The Marmot's Hole

Korea... in Blog Format

Author: R. Elgin (page 1 of 62)

The Two Faces of Tragedy & The Lack of Trust

sinkingOf the three most precious commodities in Korea – land, silence and trust – trust is the most difficult to obtain

Both South Korea and the PRC have experienced terrible tragedies in having a cruise ship, filled with passengers sink, resulting in the deaths of many. Though the accidents are very similar, the results are very different and telling but both share a common problem and that is the lack of trust.

When the Sewol sank, the public demanded answers. The relatives demanded accountability, which is still wanting. Memorials were erected, people paid their respects and mourned.  Several safety inspectors, shipping company employees, Coast Guard officials were prosecuted. Out of 388 people directly and indirectly related to the accident 154 were arrested (cite).

Of the “Dongfangzhixing” or Eastern Star in the PRC, approximately 454 people were on board and unlike the Sewol, there is still no answer provided as to why the captain of this ship continued sailing when warned of the approaching storm that sank the ship or why sudden turns were executed before the ship sank.

The relatives of victims in both cases were concerned with the lack of accountability on the part of both governments. Korean parents of the Sewol victims became embroiled in attempts to use the accident as political fodder against the current government. Some parents ended up being detained by police at some point due to their participation in protests (cite).  Likewise, in China, parents and families of victims were essentially treated as “troublemakers” and enemies of the state:

They (Party officials) tried to prevent us from going to the rescue site, and they wouldn’t even let us have a meeting of the victims’ families,” said a woman who lost her mother but asked not to be named for fear of inviting trouble from authorities.
“That’s why they sent so many officials — they were just there to watch us,” she said.
Questions immediately surfaced about why the captain of the vessel had not dropped anchor in the face of a violent storm and about whether a refitting of the ship to carry more passengers had undermined its stability, but those questions were swiftly suppressed — as instructions went out to local media to remove reporters from the scene and to strictly follow the party line. (cite)

Both cases saw concerns of the victim’s family with accountability and dis-trust with the government’s role in both tragedies.  As time has progressed, both cases illustrate the inherent problems with corruption and its effect upon public safety. While the prosecution in South Korea actually arrested people for their roles in the Sewol affair, there has been a vacuum of information on the Chinese sinking and a lack of accountability:

. . . All the news we heard was about the glorious behavior of officials and soldiers who rescued people, . . . We heard so little about what actually happened that night and who should take responsibility.

Mourning the dead is one example of a marked difference between the two governments. Koreans widely mourned the deaths from the Sewol, with large memorials, however, in the PRC, the government effectively silenced any public mourning from the families with intimidation and threats.

Meanwhile, in South Korea, even the president’s role in the Sewol affair has taken a strange twist.

After much deliberation and obvious concern over the lack of impartial investigators over the sinking of the Sewol, the investigative committee under the National Assembly investigating the Sewol ferry disaster has decided to examine President Park’s role in the aftermath of the sinking, however, the ruling party seems to have a big problem with doing so, in fact,

Members of the committee nominated by the ruling Saenuri Party opposed the decision and wanted to exclude an investigation of President Park’s instructions that day. Four committee members nominated by the Saenuri Party threatened to quit if such an investigation proceeded.
Blue House spokesman Jeong Yeon-guk said the decision was an “unconstitutional idea” (!?). (cite)

This odd behaviour can explained better if we were to recall the tale of a certain Japanese reporter, who reported upon rumours that had appeared in Korean media about the whereabouts of the president during a mysterious seven-hour lapse.  (cite)

An Obit for Kim Young-Sam

Former President Kim Young-sam has died at 87 and Choe Sang-hun has posted a timely and concise summary of his life here.

. . . And Now American Kids Should Have to Learn How To Eat Dried Squid at Games

high-fiveSouth Korea’s baseball team shutout the American team, 8–0, in the Premier 12 final game. (additional coverage here)  The irony of this brilliant win is that many of the Korean players are likely to end up playing for American MLB teams. None of the players on the American team were on the MLB roster, however, still it is safe to say Korean baseball tickets are not only cheap here but are worth the time to go see a live game.

