girl industries and the commercialization of girl bodies”
Journal of Gender Studies
Volume 20, Issue 4, 2011
Special Issue:   Feminisms, sex and the body