The Marmot's Hole

Korea... in Blog Format

Open Thread, December 20, 2014

alice in Korea

. . . from a series of western folktales that have been transliterated into the Korean genre.  I *love* that rabbit.  Luckily, this is not a Korean spit-take moment but a neat interpretation, though I never like the Japanese big-eyes thing.

What U.S.-Cuba ties mean for North Korea

So, what can North Korea learn from Cuba?

That’s what the editorial staffs of the Chosun Ilbo and Dong-A Ilbo were asking today. And the answer they reached was, essentially, if the North Koreans were to just stop being a-holes, good things might happen for them.

Both papers noted that what made the normalization of U.S.-Cuban relations possible was Cuba’s efforts to undertake economic reforms and promote greater openness. They also note that with Libya, Myanmar and Cuba coming in from the cold and even Iran currently engaged in negotiations with the United States, North Korea was pretty much the only really isolated country left on the planet.

The way to improve relations with the United States is not to threaten them with nukes, but to open up and reform, the papers say. That Cuba was North Korea’s brother in international communism should make Havana’s efforts even more meaningful for Pyongyang.

Of course, other papers suggest that the United States should apply lessons learned with Cuba to North Korea, too. The JoongAng Ilbo – no friends of North Korea, mind you, given that they were cyber-attacked by the North in 2012 – said the United States, as a party to the Korean War armistice, should take a greater interest in ending the Cold War structure on the Korean Peninsula. In particular, it said Washington should drop its insistence on North Korea giving up its nuke program as a precondition to improved relations, and instead make the nuke issue a long-term project to be resolved. It also noted that President Obama admitted the embargo on Cuba, which lays just off the American coast, had failed, suggesting, I guess, that it should also admit its isolation of North Korea had failed, too.

The Hankyoreh also calls on both North Korea and the United States to learn lessons from the Cuban example, and hopes South Korea helps the learning process:

The normalization of relations between the US and Cuba could be an opportunity to change the mood in the international community, which has focused on conflict over cooperation in recent years. In particular, South Korea needs to play an active role so that the goals of addressing North Korea’s nuclear program and normalizing relations between North Korea and the US can be achieved simultaneously. The departure point should be improving inter-Korean relations and resuming the six-party talks.

Marmot’s Notes

Even if the North Koreans were open to learning lessons from Cuba – and I’m not entirely sure they are, given that they’ve had decades to study China and Vietnam and have apparently decided there wasn’t much to learn – I imagine they’d wait awhile to see how developments with the United States play out. Congressional Republicans – whose support President Obama is going to need to lift sanctions against Cuba – and even some Democrats aren’t thrilled about the president’s Cuba surprise. And at any rate, if you’re North Korea, there are lots of lessons to learn, and not all of them point to a happy ending. Pyongyang likely remembers what happened to Muammar Gaddafi, another former Cold War enemy who made nice with the United States only to find himself riding a bayonet after a NATO bombing campaign.

Then there’s the question as to whether the United States can try the same thing with North Korea, or even wants to. With President Obama set to take a major league shellacking from Congressional Republican over Cuba and Ukraine and the Middle East going to shite, the White House could be all out of political capital to spend on foreign affairs. President Obama might also decide to make up for Cuba by taking a tough line against Pyongyang, especially if they really have determined that North Korea was behind the Sony hacking and subsequent threats against U.S. theaters. And outside the United States, improving ties with Cuba seems to be a pretty popular choice, especially among the Western left. You don’t get the same kind of international brownie points for making nice with North Korea, which seems universally disliked, even by Pyongyang’s own allies. Still, the Nobel committee gave Kim Dae-jung the Peace Prize for meeting with Kim Jong-il, so I could be wrong here.

Then there’s the fact that North Korea ain’t Cuba. Cuba was never nearly as isolated, either in terms of its foreign relations or private interactions with the outside world, as North Korea was and is. While both ostensibly communist, they have vastly different histories, cultures and polities, which means even if U.S. trade and interaction with Cuba yields positive results, there’s little reason to believe it would work with North Korea. I suppose this isn’t an argument against at least trying to improve relations with North Korea as long as you a) don’t mind the risk of subsidizing Pyongyang’s nuclear program with U.S. taxpayer money and b) are OK with possibly bankrolling the North Korean regime. But it does breed a healthy dose of skepticism.

Why are we here?

No, I’m not experiencing some existential crisis;  I’ll resume that shortly after I hit send.

…and I’m not asking “why are you here?”  I know why you are here:  You are here because in my solipsistic universe, I imagine you here.

I’m asking “why are we, as in US – as in U. S., here?”