Hello from A Korean Music Highschool


Just another day in high school, working out a really nice version of Adele’s “Hello“.
The only thing I hope is these kids learn more than just using Cubase or copying other singers.


This wonderful singer was invited to sing on the Ellen Degeneres Show in the US.
Much congratulations to this young and excellent singer! (thanks to “brier” for the tip).

Namdaemun Is Going Chaebol

Plans, by the city, have been announced that Shinsegae Department Store, run by Lee Myung Hee (the youngest daughter of late founder of Samsung Group, Lee Byung-Chul) would renovate (upgrade?!) the Namdaemun traditional market into a global tourism spot within the next three years.  Shinsegae has the support of both Seoul Metropolitan Government and the Jung District Office in this attempt to increase the appeal of the market to foreign tourists (Chinese tourists) (cite), as state by a representative of the store:

We (Shinsegae) will support the project to revitalize Namdaenum into a global market so that Seoul can develop its tourism offerings downtown.

Shinsegae also cited the polling of IPSOS, a local marketing research agency (also located in Jung District Office but with headquarters in France), whose polling showed that tourists wanted to try “different Korean street food” (?) (cite), so Shinsegae will first create a street specifically devoted to Korean food, followed by the renovation of the 37-year-old fountain that stands between its department store and the Bank of Korea headquarters (2017), finally developing a tourism program that links Myeong-dong, the fountain and Namdaemun market.

The JoongAng Ilbo is wondering if this sort of projects are coming at the same time the government is thinking about renewing the duty-free licensing to various chaebol since this announcement for Namdaemun comes nine days before the government selection process.

Other areas in Seoul have undergone development by chaebol secondary brand names and franchises (Garosu Street in Gangnam-gu and the Co-ex Mall in Seocho-gu). Though there may not be a chaebol brand name on stores, many are actually secondary brands, for example, “Around the Corner”, on Garosu Street, is a part of LG Fashion and such stores as Zara, Diesel, etc., are franchised by the Lotte Group.

Those of us who have lived here for some time may note that the commercial development of Garosu Street is of little cultural consequence since the street was fairly barren ten-years back, however, using the Chaebol touch™ – which is often a pretty heavy-handed affair – will change Namdaemun into something that would be more familar to the Chinese tourist that have grown accustomed to K-drama franchisement, repleat with their product placement spots and carefully cultivated scenery. I guess an American might talk about this in terms of someone or something having gone “Hollywood” or having become a victim of one’s own myth and hyper-commercialization.

Might we expect a Venice in Seoul, sometime in the future?

Flavour of the Month – Consumption Without Awareness Is Potentially Unhealthy

blue_crabHumans process mostly food and ideas

When either one are tainted, there can be some very unhealthy results, for example, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a part of the World Health Organization (WHO), recently classified processed meat and red meat as being carcinogenic to human (link) (still less of a risk than smoking cigarettes) and according to one local report, retailers in Korea saw a sharp drop in meat sales (link). While eating less red meat and eating more vegetables is great idea (IMHO), there are other local food sources that are worse than eating red meat, for example, crab organs and certain types of cephalopods (squid, octopus, etc.) contain unsafe levels of metals, notably cadmium (as used in modern batteries):

