The Marmot's Hole

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Category: Korean Society (page 1 of 37)

The Politics of Belief – The Convergence of Reality & Faith

The convergence of faith and politics can be a dangerous thing

Yonsei University, one of the oldest universities in Korea, is now offering a course on Creationism – the belief that the Universe and Life originate “from specific acts of divine creation.”  The Hankyoreh has a good article on this and the  (electrical engineering) professor’s description of his course is interesting:

It isn’t about how creationism is correct and evolution is always wrong,… As a Christian studying and teaching engineering, I have often had to think about faith and science. My aim is to talk about these concerns with students – not to try to boost creation science,…scientists in the Christian faith “often experience conflict between the words of the Bible and their scientific understanding.” The course, he explains, is intended to “find the parts of the Bible that can be tested scientifically and aid Biblical understanding through a scientific approach to creationism and evolution.”

Creationism has migrated throughout the world in different forms since the 70’s:

For decades, the creationist movement was primarily fixed in the United States. Then, in the 1970s, American creationists found their ideas welcomed abroad, first in Australia and New Zealand, then in Korea, India, South Africa, Brazil, and elsewhere—including Europe, where creationism plays an expanding role in public debates about science policy and school curricula. (cite)

however, the criticism has been made due to concerns that “trying to teach creation science as ‘science (is) against the mission of education; to take a pseudo-discipline that repudiates the established theory and teach it as if it were a specific theory rather than an opinion” (philosopher of science and Seoul National University liberal studies professor Jang Dae-ik – cite).

Whether a nation’s controversial political history or a society’s view of the world around them, what is more interesting is how the politics of belief converge with personal beliefs. Since January, Canadian Pastor Hyeon-Soo Lim has been held in North Korea on charges of engaging in “anti-D.P.R.K. missionary activities” and to set up a new “religious state”:

Mr. Lim, 60, said his goal had been to undermine the North Korean people’s “worship for the leader,” according to the report, a reference to Kim Jong-un, the authoritarian country’s supreme leader. (cite)

“The worst crime I committed was to rashly defame and insult the highest dignity and the system of the republic,” Lim told a Pyongyang congregation, apparently reading from a script”. (cite)

“Mr. Lim follows a spate of Western missionaries who have been arrested in North Korea, which has spent the last 13 years topping Open Doors’ World Watch List as the worst place for Christians to live. An estimated 70,000 Christians are held in prison camps there.”

The PRC has also been on a program to decimate the profile if not influence of Christian churches in China, however they are now drawing the wrath of state-sponsored churches as well:

Pastor Bao Guohua of The Holy Love Christian Church & his wife

Pastor Bao Guohua of The Holy Love Christian Church & his wife

Seven Christians have been detained in China accused of embezzlement and disrupting social order (i.e., doing something the Party doesn’t like). Pastor Bao Guohua, his wife and five church employees were detained in Jinhua, in eastern Zhejiang province, but the church’s lawyer, Chen Jiangang, told the BBC he believed they were being punished for protesting against the removal of their church cross. The local government in Zhejiang has recently been ordering state-sanctioned churches to stop displaying crosses… What is unusual is that this was an official church, recognised by the Communist Party. Everything had been properly approved by the authorities.

Chinese leadership has, not only a history of repression and authoritarian rule in common with the DPRK, but also feels itself as being under siege from Christianity since they apparently see Christianity as a threat to their rule.

This could be one time in history when both China and the DPRK could benefit from the influence of Christianity, though rabid protestant sects in South Korea have too often been intolerant of others and ignorant of their own culture, still, it is an influence that is a lesser evil to contend with than what currently exists.

. . . You Will Find This Hard to Swallow Too, Maybe

“The fate of South Korea’s kimchi industry rests on whether China considers it pickled or not.”

kimchi_articleThe NY Times has a very nice article on the plight of contemporary Kimchi (Chinese Trade Rules Puts Korea’s Kimchi in A Pickle). Chinese and Korean versions too.

One of the obvious differences here a visitor or resident discovers  is kimchi, which has been as ubiquitous as the somewhat dusty air that we breathe.  Personally, I note that the most essential thing that defines Korea is the importance of family, which lies at the heart of everything Korean, thus this one comment says much to me about what is important to Koreans in today’s world:

Now, most of Ms. Park’s (kimchi) customers are other market stall owners, tourists and the occasional housewife. “Nobody wants to make it at home,” she said. “It’s a bother, and they are too busy making money.

Neglecting Kimchi, maybe, is a bit like neglecting our family and that is something that one can not really blame China for, although they have much to account for when it comes to their influence upon both Koreas.

Getting Green, Getting High and Spying on The Kids

walkway concept01Seoul will get a new park and its pretty high up.

A long unused highway overpass by Seoul Station will be remolded into a “sky garden”, facilitating pedestrian space and harboring a local collection of trees and plants. (Hopefully, advertising and take-out auto-bikes will be discouraged) (cite):

walkway overviewMVRDV: an elevated park in Seoul won a contest to design the park, filling it with massive circular plant pots filled with 254 different species of flowers, shrubs and trees to create a “living dictionary of the natural heritage of Korea.” A greenhouse will grow new plants to populate the pots, and pedestrians can stop at a number of cafes, street markets, flower shops and other vendors. Once completed, the 55-foot-high structure will cut the walk around the railway station from 25 minutes to 11, and is expected to generate 1.83 times its cost in economic benefits.

The elevated park did meet with some resistence from local merchants:

. . . While the plan, initiated by Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, has been challenged by some locals, particularly merchants from Namdaemun Market located just east of the overpass, the Dutch architect openly defended the city government’s plan to renovate one of Seoul’s traditional areas. “I’m aware of the mayor’s intention for the city’s architecture … [to make it] better, greener and more livable in the project, . . . I think it’s courageous, and there might be criticisms here and there, and I’m here to defend that policy because I do think the improvements will [inspire awe] (cite).

