It’s getting difficult to avoid the impression that the GOP presidential candidates are finger-pointing at Koreans. Earlier this week, Mike Huckabee made headlines with his tweet, “I trust @BernieSanders with my tax dollars like I trust a North Korean chef with my labrador! #DemDebate”
This past Monday at the “No Labels” Problem Solver Convention," in New Hampshire, Harvard undergraduate Joseph Choe stood up to ask Donald Trump a question about defense spending in Korea. Trump countered by asking him: "Are you from South Korea?"
"I'm not," Choe replied. "I was born in Texas, raised in Colorado."
In other circumstances, the question, “Are you from [X country where English is not the primary language]?” may seem innocuous and even friendly. But it's impossible to miss the fact that Choe was nearly the only visible ethnic minority inside a sea of white faces, and the question came after Trump had already started to express his impatience with the length of time it was taking Choe to formulate his question. So after making quasi-jocular comments such as, “He’s choking!,” Trump commented that Choe was wearing a hoodie.
A sartorial signifier loaded with meaning, the hood is the subject of a forthcoming book by Korean-American Alison Kinney, where she addresses “both the hooded perpetrators of violence and the hooded victims in their sights.” The hoodie is viewed as a threat when it is worn by males of color, even when that hoodie is plastered with the logo of an Ivy League university. In an email to me, she writes:
“The fact that Choe was wearing a Harvard hoodie added a new dimension of racial meaning to the situation. Worn by a white person, it might have signaled authority and prestige to Trump. Worn by a racial minority, it became another means to heckle and undermine the speaker. Imagine that same hoodie worn by a Black student, a Latino student, and we might have seen an even more graphic demonstration of Trump's objectification and minimization of people of color. The hoodie doesn't mean anything in itself, till it's observed, on the body of a person of color, by a white supremacist--then suddenly it has new meanings.”
In American consciousness, the hoodie is now inextricably woven in with the death of Trayvon Martin, whose death was due to wearing one, reporter Geraldo Rivera had declared--as if George Zimmerman had no choice but to shoot Martin because the hoodie itself was so terrifying. At least Rivera’s argument was consistent: he cautioned parents against letting their children wear them, claiming that it sends a “sinister signal.”
As analyzed by semiotician Roland Barthes, the fashion system is a fairly complex thing, which means there is never a one-to-one correlation where this-means-that in every circumstance, all the time, throughout history, Amen. So Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) runs around “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” with the hood of his hoodie up whenever he’s outside, and audiences still see him as the good guy, not seething with malevolence so much as wrongly persecuted.
Choe is not Ethan Hunt. He’s an undergrad studying economics at Harvard. Wherefore Trump’s decision to point out the fact that the Korean-American student was wearing a hoodie invoked the latter set of associations while insinuating hidden motives (like maybe he’s another plant sent by Jeb to discredit Trump, much like that “arrogant young woman” who asked a Trump a question at the same “No Labels” event.)
By asking if Choe was South Korean, and then pointing out he was wearing a hoodie, Trump’s insinuations could not be misunderstood. Explains Jennifer Lee, professor of Sociology at University of California, Irvine, and co-author (with Min Zhou) of the newly-released book, "The Asian-American Achievement Paradox": “Would Trump have said the same to a White student from Harvard who also raised a question about South Korea? Absolutely not. If you’re Asian American, you immediately understand why Donald Trump’s question is offensive. Many, if not all, of us have been asked the question, 'Where are you from?' The assumption behind this seemingly innocuous but loaded question is that you are not from here, were not born here, and are not American. Trump’s question reflects his antiquated and erroneous notion of who is American."
But Choe’s question did far more than remind audiences of Trump’s xenophobic reflexes. For instead of directly answering Choe’s question regarding U.S. defense spending in Korea, Trump went on to declare: “I ordered 4,000 television sets from Korea,” confirming that he organizes the world into buyers and sellers, and that economic power supersedes political authority. Trumps it, as it were. South Korea is a rich nation, Trump opines, so why are we spending so much money to defend it? For that matter, “why do we pay the cost of defending the world?” Trump asks. And the audience claps.
Basically, he’s arguing that rich countries should pay the U.S. military, and then anyone who cannot pay is out of luck. As Bill Lawrence comments in an email to me, this is a terrible plan. An expert in international relations, Lawrence is currently visiting Professor of Political Science and International Relations at George Washington University. He explains: the United States already gets "huge in-kind contributions, but global powers never 'rent out' their military services, very bad idea geo-politically when your GDP is 100x that of the country you are dealing with."
Yet not only did Trump propose a terrifyingly mercenary vision of U.S. military might, but he fundamentally misunderstands the reason for the continuing U.S. presence on the Korean peninsula. In an email to me, Sung-Yoon Lee, Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Studies at Tufts University, explains the limits of Trump’s vision. It is true, Lee says, that “the presence of U.S. troops in South Korea has been a key deterrent against North Korean adventurism for the past six decades since the end of the Korean War in 1953. More than any treaty, the physical presence of American soldiers standing in harm's way has sent an unequivocal message to Pyongyang that the U.S. is committed to the defense of South Korea. Clearly, this dynamic has favored South Korea, which has developed into a global leader in trade, shipping, electronics, etc. under the U.S. security umbrella.”
So far, so good. However, Lee continues: “At the same time, no nation state is an altruistic organization. The U.S. maintains troops in South Korea because it serves broad U.S. strategic interests in the region; namely, in deterring North Korea and checking China. While one can debate the utility of USFK to the U.S. or argue that Seoul should do more to defray the cost of maintaining troops in South Korea, for Mr. Trump to suggest that South Korea is getting a free ride ignores some basics of international relations. Further, his patronizing remark against the Harvard student also betrays Mr. Trump's small-mindedness, brash character, and alarming ignorance.”
North and South Korea exist due to geopolitical pressures placed on the country following WWII by the Soviet Union and the United States. The situation in the two Koreas is a direct result of meddling by two superpowers, the consequences of which are, on the South side, a remarkable story of economic success and, on the North side, a human tragedy of such dimensions it borders on the incomprehensible. But they are equally the result of a fateful political decision in 1950-- the Ego and the Id of the American military--and the war is still ongoing, for the peace is the result of an armistice declared in 1953. So when Trump asks a Harvard student, "Are you from South Korea?" and Huckabee mocks starvation in the North, they are pointing accusing, amnesiac fingers at people who, in many ways, are the most American of all.