The Marmot's Hole

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Category: Korean Society (page 2 of 36)

NYT becomes Korean political battleground. Again.

A group of Korean-Americans in Los Angeles has placed a full-page ad in the New York Times blasting the Park administration for a) its handling of the Sewol disaster and b) weakening democracy in Korea.

You can read a pdf of the ad here. The group that released the ad has more stuff in English at their website and at their Indeigogo page. The campaign apparently began on MissyUSA, a site for Korean immigrant women in the United States that, last time I remember reading anything about them, was where some folk were conducting a signature campaign against the KORUS FTA in 2011.

Needless to say, how you feel about said ad largely depends on your political bend:

The ad got a mixed response back in Korea. While conservatives condemned it as treachery and an act of agitation, liberals claimed the Park administration deserves such humiliation abroad given the extent of its wrongdoings.

The ruling Saenuri Party yesterday expressed concerns about the campaign overseas, defining it as “instigation.”

“When some people believe that political factions are trying to instigate the public, we need to be much more cautious,” Hwang Woo-yea, president of the party, told the members of its Supreme Council yesterday. “I am extremely worried that those factions are perpetrating various acts of sedition via overseas media.”

According to reports, Korean-American opinion about the ad is divided, too. I find it hard not to sympathize with “John” here:

”I understand people are angry. We are all furious about the tragedy, but what do we get out of publicly condemning the government in a New York Times ad? What’s with all these New York Times ads anyway?’’ says John, 44, a PR firm executive in New York who didn’t want to disclose his last name.

”Being in the marketing and public relations industry, I know that this newspaper ad is going to do very little to help organizers get what they want,’’ he said.

Other overseas Korean groups will release statements of their own refuting the NYT ad.

I’m sort of frustrated with everybody involved in this story. I actually agree with the folk who posted the ad that there are journalistic practices that need improving and the government’s handling of both public relations and the press has been, as usual, hamfisted. I’d love to learn more about what happened to a Korean-German journalist who was allegedly harassed by the Korean embassy after writing something critical of the government in Die Zeit. That said, I’ve read so much bitching about what the government did or didn’t do during and after the sinking that if the government really is trying to control and sensor the media, it’s doing a piss poor job of it.

And I’ll be honest—the Sewol sinking is starting to remind me a lot of another recent maritime outrage, the 2010 sinking of the Cheonan. And by that, I mean that just as everybody became an expert on naval engineering and forensics in the aftermath of the Cheonan sinking, now it seems everybody’s an expert on maritime search and rescue. Do I think the government is being 100% honest about the sinking? No. Do I think Park’s detractors really know what they are talking about? No, I don’t think anybody knows at this point. Do I think the government is trying to spin events to minimize the political damage? Yes. Do I think certain elements of the opposition are cynically using the tragedy to attack the government politically? Yes. Do I think the NYT ad represents said cynical use of the tragedy to score political points against the government? Yes. Do I think the government, its paranoia heightened, may react to the ad in a way that at least partially justifies the complaints made by the people who ran it? Yes.

Like I said, it’s pretty much all bad.

(HT to the folk who sent me links)

Not a banner month for public safety in Korea

A subway train apparently rear-ended a stationary one at Sangwangsimni Station, Line 2, leaving 170 with slight injuries.

According to the government (make of that what you will), many of the injuries came from passengers disobeying orders:

One subway car was derailed and passengers walked a short distance along the tracks to the station, YTN television said.

Many of the injuries were caused by passengers jumping from the subway cars onto the tracks, a government emergency official said.
An onboard announcement initially told passengers to stay inside, but most people ignored it and forced the doors open to escape, he said.

Can’t wait for that to be spun culturally.

A friend of mine sent me a tweet with an image of passengers walking along the rails:

Sewol Tragedy: May 2

- Thought Cheonghaejin Marine could look any worse than it already does? Think again (HT to King Baeksu):

The owner of the sunken ferry Sewol refused coverage of funeral costs for part-time employees of the ship, according to Kookmin Ilbo Wednesday.

