The Marmot's Hole

Korea... in Blog Format

Author: Anonymous_Joe (page 1 of 3)

Open Thread: April 25, 2015

So, where does it (still) hurt?

Seoul Ed Superintendent likely expelled

…and in other corruption news….

The Seoul Central District Court convicted Cho Hee-yeon, superintendent of the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education, of disseminating false information against his rival during last year’s election.  The Seoul Central District Court Wednesday fined Cho five million won (US$4,600) for spreading false rumors against his conservative rival Koh Seung-duk during the election campaign.

Under current election law, any fine for “running a smear campaign” in excess of one million won leads to an automatic nullification of one’s election.

Cho is appealing to the Supreme Court. If the Supreme Court upholds the Seoul District Court’s decision, Cho will forfeit his office and be made to return three billion won in campaign funds. The Supreme Court’s decision is expected to be announced in one year.  (One year???)

Cho, the only liberal candidate and a former sociology professor, earned a surprise victory in the election for Seoul education chief last June, beating two favorites, including conservative rival Koh Seung-duk, a lawyer turned politician.

The Seoul District Court found that Cho disseminated false information about  Koh by claiming Koh was a permanent resident of the United States and used his permanent resident status to educate his two children in the U.S.  Koh publicly explained that he did not hold permanent U.S. residency and his children were U.S. citizens by birth.   The court found that Cho continued to accuse Koh with the allegations even after providing a valid explanation.

Cho is the third of four Seoul education superintendents and latest Seoul education superintendent to be convicted of violating Korea’s election laws.  In 2009, Gong Jeong-taek lost his post after the Supreme Court fined him 1.5 million won for receiving bribes to bankroll his election campaign.  In 2012, Kwak No-hyun lost his office after the Supreme Court upheld his conviction on charges of bribing Park Myoung-gee to withdraw from the 2010 election for the job.  The court sentenced Kwak to one year in jail and made him return 3.52 billion won he received as a refund for campaign costs.

What of our one beacon of hope?   “Cho’s predecessor, Moon Yong-lin, was also put on trial on similar charges after he stepped down.”

So the soap opera is told and unfolds
I suppose it’s old, partner, but the beat goes on
Da da dum da dum da da….

How to survive a drinking session in Korea

How to survive a drinking session in Korea is the title perforce and not my title of choice.  Anthony Bourdain travels to Korea for the season five premiere of “Parts Unknown” and teases the segment with that title on CNN’s website.

Here is an abbreviated, in consideration of my reader’s time and attention span, sampling of the original article.

Hoesik is the Korean tradition of eating and drinking together

(CNN)Most companies in South Korea have hoesik at least once a month and sometimes every week.

Literally, this means dinner with co-workers.

In practice, it means official eating/drinking fests involving multiple rounds of alcohol at multiple venues.

For the foreign business traveler, using foreignness as an excuse to bow out of the action only goes so far.

The pressure to participate is intense.

Drinking etiquette is the first thing you teach foreign guests,” says Bryan Do, a Korean-American director at the South Korean branch of a U.S. company.

“It was shocking when I first arrived in Korea.

“My boss was a graduate of Korea University [renowned for its hardy drinking culture] and at my first hoesik, we started out with everyone filling a beer glass with soju, and downing it on the spot. That was just the beginning.”

CNN’s piece continues with, “for Koreans, drinking is considered a way to get to know what someone is really like.  ‘I didn’t really like it in the beginning,’ says Charles Lee, a Korean-Canadian who came to Seoul to work for a South Korean company. ‘I was like, Why are you making me drink something when I don’t want to? But once I understood the meaning behind it, I appreciated it more.’ ”

The article notes that “drinking is such a big part of Korean life that Seoul traffic is said to correspond with the city’s drinking culture.  Mondays are a big night for hoesik, so there are fewer cars during evening rush hour, as most office workers leave them at work so they can go drinking.  Tuesdays are a rest day, while Wednesday and Thursday nights are also big nights for company drinking. Fridays have the worst evening traffic, as everyone is taking their cars home to use with their families over the weekend.”

Finally, the author offers these seven (edited for length, see original article for complete context) rules:

1. Know the hierarchy

Koreans always identify the “higher” person in the relationship, and defer to them accordingly.  Even someone just a year older is afforded a language of respect, though age is always superseded by a higher position.

2. Show respect

It’s considered rude for anyone to have an empty glass.  If a senior person is pouring — this usually pertains to hard liquor only — others shouldn’t drink until someone has poured the senior a shot.