If you are a Korean kid, who is under eighteen, then you are being  watched.

The government has decided that all kids under eighteen must have an application called “smart sherrif” installed on their smartphones. “Smart Sheriff” was developed and funded by the South Korean Government and allows parents to spy on their kids:

Smart Sheriff and at least 14 other apps allow parents to monitor how long their kids use their smartphones, how many times they use apps and which websites they visit. Some send a child’s location data to parents and issue an alert when a child searches keywords such as “suicide,” ”pregnancy” and “bully” or receives messages with those words. (cite)

Though this might be useful for parents, who wish to monitor exactly what their kids are doing, it also raises an issue of data usage since the browsing habits of kids can also be monitored by the government, through this software and no mention has been made at this time if the information, collected through this software, will be used for commercial purposes either.

Beating The Rap – Not Just for Rappers

yoo-seung-joon-wideYoo Seung-jun is a former Korean (American) pop star and was one of the biggest selling artists in Korean history, selling over 5 million records in the country. Yoo’s career in South Korea abruptly ended in 2002 due his taking on American citizenship so as to avoid doing mandatory military service in South Korea.

Yoo has now apologized and has offered to fullfil his military service however the government is not forgiving . . .

however . . .

as an editorial at the JoongAng Ilbo has pointed out:

Each year, 3,000 people give up their Korean citizenship to avoid serving in the military. In 2013, among the children of 15 high-ranking officials in the current Park Geun-hye administration – which includes Blue House secretaries – 16 gave up their Korean citizenship and were therefore exempted from service.
Shouldn’t the same strict standard apply to them as well? We may well be neglecting an even more serious issue as we harshly criticize celebrities for the same offense.

That is a good question to ask.

Sympathy for the Devil

South Korea’s High Court overturned a lower court’s February decision to imprison Cho Hyun-ah for one year for last December’s “nut rage” incident.  Seoul’s High court found that Cho did not violate aviation security law when she ordered the chief flight attendant off the December 5, 2014 flight, forcing the KAL airliner to return to the gate at JFK Airport.

Seoul’s high court meted out a 10-month prison sentence suspended for two years and set Cho free.  Deemed a flight risk before her trial, Cho had been jailed since her December arrest, and she effectively served five months in prison.

Seoul’s lower court had convicted Cho in February of “forcing a flight to change its route, obstructing the flight’s captain in the performance of his duties, forcing a crew member off a plane and assaulting a crew member.”  The lower court had found her not guilty of interfering with the transport ministry’s investigation into the incident.

At February’s trial, Cho pleaded not guilty and prosecutors sought a three year prison sentence.  Both sides appealed February’s decision and sentence.

In overturning the most serious of the lower court’s findings, Seoul’s High Court interpreted that Cho’s actions did not violate the aviation security law, which is meant to regulate severe acts such as hijacking. Seoul’s High Court determined that Cho’s actions posed no serious threat and that Cho’s demanding the return of the taxiing plane did not constitute forcing a plane to change its route.

Seoul’s High Court found that Cho had “shown remorse for the wrongdoing she committed. She must have learned a lesson from it. We judge she should have a chance to start her life anew.”

The head of the three judge panel Kim Sang-hwan found that even though Cho had used violence against crew members, Cho should be given a second chance.  The judge cited Cho’s “internal change” since Cho started serving her prison term.  Judge Kim also took into consideration that Cho had no prior convictions and was the mother of 2-year-old twins in lessening Cho’s sentence.

Former Korean Air executive Cho Hyun-ah, center, is surrounded by reporters at the Seoul High Court in Seoul, South Korea, Friday, May 22, 2015. The upper court Friday sentenced Cho to 10 months in prison and then suspended the sentence for two years. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

Cho Hyun-ah is surrounded by reporters at the Seoul High Court in Seoul, South Korea, Friday, May 22, 2015. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

Upon leaving the court house, Cho “made no comment in front of the TV cameras, bowing her head and burying her face in her hands as the media pressed in and yelled for her to say something.”

“It appears that she will have to live under heavy criticism from society and stigma,” said Judge Kim.


Aside from the worldwide notoriety and igniting of the smoldering embers below the tinderbox that Korean society is in relation to its chaebols, I think her sentence, given her time served, seems fair.  Clearly, the three years sentence sought by prosecution was excessive as would be any sentence over one year.

My major objections to the High Court’s lessening Cho’s sentence are that KAL executives and an investigator who once worked for KAL (daddy’s fiefdom company) obstructed justice on Cho’s behalf and the reduction of her sentence from one year to 10 months (suspended) reduces the sense of seriousness of her crimes.   Of course, serious crimes or lengths of prison sentences haven’t prevented Chaebol heads or their family members from returning to their positions in the past.

Cho still faces civil lawsuits, not in Korea’s mealy civil courts, in New York.


(Featured image Cho Hyun-ah leaves a Seoul court in December. Photograph: Ahn Young-joon/AP)

 

Safety At All Costs?

Starting with the Sewol accident a year ago, there have been many accidents that have occurred in Korea in the past year.

For one thing, there have been a couple of subway accidents. There was also an accident in a K-pop concert where sixteen people lost their lives. There were also a string of accidents at Hyundai in the past year. And of course, there has been the seemingly increasing number of sinkholes around Lotte Tower. Of course, there are many more examples that I could not list all of them here.

With each new accident reported in the news, there is plenty of hand-wringing in the news media. For instance, this op-ed from The Korea Times claimed “incompetence, irresponsibility and a lack of safety awareness” can be blamed for the Sewol accident. The earlier article about the subway accidents blamed outsourcing of safety inspections.

