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Category: Korean Society (page 2 of 36)

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?

Maybe:

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 hope..it’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.

Odds and Ends: the Innovative Korea Edition

- Somebody forgot to tell Bloomberg that Koreans are automatons who lack creativity:

South Korea ranked first in Bloomberg’s Global Innovation Index.

Booyah.

Lovely photo on the “Methodology” slide, too.

Financial Times’ Seoul correspondent tweets that “many in S Korea would dispute this finding.” The ensuring Twitter conversation is worth reading, especially TK’s comments. For what it’s worth, while I agree that “many in S Korea would dispute this finding,” including many Koreans themselves, I myself am not really surprised Korea placed so high.

Anyway, this is going to make President Park Geun-hye very happy—she can’t get through a speech without mentioning “the creative economy.”

- Once again, Koreans are overreacting to a perceived historical slight, with the Korean ambassador to the United States threatening business ties with a US state.

Oh, wait:

The government of Japan urged Democrat Terry McAuliffe in late December to oppose an obscure bill in the Virginia legislature about textbooks or risk damaging the economic relationship between the two governments, according to a letter obtained Thursday by The Washington Post.

In the letter to McAuliffe before his gubernatorial inauguration, Japanese Ambassador Kenichiro Sasae urged him to oppose a measure that would require future Virginia textbooks that mention the Sea of Japan to note that it is also known as the East Sea — the name preferred by Koreans.
[...]
In his letter, Sasae said: “I worry that Japanese affinity towards Virginia could be hampered” if the measure is enacted. He noted the $1 billion in direct investment that Japan has made in Virginia in five years, the 250 Japanese companies with investments in the state and the multimillion-dollar export market in Japan for products from Virginia.

“[I] fear . . . that the positive cooperation and strong economic ties between Japan and Virginia may be damaged,” he wrote.

Look on the bright side, Japan—sure, that’s some seriously ham-fistedness, but it’s not quite as bad as offering to plant cherry trees in a city that’s largely Korean. And look at how far your diplomacy has come since the Twenty-One Demands!

- Meanwhile, in Davos, the Chinese and Japanese (admittedly, more the former than the latter) are giving us plenty of reason to be afraid, be very afraid. Read the respective rants by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on your own—I’ll just reprint this chilling conclusion by The Telegraph’s Ambrose Evans-Pritchard:

As readers know, I have been writing about this parallel for a long time. China is exploiting incidents to test the willingness of the United States to stand behind its treaty alliance with Japan, just as Kaiser Wilhelm provoked spats to test England’s willingness to stand behind its entente with France. It was a self-reinforcing process before 1914, and it is self-reinforcing now. All it takes to produce a catalyst is some “damn fool thing in the Balkans” to borrow a term.
[...]
Listening to the raw passion in the voices of Shinzo Abe and Wang Yi over the last 24 hours, I think there is an astonishing level complacency about the world’s most dangerous fault-line.

As for the “damn fool thing in the Balkans” thing, “an influential Chinese professional” at Davos reportedly silenced a room by openly talking about igniting World War III:

But then he said that many in China believe that China can accomplish its goals — smacking down Japan, demonstrating its military superiority in the region, and establishing full control over the symbolic islands — with a surgical invasion.

In other words, by sending troops onto the islands and planting the flag.

The Chinese professional suggested that this limited strike could be effected without provoking a broader conflict. The strike would have great symbolic value, demonstrating to China, Japan, and the rest of the world who was boss. But it would not be so egregious a move that it would force America and Japan to respond militarily and thus lead to a major war.

Well, when the Chinese professional finished speaking, there was stunned silence around the table.

Stock up on Pepto-Bismol, folks.

(HT to Joshua Trevino)

Happy Birthday Dr. Fred Dustin: Jeju’s Renaissance Man

Think you have been here for a long time?  Except for a few years while at school, Dr. Fred Dustin has been in Korea since 1952!  He has literally done it all:  Military, English teaching, Mining, Copy Editing, Rainbow trout promoting, writing, voicing, poultry raising, agriculture, and, of course, The Kimnyoung Maze on Jeju Island.

Not only has Dr. Dustin done everything, he also knew everyone.  Have any of you ever heard of the Koryo Club?

Seoul was a city in transformation and it was filled with interesting people. One such person was Ferris Miller, who arrived in Korea prior to the Korean War and returned in 1953 to work for the Bank of Korea. It was he who founded the Koryo Club – a group of Koreans and foreigners with an interest in Korea and its culture.

The meetings were held in Miller’s home and members were supposed to deliver papers on “things Korea” but Dustin, who was the youngest member, does not remember any specific papers every being delivered - only the large number of beer bottles that had to be cleared away the next morning.

