The Marmot's Hole

Korea... in Blog Format

Category: South Korea (page 1 of 206)

Open Thread – The Dog Massage Edition

dog_massage

So Koreans will die out, household debt is probably going to explode and the next president might be an ex-felon – you should learn to relax.

Korea has World’s 14th Priciest Airfare, but Buses are Cheap

For those traveling around the ROK, you’ll be pleased to know that the bus fares are some of the least expensive in the world. Unfortunately, when flying, it’s not so good. According to a recent study released by GoEuro, Korea ranks as the 14th most expensive place to fly in the world.

While the study found that airfare in Korea, at $40.73 per 100km, was cheaper than neighboring Japan ($56.39), it was twice as much as China ($20.06) and monumentally more expensive than the United States, Spain, Australia, South Africa, Malaysia and India, who all ranked as the world’s cheapest places to fly.

Train fares here are also priced fairly high worldwide, but a combination of all three travel options –trains, planes and buses– landed Korea squarely in the middle of the price pack.

As for India, well, here’s something you don’t read everyday.

Airfares in India are so low in fact, that it is now cheaper to travel by air than to take the train. According to the GoEuro study, a 100-kilometer train journey costs $11.31 while travel by air will run you an average of $10.36 for the same distance.

 

Hot or Cold – The False Dilemma of Korean Politics

Kim Young-Oh is hungry but more sad than hungry.

Mr. Kim lost his 16-year-old daughter to the Sewol Ferry disaster and he collapsed from his hunger protest last Friday and has been hospitalized.

Mr. Kim was demanding that a fully independent investigator be assigned to the Sewol case instead of a government-connected prosecutor.  A bill has been proposed but rejected because a government-connected prosecutor is a problem for many because there has been a profound and long-held distrust of the government under the majority Saenuri Party, which has had a troubled history of manipulating events at the expense of the public’s trust.  Because of the reluctance of the ruling party to give such powers over to a non-aligned prosecutor, – citing constitutional problems as being the reason – Mr. Kim decided to fast.

Along with Mr. Kim’s fast, an all too common problem has been demonstrated, once again and that is a major problem of not just Korean politics but of most two-party political systems.

The real problem is a political system that is so degraded that it is suffering under a “false dilemma” – also known as “black-and-white thinking”.  Such an inflexible mindset is best exemplified in a two-party political system, which produces a either-or way of voting.  Due to the bi-polar (black or white) mentality of the political system in South Korea, many Koreans have assumed that:

Mr. Kim is a likely a bad man, that wants money, that failed to be a good parent and is probably a Communist and wants to wrench control of the country from the ruling party

OR . . .

Mr. Kim is a victim of the corruption of the ruling party that controls the government (at this moment) and is a hero that can help end the unjust rule of corrupt conservative politicians.

Actually, Mr. Kim is neither A or B.

There are several aspects to this situation.

Since the Sewol disaster, the NPAD faction and other supposed civic groups have offered their assistance to the parents of the kids that perished from the disaster, using it partly for their political agenda.  According to one parent, many did not want such help from the start:

Another father of a victim said some family members did not want left-wing activists helping them, as it compromised their political neutrality. “Some of us didn’t want to mingle with them, but at that time we were office workers who didn’t know how to speak up for ourselves,” he said. “So I thought we needed their support.” (cite)

The NPAD has also begun a boycott of government, bringing most legislative activity to a halt since this seems to be one of their areas of expertise.

Then there is that HUMONGOUS problem of credibility (sabotaging a prosecutor general, NIS-generated electioneering, etc.) , which the Saenuri-Hanara Dang/Administration has lacked, except in parts of the country where they enjoy an older constituency that vote out of that false dilemma thinking called regionalism.  I had a conversation with a fellow (over 50) in Daegu recently where he said he believed that Mr. Kim was a contemptible fellow, who was holding out for more money. To this self-described Saenuri supporter, it was all about money since there could not possibly be any other reason for Mr. Kim’s fast.

Very black-and-white in Daegu.

Meanwhile, many Koreans, that are against the Saenuri Dang feel that the ruling party does not want a truely independant investigation because of so much corruption tied to the ferry owner and people higher up in the ruling party. The government’s citing constitutional problems as being the reason why independant investigators can not be allowed is seen by many as being a “false choice” or “a deliberate attempt to eliminate several options that may occupy the middle ground on an issue”.