The development sprouted from the deaths of Lee, 19, and Bang, 20, who worked in Sewol distributing meals to passengers. After the accident, their bodies were recovered Tuesday on the ferry’s fifth floor lobby.

The report said Cheonghaejin Marine, the ferry’s owner, notified the city of Incheon that they will cover funeral expenditures only for its regular employees and not for part-timers.

The company is also being accused to hiding evidence following the sinking.

- And just when you thought things could get any seedier, we have people wondering what the hell the captain—who was wearing just his underwear when he was rescued—was doing with a middle-aged Korean woman and a Filipina singer. See more here (Korean).

- At least John Mayer wants to help.

- President Park’s going to apologize again. Or so it appears, anyway. Let’s hope it goes down better than her last one, but I’m not holding out hope. I admit that an apology is politically necessary at this point, but as for what, exactly, the government needs to apologize for, I think we’re going to have to wait for the follow-up investigations and hearings before we know. I think it’s safe to say that the government dropped the ball BEFORE the accident by allowing Cheonghaejin Marine to operate, but as for its handling of the accident itself, honestly, I don’t know what’s true and what ain’t. There’s just too much shoddy journalism, grief-driven anger and political point-scoring for that. I do recommend Aja Aja’s comments in this thread, though.

- To add to Kuiwon’s comment here, I do find it odd—you know, given the way Confucianism and other aspects of Korean culture have come under scrutiny following the Sewol sinking—that nobody’s asking what role Baptist theology and American missionary activity may have played in the tragedy. While we’re on the subject, see Dogbertt’s comment here:

Interesting to me that so many are eager to blame “Korean culture” for the actions of the captain, etc., but I haven’t seen anyone praise “Korean culture” for the incredible, selfless sacrifice of those crewmembers who gave their lives knowingly and willingly to save passengers. I would rather praise that as “Korean culture”.

- The Dong-A Ilbo ran an interview with former 2ID commander Russel L. Honoré, who is better known State-side as the commander of Joint Task Force Katrina. As you’d imagine, the interview deals with leadership in times of disaster, but it also talks about the lessons he learned from the 2002 Miseon-Hyosun Incident.

Park getting blasted, bodies still being recovered, cult connections and more

Excuse the lack of posting: part of it has been my schedule, but mostly, I just needed a break.

- 213 bodies have been recovered. 89 are still missing.

- President Park may have to apologize again for the government’s handling of the Sewol disaster. Her most recent trip to the scene of the accident did not go well at all. That Park is a micromanager hasn’t helped the government response.

- Park also says she will break the so-called “government mafia” in which former officials find jobs with industry lobbies after their retirement (HT to Anonymous Joe). Good luck with that. To get an idea of how this corruption helped pave the way for the tragedy:

When the ship set sail from Incheon, west of Seoul, on April 15, it was top-heavy with cabins recently added to its upper decks, investigators said. The ship was reportedly overloaded with poorly lashed cargo, and crew members did not keep a correct record of passengers. Still, the Korea Shipping Association, a lobbying group for shipping companies that also serves as a safety monitor, ruled the ship fit to sail.

On Tuesday, prosecutors sought to arrest two officials at the shipping association on charges of destroying documents and deleting computer files before their offices were raided last week by investigators. Prosecutors were looking for evidence of corrupt ties between the association and shipping companies.

Park has also ordered a review of the safety budget.

- Leave it up to the Chosun Ilbo to express concern about the abuse President Park is taking from netizens and some progressive groups. One analyst quoted in the piece said the groups were trying to recreate the candlelight protests against US beef imports that rocked the LMB administration. Of course, looking at the Hani front page, it’s not hard to see why the Chosun would be concerned, but I can only Park shows more tact than her predecessor.

