Tension on the Korean peninsula is a major topic in the news and the summer was unusually tumultuous. In May, the South Korean Supreme Court upheld parliament’s impeachment of South Korean President Park Geun-hye, the country’s first female president, on corruption charges. The decision was met with violent protests. Then, North Korea escalated tensions by conducting several missile tests and detonated a nuclear device as part of a weapons test.
Anna Maria College Professor Lisa Summer, Director of Music Therapy, spent several weeks in South Korea teaching at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. Ewha is the foremost women’s university in South Korea.
We had an opportunity to talk to Dr. Summer about her experience.
What was the political atmosphere like in South Korea during your time there, especially among your students?
When South Korean President Park Geun-hye was forced out of office due to cronyism and corruption, Ewha – the university where I was teaching – felt direct repercussions of the cronyism charges, as Ewha’s own president, a friend of Park Geun-hye, was removed from office herself.
Dozens were injured in ensuing protests over the president’s impeachment. Some even died, something very rare in a society where violent protests are uncommon. Soon after, North Korea escalated tensions with more missile test. Despite all of this, students – and the public in general – continued to carry on with their normal activities. For the most part, the students and teachers with whom I interacted on a daily basis did not discuss the events that were contemporaneous with my visit.
How would you categorize the South Korean perception of President Trump as it pertains to the tensions with North Korea? And the public perception of the United States? Is it changing?
The average South Korean, in my opinion, regardless of political leaning, is more focused on the behavior of the leaders of North and South Korea. A few people expressed concern about President Trump’s comprehension of the North South situation, but no one I spoke with questioned the state of the American alliance.
How is the Korean public responding to the current threats? How do the threats play out in the local news?
Air raid sirens rang out once for a scheduled public drill while I was there. I was informed prior to the drill, and we carried on as if it were not happening. However, outside on the streets air raid procedures were practiced. Because our students didn’t participate in the drill, I can’t compare it to the Cold War drills from the 1960s. My experiences in the 60’s involved taking action as a class, proceeding to the basement of our elementary school and covering up against a wall. The planned drill in South Korea didn’t worry or even inconvenience me.
Did you witness or are you aware of any student activism taking place in Korea related to the nuclear tensions?
I witnessed no activism personally and was more aware of the cronyism and dismissal of the president because that had direct bearing on my presence at Ewha, where their president was removed as a consequence of the removal of the national president. The student activism I experienced was focused on Ewha’s student body wanting a say in the selection of the university’s next president.
As an American, why do you think Koreans didn’t engage with you on the nuclear situation?
While the North Korean situation may be a conversation topic for the locals, they may have considered as rude to bring up with me. I guess it may be like when one invites non-family members to a family dinner. Those of us hosting would probably not want to discuss Uncle Charlie’s recent conviction, nor would we bring up Cousin Bob’s personal issues. It’s not that we would be “hiding” things from our guests per se but more like we wouldn’t want to trouble them with our internecine struggles. And similarly, Charlie’s violent proclivities and Bob’s drunkenness are probably never going to impact our guests’ lives, so why bring it up with them? North Korea’s government’s animus for South Korea and the US is highly unlikely to have any real impact on me during my visit, so it’s not an issue that my hosts would necessarily want to focus on.
Did you ever feel a desire to talk about North Korea while you were there? Did you feel as though it wasn’t a welcome topic of conversation?
Honestly no. When you’re in another country for an extended period of time you inevitably ingrain yourself in the culture and customs. No one else was really talking about it, so I never had the desire to offer my two-cents. It didn’t appear to be something that was a taboo either, it just wasn’t on their radar at the time.
How did you feel as an American abroad? As an American in a danger zone?
I am at ease when I travel abroad, whether in Korea, or China, or other countries. The political tensions I see on the news – in my experience – are about governments, not people; about ideologies as preached by individuals in the news, not about my intercourse with people in the street. My husband and I travel in countries some identify as “enemies”, such as the People’s Republic of China, or identified as potential threats, such as Indonesia. But, on the streets, we encountered friendly faces; people happy to have American visitors. Often, we are the only Westerners in a location we are visiting. Then the hospitality and friendliness increases to the point of embarrassment.
How did you use music or how does music play a role in this tense climate?
My teaching and supervision this past August focused on the use of music therapy with individuals with well adults and with adults with mental health issues. In August I taught and supervised music therapists regarding a music therapy method called Supportive Music & Imagery. Supportive MI is being used by these music therapists to reduce their clients’ anxiety about political issues, and to help their clients cope with the pressure of the current tense climate and its effect upon their daily life and relationships.
Are people using music as an outlet for an emotional response? How?
Yes, people listen to music on a daily basis to express and discharge their negative feelings and anxiety. They are making playlists on their phones, listening at home, and especially on the commute to work.
Do you think music therapy could be used here in the US to ease stress over the political climate?
I do! I think there are a lot of us who would benefit from it. Even those of use that live near Anna Maria can still feel some anxiety or fear about North Korea even though we are safe from them. Music therapy is different than conventional talk therapy because it allows us to be more interactive and expressive than a conversation.
Describe the levels of civic engagement you saw among South Koreans during your time
I would say there level of civic engagement is up there with ours. Given the timing of my visit, it’s likely that I was there to observe levels that were higher than normal. What is interesting to me is how focused they are on what’s going on in South Korea as opposed to the rest of the world. I know Americans are often criticized for sometimes being out of the loop on international events, but I think you could say the same for South Korea or any other country for that matter. We will always tend to focus on what’s going on in our own backyard rather than our neighbors.
Aside from the Presidential scandal, what other reasons do you think contributed to the lack of discussion about North Korea?
I don’t think it’s apathy but more a sense of normalcy. All South Koreans live with the fact that they have an erratic, sometimes violent neighbor to the North. While the increased number of provocations may have been shocking to us, to them it could just be a fact of life. They deal with them on a daily basis so nothing North Korea does is really surprising anymore I imagine.