As for Mr. Kim? – he has said that “I have a headache. I have a headache because of politicians in South Korea, . . . We want to find why more than 300 people died unfairly. We want to clarify this and hold a person in charge accountable”.  He does not want money – he wants accountability so that his daughter’s short life and death will not have been in vain.

When there is such a firmly encamped case of the false dilemma, there can be parity only after much struggle since this way of thinking quickly becomes a device of the few that manipulate the many for gain, for example, currently there is an “ice-bucket challenge” that has become a popular way to raise the awareness of Lou Gehrig’s disease – a disease that can strike anyone no matter which political party they belong to.  The challenge is “to promote awareness of the disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and encourage donations to research” . . .
However . . .
Both Rep. Park Jie-won of the opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) and Saenuri Chairman Kim Moo-sung have both taken the challenge not so much to donate money to fighting ALS but as a tool for political means, as per Kim Moo-sung’s statement “Please persuade hawkish lawmakers [within the NPAD] after sorting out your thoughts with some cold water” followed by Park Jie-won’s comment “Though I participated [in the charity event] there are still people gravely concerned over the passage of the Sewol law and who are still waiting for the return of their loved ones. I hope that ice bucket challenge and the Sewol bucket challenge will go together”. 

ice-bucket

Photo courtesy of NEWSIS.

I give you a visual example of the false dilemma on ice.

Yoon Yeo-joon also sees all of this as well but, like him, we are left without a ready solution.  IMHO, the change will have to come from the people – without the aid of any current party and in a manner that can not be co-opted.  That will take time and probably something unforeseen.

Daum and Kakao Are On a First Name Basis

Kakao Corp. and Daum Communications announced that they will adopt the anti-hierarchical office culture of Kakao Corp.  after their merger in October.  All workers and executives will be required to call each other by English first names:  “Some 1,600 employees currently at Daum will choose a new English name for this, and by doing so, we hope to further promote the two firms’ work ethics that prioritize openness and active participation as well as create a synergy effect between the two groups.”

From Yonhap: “Of course, it may feel weird or awkward for people to call each other by a foreign name, but we’ll see how this system settles in when business begins at the new Daum-Kakao in October,” said Kang Yukyeong, a communications official at Daum.

From Korea Times:  “All workers at Kakao call co-CEO Lee Sir-goo by his English first name Vino.”  Kakao employee Dallas said he felt “‘kind of awkward’ when he first joined Kakao about six months ago.  ‘It didn’t take so long before I became used to being called my English name and calling others by their English names. I realized we are encouraged to make active communication in the office even with CEO.’”

State-sponsored Arirang News broadcast a piece, IT companies in Korea change corporate culture to promote innovation (video starts at 9:02):  “Could the seemingly minor changes bring about real changes to Korea’s innovation potential?  A recent innovation index ranked Korea 16th out of 77 countries– higher than Japan or China.   But when it came to the so-called tolerance index, which measures how much a society tolerates different values and thoughts, Korea was ranked near the bottom at 62.”

The C- Word

News sources and quoted experts cited the move as an attempt to counter Confucian culture:

Yonhap stated in its article,”addressing employees of different ranks by their first name is uncommon in South Korea, where corporate culture is often perceived as rigid and is operated along regimented and hierarchical lines, a reflection of the country’s Confucian roots. Such hierarchy at workplaces is palpable in local companies….”

Arirang News aired a (translated) statement from Kim Jae-hee, Professor of Psychology at Chungang University, “if we look at our Confucianist culture, we were taught that there is a right answer to everything. We were never taught to look for new answers. To foster creativity, we need to learn that there isn’t just one correct answer to everything and understand there could be multiple answers.” 


Arirang posed an interesting question: “Could the seemingly minor changes bring about real changes to Korea’s innovation potential?”  

If so, how effectively and at what social or cultural cost?

I suspect that the change in some Korean major players’ corporate culture will carry over to Korean corporate culture in general.  When casual Fridays and then casual dress came into corporate culture, employees liked and perceived it as a benefit.  Employers saw casual dress as a no-cost benefit, and companies that resisted discovered how much the labor marketplace valued casual dress.  I suspect that young, professional Korean talent will similarly place a value on casual address companies.

Will this spillover into wider Korean culture and be the end to Korea’s deeply rooted hierarchical culture?  I think ‘yes’, and we are witnessing a seminal moment.

