Commentary | In response to the NBC comments at the Winter Olympics

History teaches us that remembrance is important. History also teaches us that safeguarding the transfer of veracity onto the next generation is just as important as the events of the past themselves. After all, it is difficult to ascertain that a people without their own story is a people at all. But it becomes just as problematic when a people’s story is perversely twisted to somehow fit into the narrative of their oppressors. Historical obfuscation is achieved when the story of the oppressed is overshadowed, masked, or even reconstructed by the redactional drive of the victors and their subsequent, mimicking parrots. It appears that a comment from Mr. Ramo, a NBC analyst covering the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, did just that.

Joshua Cooper Ramo, an expert analyst of NBC’s team covering this premier international sports event, said the following during the Opening Ceremony as the Japanese representatives entered the party:

“Now representing Japan, a country which occupied Korea from 1910 to 1945. But every Korean will tell you that Japan is a cultural and technological and economic example that has been so important to their own transformation.”

Almost immediately after the coverage, foreigners and Koreans alike took to Twitter, Facebook, and even Reddit to express their vexation at the startling remark. There were multiple petitions launched demanding its retraction. Eventually, NBC relieved Mr. Ramo from his post and issued an official apology for their employee’s mistake. This was followed by Mr. Ramo’s attempt to professionally own up to his unprofessional misstatement through an apology. Unfortunately, his dilettantism comes only secondary to the heart of the problem.

Mr. Ramo’s comment was outright disrespectful to millions of Koreans. And when I say Koreans, I mean both North and South Koreans. If there is one remaining common thread between the two countries after decades of sheer madness, it is the shared experience of suffering and shame under Japanese colonial boots. But the condemnation was that much more damaging because it was a professionally inexcusable blunder. It is beyond comprehension that someone so well-versed in the geo-political issues of the region would commit sacrilege of this sort. Any person even remotely familiar with this particularly dark chapter of Korean history would know better than to spew this inexcusable commentary. A 30-minute Google-search would suffice to educate him of the inhumane atrocities of the Japanese colonial regime during the occupation of the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945. The Japanese redefined the meaning of oppression during their 35 year occupation of Korea (ranging from but not limited to creative torture practices, conducting live human experiments for military medical knowledge, forced labor, and coercing/kidnapping thousands of young Korean women to “serve” as comfort women in military camp brothels). For someone who has often been seen in the public eye to make this kind of culturally insensitive comment is not only an act of negligence, but also of inherent prejudice.

Mr. Ramo’s comment is also completely tone-deaf. A century since the end of the Occupation, the scars of colonization in Korea still remain. Today, there is a simmering fracture between the old generation, who either personally endured or witnessed the blunt brutality of the colonization, and the younger generation. This gap is only widening with the tides of time. For many South Korean millennials in particular, it is often difficult to fully grasp or relate to the general hostility their elders feel toward the Japanese. The trauma of Korea’s colonization is so deeply interwoven into their parents’ or grandparents’ grievous recollections. There is an underlying current of uneasiness in South Koreans’ public opinion on whether to continue to harbor the bitterness of their past selves or to embrace reconciliation in order to close that painful chapter.

The harm of Mr. Ramo’s comment does not stop at professional accountability. His expansionist implication that all Koreans are somehow grateful to Japan’s unilateral imposition for “cultural and technological and economic” upgrade of their nation is not only factually misleading, but also dangerous. Whatever economic or social ‘advancement’ — if one could call it that – which occurred during the Japanese Occupation of Korea was the direct result of the systematic exploitation of subjugated Koreans. The manipulation of the Korean workforce was specifically engineered to sustain the war-hungry campaigns of the Japanese Empire. It consequently aggravated the life quality of average Koreans, and led to severe depletion of natural resources in mainland Korea. Ends do not justify the means. And in this case, the ultimate objective of the Japanese colonial regime was that of total domination. Unquestionable domination can only be accomplished through the erasure of the subjugated people’s history, cultural traditions, language — tout bref, the denial of Korean identity. As Paulo Freire understood it, “without a sense of identity, there can be no real struggle.” Japanese attempted to substitute Korean names with Japanese names, forbid the use of Korean language, and orchestrated the indoctrination of Japanese culture as superior to Korean culture.

This is precisely why Mr. Ramo’s comment is beyond disturbing. ‘Insight’ like his has the effect of deforming the narrative of the oppressed. The accounts of the colonized are conveniently attuned to appease the egocentric colonizer. There is real harm here, for this mentality facilitates the reinforcement of the imperialist narrative. It is only a more contemporary, disguised version of revisionist proclivity. And here’s the worst part of all this: How disheartening would it be to hear from one of the millions of viewers who spectated the event the replication of the historical discoloration that has been bred into the perception of the unfamiliar? As such, Mr. Ramo’s words are complicit in hijacking millions of Koreans’ suppressed stories. When treated with leniency, comments of this kind are reiterations of cultural invasion.

— Pyeng Hwa Kang,
doctoral candidate in the Law Faculty, 
Université de Montréal