- The Semo Group, which owns Chonghaejin Marine, is a tangled web indeed. Ultimately, though, it’s run by the two sons of former chairman Yoo Byung-eun and a couple of other individuals. And to make things worse, Yoo, many Cheonghaejin Marine officials and even the Sewol captain are members of a religious cult (HT to King Baeksu). TK of Ask a Korean did a write-up about the cult in question back in 2010.

- Yoo and his family claim they only have KRW 10 billion in assets, but prosecutors believe they have something KRW 320 billion in assets. (HT to King Baeksu)

- Interestingly enough, Yoo is also a photographer who I actually posted about back in 2012.

Sewol Tragedy Updates: April 22

- The grim work continues, with 105 bodies recovered so far and 197 passengers still missing.

- To show how difficult getting the numbers right will be, divers have recovered the body of a foreign man, believed to be Chinese, who was not on the original boarding list. Officially, there were only five foreigners on board, including two Filipino cruise boat singers who were rescued. Of the other three, the bodies of two were recovered and a third is still missing.

- Police are investigating a Saenuri Party lawmaker for posting on her Facebook page that a female protester at the Miryang power line protest was down in Jindo stirring shit up while posing as a family member. The woman in question, who says she hasn’t been to the Jindo gathering, has accused the lawmaker of slander. The lawmaker in question has erased her post and apologized for posting something she’d read on a friend’s site but hadn’t looked into herself.

- Then there’s fellow Facebook warrior Rep. Han Gi-ho, who warned that leftist groups and cyber-terrorists have gotten their marching orders from Pyongyang to use the Sewol sinking to destabilize the government. Face palm time.

- The prime minister announced today that the government would formulate a master plan to improve public safety.

- President Park, meanwhile, has likened the captain’s action to murder. Mind you, I don’t believe many would disagree, but some have questioned whether the head of state should be making such statements before the guy’s had his day in court. I don’t know. Do you really need a trial in this case to heap rhetorical abuse on the guy?

- Everybody—local press, foreign press—seems to using the tragedy to take issue with aspects of Korean society they dislike. As in the case with incidents like this anywhere in the world, there’s going to be a look of finger-pointing and genuine national self-reflection, but there’s also going to be a lot of political opportunism and ill-timed foreign lecturing.

Sewol Disaster Updates: April 21

- As of this morning, 64 bodies have been recovered. Another 238 are still missing.

- Rescue personnel should enter the kitchen area at noon as well as conduct a concentrated search of the third and fourth-story passenger rooms. This is where they believe many of the passengers/bodies are. Weather conditions around the wreck are reportedly pretty good. Rescue personnel are now using a Remotely-Operated Vehicle, too.

- In addition to the captain, four other crew members have now been arrested on charges of abandoning passengers on the sinking ship.

- Also appearing before the police following the issuing of an arrest warrant was Hong Ga-hye, the young “volunteer diver” who during an interview with broadcaster MBN claimed the government was hindering volunteer efforts to rescue passengers, that relief equipment was lacking, etc. Turns out the woman in question was a serial impostor, and MBN has apologized.

- MBN’s screw-up was indicative of how badly the media has handled the Sewol sinking. To be fair to the Korean media, though, it seems the rush to publish—regardless of veracity—is now simply part of the contemporary media environment the world over. Doesn’t mean that’s a healthy phenomenon, though.

- Perhaps unsurprisingly—especially given the anger being expressed by the parents of kids on the ship—the Hankyoreh is complaining about the government response to the tragedy. I guess in the investigations to come we’ll learn of things the government could have done better, but frankly, I think the government has responded fairly well so far, and as Andrew Salmon notes in Forbes, the anger should probably be directed at the crew and the ferry company, not the Park Geun-hye administration. Having said that, I—unlike the son of possible Seoul mayoral candidate Chung Mong-joon, apparently—understand that families are grieving, angry and lashing out at anyone they can. I might do the same, if I were in their situation.

- The fact that so many of the kids who did what they were told died has parents and teachers wondering what to tell kids now. There is also concern that the lesson people will draw from this is that you should just do what you think is best in an emergency, which is probably NOT what you’d ordinarily want to do in an emergency situation.

- Given what I’ve read in my comments, I suppose it was only a matter of time before somebody started blaming culture for aspects of the accident, in this case, the number of fatalities. Of course, we are talking about CNN, so perhaps we shouldn’t expect much. As I’ve said earlier, it doesn’t help that the Korean media itself will frequently resort to cultural explanations for this sort of thing, too. For instance, we’ve got a Korean sociologist in the JoongAng Ilbo piece linked above saying much the same thing the CNN reporter (herself Korean, or at least ethnic Korean) does.

Odds & Ends in the News . . .

Other odd  or interesting bits in the news as of late:

The penis patrol is on alert for adultery again: South Korea has banned the Korean Ashley Madison website that offers a way for married people to meet since South Korea still has a 1953 statute that criminalises adultery.  The website owner, Noel Biderman believes the law is “hopelessly outdated” but still heeded legal advice not to attend the South Korea launch in person.  For those that might wonder why people would visit such a site, this GQ piece was pretty much to the point and interesting.  The power of scent is not to be underestimated.

South Korea and Japan have held senior-level discussions on Korea’s “comfort women” and have discussed the need to put this issue behind both countries for the sake of future relations.

Sewol Sinking Updates

- The confirmed death toll is now up to 26, with 270 still missing.

- Divers have begun exploring the inside of the vessel. They are also pumping oxygen in to give any survivors a better chance.

- That said, the ship has now slipped completely beneath the waves, three days after it capsized.

- 108 patrol boats, 61 civilian and government boats, four cranes and 535 rescue personnel are on the scene.

- The parents of the missing have issued a statement blasting the government response.

- Overseas experts told the Chosun Ilbo that the captain’s misjudgment essentially wasted a 140 minute opportunity to evacuate the ship. More analysis in the New York Times.

More to come later.

Sewol Tragedy: What we know so far

- Of the 475 passengers, 179 have been rescued, nine are confirmed dead and 287 are still missing.

- 10 crew members, including the captain, were called into questioning a second time by the Coast Guard. Unlike the first questioning, in which the captain was brought in as a witness, this time he was brought in as a suspect as the Coast Guard is considering filing a number of charges against him, including manslaughter. He issued an apology to the public, but refused to answer any other questions from reporters, including questions regarding reports that he abandoned passengers to jump ship first.

- Rescue workers haven’t been able to explore the interior of the ship yet. They are trying to pump air into the vessel, though, to boost the chances of any survivors inside.

- As for the cause of the accident, we’re still not sure, but the Coast Guard think the most likely cause was that the cargo inside shifted to one side of the hold as the ship made a sharp turn, capsizing the vessel.

- There’s been a lot of talk about the crew’s response to the accident. And by talk, I mean criticism. In particular, survivors testify that crew told passengers to stay where they were rather than try to escape even as water was flooding some of the decks. Only one life raft was deployed, too. As there’s still a lot we don’t know, I’m not going to join the chorus of condemnation just yet, but I will say this is not something you want to hear from a crew member:

선원 김모(61)씨는 “침몰하는 배에서 빠져나오는 데 바빠 다른 사람들이 구조됐는지 신경쓸 틈도, 어떠한 조치를 취할 겨를도 없었다”고 말했다.

- We know that the ship deviated from a government-recommended course. I don’t know if that had anything to do with the sinking, though.

- You can read some of the communications between the ship and the Jeju Vessel Traffic Services Center here.

Developing Situation: Ferry sinks off Jindo

Let’s pray for the best here:

A passenger ship carrying more than 470 people, mostly high school students, sank off South Korea’s southern coast on Wednesday, leaving at least two people dead and 13 others injured, amid fears the toll could be much higher.

A total of 368 people have been confirmed rescued, but the death toll could rise sharply as nearly one hundred passengers remain unaccounted for amid fears that they could be trapped inside the sunken vessel.

In its last report, Yonhap said there were 107 missing. The fear is that many were perhaps unable to leave their rooms before their floors flooded, but we just don’t know yet.

Still no word on the cause of the sinking.

Men like Korean women because they’re pretty, with lots of aegyo

A survey of 642 female and 505 male visitors to Korea by Korspot, a social media group that promotes Korea, revealed that 90% would like to date a Korean.

When asked why, female respondents cited “interest in Korean culture and language” (27.4%) and “Korean men seem to work hard and to be responsible” (13.1%).

Male respondents, meanwhile, said “Korean women are pretty” (23.2%) and “Korean women have a lot of aegyo” (16.2%).

For some of our non-Korean readers who may not be familiar with the concept of aegyo:

Next up, survey reveals men watch Game of Thrones because they like violence, boobs.

Avengers trouble

So… is this whole “Avengers” thing just a great big pain in the ass?


When Disney’s Marvel Studios decided to shoot part of the upcoming “Avengers” sequel in Seoul, the city government and state-run film agencies welcomed the decision with fanfare – and with rosy estimates about potential benefits from the elevation of Seoul’s image and the boost it will give to tourism.

But in the face of unprecedented traffic control on some of the city’s busiest districts for more than 10 days, some are questioning whether the government is offering too much support to the filming of “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” at the expense of citizens’ convenience.

The areas that will be blocked off will include major bridges on the Han River such as Cheongdam and Mapo bridges, and important arteries near Gangnam subway station and Digital Media City (DMC) in Sangam-dong, western Seoul, starting from March 30 through April 13.

I hope the image improvement and tourism boost is worth the hassle.

What’s more, the trouble may extend beyond traffic. According to the Korea Times, the government may have blown its entire wad of cash to support foreign film productions:

The support comes in the form of a “location incentive” offered by the government-backed Korean Film Council (KOFIC), which offers foreign productions up to a 30-percent cash rebate on money spent here.

By awarding the rebate to Avengers, KOFIC maxed out its annual 1 billion won ($930,000) budget for the program.

For a production like Avengers, USD 930,000 doesn’t sound like a whole lot of cash. Wonder if Marvel Studios will even notice it.

Tragic suicides in Songpa-gu

The suicide of a mother and her two adult daughters in has focused national attention on holes in Korea’s social security system (see the Chosun Ilbo’s editorial, too).

There’s a lot that’s heartbreaking about this story—how the family fell into poverty, that the last they did before killing themselves was leave behind an envelope full of cash as their final rent payment, and most importantly, that they never applied for welfare benefits despite being entitled to them. Whether they did this because they were too proud—and I’d say if the last thing they did before dying was pay the rent, this was likely the case—or because they didn’t know about said benefits is not yet known. It does have even the conservative press calling for the government to be more proactive in offering assistance to those in need:

The story of the three women is a typical modern tragedy. The father falls ill and the family members seek credit to finance his treatment and care. They become credit delinquents and cannot find decent jobs. The poor eventually face a dead end when one of the family members falls ill. They have not even applied for basic social security, as the impoverished tend to be self-conscious. Administrators must seek them out and offer the benefits to which they are entitled. Most of all, we should pay closer attention to the plight of the poor and show compassion to the hard-up people in our neighborhood.

Slave labor redux

You may be happy to learn that the Africa Museum of Original Art in Pocheon has given into demands by its African artists for improvements in their working condition, which allegedly bordered on slavery.

The Dong-A Ilbo, however, reports that another form of modern slavery may be taking place—brokers are allegedly luring the homeless at Seoul Station to the salt and seaweed farms of Sinan, Jeollanam-do, where they are put to work under conditions approaching debt slavery.