Chosun Ilbo: Koreans ‘to Become Extinct by 2750′

In today’s lead story at the Chosun Ilbo (Korean), the National Assembly Research Service announced the results of a projection based on a simulation that Korea’s population faces extinction by 2750 if the current low birthrate persists.  A New Politics Alliance for Democracy lawmaker, Yang Seung-jo, requested the projection.

The National Assembly Research Service based its projection on the assumption and apparently assumed that last year’s birthrate of 1.19 children per woman would continue.  “David Coleman of Oxford University warned back in 2006 that Korea’s low birthrate is so serious that it could become the first nation in the world to become extinct.”

Under the National Research Service’s projection, Korea’s present population of 50 million will contract to 40 million in 2056, to 20 million (“similar to the population in 1930 during the Japanese occupation”) in 2100, to 10 million by 2136, to three million by 2200, to one million by 2256, “…gradually becoming extinct over the next 500 years.”

The National Assembly Research Service on Friday said, “should last year’s birthrate of 1.19 children per woman continue, Korea’s population of 50 million will… become extinct by 2750.”

excerpted the following from the Chosun Ilbo article:

Barring a major population migration within the country, the southern port city of Busan would be the first to become empty of people, according to the simulation. The last survivor of Busan will be born in 2413, and the last Seoulite in 2505.  Busan is not only graying rapidly, but is seeing a rapid decrease in the number of young and middle-aged residents.


The National Assembly Research Service apparently employed a sophisticated algorithm in formulating their projection.  I spent considerable time between two consecutive sips of coffee to reverse engineer their algorithm from their results.  The  assumed 1.19 birthrate per woman means that the number of new births would halve with each generation.  Halving 50 million a little over 25 (∼25.76) times results in one.  So in approximately 25 generations, and if I assume 30 years per generation, or 750 years from now, Koreans will become extinct on the Korean peninsula.  That’s how the “simulation” projected the year 2750.

Absurdity such as the above is the reason I belabor methodology in my posts about studies.  Every bit as important as results is the methodology in obtaining those results.  I can make any study say anything I want by altering the methodology.

…which brings me to the real points of this blog entry:

  1. To what end did the NPAD lawmaker want the results of this study to show that Koreans will go extinct by 2750?  (Follow the money, but to where will it lead?)
  2. Why did a newspaper whose ideology so closely aligns with the rival Saenuri Party publish such a ridiculous result for this NPAD lawmaker?  (OK, this one might be easy.)
  3. How do I gets me some of that government large-ass for publishing studies with results so transparently beholden to some interest that any sense of shame I would normally feel is easily assuaged by that sweet large-ass?  (Seriously.)

The Remembrance of Things Past

Douglas Martin of the NY Times writes a eulogy, if not obituary for Chung Eun-yong, the gentleman whose protestations exposed the tragedy of No Gun Ri; the killing of more than 100 Korean civilians by American forces during the Korean War.  

Mr. Chung’s protests against the killings, years later, gained the attention of Choe Sang-Hun (one of our favorite reporters with the NY Times) and others, who went on to write about this event.

Words fall short.

Seoul 16th on Forbes The World’s Most Influential Cities List

A Forbes Magazine article, The World’s Most Influential Cities, hashed a summary of Joel Klotkin (et al.)’s findings in Size Is Not the Answer:  The Changing Face of the Global City.

London ranked first, and New York “ranked 2nd… in an essential statistical tie with London with virtually identical scores.”  Paris came in a distant third.

Here is a list of the top 20:  1) London.  2) New York.  3) Paris.  4) Singapore.  5) Tokyo.  6) Hong Kong.  7) Dubai.  8) Beijing.  8)Sydney.  10 Los Angeles.  10) San Francisco Bay Area.  10) Toronto.  13) Zurich.  14) Frankfurt.  14) Houston.  16) The Randstad (Amsterdam Area). 16) Seoul. 16) Washington Metropolitan Area.  19) Shanghai.  20) Abu Dhabi.  20) Chicago.

The report listed the top 51 world cities (see Appendix A).  Notable for their poor representation were BRICS (Beijing, Shanghai, 23- Sao Paolo,  31 – Johannesburg, 31 – Mumbai, 34 – Delhi, 47 - Guangzhou), Africa (Johannesburg, 47 – Lagos), and South America (Sao Paolo, 44 – Buenos Aries).

