BUSAN, South Korea — The talented 34-year-old rapper Park Jae-sang, known better to the world as PSY, has been a controversial staple of the Korean music scene since his first full-length album, PSY from the PSYcho World!, debuted back in 2001.
At that time, the traditionally conservative Korean mainstream didn’t know what to make of the blunt lyrics (one track was called I Love Sex) or how to react to his unconventional dance moves and eccentric appearance.
When he first hit the scene, the naturally-gifted, then-24-year-old PSY, who had just returned home to Korea after withdrawing from both Boston University and the prestigious Berklee College of Music, was quickly nicknamed The Bizarre Singer.
He wore the title as a badge of honor.
And while the world has come to adore the man who is now the most-loved entertainer on the planet, articles published last month on CNN iReport the Korean language Chosun Ilbo and on other Korean sites about PSY’s outspoken role in anti-US military protests back in 2002, and then again in 2004, will either stir indignation with audiences or garner him even more respect.
But first, the story must be put in context of the times.
The Tragic Death of Two Korean Schoolgirls and America’s Response
The summer of 2002 in Korea was a time when PSY was cultivating a following while battling censors over his outlandish new style that in this day and age seems tame.
It was also a period of heart-rending tragedy that saw an American military vehicle kill 13-year-old middle school girls Shim Mi-son and Shin Hyo-sun, who were walking along the roadside just outside of Seoul on the morning of June 13.
In line with the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), that sets jurisdiction terms for US forces stationed abroad, the incident was defined a military operation and thus handled internally by the American military courts.
A subsequent US court martial found the girls’ deaths to be accidental and acquitted service members Sergeant Mark Walker, and the vehicle’s commander, Sergeant Fernando Nino, of negligent homicide, while citing no criminal intent. The American government then paid civil damages to the families involved.
You have to look at this in context… many South Korean artists were part of this America bashing.? It was part of a movement…
The Korean public’s reaction to the girls’ deaths was at first muted, as the country was then center-stage as co-host of the World Cup, but soon thereafter thousands of protestors took to the streets demanding, with arguable validity, but no legal precedence, that the soldiers be re-tried in a Korean court.
Washington refused and the demonstrations went on for months, as tens of thousands gathered across the country to vent their anger at American policy that made them sole arbiter of justice for US military-related crimes on South Korean soil.
The anger was palpable. While reporting on events for the the San Francisco Chronicle, I cited a Gallup poll that showed 75 percent of Koreans in their 20s said they disliked Americans. Sixty-seven percent in their 30s, along with half of those in their 40s, told Gallup they either ‘did not like’ or ‘hated’ the United States.
Few living on the peninsula at that time were immune to the movement. Businesses around the country banned Americans (and by association, Westerners) from entering, US flags were laid on the ground at university campuses allowing students to walk on them en route to class, and graphic banners of Shim Mi-son and Shin Hyo-sun were erected at rallies, as the American military came under increasingly heated scrutiny for what was ubiquitously viewed as an unfair and unjustified handling of their deaths.
PSY’s Political Performances
First, it must be recognized that thousands of Americans have protestedâat times violentlyâagainst US military-related issues. After that, one must then acknowledge Korean history within the context of a country that has been under the rule of either outside powers or oppressive dictators for much of its history.
A liberal democracy since only 1987, a now free Korean public worships at the altar of protest. Be it storming the office of a politician ensnared in a corruption scandal, burning North Korean flags, opposing a free trade agreement or, as the New York Times once wrote, protesting against protests themselves.
Though the following events have been widely discussed in Korea, recent murmurings on the English corner of the Internet have rekindled PSY’s roles in anti-US military protest rallies in the past.
The first following the 2002 acquittal of the American soldiers; and the second, PSY’s highly-provocative anti-American military performance during a 2004 protest concert in Seoul, where the entertainer’s vitriol was directed towards American military personnel, military brass and their families for the June 22 beheading of a Korean Christian missionary by Islamic extremists in Iraq.