I am sure that those same culprits can be blamed for almost every other accident that occurs in Korea.

There are a lot more examples of hand-wringing that can be found on social media where the chastising is more sarcastic.

Of course, corporations have been blamed for the accidents, also. Specifically, many people have blamed businesses’ “ppali ppali culture” as well as “businesses that put money and profits ahead of human lives and safety.”

However, what none of these moirologists ever specifies is how much fewer accidents there have to be for them to be satisfied. Must the number of accidents be halved, or at least reduced by a third? How much should businesses spend on safety precautions before they are satisfied that businesses are not putting profits ahead of people? Or will they not be satisfied until there isn’t a single accident that ever occurs anywhere within Korea’s borders, including its maritime borders?

More importantly, do people truly believe that Koreans really lack safety awareness? If they do truly believe that, then I have to wonder just how arrogant and self-righteous one has to be to actually think that to be true.

It is true that we do not often think of our own mortality. Can you imagine if each person in the world actually spent a significant amount of time thinking about their own inevitable ends each day?

So we choose to put the Grim Reaper at the back of our minds and until that fateful day comes, we continue to choose to live because we must. And while we live, we have to make choices. And sometimes, those choices come down to choosing between safety and convenience.

Despite all the moralizing and hand-wringing that people take part in, the fact of the matter is that safety does not always trump convenience. If it did, no one would ever do anything. Jaywalking, eating food sold by a street vendor, climbing a mountain, swimming in a lake, getting inside a taxi cab – each of those things carries certain amounts of risk.

At every waking moment, each of us has to make trade-offs. Do we sacrifice some safety to get more convenience, or do we sacrifice some convenience to get more safety?

However, those are private choices that each of us has to make for our own selves. And no one should presume that their preferred balance between safety and convenience is or ought to be the preferred balance for everyone else.

But what about those children who died on that ferry? They didn’t choose to put their lives in danger. There was no trade-off between safety and convenience. They implicitly trusted that the ferry they boarded was going to be safe. The ship’s captain, some of the crew, Chonghaejin Marine Company, and the coast guard failed them all.

That is, indeed, true. When it comes to third-parties who suffer from the choices that others have made for them, there is no satisfying answer. There is no “gotcha” argument or a clever turn of phrase that people can give that will satisfy everyone. The best that we can say is that better decision-making ought to be practiced and incentivized.

However, we must never kid ourselves and delude ourselves into believing that human life is somehow priceless. The truth of the matter is that no human life is worth an infinite value. Life is all about trade-offs. And at the end of the day, we have to decide how much money, how much comfort, or how much anything we are willing to sacrifice to save one additional life.

For example, if there were a way to make sure that no ferry would ever sink again, but it would cost a billion dollars to do it, would anyone actually spend a billion dollars on each ferry to ensure such an outcome? No, no one would do such a thing. Such a decision would soak up resources that are needed for other things.

If not a billion dollars, then how about a hundred thousand dollars? Or a thousand dollars? No one can answer this question and say that it ought to be the same answer that everyone else ought to give.

Contemptible as it may be, economic factors have to be taken into account and we must remember that economic factors set a limit on what is feasible to do. It is easy to say that no amount of money should ever be valued more than the life of another human being. It sounds nice, but, like most rhetoric, it is empty of thought. Moral intuitions, even the most well-intended kinds, can lead people astray; and it is absolutely necessary to subject moral judgments to a reality check.

Random Thoughts from the First Anniversary of the Sewol Accident

Absconding President and Angry Parents

On the day of the first anniversary of the accident that took more than 300 lives, President Park Geun-hye hurriedly absconded the country for a previously scheduled 12-day tour of four South American countries.

Her decision to leave the country on that particular day has been the source of much tongue wagging, for understandable reasons, as can be seen from John Power’s tweet here.

(For those who do not read Korean, Power’s tweet translates to: “Are there cases in other countries where the president has left on the first anniversary of a big tragedy?”)

The president’s decision does, indeed, stink, just like the way the government’s response to the aftermath of the tragedy has stunk for the past year. But would her being at the ceremony helped? What would it have accomplished?

When President Park visited the memorial site in the morning before she left for South America, the families of the victims refused to meet with her. Prime Minister Lee Wan-koo was also blocked from paying his respects by the families. Never mind that he was not in office when the Sewol accident took place.

 

Prime Minister being blocked from paying his respects

Prime Minister Lee being blocked from paying his respects

 

People on this blog have told me that the president should have “bitten the bullet.” But what kind of bullet would she have bitten? It’s quite clear that the families are not looking for an apology from the president. They don’t even want to see her or allow her to pay her respects or even allow her cabinet ministers to do the same.

Their anger is understandable. However, seeing how they do not seem to wish to have their anger assuaged, at least not by President Park, I do not see how the president’s presence at the ceremony would have helped to improve things in any way, shape, or form.

It’s true that President Park has handled the aftermath of the sinking very poorly, amateurish, in fact. There is no question about that. However, as I have said before, I am convinced that her decision to leave the country yesterday may have been the least bad decision that she could have made about attending the ceremony.

For reasons that could have been avoided, President Park has become such a toxic figure to so many people that her presence there would have only exacerbated matters.

 

Korea the Police State?

Here is the way Merriam-Webster defines “police state.”

A political unit characterized by repressive governmental control of political, economic, and social life usually by an arbitrary exercise of power by police and especially secret police in place of regular operation of administrative and judicial organs of the government according to publicly known legal procedures.

There was a time when this description DID apply to South Korea. The Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan administrations come immediately to mind.

Other examples of police states that come to mind are North Korea, Nazi Germany, East Germany, the Soviet Union, and Apartheid South Africa.