After all glasses are full, everyone says “Gunbae!” and chugs — usually “one-shotting” the entire glass in one go.  While downing alcohol, you should turn your body away from senior figures so that your body visually blocks your drinking action from your senior.

3. Use two hands

Always hold bottles or shot glasses with both hands. By raising your glass or pouring alcohol with one hand, you are establishing yourself as a senior person. If you’re not, well, you’ve just breached protocol.

4. Do some research

It’s always a good idea to find out people’s drinking habits beforehand.  …Hoesik usually involves changing venues for a different type of alcohol — i.e., round one is dinner, accompanied by beer, round two is soju, round three is for whiskey, and so on.

5. ‘No’ means bad things

Unless you have an airtight reason, refusing alcohol is considered a mood killer and deemed rude.  Sorry, but “I don’t like soju” doesn’t qualify as a good reason not to punish your liver. Neither would “I’ve been on the wagon for three years.”

In fact, unless you’re pregnant or already puking, what might be a “good reason” not to imbibe elsewhere often won’t fly here.

6. Flex your vocal cords

…Koreans love singing, as evidenced by the country’s staggering number of karaoke bars, as well as the rush of audition programs on Korean television.  Your companions won’t rest until you sing.

7. Use the black knight or black rose as a last resort

If you simply cannot take any more, you can call a black knight (male) or a black rose (female) to your rescue.  This entails a person of your choosing drinking your glass for you, but it also means they get a wish.  As in, you might soon wish you’d just taken that last shot as you’re spelling your name out with your butt in front of your client.

Bottoms up.

(Anthony Bourdain missed out on the real ratings grabber:  the after-party ;-))

For those of us who have been here for any length of time, we’ve at some point bumped into, if not against, Korea’s hoesik business culture.  I am still incredulous and try not to judge, but I can’t resist:

Sorry, but “I don’t like soju” doesn’t qualify as a good reason not to punish your liver. Neither would “I’ve been on the wagon for three years.”

Pressuring an admitting and recovering alcoholic to drink? Really? (Unfortunately, I know the answer.)

I have worked with several of Korea’s top companies, and no one in upper management has ever asked me.  If I could, however, tell them one thing, I would tell them that their top young talent (by virtue of their degrees, positions, and matriculation in my training classes) tell me that if they could quit the company, they would.  Their cited reason:  the company’s drinking culture is ruining their health, if not “killing” them.

Perhaps I should go out on hoesik so I can tell them.

Raising the Sewol Ferry

The good news is that South Korea announced today its commitment to raise the Sewol, which sits submerged in up to to 44 m (144 ft) at the bottom of the ocean.  The operation is slated to start in September, cost approximately 150 billion won ($139 million), and take up to 18 months.

According to the Korea Herald, “Public Safety Minister Lee In-yong said priority will be given to preventing the loss of the bodies of the nine people still missing and minimizing the possible damage to the hull.”

According to the WSJ:

The ferry, which weighs more than 6,000 tons, is lying 44 meters (144 feet) below sea level. Its more than 20-year-old structure is “severely weakened,” said Public Safety Minister Park In-yong. But a government-sponsored computer simulation showed the ship can be moved with cranes to an area with shallower waters and slower currents where it would be raised onto a floating dock, a maritime ministry official said at the same briefing.

A South Korea Coast Guard boat passes a buoy marking the site where the ferry Sewol sank off Jindo, South Korea. PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS

A South Korea Coast Guard boat passes a buoy marking the site where the ferry Sewol sank off Jindo, South Korea. PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS

The WSJ quoted the public safety and maritime ministries as using a 200 billion won ($185 million) figure for the estimated operation cost.

EDIT:  A reader (see comments and discussion) has shown evidence that the photo credited to Yonhap was not retouched.  I have changed the title and retract the following from the original piece:

In its article, The Korea Herald published the photo (credited to Yonhap), which I ripped used as this blog post’s featured image.  The image appears photoshopped: the Sewol Ferry is impossibly propped on its stack and cut in half.  I am surprised that the Korea Herald, which I think of as Korea’s best online daily (high praise, indeed), used a manipulated image.

North Korea declined to make charges of tu quoque upon realizing the implications of the charge.


KJU climbs Mt. Paektu, provides precious “pabulum” to press

Kim Jong Un scaled Mount Paektu, the highest mountain on the Korean peninsula, on Saturday, according to North Korea’s state-controlled newspaper, Rodong Sinmun.  The Rodong Sinmun further reported that Kim delivered a speech, three days after the celebration of Kim Il Sung’s 103rd birthday, on the significance of Mount Paektu.

