S. Kenneth Pai
For the Northwest Asian Weekly
After the demise of the Soviet Union, and with Colombian drug lords
becoming a little stale, 007 needed some fresh international villains.
In Korea, the producers of "Die Another Day," the latest James
Bond adventure, seem to have found what they were looking for.
In one of the film's scenes, an American officer barks orders for a
South Korean military mobilization. In another, Korean farmers are shown
goading a water buffalo, then staring in bewilderment as a luxury automobile
is lowered from the sky.
Exciting and glamorous enough for you? For Koreans, this can be hard
to take. Throughout much of its history, the country has suffered the
humiliation of foreign invasions and foreign domination, and where Westerners
may find something quaint and amusing, Koreans may rightfully regard
it as insulting.
None of the women that Bond goes to bed with is Korean, but Korean audiences
nevertheless find it disturbing that one such act takes place in front
of a Buddhist statue. The Jogye Buddhist Order issued a statement saying
the film is "disrespectful to our religion and does not reflect
our values and ethics," according to a report in the Korean Herald.
In addition, some of the actors in the movie have been criticized for
their participation. Rich Yune, a Korean American who plays a North
Korean military officer, Colonel Zao (a role another actor, Cha In Pyo,
turned down), had to defend his accepting the role at several hostile
So incensed are some Koreans that a boycott has begun outside the 145
theaters that are showing the movie in South Korea since it opened on
New Year's Eve. (This is happening at a time when North Korean leader
Kim Jong Il has provoked the United States by reviving his nation's
nuclear-energy program, and many in South Korea are unnerved by U.S.
President George W. Bush's tough talk.)
Overall, South Korean public opinion is becoming resentful of the United
States, despite the latter's defense of the South during the 1950-53
Korean War. The majority of young South Koreans, two generations removed
from that war, do not see Pyongyang as a real threat. Reporting from
Seoul, the Washington Post found there is growing sympathy for the North,
a yearning for unification, and anger toward the United States, which
still maintains 37,000 troops in South Korea.
An official of the South Korean Ministry of Culture and Tourism says
he agrees that "Die Another Day" is "the wrong film at
the wrong time." Clearly, Seoul does not wish to anger groups that
are eager to continue their ongoing programs aimed at improving relations
with the North.
North Korea, for its part, has called the film "a dirty and cursed
burlesque." Its official news agency said that the United States
is "the root cause of all disasters and misfortunes of the Korean
nation." (This, despite the fact that few, if any, North Koreans
will get to see the movie, and the country's "Dear Leader"
is reportedly a passionate James Bond devotee.)
So if nothing else, "Die Another Day" has given North and
South Koreans something in common. Daniel Schorr, commenting in the
Christian Science Monitor, said, "Communal bonds tend to override
Hollywood's insensitivity toward other cultures is nothing new, however.
Although it has been decades since Native Americans were portrayed as
savages, deserving only of slaughter by superhuman cowboys and U.S.
Cavalrymen, the film industry still has not pulled itself out of the
deep hole of stereotyping people of other cultures.
Some will say it's only fiction -- why be so serious? But in movies,
white Americans -- and it matters little that James Bond is a servant
of Her Britannic Majesty -- always come off as smarter and stronger,
while nonwhites are portrayed as either stupid, evil, inept or all of
Let's face it. American movies and television, now distributed throughout
most of the world, are ubiquitous purveyors of American pop culture,
and South Korea is among their top ten international markets.
This latest episode shows why so many Koreans are angered when their
brethren are cast in an unflattering light: it is as if they were extras
in an upcoming blockbuster (to be produced by President Bush) called
"War on the Axis of Evil."
S. Kenneth Pai observes the national and international scene from
Seattle. He can be reached at email@example.com.