Modern-day South Korea, however, is NOT an example of a police state. Regardless of anyone’s rhetoric.

So why am I bringing this up? That’s because any time a massive rally or protest takes place, and the protesters are met by thousands of police officers, people never seem to fail to mention, carelessly I might add, that Korea is either turning into a police state or is already a police state.

For instance, Se-Woong Koo, the editor-in-chief of Korea Exposé published this image on his Facebook page, which he captioned by saying:

“The sad reality of South Korea: a police state protected by frightened barely legal kids wielding video cameras from people holding flowers.”

Simply because there is a large police force in an area where thousands of mourning (and potentially angry) protesters have all gathered together for a common cause just a stone’s throw away from the Blue House does not mean that the country has turned into a police state.

Mr. Koo is not the only person to be guilty of resorting to this type of logic. Many people think the same way.

What I do not understand is the mentality behind it. Why is it that it never seems to occur to some people that it was precisely the presence of huge numbers of police officers on the scene that prevented potential rioting without actually having to use excessive force? Why do some people immediately jump to the conclusion that any police presence is “excessive” or “an overreaction?”

More importantly, what would those same people be saying today had there not been such a police force and the ceremony had become more violent?

And it is not that hard to imagine that any mob could grow violent. The fact of the matter is that violent protests are not unheard of in Korea. There have been times when what started out as peaceful protests ended with arson (see here and here). There was also that one time when the chief of the Jongno Police Precinct was assaulted by demonstrators in what was supposedly a peaceful political protest against the ROK-US free trade agreement.

Just because yesterday’s rally was not marred by violence does not mean that the police can afford to take chances and simply assume that thousands of mournful and angry protesters in Gwanghwamun Square will not decide to do something as foolish as trying to storm the Blue House.

The police erred on the side of caution. This is something to be praised, not derided.

So what police state are people talking about? I don’t see one. Do you?

A Solution for the History Textbook War

Personally, I enjoy watching musicals. So, when there was a showing of Wicked a few years ago here in Korea, I was one of the many people who went to watch the show.

Yes, Gravity was certainly the highlight of the show and it was certainly exhilarating to watch Elphaba belt those high notes during the song’s climax. However, the song that I thought was rather under-appreciated was Wonderful, which was performed by the Wizard.

The part of the song that caught my attention was:

Where I come from, we believe all sorts of things that aren’t true. We call it history.

A man’s called a traitor or liberator.

A rich man’s a thief or philanthropist.

Is one a crusader or ruthless invader?

It’s all in which label is able to persist.

And that brings me to the History Textbook War that is being waged between Korea and Japan. The Japanese government seems to be doing all it can to whitewash its history regardless of how much it might offend its closest neighbors’ sensibilities. And it’s not like as though the Japanese are unaware of how its neighbors feel about it.

Of course, it’s not only the Japanese who are diving head first into the sea of historical revisionism. So are the Koreans.

With each side trying to make sure that history is taught “properly,” it appears that this rhetorical conflict will not end any time soon.

But is there really no solution? Are Korea and Japan forever destined to go through this series of sickening motions every time either country has an election coming up?

It doesn’t need to be so. I have a modest proposal. My proposal is for both countries to get their respective governments out of the business of authorizing text books altogether.

As Steven Denney said in the link that I provided earlier:

There is a fine but significant line between the history of a nation and nationalist histories. The former is more likely to be objective, the latter anything but.

Seeing how the only way this conflict will proceed is that both sides will get into a shouting match every time there is an election in either country, which, unfortunately also prevents both countries from doing other important things such as, oh I don’t know, having a summit between the leaders, the best way forward seems to be to allow individual publishing companies to publish their own history textbooks; as well as to allow individual teachers to select the textbooks that they think reflect the most accurate version of history.

No, it is not a perfect solution. There is no such thing as a perfect solution. There will always be those Japanese right-wing publishers that will claim that comfort women did not exist and that Dokdo is Japanese territory. There will always be Korean left-wing publishers that will claim that the only thing Park Chung-hee ever did was to torture his political opponents while accepting Japanese blood money. There will always be nutty teachers and parents who will think that an obviously biased interpretation of history is THE correct version of history. And the students will always be the ones who will suffer.

But it’s not like as though the current situation seems to be doing anything that much differently.

The difference is that by completely privatizing the publishing and distribution of textbooks, at least both governments will have that much less ammunition to attack each other with. And hopefully, the market will show that the number of people who actually have a life is greater than the number of those people who take to the streets with their effigies and banners denouncing the people in the other country as evil pigs.

If enough people in both Korea and Japan can agree with this opinion and tell their respective governments to can it, maybe, just maybe, both countries can move on to something else, like I don’t know, economic cooperation?

Whiplash and Bullying in Korea

Warning: This blog post will be discussing the movie Whiplash. If you have not yet seen the movie and would like to avoid any spoilers, please, stop reading this post.

 

1

 

I went to the cinema yesterday to see what all this hype around Whiplash was about; seeing how well the movie did in Korea. By the time the movie ended, I felt conflicted. The movie aroused a mix of emotions that seemed like a combination of revulsion, hatred, pity, sympathy and, oddly, admiration. In other words, it was a very similar mix of emotions that I had felt during my time in the ROK Army.

As I watched J.K. Simmons‘ portrayal of Terence Fletcher, the abusive conservatory professor at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory in New York, I felt like I was back in Nonsan Army Training Center. The moment he walks into his classroom, the students sit at attention and stare forward in complete silence, vigilantly watching Fletcher’s hands for the slightest movement to begin playing their assigned parts to his brutal level of perfection or else.

