The streets have hummed recently. Trucks with loud speakers and flatbeds have blared music and borne people in colorful getups down the avenues. Koreans—mostly middle-aged women—have been paid to wear bright blue, red, yellow shirts and white gloves; they have danced in unison—like country line-dancers or kindergarten teachers gone mad—singing slogans to the tune of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony or Jingle Bells or classic Korean warblers. With the words changed, of course, the songs are praise for Busan mayoral, education minister, district representative, and gubernatorial incumbents and hopefuls of South Gyeongsang Province.
In addition to the flatbeds of fury, these groups have also been at major street intersections around the city up until Wednesday afternoon—Election Day. While I’ve been busy for the last two weeks that this has gone on—preparing students for upcoming final exams—I drove past these public displays on the commute to work. By the time Wednesday rolled around, I finally had time to snap some photos of this spectacle. Most people were given the day off to vote; foreigners like myself, took to the beaches and outdoor cafés to absorb the sun on a midweek holiday.
Regrettably, I was so busy in the last two weeks that I was unable to get any video of the dancers or their mobile assault on voters’ senses. However, I took to the roads in my neighborhood to get some pictures of the massive posters.
Now, the first four pictures in the photo-spread have little to do with campaigning for office. However, they do give you the general idea of how advertising is dealt with here: in large scale and often in English. English here has the sort of appeal that French does in other parts of the world: its utterance and writing have a certain I-don’t-know-what (as the French say). I don’t know what, in Picture #1, is behind the use of Ché’s likeness and the use of the name “Partisan” to promote a PC room where teens go to play computer games and smoke cigarettes for hours on end. I don’t know what’s going on in that new club Womb down the street from my apartment, but it sounds like a place I’d like to go back to time and again, or maybe even stay in forever. I don’t know what’s so great about Guinness’ judgment that Shinsaegae is the World’s Largest Department Store (Picture #3). Picture #4 lets you know just how much other advertising these candidates have to deal with. A small picture—or even a large one—will not do the job when competing for the attention of the public. Hence, the dancing adjumas and the parades of propaganda.
In Picture #5, after you notice the name of the motel is Motel Tomato, you can see the face of a candidate on the side of a nearby high rise; this ad was small compared to others. A mile away, I could see the gleaming face of a candidate on the side of a building. Closer by, at that intersection where I stood, the massive posters shrouded the buildings (Pictures 6, 7, 8). Was it this elephantitis of political marketing that brought to my mind a mural of Mao I once saw in Tiananmen Square? Or was it the Leninesque action-packed hand gestures that I’ve seen in photos of South Korean dictators of the 1970s and 1980s? One candidate gives a thumbs up, another pumps his fist in the air, a few look as if they are praying, and yet another looks like he’s posing for a promotional boxing photo. By this, I do not mean to imply anything about the recent candidates and their political views; I am sure their grand gestures and the largeness of their likenesses speak only to their largesse toward the general welfare of the Korean populace.
Depending on his politics, one may argue with that. According to polyscientists and armchair presidents, the election results show a continued cooling trend toward the conservative President Ee Myung-Bak and his hardline approach to North Korea in the two years since he took office. If midterm elections are the barometer for the current president, Mr. Ee must listen to his constituents and soften his position on North Korea. That, of course, is made all the more difficult because of the March sinking of the Cheonan in the disputed area of the Yellow (West) Sea.
A Korean friend, Heon (age 29), wrote to me that his father had not instilled in him the importance of voting, of democracy. He says this is typical of his father’s generation: they had no time to consider for whom to vote; they were too busy building up the country into an economic dynamo. Hence, the dictatorial past. Heon wrote, “Korea is a young democratic nation relative to the US.” While this seems obvious and quite true, it still doesn’t explain the certain I-don’t-know-what in Picture #18. One candidate seems to be running on the platform that he can break large container ships in half. The other candidate seems to be running on a rainbow, homosexual platform. Both of these interpretations are unlikely true and rather absurd. But, even after four years here, the marketing and politics of this culture confound this Westerner.