Climbing the 2,744 m (9,003 ft) Mt. Paektu is no mean feat; doing so in a double-breasted wool overcoat and oxfords is… wait for it… legend-ary.

The western press has lapped up Kim Jung-un’s precious use of pabulum as reported in the Rodong Shinmun:  “When one climbs snow-stormy Mt. Paektu and undergoes the blizzards over it, one can experience its real spirit and harden the resolution to accomplish the Korean revolution. Climbing Mt. Paektu provides precious mental pabulum more powerful than any kind of nuclear weapon and it is the way for carrying forward the revolutionary traditions of Paektu and giving steady continuity to the glorious Korean revolution.”

Here is the piece as published by the Rodong Shinmun:

Kim Jong Un, supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army, climbed the top of Mt. Paektu at dawn of Saturday, together with the members of KPA fighter pilots’ expedition of the revolutionary battle sites in the area of Mt. Paektu.

With a broad smile on his face, the Supreme Commander said that the look of Mt. Paektu is impressive and the sunrise over Mt. Paektu is a charming and beautiful sight rare to be seen, adding the new morning of Korea dawns from Mt. Paektu.

“Mt. Paektu is the ancestral mountain and the sacred mountain of revolution associated with the soul of the Korean nation and suggesting the spirit of Songun Korea, and it is the cradle of the Korean revolution, the symbol of victory and the eternal beacon of the Songun (army-first) revolution”, he said, adding:

“When one climbs snow-stormy Mt. Paektu and undergoes the blizzards over it, one can experience its real spirit and harden the resolution to accomplish the Korean revolution. Climbing Mt. Paektu provides precious mental pabulum more powerful than any kind of nuclear weapon and it is the way for carrying forward the revolutionary traditions of Paektu and giving steady continuity to the glorious Korean revolution.”

KJU Summits Mt. Baekdu 01

KJU Summits Mt. Baekdu 02

The revolutionary spirit of Paektu, the spirit of the blizzards of Paektu, is the noble spirit the army and people of the DPRK should keep in their minds forever, he said, adding that they will have nothing to fear and they will do everything when they live in the spirit.

Saying that the Korean revolution started in Mt. Paektu is not yet over, he expressed expectation and belief that the fighter pilots would fully discharge their mission as heirs to the Songun revolution. And he had a photo session with them on the top of Mt. Paektu.

He was accompanied by Hwang Pyong So, Choe Ryong Hae, Kim Yang Gon, Ri Jae Il and Ri Pyong Chol.

KJU Summits Mt. Baekdu 03

KJU Summits Mt. Baekdu 04

In addition to republishing the Rodong Shinbum’s pabulum, the western press has focused on the obviously photoshopped images:

South Korean news agency Yonhap reported the Kim Jong Un visit to Mount Paektu was presented in a manipulated photo image, seen above. In the circled area, one soldier is standing without support. Photo by KCNA/Yonhap

South Korean news agency Yonhap reported the Kim Jong Un visit to Mount Paektu was presented in a manipulated photo image, seen above. In the circled area, one soldier is standing without support. Photo by KCNA/Yonhap

Perhaps a long-time Marmot’s Hole commenter could lend his Photoshop skills?


What I want to know is where’s his cane?

I feel like KJU is sandbagging us like Yoda in Star Wars Episode III when all along he hobbles with a cane, and then…  BAM!  He opens up a can of whoop-ass on Count Dooku.

From now on, whenever I see Kim Jung-un, I’m going to think foppish Mr. Peanut carrying a cane as an affectation.  How long until he assumes the monocle?

PM offers to resign, President Park meets with K-Pop fans in Peru

Oh, how the blogging gods have conspired against me.  I have been working on pieces and considering titles: “Prime Minister impeached, President Park impickled” and “PM impeached, PGH in Peru“.

Alas, they are not to be.

According to the Korea Herald, Prime Minister Lee Wan-koo submitted his resignation today to President Park Geun-hye amid accusations that he took bribes from Sung Won-jong.  Sung named Lee Wan-koo among seven others in a note found on Sung’s dead body, which was found hanging from a tree in an apparent suicide.

“Prime Minister Lee offered his intention to resign to President Park as of April 20,” the Prime Minister’s Office said. “The president will decide whether to accept his resignation or not after she returns from her trip.”  A presidential spokesman, Min Kyung-wook, accompanying her in Lima, Peru, confirmed the announcement of the Prime Minister’s Office.