Of course, there are many differences between the fictional Fletcher and the real-life drill sergeants at Nonsan. Today’s ROK Army is a kinder and gentler army where every officer, commissioned and non-commissioned, has to be wary of conscripts who could potentially kill themselves and others. In fact, the ROK Army has gone to the other extreme in trying to eliminate bullying and hazing. A few months before I was discharged, the battalion that I served in became one of the first units in the ROK Army to implement a new barracks policy. To explain, under this new policy, conscripts were no longer bunked with their squadmates (who each has a different rank), but rather with other conscripts of the same rank – regardless of the fact that those other same-rank conscripts might not even be part of the same company.

Although this certainly reduced the ability for soldiers to bully and haze each other, what this has done to discipline,  unit cohesion, overall morale, and combat-readiness, however, is a different matter. But I digress.

The point is that comparing Fletcher, an abusive and probably racist tyrant who would endanger a student’s life, to any typical real-life army drill sergeant in the ROK Army is ridiculous. However, the intensity, the motivation, the drive, and the intimidation that one feels whenever Simmons is on scene is the same. Simmons’ acting skill was the epitome of raw talent and the man certainly deserved the accolades that he had been awarded.

 

Image Source: http://www.newyorker.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Brody-Whiplash-1200.jpg

Image Source: http://www.newyorker.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Brody-Whiplash-1200.jpg

Toward the end of the movie, as Fletcher is having a drink with one of his former students, Andrew Neiman, who was played by baby-faced Miles Teller, Fletcher says something that I thought was truly amazing.

He says that the reason he was so hard on his students was in order to push them to be greater than they thought possible; that he would never apologize for trying to make his students great. And the thing that he says that nearly won me over is that in today’s society, people don’t seem to want to push people to greatness, but rather tell them that they are good enough, no matter how mediocre they may be. Fletcher then says, “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than “good job.””

I wasn’t sure whether that was the lie that Fletcher told himself to justify his actions or if he was being honest. But it was an unapologetic call to say “no” to mediocrity. Regardless of what else was going on in the movie, that single line was what made me feel admiration and respect for this monster. And Fletcher truly was a monster.

I had to leave the cinema where the magic that is movie-making could no longer cloud my judgment before I realized just how truly horrific Fletcher was. Fletcher was no Coach Carter or even a Tiger Mom whose actions might possibly be defendable. Not even close. Fletcher was a simple bully and bullies do not do anything to protect or help their victims. They only seek to inflict pain and misery on their victims.

A few years ago, I remember watching on the news about a group of university students (선배) who had beaten their 후배 to “instill discipline.” The savagery of the beatings that they committed were overshadowed only by the threats and the insults they hurled at the freshman students.

When the story aired on the news, the abusers sat next to their parents as they were being interviewed, their faces blotted out and their voices disguised. They were weeping. They desperately defended themselves by saying that they only did what they did to help their 후배. I remember feeling nothing besides revulsion and disgust at those vile creatures. What was truly bizarre, however, was that some of the victims came to the defense of the abusers, giving the same excuses for them that they gave for themselves. It was absolutely chilling to see Stockholm Syndrome in action.

(For the life of me, I cannot find the link to that story.)

In the movies, however, even monsters can be made to look like misunderstood heroes. And that’s how Fletcher is portrayed in the movie. “The next Charlie Parker would never be discouraged,” Fletcher says. And Neiman, the perennially bullied student, keeps trying to win Fletcher’s respect because Neiman is determined to be the next Charlie Parker. Never mind the fact that it is revealed in the movie that one of Fletcher’s previous students, who never appeared on screen, killed himself after having been abused by him for so long – something that is not unheard of in Korea.

In real-life, bullies are the furthest thing from heroes, even the most misunderstood types. By the time I came to, a part of me was concerned about the movie’s popularity. Was it so popular in Korea because the bullying that was portrayed was reflective of so much of Korea’s militaristic and hierarchical society? Or was it popular because so many Koreans might be suffering from some form of Stockholm Syndrome, therefore using that movie to justify their behavior or to tell themselves that they should endure as much bullying as they can because “the next Charlie Parker would never be discouraged?”

Whiplash was a truly amazing movie and J.K. Simmons’ acting chops has made him my new favorite actor. However, it was also a terrifying movie because it romanticizes and justifies bullying.

Regardless of how one may feel after having watched the movie, no one will leave the cinema without a strong opinion about it one way or the other.

Are Koreans really unhappy? And what should be done about it?

How happy or unhappy are Koreans? The answer seems to depend on whom you’re asking.

According to this Gallup poll, Koreans rank 118th place out of a total of 143 countries. In this poll, Koreans are ranked as being as unhappy as Palestinians and even unhappier than the Iraqis. If the Iraqis weren’t so busy trying to get out of ISIS’ way, I think it is possible that they might post a series of “first world problem” memes to mock Koreans.

However, it is not all doom and gloom for Koreans. That is because according to this poll from Bloomberg, Koreans are the fourth happiest people in the world – far happier than Americans, the people whom Tocqueville praised for their optimism.

So why the discrepancy?

It has to do with the fact that “happiness” is a vague and complex concept, which means something different to different people. After all, how many of us can truly define what happiness is; which we can all universally agree to be correct? Even if happiness could be defined in such a way that everyone in the world could agree with the definition, how does anyone measure a qualitative concept? Quantifying a subjective opinion, which could be based on numerous factors such as affluence, culture, mood, psychological conditions, the weather, etc., is impossible. Therefore, it is no surprise that when researchers attempt to define and measure happiness in order to generate something that resembles meaningful data, the results are wildly different.

As such, pursuing government policies that are meant to increase happiness levels could lead to outcomes that could make people even less happy than they were before.