The report’s stated goal in ranking cities was to address “a growing need to re-evaluate which (cities) are truly significant global players and which are simply large places that are more tied to their national economies than critical global hubs.” Rather than rate cities by more traditional criteria, the authors concluded that “these new global hubs thrive not primarily due to their size, but as a result of their greater efficiencies.”

What are those new criteria?   Cities were assessed based on the following eight categories: 1) Air Connectivity.  2) Diversity.  3) Foreign Direct Investment. 4) Corporate Headquarters. 5) Producer Services. 6) Financial Services. 7)Technology and Media. 8) Importance of city as a strategic location or hub for key global industries not otherwise measured above.  The authors claim their rankings differ from other global cities surveys because they “focus on criteria that are directly relevant to a city’s global economic impact and power… when discussing the concept of the ‘global city’, global economic power is the sine qua non ingredient.”

Blah, blah, blah… So, What About Seoul?

Although the report did not state the relative weight given to each criterion, I surmise that Seoul did well in corporate headquarters and financial services.  Seoul ranks seventh in the world measured by value of shares traded in metropolitan area stock exchanges.  (New York is number one and trades in value as much as the other top 10 combined (see Figure C-1).  Seoul likely scored well in technology.  Korea is the most-wired nation in the world and has a tech-savvy netizenry.  Media, however, is a mixed bag.  Korea scores very high in its export of popular culture, but if media means print and broadcast news sources… Yikes!)

Other Findings (and my opinion of how Seoul stacks up):

“Global hubs are helped by their facility with English…. English dominates the global economic system… This linguistic, digital and cultural congruence poses concerns for major competing cities, including those Russia and mainland China.”  (…and Korea.  For whatever the reason, Korea’s investment in English has not matched its return vis-a-vis other Asian countries.)

“Since the late Enlightenment, great cities, often built around markets, were typically places not just for the rich and their servants, but also for the aspirational middle and lower classes. A great city, wrote Rene Descartes in the 17th century, represented ‘an inventory of the possible’.”  (Seoul seems every bit the promised land or land of opportunity to Koreans and perhaps Asians of every stripe save Japanese.)

“These global cities reflect a new model of urbanism that… rests on a simple economic formula: please and lure the ultra-rich, so that with the surplus wealth they generate, you can then serve the rest of the population.” (One word:  Chaebols)

“Much has been written about the emergence of powerful new cities, particularly in East Asia, but it is critical not to overlook the enormous power of historical inertia. ‘It is inevitable’, a manager at Shanghai’s Guotai, a large Chinese investment bank, boasted to the Washington Post, ‘ that we will take the US’s place as the world leader.’ Yet, it will be a long time, perhaps decades or even longer, before any city on the Chinese mainland approaches the global influence of the long-established global hubs.”  (I found their findings of “historical inertia” in their “new” approach ironic though consistent with their findings.  Historical inertia from yesteryear presently works against Seoul, but as the world becomes more aware of the Miracle on the Han and recent years become yesteryears, historical inertia will work for Seoul.)

One of the report’s appendices presented a summary of findings and a special section that noted the ascendancy of East Asia, Fighting for the Future: The Battle for East Asia, singled out Tokyo, Seoul, and China.  “It seems likely that the primary challenge to the New York–London duopoly will come from East Asia.”

The report found Tokyo “no longer ascendant, but still important.”  The authors based their conclusion on two critical factors:  “the relative decline of the Japanese economy paired with the simultaneous rise of China (and other emerging economies like Korea).”   They found a third critical problem in Japan’s “cultural insularity—something that could have been overlooked when Japan dominated Asia’s economy, but now a severe liability going forward.”  Relating this to Seoul, I think that the rise of the behemoth that is China’s economy, the long-term decline in and aging of Korea’s population, and Korea’s cultural insularity will similarly work against Seoul’s ascendancy.

Here’s the special section on Seoul (see Appendix C):

Seoul Makes a Bid

Given the growth of the Korean economy and the expanding footprint of that country’s large conglomerates, Seoul must be considered a de facto global city.  Yet, like Tokyo, the Korean capital, although gaining in terms of the number of foreign residents, lacks the demographic diversity of a London or New York; few foreign large companies locate their regional headquarters in Seoul.  Due to major global players such as Samsung and Hyundai, Seoul is ranked 4th, tied with Paris, in the total number of Forbes 2000 global headquarters.