‘Following the acquittals of two U.S. soldiers from negligent homicides charges late last month, a growing number of local celebrities have offered their heart-felt sympathy with the victims in public, while expressing their strong resentment over what they see as an unfair ruling by the American military court.
These public figures have composed protest songs against America to pitch in their voice, join public rallies, or have gone as far as calling for revision of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which governs the status of 37,000 American troops stationed here, through official statements.
Even though these pop stars have managed to put in their own two cents’ worth, pop vocalist PSY, who has upheld the cause since August through many concerts, is among the most outspoken of them all.’
PSY’s being ‘outspoken’ was caught on tape and was, until recently, posted on YouTube. It has since been pulled by entertainment company CJ E&M for ‘copyright claims.’ A search for videos on Naver.com, the Korean version of Google, features several links to the video, but the videos themselves have been removed as well.
During the performance featured on the video, PSY took the stage with several other musicians protesting the Status of Forces Agreement with Washington. With a gold-painted face and the crowd cheering him on, PSY lifted a miniature mock-up of an American tank and threw it to the ground, before smashing it into pieces with a mic stand, all while following along in anti-US military chants.
Following the months of vocal protests, including hunger strikes outside the US embassy, the American military eventually amended SOFA, allowing Korean courts to take US servicemen in custody prior to trial.
In the past, American soldiers were only tried in Korean court for off-duty crimes, such as earlier this year, when a Korean judge sentenced Pvt. Joseph J. Finley to three years in prison for raping a South Korean woman after following her home.
In the end, the power of protest workedâthe U.S amended the SOFA agreement.
The Beheading of Kim Sun-il
Nearly two years after the 2002 protests, on May 22, 2004, the Islamist group Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad kidnapped Korean missionary Kim Sun-il and held him hostage, demanding that the South Korean government cancel plans to send 3,000 troops to support the US war in Iraq.
Seoul refused to negotiate and the Islamist group, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, beheaded Kim, a man whose only crime was proselytizing in extremist-held territory. Kim even studied Arabic in a top Korean university, just so he could spread the Christian word throughout the Middle East.
A subsequent video of the heinous act was aired on Al Jazeera with a masked executioner issuing the following statement:
Korean citizens, you were warned, your hands were the ones who killed him. Enough lies, enough cheatings. Your soldiers are here not for the sake of Iraqis, but for cursed America.’
He then brutally decapitated Kim Sun-il with a large knife.
Massive protests erupted across South Korea with thousands rallying against Muslim extremists, as well as Seoul’s plans to send troops to Iraq. And while most of the peninsula’s fury was directed towards terrorists in Iraq as well as Korean government policy, some anti-US military protesters seized the moment to put forth their cause.
Once again, PSY was involved. This time he admonished not only the terrorists and then president Roh Mu-hyun, but he also allegedly unleashed a vitriolic condemnation of American military personnel and military brass.
According to a story on October 30, 2012 on the Korean-language version of the Chosun Ilbo and also reported on K-Pop music site AllKpop.com, PSY, along with several popular performers, took part in a live performance of Korean rock band N.EX.T‘s song ‘Dear American‘.
Kill those f****** Yankees who have been torturing Iraqi captives
Kill those f****** Yankees who ordered them to torture
Kill their daughters, mothers, daughters-in-law and fathers
Kill them all slowly and painfully
Though reports of PSY performing this have long been known on Korean language sites, it only recently surfaced in English as all eyes and ears of the world have turned in his direction. Before it showed up on the Chosun Ilbo and AllKpop.com at the end of October, the translation was first posted October 6 on CNN’s iReport, an open source news feature that allows users to submit stories for CNN consideration.
It was, however, never picked up by CNN staff, even though it received nearly 30,032 views, 361 recommends and 152 shares at the time of this writing.
Western netizen response has as yet been sparseâaside of the CNN iReport and the YouTube video, there has until now, simply not been enough English language background to be found on the web.
Comments posted thus far have ranged from defending PSY:
SourKushBalls: This was taken out of context and mistranslated. PSY is not attacking/dissing American soldiers.