Korea’s Constitutional Court just issued its ruling that the opposition Unified Progressive Party, one of three parties fielding a candidate in Korea’s most recent presidential election and having popularly elected members in the Korean Parliament, should be disbanded.   The ruling took effect immediately, and the UPP no longer exists as a political entity.  As a result of the court’s ruling,  Lee Jung-hee the former presidential candidate and her fellow UPP representatives Kim Mi-hyui, Kim Jae-yeon, Lee Sang-kyu, Lee Seok-ki, and Oh Byung-yun lost their status as members of Korea’s parliament.

I can imagine the United States’ scathing response if the forced disbandment of an opposition political party happened in Russia, China, North Korea, or any other country that the US lacks internal influence in.  Yet I can’t imagine the White House’s response or the news that an American propped up pseudo-democracy grabbing as much American media attention if such happened in countries that lack any pretense.

For those friends and family back home who have difficulty distinguishing North from South Korea, explain to them that North Korea lies north of the 38th parallel while South Korea lies south.  Otherwise, both Koreas seem pretty much the same.

I need to hit publish before I imagine jackboots kicking in my door.

Sony cancels ‘The Interview’ release, U.S. intel officials link N. Korea

All I’m going to say is, WTF?

Sony is canceling The Interview’s planned theatrical release in response to all major US theater chains deciding not to show the film after attacks were threatened. “In light of the decision by the majority of our exhibitors not to show the film The Interview, we have decided not to move forward with the planned December 25 theatrical release,” Sony says in a statement, reprinted by Variety. “We respect and understand our partners’ decision and, of course, completely share their paramount interest in the safety of employees and theater-goers.”

The hackers who stole data from Sony threatened attacks on screenings of The Interview yesterday afternoon. In the time since, around half of all movie screens in the US declined to show the film.

Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence officials are telling the New York Times that the North Korean government was “centrally involved,” whatever that means, in the cyberhack of Sony:

American intelligence officials have concluded that the North Korean government was “centrally involved” in the recent attacks on Sony Pictures’s computers, a determination reached just as Sony on Wednesday canceled its release of the comedy, which is based on a plot to assassinate Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader.

Senior administration officials, who would not speak on the record about the intelligence findings, said the White House was still debating whether to publicly accuse North Korea of what amounts to a cyberterrorism campaign. Sony’s decision to cancel release of “The Interview” amounted to a capitulation to the threats sent out by hackers this week that they would launch attacks, perhaps on theaters themselves, if the movie was released.

If it’s true North Korea was behind the attack, I imagine it’ll be difficult not to respond.

UPDATE: Other North Korea-related films are being dropped, too, apparently:

The shockwaves from the Sony hack have finally reached Hollywood’s development community, as New Regency has pulled the plug on its Steve Carell movie Pyongyang, which Gore Verbinski had been prepping for a March start date, an individual familiar with the project has toldTheWrap.

Based on the graphic novel by Guy Delisle, Pyongyang is a paranoid thriller about a Westerner’s experiences working in North Korea for a year.

On the other hand, the evidence that North Korea was behind this might be a bit flimsy (HT to Dan).

The Letter “D” as in . . .

Defamation is a problem for many in Korea, whose enforcement (or lack of enforcement) quite often infringes upon free speech, if not democracy itself.  The Wall Street Journal has a good, short piece on this issue here.

Have You Seen This Man?


Apparently, he was reported to be in the vicinity of the Blue House but there is some disagreement with this sighting and there are concerns that more than this man may be missing.  If you spot him, please call the Segye Ilbo, since they have invested some effort in locating this fellow.

Open Thread – December 13, 2014 – Have an Asian Christmas

Japanese xmas

Ho, ho, ho . . .

American ambassador talks policy, love of kimchi

Screen Shot 2014-12-12 at 9.26.57 AM

In his first interview with the Korean media, American Ambassador Mark Lippert discusses a variety of topics such as North Korea, America’s role in improving relations between Japan and the ROK, THAAD, the “pivot” to Asia and his long-time friendship with President Obama.

He also confirmed that he not only eats kimchi, but is quite fond of it.

When asked, Lippert responded:

“I eat a lot of kimchi. Absolutely. I love it. I love the flavor.”

The 41-year-old Lippert, the youngest ambassador Washington has posted to Seoul, seems a sharp fellow and has been lauded since his arrival for the way he engages the public through social media and on the street. We should all wish him well moving forward with what must be one of the more difficult ambassadorial postings in the arena of Asia geopolitics.

As for “the question”. I once asked former Lotte Giants’ manager Jerry Royster something, errr, similar during his tenure here.

WSJ: The “token” non-Korean hire

Hey, not meant as a slight.  The writer of the article in question would readily admit it!

So, non-Korean guy (presumed to be white?) applies for a office job in Korea.  During the interview he is asked many highly relevant questions on his qualifications!

