Police in Busan have booked nine foreigners in Busan for putting on an unapproved performance that allegedly degraded Korean culture, reports the Kyunghyang Shinmun.

The paper noted that they were booked (but not detained) on procedural grounds (you must seek permission from authorities before holding a performance), but controversy was expected since it was possible police were more concerned about what was said during the performance than the paperwork before it.

All in all, nine foreigners, including a 37-year-old American English instructor at a Busan university, were booked on violations of Korea’s performance laws, while seven band members, including a 30-year-old Canadian, were told to leave the country for violating immigration laws.

The Busan Nine—all apparently English teachers—had formed a performance group called “Right Down” and staged a one-act play called “Oriental Story” on Dec. 1 and 2 at a small theater in Namcheon-dong.

According to the Kyunghyang Shinmun, the performance was made up of 10 short skits that lampooned or degraded aspects of Korean culture foreigners found repulsive. One of their targets, apparently, was Korean immigration officials. During the performance, they ridiculed the entry process, joking (?) that Korean immigration officials ask if you know the Dokdo islets or bosintang (dogmeat soup) or kimchi and claiming that Korean civil servants demand that foreigners adopt the Korean way of thinking (Marmot: Koreans expecting people to do things the Korean way in Korea? The horror! The horror!).

They also lampooned Korea’s “strange” (so the Kyunghyang quoted them) number culture, including Koreans’ insistence on doing things three times (“They even shit three times,” they are quoted as saying), the taboo on the number four, and the use of “18” as an obscenity. They also ridiculed Koreans’ “saucepan disposition” (naembi geunseong, the tendency of Korean society to boil over quickly about a particular issue but just as quickly simmer down), calling it a “steam iron” (Marmot: I fail to see the association). Finally, they chose to express Korea’s dogmeat culture by pretending to eat with tortured expressions, throwing up, and eating again.

Oh, they also referred to middle-aged women as “stubborn ajuma.” Or something like that. Or so the Kyunghyang Shinmun said.

At the police station, they foreigners in question said about the dogmeat routine that they were just trying to express their displeasure with some Koreans who “force” foreigners to eat bosintang.

Entry to the performance was 7,000 won. Four performances were held, with some 600 people attending in all.

Police said the busts were made because it was an illegal performance, not because of the content of said performance.

Actually, I got an email this morning about the performance, which was apparently called “Babo-palooza.” There are discussions going on about it at Busanweb and EFL-Law. Said one poster at ESL-Law:

Just walked in from Babo-Palooza! at Beach Town on Gwangalli — What a friggin’ joke. More down and out English teachers than you could poke a stick at mocking Korea and Koreans with purile humour barely fit for a mental (###) camp. The organiser “teaches” at a Dong university in Busan and can be seen propping up the bar at O’Briens on any night of the week) spent the night thinking he had a Konglish accent when instead he sounded like a Pakistani. The rest of the losers (including a big chested woman from down under with a gut to match and some gutter baboon who looked like he’d swallowed a sheep) were just pathetic. Ten thousand won to see these monkies performing their favourite hogwan routines with added venom? No friggin’ way! This debacle only confirms my suspicions that Busan is home to the dregs of ESL in Korea. Next time, maybe someone should invite immigration and get these fools shipped home.

Not everyone felt that way, however. This blogger said the show did a “wonderful job walking the impossibly thin line of being witty and occasionally sarcastic without being spiteful or mean towards the Koreans and their culture.” Then there is this blogger, who is apparently one of the Busan Nine. Lamenting his position, he writes:

There is a good possibility that I will be fucked off out of this country. This makes me sad. I don’t want to leave. I’m not done with this place. I’m on the cusp of becoming functionally fluent in the language. I love the food, and most of the folks who I met have been ace.

But this is a nation that disguises itself as a modern industrialized democracy. It is the tenth largest economy on Earth and is a miracle of sorts. But peel the onion and you will see that Korea is still a patriarchal Confucian society, one that tolerates little true dissent or satire, especially from a foreign tongue. We are finding this out now.

If anyone has a detailed account of what was said or—praise be to God—video footage, I’d love to read/see it.

This is usually the point when the comment section flamewar begins.

UPDATE: Here is the NoCut News version of what happened (in Korean). Not really different from the Kyunghyang Shinmun account. The police were quoted as saying, however, that while the show did look at Korean culture from a fairly negative angle, it didn’t really amount to “degrading Korea” and, at any rate, was covered under free speech and hence not subject to punishment. But they added that holding a performance without permission from the Korea Ratings Board and engaging in activities outside your visa status are another story.

UPDATE 2: PusanWeb has posted corrections to what it claims to be inaccuracies in the Kyunghyang Shinmun piece (as summarized here). Be sure to check them out. Also, I should note that I did make one mistake in the beginning of the summary—rather than “arrested,” it should read “booked.” The summary has now been corrected. I’d also like to suggest that it might be better—at least for the sake of accuracy—to write up a refutation based on a full translation of the piece rather than the abbreviated summary you see above.

UPDATE 3: Commenter “Spook,” who says he is “intimately connected to the story,” has some very interesting things to say in the comments. And this, if true, should make a lot of people nervous:

In addition to claims of violations of E-2 visas, these guys are being prosecuted (persecuted?) for putting on an illegal performance. This is an issue that affects everyone, including bloggers, since right now there appears to be some question as to what kinds of activities foreign workers can do other than work, defecate and sleep. When these guys went in to the police, the police also discussed the illegality of another local event–a regularly-held Poetry night at a local bar where foreigners and Koreans would get up on stage and read poetry and play music to an audience for free. Guess what? The police said that was illegal. Are you in a band that plays in Itaewon on the weekends, or a mix-master at a Shinchon dance club? Guess again! You’re breaking the law according to Pusan police. Talking to a small group of Korean friends on the street? Who the heck knows, right? Could be illegal. This has a HUGE chilling effect on what we foreigners can do in Korea. Frankly, I’m not really sure anymore we can do.


UPDATE 4: The Korea Herald has run a piece on the Pusan Nine (or is it 15?) that is much more sympathetic to their plight than the Kyunghyang Shinmun. You’ll definitely want to check it out.

Pusanweb, meanwhile, is working hard to put out the fact… and only the facts. You’ll want to keep checking over at their website to get the latest on this case.