President Park is currently in the middle of a 12-day Latin America trip.  Park departed on the first anniversary of the Sewol Ferry sinking, this Korean generation’s where were you moment akin to Americans’ Pearl Harbor, FDR death, JFK assassination, John Lennon murder, or WTC 9/11 attack, and amid the growing bribery scandal that threatens not only Korea’s government’s credibility but also constitutional succession:  the prime minister is first in line in case of the South Korean president’s incapacitation.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the Sewol Ferry sinking’s first anniversary, the crisis engulfing PGH’s presidency, and by-elections on April 29, less than two days after President Park’s return,  Blue House Foreign Affairs and National Security Secretary Ju Cheol-gi said in a media brief one day before PGH’s departure, “there is no good reason to delay the trip, and it must go forward as planned. We have to create opportunities to help the economy, and ethnic Koreans in Central and South America are looking forward to the trip, so we will do what needs to be done.”

President Park is scheduled to return to Korea next Monday and as of this writing has no plans to cut short such an important tour of South America.  “President Park Geun-hye met with hallyu fans in Peru, Sunday, during the second leg of her South American tour. …Park’s encounter with 14 Peruvian hallyu enthusiasts took place at a hotel in Lima at the request of some of the fan clubs.”

President Park meets with K-Pop fans in Peru

President Park pictured at an important meeting with part of and receiving a present (???) from a contingent of 14 K-Pop fans in Peru

“I heard that members of the fan clubs learn Korean dance and ‘hangeul’ (Korean alphabet) together,” Park said. “These activities will bring our two countries closer,” she added.

Park’s other important accomplishments on this trip include a pledge from Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to accelerate efforts toward ratification of their free trade agreement (FTA,) which was signed more than two years ago.

I have seen no press information whether members of the Korean press corp have deigned to ask President Park “might she return?”

(Damn you, blogging gods.)

UPDATE:  PM’s resignation tender written large on CNN’s front page.  According to CNN’s article, “Park is in Peru and is expected to arrive back to South Korea on April 27.”

CNN Front page April 21, 2015

(I have no further updates on the K-Pop diplomacy initiative.)

Feeling Blogged Down

What to do?  What to do?

Korea’s news cycle has been consumed with the anti-corruption probe, the ensuing Sung Won-jong suicide, news of cash stuffed energy drink boxes, more threats (?) of suicide(!), captains abandoning their ships,  and thoughts of whether Korea is a police state in random musings about the reported 10,000 police officers at the first anniversary memorial commemorating the Sewol Ferry tragedy and its victims.

…and that’s just here at The Marmot’s Hole.

Korea’s news media and blogosphere has been similarly consumed, save for one sanctum sanctorum, fortress of solitude, alternative airing of Heidi when everyone else is thinking Superbowl, The Chosun Ilbo.

While all other of Korea’s daily news media have blared Sewol Ferry and the anti-corruption probe in their headlines for the past few weeks, today’s Ye Olde Chosun Ilbo featured the following:

Chosun Ilbo Front Page April 18, 2015


For the inquiring mind who wants, nay needs, to know, I humbly provide for his convenience and further edification:  Why Mostly Older Men Use Libraries.

…and what is the most read article at the venerable Chosun Ilbo?

Again, for his further denigration edification and to save my gentle reader the burden of a mouse click, I have reproduced the article complete with pic here:

Woman Holds Topless Protest in SeoulChosun Ilbo Most Read - Woman Holds Topless Protest

A topless woman appeared in Seoul’s busy downtown area around noon Wednesday with her private parts only covered in tape to protest for women’s right to bare their breasts.

Holding a sign that roughly translates as “Why are men allowed to expose their nipples while women are not?” she later put on a bikini top to cover herself up when a crowd of men had gathered around her.

Police arrived at the scene to stop her and the woman left at around 1:30 p.m. Police said they had no idea why she was holding the protest.

The 27-year-old woman, identified only by her surname Lee, had caused a stir last month after a video clip of her dancing topless at a night club went viral on the Internet. She is known to be an ex-dealer of German luxury cars.

Chosun Ilbo Woman Stages Topless Protest

A woman in a bikini holds up a picket in the Cheonggye Stream in Seoul on Wednesday.

It was her third topless protest. She protested semi-nude last month with a sign reading she would prefer to be naked rather than wear fur and stood in front of a memorial set up to mourn the victims of last year’s ferry disaster. On social media she claims to be a vegetarian, animal rights activist and feminist, and indeed her protest copies similar stunts by Western activist groups like FEMEN and PETA.

She claimed nobody would pay attention to her if she did not take her clothes off.