Samples of seven species of cephalopods and crustaceans were collected from major fish markets on the Korean coast and analyzed for mercury (Hg) using a direct Hg analyzer and for the metals cadmium (Cd), lead (Pb), chromium, silver, nickel, copper, and zinc using inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry. The distributions of heavy metals in muscles, internal organs, and whole tissues were determined, and a risk assessment was conducted to provide information concerning consumer safety. The heavy metals accumulated to higher levels (P < 0.05) in internal organs than in muscles for all species. The mean concentrations of Cd, which had the highest concentrations of the three hazardous metals (Cd, Pb, and Hg), in all internal organs (except those of blue crab) exceeded the regulatory limits set by Korea and the European Union. The Cd concentrations in all whole tissues of squid and octopus (relatively large cephalopods), red snow crab, and snow crab exceeded the European Union limits. The estimated dietary intake of Cd, Pb, and Hg for each part of all species accounted for 1.73 to 130.57%, 0.03 to 0.39%, and 0.93 to 1.67%, respectively, of the provisional tolerable daily intake adopted by the Joint Food and Agriculture Organization and World Health Organization Expert Committee on Food Additives; the highest values were found in internal organs. The hazard index (HI) is recognized as a reasonable parameter for assessing the risk of heavy metal consumption associated with contaminated food. Because of the high HI (>1.0) of the internal organs of cephalopods and the maximum HI for whole tissue of 0.424, consumers eating internal organs or whole tissues of cephalopods could be at risk of high heavy metal exposure, therefore, the internal organs of relatively large cephalopods and crabs (except blue crab) are unfit for consumption. However, consumption of flesh after removing internal organs is a suitable approach for decreasing exposure to harmful metals. (link)

Meaning that certain seafood organ parts are not safe to eat though the flesh is relatively safer to eat in moderation and despite this, there are other problems with eating crabs if they have ingested algae that forms toxins. This also means that certain Korean marinated crab dishes are very likely unsafe to eat and should be avoided.

As for the ingesting of ideas, currently there is much political discussion over the Korean Government’s decision to take up regulating the content of Korean history books, specifically pertaining to history in the late 19th and 20th Centuries. There is the obvious concerns by politicians over the biased interpretation of factual information regarding Korea’s recent past, since as one Korean historian has put it, “The current textbooks contain various problems. I decided to participate (in working on the new government-regulated history texts) because I want the new textbooks to serve as an opportunity for the public to more closely approach our history based on more clear and accurate facts.” (link) The NPAD has reacted vehemently against the state-controlled revision of history books simply because they perceive this to be an attempt of certain political elements to legitimize their version of history and because they have their own interpretation of historical fact, which is based more upon their political beliefs, as opposed to fact (IMHO) . As per Moon Jae-in, head of the New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD):

Pushing forward the state-penned history textbook plan is a conformist and totalitarian concept,…It denies liberal democracy.

It is odd that the government would choose this time to pursue this issue, considering the more urgent financial and social needs of Korea (household debt, chronic under-employment, economic issues). Though the Saenuri Dang claimed that they won due to public support for the Park Geun-hye government’s decision to start writing history textbooks (they wish!), it would be more accurate to say that, due to the NPAD’s focus upon ideologically-driven issues instead of developing better economic plans and strategies, the public is distrustful of their ability to help them in their daily affairs.

Considering the ruling parties attempts to trick the public into partaking of their own ideology, it might be best if actual historians were to decide how to narrate Korean history, providing they could avoid any undue pressure from political elements.

The Sheriff Has Left Town

goodbye_sheriffSince the amount of bad press on the government’s Smart Sheriff app, the Korea Communications Commission has announced that the controversial child monitoring smart phone application has been discontinued and is no longer available on GooglePlay. (link)

Religious Convictions & Military Service in South Korea – An Article

Choe Sang-hun has written a very nice bit of writing about the long standing conflict between conscientious objectors from the Jehovah’s Witnesses sect in South Korea and the government.
One fellow speaks of his time in prison for his refusal to perform his mandatory military service:

I was predestined to become a convict because I believed in the creator,. . . I want South Korea to recognize that there are other, non-military ways for us to serve the community.

The article is here.

Please Pay Mom & Pops in Cash

The next time you hit a small restaurant or cafe, you might consider paying in cash since it helps save small businesses money that they would lose to exorbitant service fees.

Small businesses in Korea pay an average 320,000 won ($269) every month in commissions to credit card companies and that hurts since they make roughly less than 1,000,000won per month.
There is some relief being sought in the Assembly, however not everyone is wanting to help:

According to the Korea Small Business Association, individually owned small businesses account for about 27.4 percent of the whole domestic business environment, which is higher than the average in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Reflecting the low profitability of the mom-and-pop stores, the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy last month submitted a bill to lower the commission rate to 1 percent, but the bill is stuck in committee.