But there were exchanges of ideas as evidenced by the names of the members - names that are now well-known in Korea studies: Edward Wagner (founder of the Korea Institute at Harvard), Richard Rutt (a former Anglican bishop who wrote many books on Korean poetry and his life as a country priest), William E. Skillend (the first professor of Korean at the School of Oriental and African Studies), Greg Henderson (diplomat and author), Chung Bi-seok (novelist), Cho Byung-hwa (poet) and Choi Byung-woo (Korea Times managing editor and reporter who died at the age of 34 on Sept. 26, 1958, while covering the Chinese Communist bombing of Quemoy and Matsu Islands).

All of these men had an impact on Dustin’s life.

“I look back in awe and with great respect upon those friends, role models and early mentors,” he fondly recalls.

You can read more about Dr. Dustin here in (Korea Times, Jan. 10, 2014).  For those on Jeju Island – if you get a chance, stop by today and wish him a Happy 84th Birthday.

Textbook Wars!

Pity Kyohak Publishing—due to public pressure, only one school in the country (Cheongsong Girls’ High School in Gyeongsangbuk-do, for those keeping score at home) has adopted its controversial history textbook.

Another school in Jeonju, of all places, dropped the book after initially planning to use it.

Needless to say, not everyone’s happy about this. The Ministry of Culture in particular is upset that many schools seem to be abandoning the book due to “outside pressure,” warning that said pressure “hampers the independence of concerned schools.” Conservatives in general have long looked askance at the campaign against Kyohak’s textbook. I suppose in this day and age academic institutions are the last place to look for ideological diversity.

Still, as the Hankyoreh notes, Korea’s not the only country where right-wing textbooks that whitewash history have experience low adoption rates:

“In Japan, the selection rate for the so-called ‘Fusosha textbook’ was just 0.039% when the controversy erupted over its distorted accounts of history,” said Ha Il-sik, a professor of ancient Korean history at Yonsei University. “In other words, this textbook that whitewashed Japan‘s history of colonialism and painted its invasions of other countries in positive terms had a less than 1% selection rate even in Japan.”

As I’ve said earlier, I haven’t read the Kyohak textbook itself. I’ve read what other people have written about the Kyohak textbook, and while I’m inclined to agree there are some problematic parts, I’m also inclined to say I’d probably agree more with its historical viewpoint than that of its most ardent opponents. But that’s just me.

An interesting byproduct of this has been calls in—sit down for this—the Saenuri Party to bring back state-authored history textbooks:

In a bid to prevent controversy from spreading further, leaders of the ruling Saenuri Party said Wednesday that it was time to consider the reintroduction of a state history textbook.

“If (history) textbooks become a cause for public discord and create unnecessary conflict, it is time to seriously discuss a possible return to state textbooks, at least for future generations,” said ruling party floor leader Choi Kyoung-hwan.

Seoul’s education chief Moon Yong-lin essentially agreed to the proposal.

“If a dispute over a certain textbook intensifies, we cannot but think that we may need a state textbook,” he said.

If you believe that one of the functions of public education is to help build a sense of national identity, I suppose you might not find this such a bad idea. Still, as one newscaster noted recently, few developed countries use state-authored textbooks anymore. The fact that the ruling party lawmaker he was talking to cited Russia, Vietnam and—best of all—North Korea as models to follow (to much online derision) probably says a lot.

New Year Resolutions and Diet

Happy New Year to everybody! One of my two resolutions this year is to eat less meat. I will keep on eating fish, but try to cut out as much red meat and poultry as possible. Whenever I am in Korea I get taken out to restaurants, and even at my parent’s home, I am shocked at how much more and frequent the meat (not including fish) consumption has become, compared to say, 10,20 years ago. Also, I notice how obese some of the kids in primary schools (as well as unruly) have become..
So it is very surprising to find Korea as an example nation where the increase in wealth has not led to the corresponding increase in obesity in this BBC piece . You can play the video, and listen to what the market ajummas have to say. One thing that was not dubbed over properly I note is that one of them mentions 짜장면 (Chajang-myun) , or Joonghwa Yori (Chinese-Korean restaurant food) as unhealthy food, as well as Western food. This has always been true, as 중화요리 is known for using a lot of oil and frying..so if you want to stay thin, less 철가방 chul-kabang(metal-bag) delivery is in order.

Speaking of Chinese delivery, I saw that they were getting people ready for the new street-name based address system when I was in Korea 2 months ago, and now that it has come into effect from this year, a lot of Koreans are complaining, including the delivery restaurants. Is it affecting any of you?

Finally, another BBC, diet-related item which says that intermittent fasting if good for your body. My late grandpa who was a real stickler to doing everything to live long and healthy (and he did) really abided by 소식(soshik, eating little).

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