Parasite: the end of the “Korean dream”

Image: Elyeser Szturm
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For the first time since the 1950s, South Korean society is socially polarized, increasing the perception that the open doors to social ascension are closing and intensifying the “class struggle”.

By Ricardo Pagliuso Regatieri*

Art is not a mere reproduction of reality, but good artistic production captures and transfigures signs of reality. Understood from this perspective, Parasite, a film by South Korean director Bong Joon-ho (in Korean, the last name, Bong, comes before the given name, Joon-ho) illuminates aspects of South Korea's historical present. Bong's film, which he had previously directed, among others, the host (2006) Snowpiercer (2013) and Okja (2017), won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, with unanimous decision of the jury.

Since the armistice that interrupted, without ever formally ending, the Korean War in 1953, but especially since the 1960s with the dictatorial government of Park Chung-hee, the southern part of the peninsula that was divided in two has carried out a vertiginous process of modernization in view of which the South Korean sociologist Chang Kyung-sup forged the concept of “compressed modernity”[1]. Of the authoritarian modernization processes of the second half of the XNUMXth century, South Korean has become the most celebrated and probably the most celebrated.

O CASE​ of South Korean success is sometimes taken as proof that mobility between the periphery and the center of global capitalism is indeed possible, which would contradict approaches such as the dependency theory of Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Enzo Faletto and the world-system theory of Immanuel Wallerstein. In this interpretation, the peculiar context that made South Korean development possible is not reconstructed.

Indeed, this development only took place because, after 1953, South Korea had become a small bastion of North American capitalism in the face of a continuous territory of socialist countries that ran from the Soviet Union to North Korea, passing through China. In the Cold War scenario, South Korea benefited from investments by North American capital, privileged access to markets and the articulation of its development with the reconstruction of Japan by the Americans after the Second World War.

“Late modernization”[2] South Korea and the country's leap from being rural and poor to producing the Samsung cell phones that we carry in our pockets are poorly understood if we do not take into account the geopolitical scenario within which the South Korean authoritarian state conducted its policy of encouraging those who should become the “national champions” – the large conglomerates of family businesses called chaebol, of which Samsung, LG and Hyundai are examples. The promiscuity between the public and private spheres built into this model led South Korean sociologist Oh Ingyu to call it a “mafia state”[3].

In any case, South Korea largely managed to accomplish, in the final half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, what Aníbal Quijano points out as fundamental for a process of nation building successful: social “homogenization”.[4] Class differences and disparities have not disappeared, but in these nearly seventy years, the poor rural masses of a destroyed country have gone through a process of social integration and urbanization that has transformed and raised their standard of living. This process was carried out on the basis of brutal regimentation and exploitation of the working class by South Korean “barrack capitalism”.[5].

This is the context in which, in the last decade, the South Korean cultural industry began to export a genre that has been successful in several countries, including Brazil: K-Pop or South Korean pop. The K-Pop universe – whose main products are music videos, series and cosmetics (cosmetics and plastic surgery are South Korean national fads, with South Korea being the country with the highest rate of cosmetic surgeries per capita) – mobilizes , as central elements, consumption, technology and glamour, in addition to a sugary romanticism.

referring to the American dream of the 21th century, Constanza Jorquera and I proposed the idea that, at the beginning of the XNUMXst century, the K-Pop imagery represents what we call the “Korean dream”.[6]. Essentially, the Korean dream – which has led young people from various countries on the periphery of capitalism to learn Korean, want to live in Seoul and wish they had a South Korean boyfriend[7] – is built around consumption and social ascension.

He is the happy and festive translation of the “Miracle on the Han River”[8], and it contains technology, aesthetic beauty and an immense collection of moving goods. The Korean dream, which is actively promoted by the South Korean government internationally as an instrument of soft power, also expresses a social conscience rooted in South Korean society: that, just as the country has done, families and individuals can also “get there”. The means to this are hard work and a university degree.

But it is possible that, even before it ossified, the Korean dream came to an end. If K-pop conveys and spreads the Korean dream, Parasite it is a representation of his epilogue. If South Korean developmentalism indeed carried out a process of social integration, the extremes in terms of class and income never ceased to exist.

Even so, the promise that animated the Korean dream was social ascension, at least for the next generation – working and/or poor parents who, managing to send their children to school and later to university, would guarantee them a more prosperous future. In the last ten years, however, just as K-Pop spread internationally and spread the Korean dream to the four corners of the world, South Koreans have increasingly had the perception that, on a domestic level, open doors of social ascension are closing.