While household debt has risen steadily and at alarming rates, so have the profits made by Korea credit card agencies(cite) despite their claims in the past that cutting the commission rate would “put them out of business”(cite). This is clearly not the case.
There may be some relief, for some, if Samsung actually goes through with its plan on waiving fees for merchants that use its mobile-pay payment system, which may put pressure on other businesses to meet this challenge. The Samsung mobile-pay system also already works with the standard PIN and chip card terminals.

Open Thread, September 26, 2015 – The Chusok Edition

Have a safe and good Chusok.

Flavour of the Month – Propaganda à la Mode

The Joongang Ilbo is reporting that Korean culture may offer some people a possible solution to Islamic violence:

When 18-year-old Angelina Salwa R.A Hodali (she is Sunni according to the article) was first introduced to K-pop, she envisioned Korea to be as dynamic as the upbeat melodies . . . Hodali arrived here early this month and is currently studying at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (HUFS). “I want to establish a music agency like SM Entertainment or YG Entertainment,” she said, adding that she hoped her future company could replace the all too frequent sounds of gunfire with music.
To honor the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the JoongAng Ilbo, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily, a special reporting team set out to survey thousands of people like Hodali nationwide to find out what they believe defines Korea. (link)

. . . and I thought Nah Hoon-ah knew how to spin PR (he really does).

Korea is really an excellent country because of the fine people that live here, however I would really hope that after fifty years, I would not be so feeble-minded let slip silly articles like this one!

Security Is A Problem Everywhere

sneaky_koreanNowadays everyone has security concerns, especially since it is easier for clever and patient crooks to steal information.

Government-sponsored software in the UK was found to be leaking unencrypted data and now South Korea has it’s own problems too:
The Smart Sheriff application (child monitoring phone app that is mandatory for kids under 18), that was developed under the auspices of the Korean Government, has major security flaws (26 flaws) that expose credit and personal information. As we had feared, the software has vulnerabilities that could leak children’s personal details or allow the phone to be hacked:

. . . This case shows precisely how good intentions can end up seriously wrong — in this case, a government-promoted parental monitoring application actually putting children at greater, rather than less, risk of harm. (cite)

The vulnerabilities are reported fixed, however, we can only wonder how deep those fixes are and how the information collected from this application will be used. Forcing spyware onto kids phones also is also an unwarranted intrusion of the state into the lives of its citizens.

Military Secrets & Subcontractors Who Are Careless

Chinese and likely North Korean hackers have managed to gain access to information on the military’s tactical communication network two years ago. One easier route to hack are the subcontractors involved in working on military projects, thus two defense contractors in Korea including Samsung SDS were hacked two years back and are only recently being investigated (cite).

No wonder the US does not want to transfer certain military technology that is related to the F-35 program, when that is tantamount to giving it away (cite).

Farm-related Air Pollution and The Harm It Causes

A new study in air pollution has discovered that rural, farm-related pollution plays a large role in smog and soot deaths in industrial nations that average around 3.8 million deaths per year.  This is the result of testing that looked at the causes for air pollution-related deaths (strokes and heart attack).  Air pollution kills more people than HIV and malaria combined. (cite) If unabated, the death rate will double by 2050.  Per the article:

In the U.S. Northeast, all of Europe, Russia, Japan and South Korea, agriculture is the No. 1 cause of the soot and smog deaths, according to the study. Worldwide, agriculture is the No. 2 cause with 664,100 deaths, behind the more than 1 million deaths from in-home heating and cooking done with wood and other biofuels in developing world.
The problem with farms is ammonia from fertilizer and animal waste, Lelieveld said. That ammonia then combines with sulfates from coal-fired power plants and nitrates from car exhaust to form the soot particles that are the big air pollution killers, he said. In London, for example, the pollution from traffic takes time to be converted into soot, and then it is mixed with ammonia and transported downwind to the next city.We were very surprised, but in the end it makes sense,” Lelieveld said since scientists had assumed that traffic and power plants would be the biggest cause of deadly soot and smog.