I feel like balance has been restored in the blogiverse.

(Special thanks to Brier for the kick in the pants inspiration.)





Open Thread: April 18, 2015

So, where does it hurt?

Captain Abandons Ship

One year ago today, April 16, 2014, and caught with his pants down, a Captain cowardly and scurrilously abandoned ship rather than face his responsibilities to his constituency.  He has since been tried, vilified, found guilty (in both legal court and court of public opinion), and sentenced for likely the remainder of his natural life to prison.   His name is now forgotten; his heinous reputation lives on.

Today, April 16, 2015, we commemorate the incident and the victims of the Sewol Ferry tragedy.  Park Geun-hye, her ship of state perilously listing amid bribery scandals that reach to the highest levels of her administration and threatening to sink her presidency, is embarking on a scheduled 12-day tour of four South American countries.  The timing of PGH’s trip and its minor importance have raised eyebrows.

On April 14, Blue House Foreign Affairs and National Security Secretary Ju Cheol-gi  offered a  media brief detailing PGH’s schedule and the significance of the tour.  “Central and South America are a land of opportunity, a place where we can reveal the potential for exchange and cooperation in diverse areas – including ICT, electronic government, nuclear power, and large-scale infrastructure – based on the cultural affinity created by the spread of Hallyu [the Korean Wave],”

According to the Hankyoreh’s unnamed sources, “there were also objections inside the Blue House to the timing of the trip, but no one came forward to officially call it into question.”  Playing the Get Out of Jail Free, papal dispensation, American Express Black, uber-trumper of all trumps, economy card, Ju deflected arguments that Park’s trip should be delayed out of respect for the Sewol sinking anniversary and amid the Sung Wan-jong/Prime Minister bribery scandal:  “There is no good reason to delay the trip, and it must go forward as planned. We have to create opportunities to help the economy, and ethnic Koreans in Central and South America are looking forward to the trip, so we will do what needs to be done.”

A year ago, people called the Sewol sinking Korea’s 9/11.  It wasn’t.  The similarities stop with what both represented to Americans’ and Koreans’ collective consciousness.  Even there, the Sewol tragedy falls short.  I can’t imagine the American president failing to adequately commemorate an occasion of such searing, binding pain in his people’s psyche …while scheduling an optional overseas trip …on the incident’s first anniversary …excusing himself citing money.

President Park’s trip comes amid the choking smoke engulfing her Prime Minister, her deputy for government affairs.  Korea is a less than one generation out of military dictatorship by coup and self-coup nascent democracy in a country without a culture or history of democracy, and the President’s spokesman sees “no good reason to delay the trip”?  As an expat living in Korea, I don’t know whether to take comfort in the President’s confidence or cover for her incognizance.  Regardless, the President’s overseas trip feels wrong.

…and no, the thought of the photo of the Sewol Captain abandoning ship serving as a visual metaphor for Park Geun-hye’s trip never entered my mind, and I am not incredulous that no Korean political cartoonist has drawn or photoshopped PGH’s head onto this piece’s featured image.

Open Thread April 11, 2015: Spring is in the Air

Just be happy I curbed my instincts for Spring is in the Ear.

Sung Wan-jong suicide aftermath: the noose tightens

Sung Wan-jong, former chairman of Keangnam Enterprises was found dead yesterday.  Police suspect suicide.  Sung was Keangnam’s chairman until he resigned last month amid the widening anti-corruption investigation that touched Keangnam Enterprises and Sung’s personal business.

Sung was scheduled to appear Thursday at a court hearing over a detention warrant.  Prosecutors earlier this week charged Sung with misappropriating up to 46 billion won of government subsidies, based on falisfied accounting records.  Authorities suspect Sung embezzled 25 billion won of those funds “and was engaged in accounting fraud to the tune of 950 billion won.”  Sung denied all allegations of wrongdoing and even “strong” connections with the Lee government.

According to police, Sung left his house 5:11 a.m.  Sung’s chauffeur and sons found a suicide note in Sung’s house, and Sung’s family reported Sung missing to police at 8:06 a.m.  Police traced his two mobile phones and detected a signal in Pyeongchang-dong, (near an entrance to Bukhansan, his favorite hiking spot)  Jongno District at around 8:40 a.m and dispatched a manhunt with more than 1,300 officers.   At 3:32 p.m. and approximately 300 meters from the ticket office at Bukhansan, a police dog found Sung’s body hanging from a tree on an “untrodden” path near Jeongto Temple.  According to an officer at Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency,  “It was where Sung frequently went for a walk. He was hanging from a necktie tied to a branch two meters above the ground.”