“Much has been written about the emergence of powerful new cities, particularly in East Asia, but it is critical not to overlook the enormous power of historical inertia. ‘It is inevitable’, a manager at Shanghai’s Guotai, a large Chinese investment bank, boasted to the Washington Post, ‘ that we will take the US’s place as the world leader.’ Yet, it will be a long time, perhaps decades or even longer, before any city on the Chinese mainland approaches the global influence of the long-established global hubs.”

Although I am happy for the boost in international prestige both the report’s (and Forbes Magazine’s) ranking and underlying criteria represent for Seoul, I can read into them caution for the rest of Korea.  A South African magazine’s observation about London’s ranking - why this is flattering, worrisome and deceiving - could easily and even more so apply to Seoul’s:

It’s almost 18 years since Newsweek magazine’s “London Rules” cover trumpeted the triumphs of what came to be dubbed Cool Britannia. Two years after that, though, the magazine ran an “Uncool Britannia” piece illustrating how little of the capital’s glamour had been distributed across the rest of the nation. London as a city-state is great for the capital city, terrible for the rest of the country. There needs to be greater decentralization, even if that saps a little of London’s swagger on the global stage.

Finally, the report, admittedly, ranked cities only by global influence factors and omitted quality of life considerations (you know, things that people rather than governments and global corporations find intrinsically critical):

Other surveys measure different things and weigh factors that we do not consider intrinsically critical. For example, the Mercer Quality of Living Survey and the Monocle Quality of Life Survey are focused on lifestyle in the city. These surveys frequently rank smaller cities such as Vienna (1st in the Mercer survey) and Copenhagen (1st in the Monocle survey) very highly, but these are generally not the most important or dynamic business hubs. It is notable that Monocle’s and The Economist’s headquarters remain in London, despite the city’s low score in quality of life rankings. Clearly, there is a difference between ease of living and economic dynamism.

A Google News search of “forbes ‘world’s most influential cities’” reveals that the piece got picked up by news outlets around the world (particularly in U.K., U.A.E., Russia, South Africa, and Australia).  The Toronto Star, in Canadian fashion, published an opinion piece, Others see Toronto as a success. Why don’t we?  Interestingly, I didn’t find a single U.S. paper that reported on the piece. I’m sure Korean media will soon pick it up.

Pyongyang’s Non-(?) Reaction, North Korean Catholicism(!), and Lankov

Solidifying North Korea’s already dominant position as the more comically entertaining of the two Koreas, Pyongyang reacted to speculation that the three short-range rockets fired off the east coast before Francis’s arrival and the two launched shortly after were in reaction to the Pope’s visit:

“We don’t know and in fact have no interest at all in why he is traveling to South Korea and what he is going to plot with the South Korean puppets,” Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency quoted Kim In-yong, a North Korean rocket scientist, as saying in reference to the pope.

The real question, the report quoted Mr. Kim as saying, was: “Why of all the days of the year, as numerous as the hairs of a cow, did the pope choose to come to the South on the very day we had planned to test our rockets?”

Reading between the lines, I see that North Korea has developed, to what diabolical end I do not know, a strain of nearly hairless cow with precisely 365 hairs in most years.  I will continue to monitor North Korean media for references to Kim In-yong or infer in lack thereof that Mr. Kim and his kin got sent to gulags for letting slip state secrets in South Korea’s most widely read English-language blog dealing with Korea-related topics.

Surprisingly (certainly to me), the Catholic Church does have a presence in North Korea.  Known as the “silent church”, Pyongyang has sanctioned one Catholic church, which has no official ties to the Vatican and is led by an itinerant South Korean Father John Park who has traveled to Pyongyang once a year since 2000 to celebrate mass.  The State maintains strict controls, and I doubt that Father Park administers the sacrament of confession:  “a confidential one-on-one conversation between a South Korean — even if that person is a priest — and a North Korean is impossible and both could be accused of espionage.”  North Korea has not a single priest residing in the country.  The United States claims North Korea’s few state-run churches exist only for the appearance of religious freedom.

As for numbers, the United Nations estimates about 800 Catholics in North Korea while North Korea’s state-run Korean Catholic Association asserts about 3,000 “registered Catholics.”  I wonder the reason for the North’s higher number, especially given that the regime is officially atheist.