Study carried out every two years by the Statistics Korea among people aged 19 and over shows that, in 2009, 48,3% of them believed that their children's generation would have high chances of social mobility, while in 2019 only 28,9% believed that[9]. The government of Moon Jae-in, a “progressive” politician elected following the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye (daughter of dictator Park Chung-hee) in 2017, has not been able to fulfill its promises to narrow the social gap; on the contrary, since the beginning of his government, it has deepened even more.

For the first time since the 1950s, instead of converging toward the center, South Korean society is becoming socially polarized. In everyday language, a categorization was even created that expresses this polarization: the opposition between the “golden spoons” (금수저 or geumsujeo) and “dirty spoons” (흙수저 or heuksujeo). The first are the country's privileged elite, who have high incomes and property, as well as access to the best universities in South Korea and the United States. The latter characterize the lowest stratum of South Korean society, for whom there is nothing left but to take their own skin to the precarious market and survive on the low income obtained therefrom.

Parasite accurately portrays the “class struggle” between these two extremes. If, in fact, the chances of social ascension vanished into thin air, instead of hard and honest work, dishonesty and farce remain as a way of life. When we see Kim Ki-woo's first movement, we think he is the parasite of the film's title. When the whole Kim family is involved in the imposture, it seems to us that it is a family of parasites. When we discover the secret guarded by the former maid and her extremely parasitic way of life, we are sure we have found the enjoyer.

But, in the apotheotic party scenes at the end of the film, we suspect that the parasite may be a reference to Mr. Park and the lifestyle of her family and friends who attend garden party fake western[10] organized at the last minute, in a “casual” way, by his wife. The events of the party suggest that the South Korean national-developmentalist class pact has come to an end, with the Korean dream turning, by leaps and bounds, into a nightmare.

* Ricardo Pagliuso Regatieri Professor at the Department of Sociology at the Federal University of Bahia

Notes


[1] Chang, Kyung-sup. South Korea under Compressed Modernity: Familial Political Economy in Transition. New York: Routledge, 2010.

[2] Kurz, Robert. The collapse of modernization: from the collapse of barracks socialism to the crisis of the world economy. Rio de Janeiro, Peace and Land, 1999.

[3] Oh, Ingyu and Varcin, Recep. “The mafioso state: state-led market bypassing in South Korea and Turkey”. Third World Quarterly 23 (4): 711-723, 2002.

[4] Quijano, Hannibal. “Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism and Latin America”. In: Quijano, Aníbal. Questions and horizons: from historical-structural dependency to coloniality/descoloniality of power. Buenos Aires: CLACSO, 2014, p. 807 et seq.

[5] Em The collapse of modernization, Kurz names the Soviet system and the regimes linked to it, such as North Korea, “barrack socialism”. I think that late South Korean modernization offers a prototypical example of what, along these same lines, could be called “barrack capitalism”. Unlike its northern neighbor, authoritarian modernization in the south was not driven by any “socialist” spirit; on the contrary, it has always actively sought to oppose it.

[6] Regatieri, Ricardo Pagliuso. “Development and dream: on the dynamics of K-Pop in Brazil”. Development and Society 46(2): 505-522, 2017.

[7] For a comparative analysis of the K-Pop phenomenon in five Latin American countries (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Peru), see: Regatieri, Ricardo Pagliuso. “The Sweet Scent of Development: Korean Pop Culture in Latin America”. In: Korea Institute for International Economic Policy. Studies in Comprehensive Regional Strategies Collected Papers (International Edition). Seoul: Korea Institute for International Economic Policy, 2016.

[8] Expression that refers to the accelerated economic growth in South Korea, especially from the 1960s onwards, alluding to the river that cuts through Seoul.

[9] The Korea Times. “Koreans become more skeptical about upward social mobility”. 25/11/2019. Extracted from: https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/biz/2019/11/367_279308.html

[10] The Park's adoration of the West is present from beginning to end in Parasite: Ki-woo enters the family's life as their daughter's private English tutor – among the South Korean middle class and elite, learning English is an obsession that leads them to spend lots of money, preferably hiring American teachers –, the son’s cabin came from the USA, as well as the dog’s snacks, etc.

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