I first learned of President-elect Barack Obama’s victory in a cafeteria in South Korea. A television screen that normally showed nothing but shiny new commercials and variety shows had switched to a live feed from CNN. If the massive “Obama Wins” headline couldn’t clue me in to the outcome, just one name kept bubbling up in the conversations around me.
South Koreans, along with many other nations, view Obama’s victory as an end to America’s reputation as a regressive, Republican menace.
In speaking with South Korean students, their reaction to the outcome of Election Day ranged from cautiously optimistic to outright relief that someone new is in charge of the world’s only hegemony.
“Barack Obama can change the situation now, he can deal with North Korea. Maybe he can undo the fall down of the economics of the world, because this is a problem not just of the United States,” said Shim Jae-bok, a freshmen at Seoul National University.
Many students contrasted the wave of popularity that carried Obama into office with their low esteem for their own president, Lee Myung Bak. Lee has received a great deal of criticism from Koreans who see him as an unthinking follower of President Bush.
“I think Obama is truly progressive. I envy America, you elected Obama, but we did Lee,” said Oh Hyeong-jin, a senior in the College of Fine Arts.
Some Korean students are directly affected by Bush’s policies in the Middle East. When completing their mandatory two-year military term, they are selected to serve in Iraq alongside the U.S. Army. Oh was employed by the Iraqi National Army.
Discussions of Obama and predictions for his term often turned to how his race would affect his policies. Just as American television never failed to mention the unprecedented nature of an African-American president, so too did news stories on Korean television.
Speaking with my host family, I was faced with a new set of questions about America, inspired by Obama’s story. Even finding the right translation for ?? (literally: black people) was difficult, as I tried to explain the subtle difference between the literal meaning and the more common term, African-American. As pictures of Obama’s parents appeared in the news, I was immediately asked about how many interracial couples there are in America, something that is very rare in Korea.
In one interview, conducted in the student jazz band’s office, Jin Ho-Lee explained his belief that Obama will rectify historically unequal treatment in America.
“I don’t know much about Obama, but I know he’s black and maybe he will take care of minorities.” The jazz band office, filled with posters of John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, was one more reminder of the daily presence of American culture in Korea.
When asking Korean students if they would volunteer in a campaign like the legions of young Obama supporters who helped him into office, the response was a qualified yes.
Seo Ohn-Yu, a sophomore in the Humanities department, said she would base her decision to volunteer on the economic policies of a candidate. While my peers at my University seem concerned about values and ideology, the primary issue in recent Korean elections is always a candidate’s promises for the economy.
For Seo’s vote though, a candidate must be concerned with social welfare. “I hate that our current president is neoliberalist, I want the next candidate to not be that way.”