So, how would the government go about to improve happiness? Raising tariffs on rice might make the rice farmers happy, but what about the consumers who will not have the opportunity to buy cheaper rice? It could lead to happiness for some, but less for others. In fact, people tend to get quite a bit upset if there is even a hint that the government is helping some people become happier while it neglects others.

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As happiness is such a subjective concept, when policymakers try to improve people’s happiness, even if they have the purest intentions, as per human nature, they will naturally pursue policies based on their own idea about what makes people happy as opposed to what people actually care about. Which defeats the whole purpose of measuring happiness.

So, if the government cannot directly affect people’s happiness, at least not in a positive way, then what is the alternative? In my opinion, what the government should focus on is pursuing reforms that allow people the greatest freedom to pursue whatever makes them happy.

That way, the government would be able to deal with other pressing matters, such as national security, while leaving the pursuit of happiness to the people. After all, who knows better than the people themselves about what makes them happy?

Chejudo and the Influx of Chinese Money

Choe Sang-hun has an interesting article on the effect of so many Chinese pouring into Chejudo and the local government’s own policies that makes it easier for foreigners to buy property, though the influx of Chinese has pushed the price of property there up higher than before:

Although Chinese-owned land in Jeju is still less than 1 percent, it has grown to 2,050 acres last year from just five acres in 2009. More than 70 percent of $6.1 billion in foreign investments in Jeju announced between 2010 and last year came from China

jejuweddingThe local government has even advertised in the PRC for wedding tours.  Jeju Tourism Organization has been working with five tourism companies to create wedding tour programs for customers from the mainland. (cite) According to the link, “350,000 overseas tourists have visited Chejudo and just over half, or about 190,000, have come from China, which is approximately 180% up from last year.

Another Wall Street Journal article explains some of the reasons why travel to and investment in Chejudo is growing in popularity for Chinese (cite):

. . .Jeju is a one-hour flight from Shanghai and 2½ hours from Beijing. “The major reason for most people to travel to Jeju is that it’s visa-free. And the price for group travel is so cheap,” said Willa Wu, a Hangzhou, China, businesswoman who has traveled to Jeju several times.

The Choe article is here.

What is the answer to 내가 누군지 아느냐 “Do you know who I am?”

甲乙 관계

The ideal 甲乙 관계?


Maybe 손석희 Sohn Sukhee should have a change of career to being an anchor in the style of the Daily Show, because I actually laughed out aloud a couple of times watching this clip in which he addresses the problem plaguing the Korean society, the so-called ‘갑질’ of the have’s and the powerful, over the poor and the powerless, encapsulated by the question
“DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?”

Apparently that was what a drunk executive officer of the Blue House civil office shouted when he was taken to the police station after beating up a taxi driver. He was dismissed from his post yesterday.

Everybody is supposed to be equal especially in a democratic system, and if anything, both public and private conduct should be measured by a harsher ruler for those who are *in office*. However, in Korea, a relatively newcomer to the Western-style democracy and social-system, if anybody gets into office, or money, or power and they typically think it is a licence to lord over the rest and get away with acting like they are something special.

The reason such conduct is called ‘갑질’ is because traditionally in legal documents, two parties are denoted 갑(甲)and 을(乙) and usually it’s the employers (the former) which were the 갑’s. The word ‘질’ is simply a Korean slang word which follows some other word to negatively denote some a bad conduct e.g. 손가락질, 삿대질, 욕질 etc. Therefore, it’s a newfangled media-word which combined to denote saying misuse of power (in particular in the way of ‘do you know who you are talking to?’)

Sohn ends the commentary with another question as an answer to the question:
“Who *are* you?”

Well, there is always the football chant, ‘Who are ya? ‘:

Know yourself.
너 자신을 알라.

(image taken from: http://m.zum.com/news/economy/6797828)

Shhhhhhh . . .

gagConsidering the current concern with satire and free speech, Hyung-Jin Kim’s (AP) article on Shin Eun-mi, the Korean-American woman that has been accused of saying nice things about the DPRK, is a recent report concerning the National Security Act, free speech in South Korea and the politically inspired abuse of such in South Korea.

Shin Eun-mi is due to voluntarily leave today (?) after the Prosecutor’s Office issued a request to have her deported from South Korea today, due to her praise of the DPRK. The Prosecutor’s Office has also requested that she be barred from returning to South Korea for five years and that she be required to apply for a visa to return after that time, even though US citizens do not need a visa to visit South Korea (link). Shin Eun-mi’s “praise” has been construed as being a violation of the controversial National Security Act (an abbreviated translation of it is here). This has also not been the first time a foreign national has been expelled from South Korea for expressing pro-DPRK views – last year, a Chinese student was expelled for such for “suspicions of ‘aiding the enemy'”. (link) The National Security Act has long been a means by which critics of the ROK Government and DPRK supporters, both, have been prosecuted and imprisoned for up to seven years.

This issue illustrates the political intolerance that has characterized the current administration in squashing not only those that say good things about the DPRK but those that criticize the politicians in power and those that would expose the majority party’s incidences of violating the law though means of illegally manipulating government agencies, such as the NIS, or the use of media allies to help thwart investigation into their own violations of law.
Even the closest ally of South Korea thinks that the South Korean Government has gone too far in suppressing what most Americans would consider to be a freedom of speech issue:

. . . In a rare note of criticism of a key ally, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that despite South Korea’s generally strong record on human rights, the (South Korean) security law limits freedom of expression and restricts access to the Internet.