Sung Jong-wan body from KT

Police officers carry the body of former Keangnam Enterprise Chairman Sung Woan-jong down from a mountainside, Thursday. Sung is believed to have committed suicide by hanging himself from a tree on Mount Bukhan in northern Seoul the same day. / Korea Times Photo by Shim Hyun-chul

Sung’s suicide “comes amid parliamentary probes into the Lee administration’s resource diplomacy policy.  The probes began to investigate allegations that Lee administration officials embezzled public funds during the government initiative.”

No, I’m not so cruel as to refer to Sung in this post’s lede.

At a press conference on Wednesday and less than 24 hours before his suicide , Sung dropped the 2MB bomb, specifically implicating former South Korean president Lee Myung-bak’s administration.  Korea Joongang Ilbo reported Sung’s statements as the following:

“I’m not an MB-man [someone close to former President Lee].  How can a victim of the former government become an MB-man? I actually worked for President Park Geun-hye, who was running the Grand National Party’s primary.”

The Joongang Ilbo observed, “Sung emphasized his innocence and shed tears.”

The Korea Herald published the following account of Sung’s Wednesday news conference,

Sung, a former Saenuri Party lawmaker, had called the investigations a politically-charged witch hunt.

“I am a victim of the Lee administration,” he said at Wednesday’s news conference, hours before his disappearance.

“I am much closer to President Park Geun-hye.”

“Many other companies had participated in resource development projects (under the Lee administration) at the time,” he added. “I do not understand why only we are being targeted.”

Police disclosed fragments of the suicide note Sung left in his house.  “I’m an innocent man who should be cleared from suspicions,” he wrote. “I will kill myself to prove it.”

Well, now. I’m convinced.

I do not understand the Asian custom (or is it only Korean custom?  My question is genuine, and I really do not know) of “proving” oneself innocent in the face of such scandalous, disgraceful, and especially criminal charges when presented with overwhelming tangible substantiating evidence through suicide.

Sung’s suicide makes prosecution’s pursuing its resources diplomacy case difficult.  Keangnam Enterprises played a major role in the probe. In another cultural difference I find incomprehensible, with suicide often accepted as proof of innocence, inquiries into the wider investigation often stop.

Nonetheless, make no mistake about it:  all, from business to governmental agency and education institutional, investigations so far show an Lee Myung-bak connection.  Lee Myung-bak seemed to have given enough rope in his time as president, and the noose appears to be tightening around him.

I’ll end with Sung’s last wish:  “Bury me next to my mother.”

(For a summary and impression of the extent of the anti-corruption probe, see here.)

PGH’s Bipolar Presidency

I have never been so happy to be proved wrong.

I posted first on September 30, Pardon moi, and again on December 29, Pardon moi? (redux), that the Park Geun-hye administration seemed to be sowing the seeds of parole or even pardon for conglomerate owners and family members imprisoned for economic crimes such as embezzlement, breach of trust, and incurring losses to their companies.

PGH’s administration slung the dung, fertilizing the field:  in September,  two high ranking officials (Justice Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn and Deputy Prime Minister for Economy Choi Kyung-hwan) from two separate ministries made two separate statements on two consecutive days signaling leniency.  On Christmas Eve ruling Saenuri Party leader Kim Moo-sung and the day after Christmas Floor Leader Lee Wan-koo seemed to partake of the holiday parole punch.

I went so far as to “handicap the paroles and perhaps some pardons happening between Korea’s New Years: sometime after solar New Year, sometime before March 1, and with a probability density centered around Seollal.”  “…in absence of a major public backlash (they clearly anticipate and desire to diffuse the minor public backlash) the pardons will happen.”  Long-time Marmot’s Hole regulars laid their bets, waging virtual beers.

Then, …nothing.

In March, the PGH administration pulled a one-eighty, going polar opposite, and cataloging the (thus far) discovered corruption presents a daunting task:

  • A 105 member team “consisting of prosecutors, state auditors, police and taxation officials” targeted alleged malpractices involving Ilgwang Gongyeong, one of Korea’s largest defense brokers.  On March 11, prosecutors arrested Ilgwang Gongyeong chairman Lee Kyu-tae on charges that he “inflated the costs of procuring an electronic warfare training system from a Turkish defense firm” and “pocketing some 50 billion won ($44.4 million) by defrauding Seoul’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration.”  On March 12 prosecutors arrested a senior official of an affiliate of Lee’s company “for complicity in the case.”
  • In mid-March, a wide-ranging POSCO probe grabbed headlines, and POSCO’s share price plunged on March 31.  The investigation has spread to POSCO group and netted its first high-profile arrest at POSCO E&C  in a slush fund scandal Tuesday .  “The prosecution is expanding its probe into how the slush fund was created and used amid allegations that former President Lee Myung-bak’s key aides are at the end of the money trail.”
  • Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office is investigating Lotte Group’s shopping subsidiary for allegedly creating a slush fund.  According to the prosecution, “billions of won was sent from Lotte Shopping’s head office to affiliated businesses — Lotte Department Store, Lotte Mart, Lotte Super and Lotte Cinema — between 2011 and 2012, and why the money was transferred was unclear. The money was later withdrawn in cash.”  The Seoul Regional Tax Office imposed a 60 billion won fine on LG Group for tax evasion in 2013.
  • Dongguk Steel is suspected of, among other crimes, evading taxes, inflating the cost in the construction of a power plant, and fabricating the amount of goods imported from Japan and Russia.
  • On March 18, prosecutors raided Keangnam Enterprises Co., a Seoul-based builder, investigating allegations Keangnam misappropriated 10 billion won.  Investigators are also “looking into an alleged corrupt transaction between Keangnam Enterprises and the Korea Resources Corporation (Kores) in 2010.”  **UPDATE:  Lee Tae-hoon at The Korea Observer has reported the former head of Keagnam Enterprises has disappeared “hours before he was set to appear before police for a hearing to determine the legitimacy of his arrest”, leaving behind a will and suicide note. **  UPDATE 2:  “The body of Sung Woan-jong, former chairman of Keangnam Enterprises was found some 300 meters from a ticket booth in Mount Bukhansan. The cause of death needs to be investigated but reports said he appeared to have hung himself.”
  • Other companies under investigation include Kosteel, state run Korea National Oil Corporation (KNOC),   SK Innovation, KEPCO, and others in a search that seems to have given Goooooooogle its name.

According to Yonhap, the investigations began in mid-March “after Prime Minister Lee Wan-koo declared an ‘all-out war’ on corruption in an apparent attempt to prop up weak public support for President Park Geun-hye.”  The Korea Herald in an editorial Unfit corruption busters – Anticorruption agencies should check themselves first lamented,

There may be some political purposes behind this harsh corruption busting ― like taking revenge against former rivals and taming big businesses and the civil service. Nevertheless, it is imperative that we deal sternly with all cases of corruption.

Seeing the anticorruption war unfold, however, we cannot but raise a fundamental question: Are our anticorruption warriors clean enough to fulfill their mission? Few would say yes.

The recent cases point to the sad reality that some of our anticorruption agencies are rotten to the core. Police raided six tax offices in Seoul and Gyeonggi in a corruption probe last week. Before that, four senior officials ― two from tax offices and two from the Board of Audit and Inspection ― were caught having sex bought for them by those who they are supposed to be checking up on.

The case of the BAI officials is outrageous. They had dinner with officials from the Korea Electric Power Corp. and its affiliate ― the bill for the meals and drinks for the four was 1.8 million won ― and went to a hotel with two women who work at the restaurant.

KEPCO and its affiliates are subject to audits of the BAI and it is not hard to understand why they provide such generous entertainment to BAI officials. What’s more comical is that the two officials belong to the audit agency’s internal audit team which has been expanded in the wake of previous graft cases.

It is not rare for BAI and tax officials to be implicated in graft or other corruption cases. But the recent cases should reawaken Park and her aides to the importance of cleaning up the powerful anticorruption officials first.

PGH’s administration’s probes have widened from businesses to governmental agencies and educational institutions.  Only churches have (thus far) remained unscathed.  I suspect that will change in short time.

Interpretations for PGH’s administration’s about face run from trying to shore up her flagging poll numbers through providing a distraction to the Sewol Ferry saga to Korea’s political tradition of vanquishing one’s political enemies.   I opened the piece with PGH’s administration’s plans to pardon chaebol chiefs. “Nut rage” ended any possibility of that, and left PGH only with her campaign pledge.  I find all credible, not mutually exclusive, and additive.

The extent of the corruption should not surprise anyone who has been in Korea for any length of time.  Although I feel sad (I’ve made no secret of one aspect of my anonymous life:  my wife and children are Korean and of Korea) on the precipice of publishing, I remain a hopeful idealist.  The best thing that could happen to Korea is massive uncovering of the entrenched, unseemly side of Korean culture.

Pardon moi for taking a water droplet’s credit for its contribution to the flood.