To those offering heavy condemnation (though referencing the earlier issue and not the issue being posted):
MIZZKIE: Just because two innocent girls got accidentally killed (bless their poor souls), it doesn’t mean you can spew out your hatred against others in a song sung by a person with fame and influence.
To those viewing him as a man of the times:
MoReuGettDa: You have to look at this in context. All of the South Korean media, all of the South Korean candidates for president, many South Korean artists were part of this America bashing.? It was part of a movement…
While in a free society we are all entitled to our opinion of PSY’s words and actions 10 years ago, a comment on Facebook seemed quite fitting.
Should PSY Address the Issue?
Have other performers around the world, at some point, spewed harsh words in the name of protest? Yes. Have entertainers taken advantage of the moment, ignoring even principles that they themselves hold dear just to make a buck? Most definitely. Should we really even care?
That’s up to you.
Many Americans, familiar with the US protest culture and generously blessed with acute short-term memory, will likely give PSY a pass.
And why not? Americans gave Ice-T a pass for rapping about killing cops. Eminem and Chris Brown were given a pass for rapping about and actually beating on women. And, unlike the latter two, who continue to bank their fame on anti-social behavior, PSY has been nothing but gracious in the handling of his global popularity.
Would patriotism or whatever it was that motivated him at that time, override his marketing sense and allow him utter those same words today? Who can say?
And before passing judgment, Americans might do well to read some of the disturbingly racist comments directed towards PSY following the American Music Awards. Comments made with no political agenda, but simply hateful rhetoric directed at an international star performing a song that nearly every American loves.
Whether Americans will look for PSY to explain his words and actions from the past remains to be seen. But some of his fellow countrymen have already demanded that the issue be addressed.
In a mid-October article in the right-leaning Korean publication, Dailian, professor Kang Kyu-hyeong of Myongji University in Seoul, was clear in his opinion about PSY’s actions ten years ago saying, ‘it’s not just anti-American, it’s anti-human.’
PSY: No Stranger to Controversy
PSY has been controversial in Korea since the very beginning of his career. His first album, PSY from the PSYcho World!, got him fined for what government censors called inappropriate content, which was followed with a ban of his music and videos from young listeners.
While the first album contained only one explicit song, PSY upped the ante on his second release, Sa 2, with half the songs receiving explicit warnings. Obviously, he was well-learned in the school of Madonnaâget banned, sell more records.
Following the second album’s release, Korean civil groups quickly rallied with complaints to the government standards board. He was fined again, and, to this day, Sa 2 remains off-limits for those under 19 years of age.
With his third album, 3 PSY, came the aptly-named cut Champion. Though well received by Korean World Cup fans, PSY found an unlikely new group raising a fuss this timeâexpat English teachers.
Upon the September 2002 release of Champion (and even now with newly-minted PSY fans), the English speaking community took offense with the song’s repeated use of the word ni-ga, which was interpreted as the N-word.
Those who knew better laughed at this assumptionâ’ni-ga‘ is simply the Korean word for you or you are, as in, You are the champion.
After learning what PSY was actually saying, and knowing that he spoke English well after having studied in America, many found his little dig at convention all the more appealing.
In 2007, PSY got into trouble with the government again, this time for delaying and eventually dodging his special circumstance assignment at a software company in place of Korea’s mandatory military service. It led prosecutors to accuse PSY of ‘neglecting’ his civil duty, since he opted to instead hold concerts and appear on local television shows rather than punch in for his required work.
The doghouse was all his own, and he turned it into an estate.
And here we are today, when PSY is the country’s darling. Even his former detractors have scurried onto the bandwagon hoping to hitch a ride on his rising star and the overwhelming positive attention (and money) it brings to Korea.
As Oh Jeong-suk from Seoul ska band Kingston Rudieska recently told Haps, For 10 years, PSY always stuck to his style and didn’t imitate other singers. That is the reason he is successful now: because he trusted his own style.
Simply put: PSY is more than simply Gangnam Style.
Statements and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher.