The Marmot's Hole

Korea... in Blog Format

Category: Korean Society (page 1 of 38)

“I Was Drunk, in Love… Joking!”

“I was drunk”

Comedian admits to husband’s sexual harassment

Putting a twist on the “I was drunk” defense, comedian Lee Kyung-sil admitted her husband, identified only as Choi, 58, did indeed sexually harass a woman as alleged “but added he was drunk at the time.”

The alleged victim reported the harassment to the police on August 19, a day after she, Choi, and seven others drank together. The woman, the wife of Choi’s friend, reported to police that Choi had sexually harassed her while Choi was giving her a ride home after the gathering.

At his trial last Thursday, Choi conceded the allegation was true.  “However, he said he could not control his mind and body because he had been drinking prior to the incident.”

That’s some friend and husband Choi, 58, is.  Apparently neither he nor his lawyer got the memo about the “I was drunk” defense.  Reading the news account of the Supreme Court decision, however, I see that the decision covers rape and not mere sexual assault and battery.  I’m not even convinced that Korea’s Supreme Court set a precedent for all rape cases or rape cases in general.

Comedian Lee Kyung-sil’s defense of her husband makes me wonder whether she’s doing shtick and “but he was drunk at the time” is a punchline.

“I was in love”

Prosecutors appeal over rape case verdict

Prosecutors have appealed and the Supreme Court will review the case of a man, 46, who was found not Identified Only as 'A'guilty of raping a teenage girl.

The man, identified only as “A” and owner of an entertainment company, was indicted for allegedly raping a middle school student 27 years his junior.

According to evidence given at lower court trials, the man had sexual relations with the woman, identified as “B,” many times and got her pregnant in 2011. “B” was 15 at the time.

“A” was indicted after “B” reported to police that she was raped.

“A” was found guilty at the first and second trials.

But last November the Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s decision, as “A” kept insisting he had loved “B.” It sent the case back to the lower court, which ruled on Oct. 16 that he is not guilty of rape.

“But the nation’s highest court is unlikely to change its stance on the case, which it has reviewed before, legal sources said.”

Well, so long as he loved “the woman… 15 at the time.”

“I was… Joking!”

Choi Mong-ryong, professor emeritus at Seoul National University, answers reporters’ questions in front of his house in Yeouido, Seoul, Friday. He said he will not take part in writing the history textbook after news reports that he sexually harassed a newspaper reporter. ( Yonhap)

Choi Mong-ryong, professor emeritus at Seoul National University, answers reporters’ questions in front of his house in Yeouido, Seoul, Friday. He said he will not take part in writing the history textbook after news reports that he sexually harassed a newspaper reporter. ( Yonhap)

State textbook plan hits snag

Choi Mong-ryong, professor emeritus of Seoul National University (SNU) and one of the two lead authors of the textbooks under the National Institute of Korean History (NIKH), said he will not take part in writing the controversial textbooks after a newspaper reporter’s allegations that he sexually harassed her were made public.

Choi’s resignation came two days after the NIKH announced its plan to organize a writing team to implement the new schoolbook policy and is expected to hamper PGH’s plan to push the state authorized textbooks into schools by March 2017.

Choi “allegedly kissed a female journalist on the cheek and groped her after drinking alcohol when she visited his home along with several other reporters. The reporters visited his home because he didn’t appear at the NIKH press conference, Wednesday. Choi denied the harassment accusation but he conveyed his willingness to quit the writing team. ‘I admit I made a joke, but reporters didn’t express any displeasure,’ Choi said.  ‘I don’t understand this controversy.’ ”

Choi appears to have a problem with his version of events:  “On Friday, he claimed to the Dong-A Ilbo that he remembered drinking alcohol but not sexually harassing the journalist or having a physical contact with her.”

All news items are recent:  the comedian’s husband and joking textbook writer broke last Thursday, Humbert Kim happened at the end of October.

In the I was drunk case, “he said he could not control his mind and body because he had been drinking prior to the incident.”  Such claims are so commonplace as a defense or mitigating factor in rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment that I wonder how alcohol, which seemingly turns Korean Dr. Jekylls into foreign Mr. Hydes, remains legal under Korean law, which purports to be based on deductive reasoning.

I wonder whether any defendant has mounted an “I was drunk” defense as an exculpatory or mitigating factor in a drunk driving case.  If Korean courts reject “I was drunk” as a defense in drunk driving (and other crimes) but accept the defense in rape cases, what does the defense say about the nature of Korean men?

In the I was in love case, the 15 year old girl filed rape charges.  If the Korean court ruled that the sex was consensual (Korea’s age of consent being another gripe for another day), well that’s that.  The court ruled, however, that because ‘A’, at the time a 42 year old man ,”loved” 15 year old ‘B’, ignoring the issue of consent, no rape took place.

In the I was… Jokng incident, Seoul National University, where Choi spent his academic career, seems to be a hotbed of sexual harassment with reports of senior faculty taking advantages of students published several times each year and needs to reexamine its culture.

The KT article included a chilling and gratuitous reminder of the current climate in Korea:  “In the meantime, the National Police Agency said it will crack down on those who resort to violence and defamation against members of the textbook team.”

I have now lived in Korea for a few years, and I still SMH WTF?

Contact Anonymous_Joe on Facebook

SNU student body presidential candidate comes out as lesbian

The sole candidate at Seoul National University for student body president came out as a lesbian during a campaign meeting on campus.  Kim Bo-mi, a 23 year old consumer and child studies major,  announced her sexual orientation during her campaign speech Wednesday.  If she is elected, she would become Seoul National University’s first openly gay student body president.  Kim is currently running unopposed.

The Korea Times and the Korea Times – US Edition published snippets of her speech:

“I want the world to be a place in which people who work hard do not suffer.  I want this to be a world in which no one has to fit under a label of what is ‘normal.’ I want this to be a world in which people can love themselves for who they are and in which they can live confidently. That’s why I am telling you. I’m a lesbian.

…The fact that I’m a lesbian is just another piece of who I am.  The things I believe in, the things I’ve done as vice president, and the things I want to accomplish in the future — those things will not change. …The image and the direction I envision for this school is of a space in which we can exist as ourselves, and as a society in which that in itself is accepted as beautiful. That’s the reason I’m coming out today.”

The slogan of Kim’s campaign is “Moving As One Toward Diversity.”

According to news sources, Kim “had the support of the 40-or-so students present at the meeting”, and when the Seoul National University Journal, SNU’s campus newspaper, published the full text of Kim’s speech, heavy traffic brought down the campus’s paper’s website.

As of this writing, the Seoul National University Journal’s website is still down:

SNU Website

UPDATE:  Kim Bo-mi was elected with 86.8 percent of vote.  “The voting rate was tallied at 53.5 percent when polls closed at 6 p.m. The election was the first in 18 years where the polling time was not extended. It is also the first in five years that concluded without a revote, as voters flocked to polling stations with raised interest in school affairs after Kim’s coming out.”

Kim’s term as SNU’s student body president starts December 1.

Contact Anonymous_Joe on Facebook

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.

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.




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:

Image Source:

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.


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?

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