“Do you like drinking?” “How many bottles of soju can you drink?” “Do you like kimchi?” “Where do you live?” “How old are you?” “Do you have a girlfriend?” My job interview may as well been held in the backseat of a taxi because these are the questions I would get anytime I travelled (sic) in a Seoul taxi for more than 20 minutes.

He becomes an integral part of the team!

I fell into the typical token non-Korean work role. My team leader struggled with how to deal with me and what work to assign to me. The company wasn’t prepared for a non-Korean worker. All they knew is that they wanted to reflect a global image and I would fulfill that requirement.

Has realistic and achievable expectations!

In order to see the potential returns and benefits of employing non-Koreans the job roles and power placed in these candidates needs to reflect the same respect and scrutiny that is placed on Koreans.

Okay, in all fairness, a lot of foreign office workers are treated similarly in Japan.


Seoul goes to war against the noble ginkgo

Seoul Metropolitan Government will be removing 33 female ginkgo trees from high-traffic areas in the downtown area in order to lessen the, ahem, smell pollution:

And the official fight against it kicked off in Seoul during the final week of November. The Seoul Metropolitan Government removed 33 female ginkgo trees – which produce seeds – from areas in the city’s downtown where human traffic is high.

The trees were transplanted to city-run facilities in and near Seoul.

“We chose trees that block people’s passage the most,” Kim Won-sik from the Green Seoul Bureau’s landscape division told the Korea JoongAng Daily.

The city hopes to expand the program by removing female trees and replacing them with male trees—which, ironically, don’t have stinky nuts—in other neighborhoods of Seoul.

I’m a big fan of the ginkgo tree, and don’t really mind the odor. Let’s you know it’s autumn, after all. This autumn, in fact, I learned a couple of (IMHO) interesting things about the noble ginkgo tree:

1) The ginkgo is a living fossil that been around even longer than “CSI”:

Previous fossils revealed that Ginkgo species have remained unchanged for the past 51 million years, and that similar trees were alive and well 170 million years ago, during the Jurassic period. But what happened between the two dates was unknown. The new finds, from the 121-million-year-old Yixian rock formation in northeast China, provide a much-needed missing link between ancient and more modern plants.

2) In the event of a nuclear war, only the cockroaches, ginkgo trees and possibly a few particularly noxious species of Boston sports fans will survive:

Extreme examples of the ginkgo’s tenacity may be seen in Hiroshima, Japan, where six trees growing between 1–2 km from the 1945 atom bomb explosion were among the few living things in the area to survive the blast. Although almost all other plants (and animals) in the area were destroyed, the ginkgos, though charred, survived and were soon healthy again. The trees are alive to this day.

You can find pictures of the trees here.

3) Even though the name “ginkgo” is Japanese, the Japanese do not, in fact, call the trees “ginkgo.” Seems like something got lost in translation:

The older Chinese name for this plant is 銀果, meaning “silver fruit”, pronounced yínguǒ in Mandarin or Ngan-gwo in Cantonese. The most usual names today are 白果 (bái guǒ), meaning “white fruit”, and 銀杏 (yínxìng), meaning “silver apricot”. The former name was borrowed directly in Vietnamese as bạch quả. The latter name was borrowed in Japanese ぎんなん (ginnan) and Korean 은행 (eunhaeng), when the tree itself was introduced from China.

The scientific name Ginkgo is the result of a spelling error that occurred three centuries ago. Kanji typically have multiple pronunciations in Japanese, and the characters 銀杏 used for ginnan can also be pronounced ginkyō. Engelbert Kaempfer, the first Westerner to investigate the species in 1690, wrote down this pronunciation in his notes he later used for the Amoenitates Exoticae (1712) with the “awkward” spelling “ginkgo”. This appears to be a simple error of Kaempfer, taking his spelling of other Japanese words containing the syllable “kyō” into account, a more precise romanization following his writing habits would have been “ginkio” or “ginkjo”. Linné, who relied on Kaempfer when dealing with Japanese plants adopted the spelling given in Kaempfer’s “Flora Japonica” (Amoenitates Exoticae, p. 811).

Korean Air… (facepalm)

Far be it from me to give the VP of Korean Air advice on how to deal with improperly served macadamia nuts, but don’t you think this is going a bit far?

The daughter of Korean Air Lines Co. Chairman Cho Yang Ho ordered a plane back to the gate so she could remove a crew member who gave an incorrect answer to a question on how to serve macadamia nuts, the airline said.

Heather Cho, 40, a vice president of the airline, ordered the head of the service crew on Flight 86 from New York to Seoul to deplane after an attendant earlier had served Cho macadamia nuts without asking, the carrier said. Cho then summoned the purser to ask a question about the airline’s policy on serving nuts. Cho ordered the man to leave the plane when he couldn’t answer. Under the carrier’s rules, passengers must be asked first before serving.

