[Interview]Naturalized Korean and celebrated author comments on Korea’s “Age of Transition”

Posted on : 2018-09-09 15:53 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Professor Pak Noja on his new book
Professor Pak Noja (Russian name Vladimir Tikhonov) of the University of Oslo
Professor Pak Noja (Russian name Vladimir Tikhonov) of the University of Oslo

“The title of the book was suggested by the publishing company. The reason I accepted it is that I think the candlelit revolutions and the current Moon Jae-in administration’s policy toward North Korea alone are enough to signify a positive historical transition,” said Pak Noja (Russian name Vladimir Tikhonov).

Pak, a professor at the University of Oslo, in Norway, recently published the book “Age of Transition,” which compiles his blog posts and columns for the Hankyoreh. This is Park’s 23rd book published in Korean (not including works he has coauthored). Since he published his first book, titled “A History of Ancient Buddhism in Korea,” in 1998, he’s basically published one book a year.

“The people rose up and stopped the terrible evil that was the far-right rule by Park Geun-hye. That has historical significance. The Moon administration has its limitations, but as long as some of the energy from the candlelit revolution is left over, they’ll be able to keep moving forward,” Pak said. The interview took place over Facebook video chat late in the evening on Sept. 4, while Pak was in his office at the University of Oslo.

Pak has been living in Norway since 2000. He says he communicates with his two Norwegian-born children, aged 7 and 16, in Norwegian and English. Except for when he’s speaking to his wife or writing columns for the Hankyoreh, he hardly has any opportunities to write or speak in Korean.

A true polyglot

“I keep forgetting even the Korean I’ve learned. But I have the Hankyoreh to thank for not forgetting high-level Korean. In the past, I wrote essays in Korean, but these days I don’t get any requests for that. The Korean government is annihilating the Korean language’s function as an academic language [by giving preference to articles written in English],” Pak said.

At university, Pak teaches classes including Korean religious and philosophical history, Korean political and social history, North Korean political and social history and East Asian religious and philosophical history. When I mentioned that his writing includes facts about Korea and Koreans about which even many Koreans are unaware, he chuckled and said, “Being an outsider has its advantages, you know. I’m selling Korea, China and Japan as a set. There’s Confucianism, of course, but I draw a big picture tying the three countries together and sell it as a set.”

Pak says there are six languages that he’s capable of reading and writing – Russian, Norwegian, Korean, Japanese, Chinese and English. When asked about the difficulty of studying foreign languages, Pak said, “It’s really not that challenging, actually. You get used to it over time. I’ve lived for a few months in Japan, since I have some relatives there, and I go to China on occasion, too. You can’t study Korean history without knowing Japanese.”

Pak’s mother, who was a professor of microbiology, is living as a pensioner in the Russian city of Saint Petersburg, where Pak was born. “I go to Russia about twice a year. My mother has no interest in my [South Korean] nationality. In our family alone, we have four or five nationalities – Israeli, American, Russian, Finnish. She’s happy that her son is a professor at the University of Oslo, where there’s freedom of speech. Her pension from the Russian government amounts to about 350,000 won [around US$300] a month. They have a pension system there, though it’s paltry compared to Soviet times,” he said.

I asked Pak about what professor assessments are like at the University of Oslo. “Assessments? There aren’t any. I’m a public servant, just like a third of people employed in Norway. Now they do assess reimbursement for travel expenses. They include mass media publications and don’t care what language your essays are written in.”

Even for such an accomplished writer, writing a column to fill a page in a newspaper is no easy matter. “When I need statistics for my articles, I check state statistics and indices websites and the article search engine at the Korea Press Foundation. It takes about seven or eight hours to write a column. South Korea has some decent websites for statistics,” he said.

Pak said his latest book is “an attempt to inquire into the basic framework of the Republic of Korea, which really needs to be changed.” Barracks mentality, misogyny, hell for workers, paradise for the chaebol, hierarchy and pecking orders -- these are some of the fundamental problems that Pak sees in South Korean society.

Recent changes in Korean society

Seventeen years have passed since Pak was naturalized as a South Korean. What changes have there been in the happiness of the Korean people? “The factors that make the people unhappy remain in place. Generally speaking, Korean society is full of competition, inequality, insecurity and dangers. On average, people stay at the same employer for less than four and a half years.

That’s half the average among OECD states. In the late 1990s, there was at least a spark of hope about lifetime employment, but now even that hope is gone. What has improved is that people are more sensitive about human rights. In the late 1990s, it was common practice for kids in primary and secondary schools to receive corporal punishment. A lot of that has been eliminated today. Recently, the Constitutional Court ordered the creation of an ‘alternative military service.’ Back then, the phrase didn’t even exist. Until 2000, no one used the phrase ‘sexual minority’ – they just called them perverts. That’s a huge improvement.”

Pak said that competition has become the dominant ideology of South Korean society since 1997: “It’s a competition in which the ranking is predetermined.” He offered four solutions: first, revising legislation about irregular workers so that full-time employees are automatically classified as regular workers; second, supplying a massive amount of public housing; third, standardizing public and state universities; and fourth, preparing for an immigrant society.

The inevitability of immigration

“Thirty years from now, the population of South Korea will shrink to 36 million. Even Germany, which has good welfare, has a birthrate of 1.5, while Norway, which has the best welfare, has a birthrate of just 1.8. Even if you improve welfare, it’s impossible for the population to be replenished naturally. You have to get rid of the employment permit system and introduce a system of worker immigration. Until people from China and Vietnam are coming here and becoming Koreans, the long-term survival of Korea is impossible. It won’t be easy, but we’ve got to start getting ready on a psychological level. An advanced industrial society can’t survive without becoming a society of immigrants.”

Pak is very critical about militaristic culture. “In South Korea, kids are sent to marine boot camp. In Norwegian society, that would be the scandal of the century. It’s child abuse. This ought to be legally regulated.”

Pak wasn’t finished: “The biggest cause of militarism in South Korea is the division of the country into South and North. The possibility that war could break out is the rational basis for the militaristic culture. If South and North Korea started reducing their militaries even a little, it would help eradicate the culture of militarism.”

What about peace on the Korean Peninsula? “I have some expectations. The fact that both South and North Korea feel the need to improve relations is a hopeful factor. Inter-Korean relations is the area where it’s easiest for the Moon administration to score points and where it can score the most points. If South and North Korea launch arms reduction, they could score a huge amount of points. North Korea wants South Korean capital to help it reduce its dependence on China.”

“In the current phase, it’s important to lift the sanctions on North Korea. The South Korean government needs to join forces with China and Russia to push the US toward easing sanctions,” Pak added.

By Kang Sung-man, senior staff writer

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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