Smoking Ban – April 1 No More Fooling Around

On January 1, 2015, South Korea by law completely banned smoking in all bars, restaurants, and cafes (including smoking rooms) regardless of size.  Starting tomorrow, April 1, they’re no longer fooling around:  the three-month grace period on enforcement ends.  Smokers could pay fines of 100,000 won and shop owners up to 5 million won for violating Korea’s anti-smoking law.

Korea has gotten serious about smoking.  In 2012, a World Health Organization (WHO) conference held in Seoul recommended South Korea change its lax laws on smoking and drinking, citing public health issues.  In December 2012, all restaurants and bars were issued one week’s warning that such establishments with a floor area greater than 150 square meters could no longer allow smoking. In 2013, Korean law banned taxi drivers from smoking  but did not specify whether their clients could smoke.   On June 8, 2013, PC bangs (PC rooms) became smoke-free zones,  On January 1, 2014, the smoking ban for restaurants and bars with an area exceeding 100 square meters became law. On December 12, 2014, the Ministry of Health and Welfare announced the government planned to ban smoking in billiard halls and indoor golf driving ranges in 2015.  On January 1, 2015, the ban on smoking in all bars and restaurants, regardless of size, became law.

The backlash has begun.  On March 3, I Love Smoking, an online community representing the largest network of smokers in South Korea, filed at the Constitutional Court to review the constitutionality of the smoking ban in all restaurants, claiming the ban infringes on people’s rights to happiness, suppresses individuals’ rights to run a business, interferes with businesses’ freedom, and interferes with businesses’ rights to profit.  Good luck with that.  In 2011, 299 internet cafe operators filed a complaint against the smoking ban in Internet cafes, and the Constitutional Court upheld the ban.

Regardless and according to Yonhap News,

“The new ban has caused all kinds of conflicts between the restaurant staff and diners who smoke,” (I Love Smoking) said at a press conference held in front of the court in central Seoul. “It has also eaten into business owners’ profits, some to the point of considering closure.”

The group said as an alternative, the government could prohibit smoking at all restaurants during the day but allow bars and clubs to seat smokers in smoking sections in the evening.

…The government could use the extra taxes smokers pay toward subsidizing the costs of creating smoking sections at restaurants, which on average cost 10-30 million won (US$9,100-27,000), the group said.

“Independent restaurants can’t realistically afford the cost without subsidies,” it said.

Yeah, good luck with that too.

OECD Daily Smoking By Gender

South Korea remains among the smokingest nations in the OECD, ranking 13th in the world in cigarette consumption and second, behind Greece, among OECD nations .  Cigarette prices, prior to the tax increase, in South Korea were among the lowest in the world by PPP.  The much needed price increase reflecting the negative externality cost in cigarette consumption and proper use of zoning laws protecting non-smokers, brings Korea in line with laws, trends, and thinking in other OECD countries.  I’m a libertarian minded non-smoker who wonders how Korea’s ajeosshi-packed Constitutional Court will rule let alone why the Constitutional Court would even hear the case.

Open Thread: March 28, 2015

Spring has sprung.


Microsoft has finally pulled the plug on Internet Explorer.  Used (outside of Korea) as a Windows bundled software application to facilitate the download of web browsers, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer is solely used in Seoul for online banking and retailing.  South Korea passed a law in 1999 requiring that banks and retailers use digital certificates created with Microsoft’s Active X and exclusively available on Internet Explorer.

IE has been in its death throes since shortly after the implementation of South Korea’s 1999 law.  Released in 1995 as an add-on to Windows 95 after Bill Gates had returned from vacation and recognized the threat Netscape’s Navigator® represented to Microsoft’s operating system, Microsoft changed course.  Microsoft’s later standard inclusion of IE in OEM packages and subsequent Windows operating systems sealed Netscape’s fate.

IE went on to command a healthy 95% market share becoming the web browser by fiat for many corporations and governments.  Microsoft and IE soon became fat (or in tech terms, bloated) and lazy (again in tech terms, slow and no innovation), ignoring the open source Firefox browser, which quickly became the browser of choice among the digerati.  Google entered the fray, and IE’s market share fell below 50% in 2010 and 20% in October.  Since then IE’s chart has looked like that of last century’s centenarian.

For those of you who feel maudlin for Microsoft IE’s demise or suffer from an unhealthy (as opposed to the healthy) necrophilia, IE will be around to haunt the rest of us for some time:  Korea will need to first legally declare IE dead and bury all entanglements.  Meanwhile IE’s rotting code will continue to plague us.

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