Members of North Korea’s religious groups and the groups themselves are often criticized as being fake.   Here’s MH favorite Andrei Lankov’s take:

“The North Korean government is tolerant of a small controlled religious presence within the country or is willing to fake such presence,” said Andrei Lankov, an associate professor in social sciences at Kookmin University in South Korea.

“Even if some members are true believers, they are selected by the government. The police authorities, the secret police, is checking your background,” he said.

North Korea’s constitution does allow its people to practice religion. However, in the same constitution, it also says it won’t allow it to be “used for drawing in foreign forces or for harming the State or social order.”

Dr. Lankov concluded, “from their (North Korea’s) point of view, it is a very real threat. Right now, Christianity seems to be their most dangerous ideological challenge to the existing regime.”

I would like to ask him whether Christianity in general or Catholicism specifically is the threat.  We have seen in our lifetimes the irresistible political force, even to the Soviet Union and a well-backed Communist state and party, that the Catholic Church and pope can be.  I wonder could the next pope be Asian or even Korean?

For the Pope’s final mass on Monday for “peace and reconciliation for the Korean peninsula”, Vatican representatives had invited North Korea to send a delegation.  North Korea rejected the invitation.  The state-run Korean Catholics Association cited the annual joint military exercises between U.S. and South Korean forces as the reason for rejection.  Apparently as fervently as they might feel about the Pope, North Korean Catholics feel even more so about the annual joint military exercises.

What Goes Around, Comes Around

The Park administration is angry at a Japanese newspaper and is threatening them with prosecution under the dreaded Korean defamation law.

The Japanese newspaper, Sankei Shimbun, posted an article “President Park Geun-hye, missing on the day of the ferry’s sinking … With whom did she meet at the time?” whose sources mention a Chosun Ilbo column that put forward the notion that the president was having a meeting, of a personal nature, with a Saenuri Dang member, who was also married (cite).

Mind you, I have no interest in anyone’s personal affairs, especially since it has no bearing upon any important issues, however, I do note one thing – isn’t it more than a little rich that one of the sources, mentioned by the Japanese newspaper, was the Chosun Ilbo, the same newspaper that interfered in the political process here, accusing (defaming) then Prosecutor General Chae Dong-Wook with marital infidelity?. . . and the news leak to the Chosun Ilbo about General Prosecutor Chae was a Blue House aide.

Naturally, the local editor of the Japanese newspaper is to blame for repeating this defamation.

Is South Korea the Coolest Place on Earth?

Author and Wall Street Journal Online columnist Jeff Yang wrote a piece published by CNN Opinion in which he posits that South Korea, no longer Hong Kong or Japan, is the Asian nation at the center of cultural cool.

So, is Korea cool du jour or can Korea kewl stay even after school?

That’s a question Euny Hong addresses in her new book, “The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation Is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture.”

“I think it can,” she says. “The difference between cool Korea and earlier Asian pop culture waves is that Korea has been working to make this happen for almost two decades. Korea is cool because it decided to be cool — it’s the first country in history that has made being cool a massive policy priority, backed by the Korean government to the tune of billions of dollars.”

The fact is, the machine of Korean pop culture is as sleekly designed, systematically engineered and massively marketed as any Samsung gadget. It’s not just a gigantic money-making industry, it’s also the primary source of “soft power” by which the nation seeks to shorten its path from war-torn, third-world country to the top ranks of world influencers.

“Koreans have a deep-seated desire to see the nation recognized and validated,” Hong says. “We study harder than anyone in the world, we work more hours, and it’s all because of this need to see us finally come on top.”

Jeff Yang continues,

Japanese cool is quirky, the sum of the nation’s eccentricities. Hong Kong cool is frenetic, representative of the society’s freewheeling striving spirit. American cool is casual: It’s cool that’s anchored in doing without trying, it’s about being quintessentially effortless.

By contrast, Korean cool could not be more effort-ful.

…and in illustrating his point, he diverges with mine:

The hypnotic appeal of K-pop videos are not just their candy-colored, otherworldly aesthetic, it’s also because their performers — sometimes numbering in the dozens — are invariably dancing in perfect sync, with a level of precision possible only because candidates for K-pop glory are recruited as adolescents and trained for years in groups that are required to live, take classes, eat, sleep and rehearse together until they’ve achieved a transcendent level of harmony.

“It all underscores the fact that the rise of Korean cool was hardly an accident — and that it could well have staying power.”

It can if, like those technocrats in a planned economy, the pop culture makers can continue to guess right or throw money at marketing or throw increasingly more money at marketing their mistakes.  History’s lessons are full of semi-successful-for-three-years five-year plans doomed after so many succeeding and less successful five year plans ran those ministries into the dust heap.

The forced analogy makes me wonder, can cool be dictated by the decidedly uncool?  I have commented often (as recently as today) on the long-term faptastic mistake that I think the femmebot, (shall we say) compliant sort of K-pop that the Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism (MCST) subsidizes for export is.  At best the girl groups will be laughingly remembered in dorm rooms as their target cohort matures into university students.  At worst, they will resuscitate a hard-lost image of objectified Asian women.  All the while the corporativism that is the alliance between the MCST and the Ministry’s preferred big entertainment companies are missing Korea’s vibrant and talent laden hip-hop, rap, and dance scene

OK, so the author and I disagree about what is cool and even whether Korea can stay the  (as pronounced with a long ‘e’) it girl after the carriage turns into a pumpkin.   As things stand he and the ministry are right, and the validity of my opinion is yet to be determined.  Still Jeff Yang hit upon a larger, more important trend in Korea, though he missed the forest for the trees:  Korea’s MCST is writing the how-to manual for emerging countries to market themselves and project their soft power.

Brand Korea, which I sometimes use derisively, is a self-marketing juggernaut.  Korea’s branding prowess extends far beyond pop culture.   For example,  Korea recently gained recognition for Namhansanseong as a UNESCO world heritage site, which brings Korea’s total to  an impressive 11.  The Korean marketing machine is the real story here.

Read Jeff Yang’s full opinion piece at CNN.com

UPDATE:  I found an article, Korean Cool Is The Ultimate National Marketing Ploy written by Euny Hong, author of the above cited book in Newsweek Online.  She provides a brief, interesting bit of why:

“Very few countries have ever attempted to sell their pop culture to the United States. Even Japan didn’t try,” says Lee Moon-won, one of Korea’s most prominent cultural critics. So why would Korea focus its efforts on popular culture? Why not stick to cars and semiconductors?

The answer lies partly in the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997-1998, which left the country economically crippled, forcing the government to request a $57-billion loan from the IMF. The crisis exposed a huge fault line in the Korean economy: it was too dependent on the nation’s chaebols….  The government of then-president Kim Dae-jung realised it had to diversify.

…Was the president out of his mind? Building a pop culture export industry from scratch during a financial crisis seems like bringing a Frisbee instead of food to a desert island. …The creation of pop culture, Dae-jung argued, doesn’t require a massive infrastructure; all you really need is time and talent.

Read the rest of her article here.

Open Thread: August 10, 2014

I hope you are enjoying the overall pleasantest summer in Korea I remember.

So, a 41 trillion won stimulus? How do I get some of that action, huh?

Korea’s economic growth over the last year and a half hasn’t been great.  It’s been average at best and hasn’t been up to expectations or projections.  From a some perspectives, the Korean economy isn’t employing enough young people coming out of college and isn’t creating a lot of wage growth for many of those who are employed.  Well, it’s fair to say that Korea isn’t the only country suffering the same woes, but any ways.

So, the natives are getting restless and something needs to be sacrificed to the volcano god.  Madame Park pounded her fist on the table in a recent cabinet meeting and demanded ideas to “revive the economy no matter what.”

What’s the old standby when you need instant economic gratification?  Pump cash into the economy! So, Finance Minister Choi Kyung-hwan came up with the (sarcasm on) brilliant idea (sarcasm off) to dump 41 trillion won ($39.8 billion USD) into the economy through three ways:  1) make buying homes cheaper 2) make capital cheaper for some businesses and 3) give households more spending power.

Choi Kyung-hwan has dubbed this policy “Choinomics.”  Many people (including this writer) are skeptical that it is the panacea that many in the Korean press is making it out to be.  Short term stimulus, whether by fiscal (Choinomic) or monetary (Abenomics) means, are a temporary fix.  It’s kind of like cocaine, makes you feel like you are on top of the world for a few hours, but it’s not real medicine.  Structural reform is the real medicine.  But, like in Japan, structural reform is tedious and sometimes hurtful (in the short term) to the immediate electorate, so it is often the economic weapon of last resort.

