The MBC current events program PD Sucheop ran on Tuesday an episode on the “two faces of the Korean Wave in Mongolia,” namely, how the “ugly Korean” was harming what had been Korea’s improving image in the country as a result of the growing popularity of Korean pop culture, i.e., the Korean Wave. In particular, organized crime, sex tourism, confidence scams and poor treatment of Mongolian workers in Korea were giving Korea an undeserved black eye in a country where Korea’s cultural influence was being most keenly felt. What’s worse, the resulting anti-Korean backlash has been causing problems for the local Korean expat community, most of whom are probably hardworking individuals providing services of benefit to both Korea and Mongolia, while the Korean embassy in UB pretty much sits on its ass and does nothing other than try as hard as it can to pretend the local Korean expat community doesn’t exist.

Organized Crime

Apparently, Korean organized crime rackets have been entering the Mongolian market. One former entertainer who runs a karaoke business in UB — and who just so happens to be married to a 19-year-old Mongolian woman — reportedly goes around town acting like a gangster; rumor has it that he was greeted at the airport by a row of suit-wearing men who welcome him as their hyeongnim (mob boss). In 2001, there was a knifing incident involving Korean gangsters who intervened in a business dispute between local Korean expats. One member identified as a member of a Pohang-based gang apparently caused a commotion when he cut off one of his fingers at the Korean embassy in UB, while Koreans sporting full-body tattoos have been a frequent sight at Mongolians saunas, pissing off the locals. After the local broadcast of Korean dramas like Morae Shigae and Yain Shidae, which were hugely popular in the Land of the Great Blue Sky, there has been a growing admiration among Mongolians for Korean gangland, with local gangsters offering their services to local Koreans.

It should be pointed out, however, that the former entertainer, Yu Tung, denies being part of any racket. In fact, he doesn’t even run a karaoke club in Mongolia — he’s just friends with the owner, so his photo hangs there. Or so he says.

Sex

Koreans are apparently driving the seedy entertainment industry in UB. There are about 50 karaoke clubs in the Mongolian capital; most of their owners and customers are Koreans. According to one club madam, it’s pretty much standard for girls to accompany customers to the 2-cha, and her establishment allows men to visit with a young lady a traditional Mongolian yurt, or ger, for W100,000 a day. Most of the women who work in such places are young Mongolian university students. There are even claims of brokers who specialize in fixing young Mongolian lasses with jobs as bar hostesses in Korea.

Some also claim that with the Great Korean Prostitution Crackdown, the number of male Korean tourists making weekend visits to Mongolia is on the rise.

Then, of course, there were The Photos (NOT work safe). And if those weren’t bad enough, the photographer and five officials from a Korean mobile firm were arrested in March as they were taking nude photos of Mongolian college girls in a classroom of Mongolian State Pedagogical University. This was widely (and, to be fair, probably irresponsibly) reported in the Mongolian media. And judging from what was shown in the show, it wasn’t just nude photos being taken; some of the photos may have included male and female models engaged in rather risque poses. Oh, and there was also talk of videos being shot.

Abuse and Confidence Scams

Roughly 1 percent of Mongolia’s admittedly small population works in Korea (about 20,000), both legally and illegally (mostly the latter). The tales of poor treatment in Korea that the workers bring back with them are sparking anti-Korean sentiment in Mongolia. One Mongolian industrial trainee who was mistakenly accused of burglary was seriously injured when he was shot in the head as police played Russian roulette with him during the investigation. And he was never properly compensated. Another lost the use of his eye after his Korean boss decided to put his cigarette out in it. Then there are tons of tales of stolen rent securities and unpaid wages.

Thanks to such incidents, a public opinion poll placed Koreans as No. 2 on the list of Mongolians least favorite foreigners, behind the Chinese.

Then there was an apartment scam that pocketed a Korean US$1.25 million and left 94 Mongolians holding the bag. Over 90 percent of the victims were Mongolian migrant workers in Korea. This led to almost daily demonstrations in front of the Mongolian parliament and Korean embassy that reached their zenith when Seoul mayor Lee Myung-bak visited Mongolia in September.

Also reported are incidents of employment scams.

The local Korean expatriate community has been feeling the heat. There have been incidents of Koreans being assaulted by Mongolians, and Korean businesses have been the target of harassment by the Mongolian police. The Korean embassy, however, has been loath to get involved. In fact, it is actively avoiding contact with local Koreans, complaining of undesirable elements within the Korean expat community. It has even severed tied with the local Korean Association. This, in turn, has led to condemnation both from the local Korean community and Korean lawmakers.

Truly tragic

Ironically enough, all this is happening in a country where the “Korean Wave” has been most keenly felt. Economic, political, security, cultural and personal ties between Korea and Mongolia are vibrant and growing stronger. Korean businesses are providing much needed investment in Mongolia and Korean tourists pouring welcome foreign currency into the country, while Korean pop culture is leaving its mark on Mongolian culture, particularly among the youth. Meanwhile, some 20,000 Mongolians work in South Korea, the largest single Mongolian expat community anywhere. For Mongolia, Korea provides a model of development as the Central Asian state struggles to find its legs in the world economy, while Mongolia’s relative success in its transformation from a communist one-party state to a multi-party democracy with a market economy may provide lessons for a post-Kim Jong-il North Korea. Strengthening security ties between Korea and Mongolia help provide the latter with a way out of its traditional dependence on ties with its two giant neighbors, China and Russia, while Korea’s successes in escaping its entrapment by its own neighboring giants provide lessons for Mongolian foreign policy planners. Mongolia also provides an escape route for North Korean refugees that make it out of China. While I’d prefer to avoid characterizing the Korean-Mongolian relationship as one of “big brother, little brother,” with its condescending overtones, there’s obviously a large role Korea can play in Mongolia, and to a large extent, it’s already playing it. It’s just a shame that a minority of “Ugly Koreans” can cause so much damage in terms of popular views of one another. Like incidents involving GIs or English teachers in Korea, Ugly Korean tales in Mongolia can get the masses roiled up, and they make for great blogging material. Unfortunately, they can also distort popular views of one another and distract from the positive interaction that takes place between Koreans and Mongolians and, if not handled properly, create barriers where none need exist.

UPDATE:

Richardson got to listen to some griping during a visit to UB a couple of months ago:

At the airport on the way out I got an earful from a Mongolian who is, to put it politely, less than enchanted with the Korean influence on his home city. He worked for Koreans for a few years, and related that along with the business came the gang-pae (Korean mafia), which has been an inflationary factor. He added that Korean businesses generally don?????t create jobs for Mongolians, and when they do, the local workers are treated and paid very poorly. South Koreans do not have a very good reputation among Mongolians.