A fair description about the current state of South Korean politics and its effect upon free speech and political commentary, by Jamie Doucette and Se-Woong Koo, describes how the security act and government have grown bolder in using the issue of state security to supress those that would indulge their opinions:

. . . In this essay, we argue that this rhetorical shift has been accompanied by an expansion of what South Korean intellectuals term ‘politics by public security,’ a phrase used to describe the use of public security as a ground for stifling dissent and criticism. What is unique about the present moment is not simply the evocation of a threat to national security but the extent to which state agencies have been actively involved in this process, whether it be in the form of direct electoral interference, the leaking of confidential state documents, or the initiation of probes into prominent critics of the government from across the liberal-progressive opposition. In what follows, we examine the recent sequence of events from NIS electoral interference to the more recent move to disband the United Progressive Party in order to better understand distorting effects to Korean democracy brought about by this recent rhetorical shift and its intricate relation to ‘politics by public security.’

A link to this essay can be found here

‘Hate speech’ a.k.a. when eating pizza is a crime

Over at the Korea Herald, Claire Lee has penned a piece on hate speech, hate crimes and Korea’s lack of hate speech and anti-discrimination laws.

Much of the focus of the piece is on Ilbe, a right-leaning online group discussed here before. While I certainly condemn firebomb attacks on anyone, even against alleged pro-North Korean sympathizers, and think folk who praise such acts of wanton mayhem probably should sit down and seriously reflect for a while, I found some of the ideas expressed in the Korea Herald piece quite disturbing, frankly, from a civil liberties perspective.

Over at The Korean Foreigner, John Lee – lovely gent whom I had the pleasure of meeting recently – did a superb job, IMHO, of looking at “hate speech” and “hate crimes” from an informed libertarian perspective. In it, he points out something I think is quite important:

Hate crimes and hate speech often get lumped together, but I think it is important to distinguish the two. For one, the former is an act that is committed against another individual that violates his right to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. On the other hand, the latter is simply a form of speech – though admittedly one of the more vile types.

I think most of us can agree that firebombing a lecture or attacking a leading conservative politician with a razor (as happened to now-President Park Geun-hye in 2006) should not only be condemned, but the people who engage in those acts should serve lengthy prison sentences. I fail to see, however, why, say, eating pizza in front of hunger strikers should be considered a crime. Professor Choung Wan of Kyung Hee University Law School argues that it should be, however, and for reasons I find quite chilling:

However, Choung Wan, professor at Kyung Hee University Law School, said both the terror attack by Oh and the “binge-eating” protest against the Sewol victim’s father, can be clearly viewed as acts of hate crime.

“Expressing your opinion is one thing,” the law expert said in a phone interview. “But if you are hurting others in the process, it’s called violence and discrimination.”

Like Choi, Choung also said it is important for South Korea to promulgate comprehensive legislation against hate speech crimes, as the country is becoming more diverse socially, ethnically and culturally.

“Hatred often consists of regional prejudice and this is also linked to racism,” Choung said.

“And there is no ‘natural’ way of combating prejudice. For many, it does not go away ‘naturally.’ That is why we need to regulate hate speech. Seemingly innocuous prejudice may snowball into more pernicious forms (when expressed and shared by many), and result in dangerous consequences.”

Banning speech in an attempt to shape the way people think is the very definition of Orwellian Newspeak. And while it is bad to “hurt other people” in expressing your feeling – indeed, it’s illegal – “hurting other people’s feelings” should not be the standard by which we legally define the limits of speech in a free society.

I do realize there is a fine line between “free speech” and “incitement.” But even with the latter, it seems we must very, very careful in how we assign blame with even seditious speech, especially when legal sanctions are concerned. One of my favorite conservative commentators, National Review’s Charles C. W. Cooke, discusses this very issue in regards to the recent shooting of two New York City police officers, which has sparked a similar debate over the limits of acceptable speech in the United States:

That being said, the suggestion that those who chanted these words somehow “caused” or are “culpable” for the actions of a killer strikes me as a real stretch — as, for that matter, does the proposition that “anti-police protestors” bear some sort of collective “responsibility” for what happened on Saturday. Unless I am very much mistaken, nobody who chanted their death-wishes proposed any concrete action whatsoever. Nobody singled out a target or discussed tactics or agreed to return later with weapons. Nobody established a training camp or organized a rendezvous point or planted a bomb. Indeed, nobody did anything much at all. As is now clear, there were no ”mobs” or “groups of rioters” involved in the murders at all. Rather, some members within a group of peaceful protestors said something terrible (if abstract), and a troubled man in another locale went on a killing spree. Were these two events in some way correlated? Perhaps, yes. There is no doubt that the man intended to target cops in New York. But can we establish causation, or even blame? Nope.

All told, those of us who value robust free expression should be extremely reluctant to so casually transmute “there may have been a vague connection between these words and these actions” into “those who spoke the most forcefully are morally culpable and their entire movement should be shunned in consequence.” This latter approach was preposterous back when Sarah Palin was blamed for the shooting of Gabby Giffords. It was bizarre when the shooting at the Family Research Council was blamed on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (sophomoric) “hate map.” It was farcical when the Isla Vista shooting was blamed on “white privilege” and “rape culture.” It was ridiculous when Timothy McVeigh was blamed on “militias” or on talk radio. And it is wrong in this case, too. Words, as ever, do not pull triggers, however harsh those words may be.

Photo by kungfubonanza.

KCNA irony alert

On a related topic – the Constitutional Court’s dissolving of the left-wing United Progressive Party – North Korea’s KCNA has weighed in. This is not surprising, of course, but I did find this bit mildly interesting (HT to you-know-who-you-are):

Park, figured herself a bandog, revenged herself upon the UPP for campaigning against her during the “presidential election”, which arouses much criticism even from the Amnesty International and other international human rights bodies.
[…]
The decision on the UPP disbandment only lays bare the political backwardness of south Korean society before the international community.

Clearly the KCNA hasn’t read what Amnesty has to say about their bosses.