The purser didn’t know the company’s procedures and “kept on making up lies and excuses,” Korean Air said in a separate statement late yesterday.

Mind you, nuts are important, says the Economist. Just not that important:

Clearly nuts are an important part of flying (Alan Shepard, an Apollo astronaut, took a peanut with him to the Moon and back; on Earth, a possibly well-oiled Steve McQueen tried to eat it when shown the legume in a bar). But they are not quite as important as having a serene cabin. Korean Air said Ms Cho is responsible for checking service standards, although she was flying as a passenger at the time. One has to wonder what page of the carrier’s customer-service manual suggests that causing a scene, insisting the plane turn back for the gate while taxiing, and delaying a flight for 11 minutes is the response the other 400 customers demand for serving a snack on incorrect crockery.

Korean Air did apologize for delaying passengers, although, reportedly, they also said Cho had acted appropriately, something a Korean Air unionist apparently found quite funny.

Just to add a bit of irony to this story, last year, Cho wrote a post on the company bulletin board defending a flight attendant who had been assaulted by a POSCO executive because he had been served undercooked ramyeon. In the post, she also called for laws to punish people who interfere with flight attendants carrying out their duties. And indeed, the POSCO exec was sacked after being investigated by the American FBI, apparently at Korean Air’s request.

It should also be noted that Cho is suspected of going to Hawaii last year to give birth to twin sons. Korean Air says the kids will eventually do their military service, but I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

Both the conservative Dong-A Ilbo and progressive Hankyoreh ran editorials asking jaebeol families to stop acting like entitled, petty dictators. Which is pretty much the only thing you can say in a case like this.

N. Korea unilaterally lifts wage increase limit at Kaesong

If you’re a South Korean business with a factory at the Kaesong Industrial Complex, I hope you’ve stocked up on your K-Y Jelly:

North Korea has removed the legal limit for wages paid to its workers at the Kaesong Industrial Complex, the North’s propaganda site said Saturday, a move that could cause tension with South Korea, which co-runs the industrial park with the reclusive regime.

The North revised the Act on Kaesong Complex laborers late last month, scrapping the upper ceiling for workers’ wages, according to Uriminzokkiri, one of the country’s major propaganda sites.

The site also said that raises will be set every year by the supervisory committee overseeing laborers at the complex.

According to the Asia Gyeongje, the Uriminzokkiri article said the North changed 10 provisions in the Kaesong worker regulations, although the scrapping of the wage increase ceiling was the only one specified. Presumably, one would imagine, to make sure the South Koreans didn’t miss it.

Needless to say, there is concern that the North Koreans will place more pressure on South Korea by demanding high salary hikes at Kaesong in future negotiations, and Seoul has condemned the labor regulation move as unilateral (see link above). The labor regulations as they existed before, agreed upon by both Koreas in 2003, placed a 5% ceiling on annual raises to the minimum wage paid to North Korean workers at Kaesong, which currently stands at US$70.35 a month. Businesses in Kaesong say, however, they pay over US$150 a month when you take into consideration overtime and incentives. Interestingly, they also complain that costs increased as they replaced the South Korean-made Chocopies they’d been giving out as snacks with North Korean-made snacks, a fact that probably tells you everything you need to know about North Korea’s economy.

To be frank, I don’t feel especially bad for the South Korean firms at Kaesong, especially since every time I hear the Kaesong business owners’ association open its mouth, it’s to do things like call for a lifting of sanctions on the North or demand an end to ballooning leaflets. The progressive Seoul Shinmun ran an editorial condemning the North’s move, further evidence of the strange bedfellows Kaesong brings together.

To make this more interesting, the North’s announcement via Uriminzokkiri came just before Seoul making it known that it was considering offering incentives to Pyongyang (i.e., paying the North off) to restart the family reunion program.

Japanese-Korean potato chips latest peninsular addiction

Say hello to the 허니버터칩 (“Honey Butter Chip”), the latest snack addiction in Korea.  Made by the Haitai-Calbee joint venture (Haitai the Korean company and Calbee the Japanese company), they have taken the peninsula by storm.

(Image from JoongAng Ilbo – what the heck is the Eiffel Tower doing in there?)

The chip has sold out in many places,  stores are only allowing one per customer, celebrities are instagraming themselves with the product.  There is of course the typical response when demand far outstrips supply:

(eBay screen capture)

(Image from Korea Times, U.S. Edition)

Yes, that’s right- price gouging.

Get your Honey Butter Chips right here folks.  Only $51.75 USD each (S&H included)!

Mt. Samgaksan on a morning too crappy to justify waking up this early


Nogoziri: A Cup of Tea (1979)

Just a bit of something to warm your weekend.

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