Agricultural emissions are becoming increasingly important but are not regulated, said Allen Robinson, an engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University . . . Ammonia air pollution from farms can be reduced “at relatively low costs, Maybe this will help bring more attention to the issue . . . (cite)

As an anecdotal observation, I have seen just how bad the air in rural cites like Haenam, Kangjin, etc. can be when farmers collectively burn off the barley fields in Spring so as to prepare for the rice season. There are often smoke trails on 360-degrees of the horizon – literally everywhere you look.

The article, published in Nature, is here.

Mercedes Benz Is Very Unpopular With Korean Golfers


benz swing

This gentleman had his S-class Mercedes break down several times and was very dissatisfied with MB’s customer service.

The result is at least a par 89. Click the photo above for the whole merciless Mercedes beating.

UPDATED – September 17

According to one source:

. . . car owner Yu Je-ha hitting the German luxury sedan, worth about $500k (£320k), with a golf club in front of Shin Sung Motors, a Mercedes dealership in Gwangju on 11 September.
Mr Yu confirmed to Reuters that he was the owner of the car and said he bought the vehicle in March this year. He added that his moment of rage came in protest against poor customer service at the local car dealership.
Yu told Reuters that he had requested the dealership to exchange or refund the amount he paid for the car, due to engine problems. He added the car had already been serviced several times, but was not fixed.
He said he was told to wait and didn’t get a satisfactory answer from the dealership, so he decided to destroy his car as a form of protest. According to Gwangju Seobu Police Station, the Mercedes Benz dealership filed a suit against Yu for obstruction of work but decided to drop the charges.

Also from the site:

The sight of Yoo smashing the car had dealership employees report Yoo to the police, claiming that he interrupted their business by parking the car on an entry road to the dealership. Yoo also vowed to take legal action while continuing to protest in front of the car. “The warranty papers tell me that I deserve a new one,” Yoo said. “I will take legal action by appointing a lawyer.” Controversy grew as Mercendes Benz Korea responded to the situation with a lukewarm attitude, only repeating “We will find solutions.”

As the dealer company sued Yoo for interference in its work instead of resolving the situation with the customer, Internet sites and SNS services were flooded with negative reactions and other customer complaints that similar malfunctions happen to their Mercedes Benz cars.

The negative online wave against Mercedes Benz prompted Mercedes Benz Korea to make an official announcement on Sept. 15. “We are making efforts to find a rational and amicable solution with the customer,” (hint: try harder) Mercedes Benz Korea said in the announcement. “We will meet the customer and carefully listen to him.” Consumers are paying much attention to how much this case will affect the attitudes of import car dealers and companies that have tried to avoid customer complaints.

Current Bias in South Korean Art, Education & News

Prison, artwork, media bias & control . . .

A court in Seoul has handed down a 12-year sentence to Kim ki-jong for his assault on American Ambassador Mark Lippart back in March. The prosecutors originally asked for 15 years though both the prosecution and defence will have a week to determine if they wish to appeal the decision. (cite)

attack_artMeanwhile . . .

I like looking at art but, hey, isn’t putting up a painting showing Kim Ki-jong attacking Mark Lippart a bit risqué? a branch of the Seoul Museum of Art (SeMA) in southwestern Seoul recently displayed the above painting, by Hong Sung-dam and has decided to take it down after reports in local media about the work being more a political endorsement of violence than merely art. The inscription in the art work is as follows:

I have felt despair about these problems for a long time. However, I’ve kept my mouth shut about the despair. On the other hand, Kim Ki-jong expressed it with a knife, though it was just a fruit knife.

The artist takes great liberties with reality. Even Kim Ki-jong, during questioning by the police, stated that “South Korea is a semi-colony of the U.S. and that North Korea has an independent, self-reliant government” and shortly after his arrest, Kim shouted that the U.S.-South Korea war games were an obstacle against a Korean unification” (cite). Imagine that – truth takes a very long holiday, it seems. If I were the ambassador, I might buy this work and hang it somewhere as a part of his tenure, in this space and time. Then again, he could just let his basset hound have a go at it.