Basically, brokers lure the homeless with promises of food, shelter, spending money and cigarettes in return for easy work, but when they get to Sinan, they find the work brutally difficult. To make matters worse, after the men are brought to the salt farms, brokers ply them with booze and women. This, in turn, becomes a massive debt, and the men are forced to work for years to pay it off.

Beating are reportedly common, too. One guy who claims to have suffered three years of abuse on a seaweed farm said he told the maritime police, but they called the boss and told him to take him back.

Anyway, the cops are now launching a crackdown.

When I first came here way back, I used to hear similar stories about people—usually young men—getting either tricked or dragged off to work on the shrimp boats.

Korea is like a dolphin, not a shrimp

says Daniel Tudor, who’s tired of hearing the description from Koreans who like to use it as a sort of self-effacing excuse for themselves. The Korean expression from which “shrimp” originates is : 고래 싸움에 새우 등 터진다 – “Kore-ssaumeh-saeu-deung-tojinda” literally translated as “During a fight amongst the whales, shrimps (back) explode”. I always wanted to know if this is based on a scientific fact, i.e. how feasible this is and whether this is a common occurrence. I don’t know if the sizes of the relative species concerned (shrimps and whales) and their common habitat could actually result in such a phenomenon. Maybe somebody could ask the Mythbusters program. At any rate here is a footage of a whale fight. In my opinion, it’s more likely to happen during whales mating than fighting, if at all.

Anyway, I can only find the link to the Korean version of the JoongAng article by Tudor씨. I don’t know if there is an English version. Tudor씨 is an ex-correspondent of the Economist, and is also the author of the book, “Korea: The Impossible Country”.
His main point is that maybe Koreans (especially the elite or the leaders in the society) like to say that they are a small country or a developing country to prevent change – because that prevents further discussion of things like equal opportunities or work-life balance, and everybody would continue to sacrifice themselves for development.

확실한 증거는 없지만, 자기 회의적인 그런 얘기들은 변화에 저항하는 수단으로 쓰이고 있는 것이 아닐까 싶다. 평등주의나 일과 삶의 균형에 대한 논의를 막기 위해서는 한국이 아직도 개발도상국이라는 인식만큼 좋은 게 없기 때문이다. 그래야 성장과 진보를 위해 모두가 희생을 감수하지 않겠는가.

He also goes on to say where he is now (in Malaysia) people envy Korea as successful developed nation and he often gets asked to give interviews about Korea. Now while I understand what he is trying to say and agree with some of it, I think there are also other reasons such as:

1. Koreans often like to say, “Koreans are like this – that’s why they’re no good” not including themselves in it. It’s rarely “We are like this that’s why it will never work”. The elite and the leaders are separating themselves from the people they are referring to. I am sure I am guilty of this myself, but to my defence I always fight with my parents whenever I go back.
2. Living standard alone does not make a truly developed nation. While I enjoy watching some Korean TV/dramas which his Malaysian friends might watch, I still cringe at the Cinderella mentality and the 식상한 story-line.
Let me just add, I don’t like dramas from the US or Britain/Australia etc. when they try to be realistic or tackle issues, sometimes they are just plain old bland beyond’s a delicate balance between escape from reality, and reality packaged as an episode.
3. It’s also like a sports announcers mentality when they say : “네, 정말로 뛰어난 패스, 김 아무개 선수 – 슛 – 네 그럴 줄 알았습니다.” They build themselves up with hope when things are going well, only to say “I knew it” when the ball bounces off the goal post. Deep down, we know we are shite. A bit like the Brits and their Wimbledon dreams.
4. Finally, yes, unfortunately, his Malaysian friends are right in that some Koreans look down on them. I am sure the Korean entertainment business is very careful in controlling their fan-base in places like Malaysia, but most Koreans would already probably feel superior to the South-East Asians, especially with respect to colour of the skin and money. They mainly want to feel superior within the club they feel they belong to geographically and culturally: the China-Japan-Korea club.

Anyway, I also thought it was funny that he chose dolphin, especially with the dolphin-related news going around nowadays.

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