The annual BAKS Conference on 17 November ambitiously attempted to look into the crystal ball to see what the Korean peninsula might look like in 20 years time. To help in that crystal ball gazing, the list of speakers included some non-Koreanists in a valuable initiative to introduce specialists to provide a different perspective.
The first session of the day scared the bejesus out of everyone. Glen David Kuecker (De Pauw University, Indiana) gave an apocalyptic talk summarising the messages from the futurology community, that the first decade of the 21st century has given us a very clear message that there is a global train smash about to happen. Climate change, financial crises, natural disasters, food shortages, energy shortages, population explosion – all the signs are telling us that the status quo is unsustainable. In an epochal adaptive cycle of Exploitation, Conservation, Release (or collapse), Reorganisation, we are at somewhere between Conservation and Collapse. Humanity is moving from an era in which there were problems to be solved (and answers could be found, given time) to one where there are predicaments to be navigated (ie there is no one easy answer – it’s a question of minimising the downside impact rather than preventing it).
In this sort of world, what does Korea have to offer? Kuecker pointed toward Songdo International Business District, a sustainable city being built near Incheon Airport. This city is at the forefront of green technology. In discussion, people wondered whether Songdo could under one scenario turn into something approaching a gated community for the affluent. Despite being “the largest private real estate development in history”, decisions about the project were being by a relatively small group of people, rather than introducing more democratic governance which might represent more diverse interests. But as this project was so ahead of its time, it will provide lessons for future initiatives of this nature.
Hyeonju Son (University of Hawai’i, Manoa) looked at a range of possible futures for Korea, isolating particular themes. Two scenarios continued the depressing theme: a continuation along an unrestrained corporatist path leading to ever-growing income inequality and mega gated communities; and a scenario of environmental collapse resulting a total degradation of physical and political infrastructure. Three other scenarios (“A big human global family”; “The age of biotechnology”; “Peaceful reunification”) offered grains of hope, but it was noted that elements of all the scenarios could coexist.
We moved on to something less depressing.
Robert Winstanley-Chesters (University of Leeds) looked at the DPRK’s opportunistic embrace of green initiatives such as carbon credits for the purposes of earning foreign currency by getting UNFCCC CDM  accreditation for hydroelectric power plants (of which DPRK has a relative abundance) and organic farming (something of a necessity given the shortage of fertilisers) and selling those credits to western companies.  There was also a seemingly more altruistic project, the return of the cranes on Anbyon plain, North Kangwon Province. He saw the tales of natural wonders that attended Kim Jong-il’s death as an attempt to boost the DPRK’s green credentials.
Young-hae Chi (University of Oxford) noted the huge environmental challenges facing the whole of East Asia – acid rain, yellow dust, pollution in the Yellow Sea Large Marine Ecosystem – challenges which could only be faced with cooperation (and huge investment) across the whole region.
HG Park (University of Cambridge) talked about the future of multiculturalism, though it was noted that in South Korea the concept largely means teaching Vietnamese wives how to make kimchi rather than recognising and respecting differences.
The last session of the day (Bum Chul Shin, University of Hawai’i, Manoa) looked at the potential impact of mobile telephony on North Korean society, given ever-increasing penetration and power of cellphones. However, when subscribers have to pay 45 Euros, in cash, every month, for the privilege of using a cellphone, growth prospects much beyond the existing 1.6 million subscribers are limited. And those subscribers are the privileged elite who will not be hungry for political liberalisation as they have the most to lose.
A panel session at the end of the afternoon offered more wide-ranging questions to be discussed. I’m not sure how PSY came into the discussion, but inevitably he did. No-one suggested, however, that 20 years from now the whole world will be listening to Korean girl bands. The more sombre consensus was that climate change was going to be the biggest driver of change over the next 20 years, with Korea’s biggest hope for the future being breakthroughs in green nanotechnology.
We look forward to next year’s conference, but given the overall tone of the day maybe we would be over-optimistic to be looking forward to anything much beyond that.