Fort McCoy News June 12, 2015

Speaker focuses on Korean culture, perspectives

Public Affairs Staff

Korea's past and present were the focus of guest speaker Terence Roehrig's presentation at Fort McCoy's observance of Asian-American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month May 20.

AAPI Heritage Month recognizes the challenges faced by Asian-Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Native Hawaiians and their vital contributions to American society. The theme for 2015's AAPI Heritage Month was "Many Cultures, One Voice: Promote Equality and Inclusion."

Terence Roehrig, professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I., addresses the audience at the Fort McCoy observance of Asian-American Pacific Islander Heritage Month May 20 at McCoy's Community Club. Roehrig is an author and expert on many subjects related to Asia. Photo by Scott T. Sturkol

Roehrig is a professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I., and director of the Asia-Pacific Studies Group. He has published several books; his most recent was "South Korea's Rise: Economic Development, Power, and Foreign Policy," which was coauthored with Uk Heo.

Approximately 1.7 million Korean-Americans live in the United States, mostly in California and New York. Understanding the cultural background of Korea, both before and after the split between North and South Korea, can help foster an understanding of Korean-Americans' identities, Roehrig said.

Korean culture is a blend of indigenous Korean cultures and both Chinese and, more recently, Western influences. It's considered a Confucian society in that the needs of society and Family are emphasized over individual desires. It has been a male-dominated society, although that has been changing, and both elders and superiors are greatly respected.

Korean kimchi is an example of an Asian food that has been gaining ground in the United States, even though Americans may find it unusual at first. "I will admit, I love Korean food, but kimchi was an acquired taste," Roehrig said. Sushi and Korean and Mongolian barbecue are other examples.

A key to South Korea's economic growth since the end of the Korean War is its education system, Roehrig said. The education system is under national control, and students must take a national exam to get into top colleges.

The importance of the exam places a lot of pressure on students. Those who don't get into the top schools may feel they have disgraced their Families, and Roehrig said there is a serious problem with the suicide rate among students.

South Korea is working on the problem, he said, "but these kinds of cultural norms are deeply ingrained and very, very difficult to change."

North Korean education, on the other hand, heavily leans toward indoctrinating students in the national ideology, Roehrig said. People are taught reverence for their leaders and the importance of the state at a young age.

They also are taught that Americans and the Japanese are enemies of North Korea. "There are examples in North Korean math books where the problem will be phrased, 'If you have six American Soldiers and shoot two, how many are left?'" Roehrig said.

Family reunions are a big cultural aspect of North and South relations, Roehrig said. A number of Families were divided in the aftermath of the Korean War when members ended up on opposite sides of the new border. South Korea has pushed for more Family reunions, but North Korea has been reluctant to allow them.

During the latest of these reunions, in February 2014, a father met his son for the first time, Roehrig said. The father had traveled to South Korea to scout an escape route for himself and his wife. He couldn't get back across to North Korea and found out later his wife had been pregnant.

The Soldiers in the audience had several questions for Roehrig. One Soldier said that when he hears about North Korean actions in the news, he often finds the behavior bizarre and asked Roehrig if there was a cultural difference driving those actions that might make them difficult for Westerners to understand.

Roehrig said part of North Korea's motivation is easy to understand: ensuring the survival of the state and regime. "It is about generating absolute loyalty to the state, and the state is embodied in the Kim Family and in Kim Jong-un," he said.

He said, however, that people are sometimes too quick to dismiss the regime as irrational.
"We don't necessarily have the same values … in how we determine rational thinking," Roehrig said. But "they have been able to use very, very little, in regards to national tools and national power, and been able to do an awful lot for their benefit — at least for their leadership's benefit."

Nathan Jungmeyer, a social studies teacher and head of the Diversity Club at Tomah High School, brought a group of students out for the event. He said club members have been attending diversity presentations at Fort McCoy for about 2 1/2 years.

"(My students) all commented that (Roehrig) was one of their favorite speakers," Jungmeyer said. "He was a good storyteller and had some good personal experiences."

One of his students said a picture of the Korean peninsula, showing North Korea mostly dark between brightly lit China and South Korea, stood out during Roehrig's presentation. Jungmeyer said the student thought it showed "how stark the difference is between closed North Korea and the light of South Korea."

Jungmeyer said the timeliness of the topic made it an interesting change from more-historical presentations. His students have been lucky to get the chance to attend so many different presentations at Fort McCoy, he said, exposing them to a wider variety of cultures than they might otherwise encounter.

For more information about Fort McCoy observances, contact the equal opportunity adviser at 608-388-3246.