If Choinomics is just a morale saving measure to counteract the artificial temporary decline in GDP caused by the Sewol disaster, then I would be more supportive.  Given the modest improvement in GDP estimated by Choi (estimated at only 0.1% GDP improvement for this year and 2015) I suspect that’s all it is, despite the enthusiasm for it demonstrated in the Korean press as some sort of counter to the equally futile Abenomics.  So, my qualms are not in the actual policy itself, but in the manner in which it is being marketed by the government and the press as a “do all” and “save all” genius economic miracle policy.

A Water Concert For the Hot, Dry Season

SNJ2014_poster_web

There is one up and coming Jazz concert that should be a good way to cool off from the heat with some very cool sounds.  Ronn Branton is celebrating his new recording entitled  WATER, with a concert at the Sejong Chamber Music Hall this coming August 23, at 8pm.  This CD marks a wholly new and original collection of music based upon water themes, most of which are set here in Korea.

His band also includes some of the best Jazz musicians in Korea. If interested, you can try interpark.co.kr, yes24 or just call 02-888-0650.

Colin Marshall’s five part series on Korea in The Guardian

Meet Colin Marshall, a Seattle native who somehow ended up living in Koreatown, Los Angeles shortly after college and currently writes for the British daily The Guardian.  Recently, he just wrapped-up a five part series on Korea for The Guardian.  An index of the articles is available on this link.

Unlike many commenters and writers on this blog, Colin has not lived in Korea for years.  His Guardian series was based on about a week’s travel in the country.  He has live in Los Angeles’ Koreatown for awhile and claims he can speak a functional amount of the language.  Apparently, he even has a Korean girlfriend (in Los Angeles).  This might be a plus or negative for some people.  However, when it comes to urban vibe and city planning, Colin might have some experience to speak as he’s traveled to Mexico City, London, Copenhagen, Osaka, in addition to his native Seattle and current home of Los Angeles.

The Korean American magazine KoreAm interviewed Colin about his Guardian articles.  It’s an interesting read and he says some rather insightful observations that I think may have a kernel of truth.

In a way, some Koreans here [in the U.S.] are actually more conservative than the ones in Korea.

[...]

Talking to the twentysomethings there [in Korea], sometimes they’re way more mature than me, but sometimes it feels like they’re still in middle school.

[...]

[English learning in Korea is]… not even about learning English. It’s about getting above the others.

[...]

[Koreans burn too]… much energy on competition with each other.

[...]

Korea has brashness, which isn’t the same thing as confidence.

Testing For Money Spent – Why Standardized Testing is Rigged

here_I_amI have a daughter who went to Kindergarten for several years and public school here in Seoul for eight years. She is smart, however, she had problems when she did her big exams. Her weekly scores were fair but the grades on the larger tests were horrible. I didn’t yell at her but her mother worked with her on some subjects, I bought science books and hired a tutor for her math and her scores improved over time.

This last January, I let her go to live with my sister in Nebraska (her aunt who shares the same birthday even) and after two months there, her scores went from a 56 (here) to a 99 percent!

I thought maybe American schools are teaching easier than Korean schools, which in many cases seems to be true since her middle-school classes would introduce subjects that I only got in high school myself, however I then ran across an article from the Atlantic that maintains standardized tests, in America, aren’t actual tests of knowledge but are branded products produced by textbook companies, and getting a good score depends on whether you bought the right books to study. It seems that many schools here in Korea pull their testing material straight from textbooks here, that have a vested interest in making $$$ and some teachers do get gifts from certain publishers, so . . . it turns out I have a smart daughter after all who will not end up working in Wallmart. I only wonder and worry about her friends here and so many other bright Korean kids that have to labour and suffer under this deliberately weighted variable, not to mention the high household debt 1 2 3 here in Korea – much of which is due to educational expenses to help these kids keep up and to study at the *right* places or the very high rate of suicide (the number one reason for death between the ages of 10 and 30) (cite), due to the stress of living. How much income is lost to average Korean households due to this system and how long will the system function before it flips over and sinks?

Update

A new opinion piece in the NY Times discusses the stresses upon Korean kids in being driven by their parents (if not mom) to excel in grades:

. . . She (mother) did not want me to suffer like my brother, who had a chest pain that doctors could not diagnose and an allergy so severe he needed to have shots at home.
I was fortunate that my mother recognized the problem and had the means to take me abroad. Most South Korean children’s parents are the main source of the unrelenting pressure put on students.

The opinion piece is here.

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