UPDATE: In the comments, John Power writes:

Irrespective of the merits or otherwise of hate speech legislation, this particular discussion seems almost academic given the endless ways in which Korea already regulates expression. It’s already a crime — not a civil matter — to “defame” someone by speaking the truth, to insult someone, to speak ill of the dead, to praise North Korea. The list goes on.

From my perspective, there is relatively little appreciation of freedom expression at the legal and — yes, controversial though it may be to say — societal level. Korea is not an individualistic society. Certainly, there is nothing remotely comparable to the American tradition. But more than that, I genuinely wonder if there is a developed country anywhere with comparably weak protections of speech. (There may be, but I imagine Korea would give it fair competition.)

Now, to be fair, Korea’s defamation laws are widely misunderstood – telling the truth will rarely, if ever, get you convicted for defamation, even if the powerful frequently use defamation laws to harass critics (admittedly a big problem). That said, I suppose one could find it odd that given the restrictions on speech already in place – in regards to reputation, North Korea, etc. – that hate speech laws aren’t already in place.

Pardon moi? (redux)

Pardon me for resurrecting a prior post.

Voices for imprisoned conglomerate owners’ paroles and even pardons are gaining volume in Park Geun-hye’s ministries.  Floating pardons over a long yuletide weekend, the Blue House seems to be taking a page from the White House’s old play book.

On Christmas Eve, ruling Saenuri Party leader Kim Moo-sung argued for paroles and even special pardons for businessmen behind bars. “As the nation’s economy is struggling, those who need to work should work. Investment is impossible without the owner’s decision,” Kim said.

The day after Christmas, Floor Leader Lee Wan-koo banged the parole drum. “If the government requests discussions about conditional release of business people, we can consult with the main opposition party.”  Party spokesman Park Dae-chul gave an official statement:  “The role of entrepreneurs is important in order for Korea to revive the economy that remains in the doldrums. We urge the government to deeply agonize over the issue given the two criteria of economy and law.”

Cheong Wa Dae spokesman Min Kyung-wook told reporters that he did not know whether the president’s office was considering granting parole to businessmen, adding the Justice Ministry, not Cheong Wa Dae, is the authority on the matter: “Entrepreneurial parole is the justice minister’s own right.

The Joongang Ilbo added, “although the Blue House did not officially endorse granting parole for the convicted executives”, deference to the Justice Ministry could be “interpreted as its tacit recognition of the need to allow company heads more leniency in the legal system.”  In an opinion piece, the Joongang Ilbo went so far as to say “the minister’s comments could well translate into his de facto consent.”

Those eligible for parole include SK Group Chairman Chey Tae-won and his younger brother Jae-won.  The older Chey has served 23 months of his four-year sentence for embezzling tens of billions of won of his company’s money.  LIG Group Chairman Koo Bong-sang is also eligible for parole, having served 26 months of his four-year sentence for defrauding 215 billion won ($198 million) from investors.

Serving less than one-third of their terms, other imprisoned chaebol leaders are ineligible for parole; a presidential pardon is their only opt out of prison. A rouges’ gallery sampling includes the following:

  • CJ Group Chairman Lee Jae-hyun –  Sentenced in September to a three-year prison term for embezzlement, breach of trust, and tax evasion totaling 165.7 billion won (US$159.5 million). Having served only four months, Lee has been granted temporary medical parole to remain in the hospital for treatment following a kidney transplant.
  • Taekwang Group Chairman Lee Ho-jin – Sentenced to 4 1/2 years for embezzlement and breach of trust.  Having served 63 days behind bars, Lee has been hospitalized for two years and waiting for a liver transplant.
  • Former STX Group Chairman Kang Duk-soo – Sentenced in October to six years for cooking the company’s books for 584.1 billion won ($556.2 million) and embezzlement (67.9 billion won).  To his credit, “the figures were much smaller than the charges raised by the prosecution, which had claimed Kang’s accounting fraud and embezzlement reached 2.3 trillion won and 340 billion won, respectively.”
  • Tongyang Group Chairman Hyun Jae-hyun -Sentenced in October to 12 years in prison for fraud.  Hyun ordered Tong Yang affiliates to issue 1.3 trillion won (US$1.2 billion) worth of virtually worthless corporate bonds and commercial paper. “The business tycoon systematically covered up the companies’ troubled finances by asking media to delete or tone down articles questioning their financial health,” the court added.

All news stories and opinion pieces seemed to omit that the heads of Korea’s ministries are appointed, not elected, and Korea’s is not a coalition government.  The Justice Minister, appointed by PGH, serves at the President’s pleasure and carries out the President’s policies.  If Chung Wa Dae were against granting paroles, all speculation would end with a simple no.

Complicating the Justice Ministry’s plans for paroles and pardons are candidate Park Geun-hye’s own words (“There will be no special pardons of tycoons“) and the recent nut-rage incident, which brought to the surface Koreans’ long suffering and ever broiling sense of Korean chaebols’ families’ perceived entitlement and privilege.

These handful of minority, though perhaps plurality, shareholders have successfully held their companies and other shareholders hostage and hoodwinked the Korean government and media into thinking that the whole of the Korean economy depends on their captaining of their companies …which they embezzled from and defrauded …which is the reason they are in prison.  The Joongang Ilbo opined against a “quid pro quo”, that “the government must not grant them parole in exchange for promises to increase investments. It should be a matter of principles, not a business transaction.”  Under what principle should an embezzler of nearly $200 million dollars be paroled from serving his four year sentence?

All this makes me wonder how Apple would fare if Steve Jobs were to die or what Microsoft would do if Bill Gates retired to pursue philanthropy.  Given Korea’s dependence on Samsung, the real elephant in the economy, what would happen if Lee Kun-hee suffered an incapacitating heart attack?

I 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.

Pardon my French, but ce qui la baise?

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