Historical revisionism and who(?) audits the auditors

Ten education superintendents on Tuesday released statements opposing state-authored history textbooks in response to a government plan to standardize them. (cite) This controversy has been around for some time, even before 2013 when material in some history textbooks approved by the National Institute of Korean History were deemed controversial.

Currently, Minister of Education Hwang Woo-yea “has insisted that history education be standardized and consistent”. Even Saenuri Party Chairman Kim Moo-sung commented, on September 2 of this year, that neutral state-authored history books, based on facts, were needed to prevent confusion among students.

The real question is whose version of history is going to be told and how will it be told.

As in the recent debate over displaying the Confederate battle flag in America, what is taught as history also reflects a societies’ values.  A good question that should be asked and answered is how can the mutual histories of the ROK and DPRK be narrated so as to best serve the interests of all Koreans. Reunification will take place and a mutual history that preserves the dignity of both groups will be an important and positive step in the right direction, even if some viewpoints are difficult for Saenuri legislators and North Koreans to comprehend.

Almost simultaneously, the Saenuri Dang has also decided to go after the major internet portals in South Korea, accusing them of lacking both professionalism and being biased. Per the JoongAng Ilbo:

The Saenuri Party said changing how portals handle news will be a key issue for this year’s audit of state affairs. (The National Assembly will begin an audit), under the order of Chairman Kim Moo-sung, vowed to scrutinize the nation’s largest web portals, such as Naver and Daum.
“Precious news articles produced by genuine journalists and the media autonomy are being distorted by the power of giant Internet portal sites,” (claimed) Rep. Lee Jae-young, who was recently appointed to head the ruling party’s think tank, the Yeouido Institute. (cite)

Why would Lee Jae-young feel this way?

According to research piece performed by Choi Hyung-woo from the School of Communications at Sogang University (Big data analysis of mobile news main pages of portal sites), after analyzing the headlines of 50,236 news postings, Choi determined that both Naver and Daum “had more content using negative expressions about the Blue House and Park Geun-hye administration than content using positive expressions“.

<Spit coffee on screen here>

The report also said Chairman Moon Jae-in of the NPAD was featured on the main pages of the portals more frequently than Saenuri Chairman Kim (Jealousy?). While 153 articles on the main pages were about Moon, 101 were about Kim, the report said. “Portal sites are not media companies, but they are deciding which articles from which media will be put on the main pages and how high they will be positioned in the layouts,” Rep. Lee said. “They are also editing the headlines. This is a de facto act of journalism, and this a serious issue.” the portals have no oversight or limits. “To ensure the independence of the media, conglomerates are only allowed to own certain stakes in broadcasters and newspapers, but portals are performing the role of the media, and conglomerates own them 100 percent. This is a serious issue. . . Portals have absolute influence over society, particularly the young, and it is unacceptable for them to distribute distorted information (information that makes Saenuri Dang look bad).”

So, here is the really funny part: if Daum and Naver are producing articles that are more negative towards Saenuri Dang, and Saenuri Dang representatives are in a position to audit Daum and Naver, isn’t this also a conflict of interest on the part of Saenuri politicians who have a vested interest in such an audit, especially just months in advance of general elections? Who audits the Saenuri Dang when they actively support the activities of the NIS electioneering and after the libellous slander used in the Chosun Ilbo – a notorious agent for Saenuri Dang interests – against the Prosecutor General’s Office, how can the public trust any audit performed by Saenuri Dang members? When Park Guen-hye said “They (DPRK) don’t have to come to the South, but they can always create social confusion and manipulate public opinion using cyberspace” (cite) was she referring to Daum and Naver!?
How is it that business leaders in large companies like Naver and Daum could possibly act as a proxy for DPRK concerns?
Are all media companies that criticize the Saenuri Dang working for the DPRK!?

Considering its claims, I think the Saenuri Dang has much to account for itself.

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