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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

On Jackpots

by | March 25th, 2014 | 07:00 am
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At a conference in Berkeley several weeks ago, former Ambassador Kathleen Stephens had some interesting observations on President Park Geun-hye’s use of the term “jackpot” to characterize the gains from unification. Ambassador Stephens pointed out that the term daebak (대박) was not actually included in the text of the President’s speech. Rather, she dropped it quite self-consciously—reading from notes—in response to a question.

What does daebak actually mean? We polled several colleagues, and translation is not straightforward; it also has a crucial generational dimension. One colleague in his 40s said it might be used in the context of playing janggi, Korean chess, to denote a particularly bold and risky winning move. A former student in his 20s said that he would use daebak if he won while playing slots at a casino, thus the literal meaning of “jackpot.” But he would also use it to mean “awesome,” “incredible,” or with some irony “absolutely insane” or “crazy.”

The main point is that the term has a certain youth cache. Park was not only making a statement on the economic returns to unification, on which she has been skewered (for example, in an article by Aidan Foster-Carter for WSJ blog Korea Realtime). She was also trying to appeal to a younger generation which—as new polling data continues to show—has grown weary of the issue.

The head-scratching about what the president meant led the Blue House to “advise” the media to use the word “bonanza” when translating President Park’s use of daebak in describing unification (link). Min Gyung-wook, the current Blue House spokesperson, admitted at a press conference that there were internal discussions in the administration over how the word should be translated, and that “bonanza” captured the desired message of an impetus growth that “jackpot” did not. However, Min also said that the term was used for domestic political impact and that the Blue House reserves the right to use “jackpot” depending on context.

Despite the cautionary tale on translation, the question of whether unification would constitute a jackpot, bonanza or boon remains and the answer depends in part on your time horizon. Many—my colleague Marc Noland included—see the short-run costs of unification as far exceeding the relative costs of the German unification; that was the main point of the Aidan Foster-Carter “jackpot or crackpot” comment. Ironically, the opposite of daebak is jjokbak (쪽박), which means going bankrupt or losing your stake. In the long-run, however, the economic logic looks better as an expanded internal market, a moderation of labor costs and gains from North Korean reconstruction yield fruit. Whether we can get from here to there is another issue; the real puzzle is why President Park is leaning into the issue at this particular point in time.