Random Thoughts from the First Anniversary of the Sewol Accident

Absconding President and Angry Parents

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

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

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

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

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


Prime Minister being blocked from paying his respects
Prime Minister Lee being blocked from paying his respects


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

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

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

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


Korea the Police State?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Captain Abandons Ship

Abandon Ship 1

One year ago today, April 16, 2014, and caught with his pants down, a Captain cowardly and scurrilously abandoned ship rather than face his responsibilities to his constituency.  He has since been tried, vilified, found guilty (in both legal court and court of public opinion), and sentenced for likely the remainder of his natural life to prison.   His name is now forgotten; his heinous reputation lives on.

Today, April 16, 2015, we commemorate the incident and the victims of the Sewol Ferry tragedy.  Park Geun-hye, her ship of state perilously listing amid bribery scandals that reach to the highest levels of her administration and threatening to sink her presidency, is embarking on a scheduled 12-day tour of four South American countries.  The timing of PGH’s trip and its minor importance have raised eyebrows.

On April 14, Blue House Foreign Affairs and National Security Secretary Ju Cheol-gi  offered a  media brief detailing PGH’s schedule and the significance of the tour.  “Central and South America are a land of opportunity, a place where we can reveal the potential for exchange and cooperation in diverse areas – including ICT, electronic government, nuclear power, and large-scale infrastructure – based on the cultural affinity created by the spread of Hallyu [the Korean Wave],”

According to the Hankyoreh’s unnamed sources, “there were also objections inside the Blue House to the timing of the trip, but no one came forward to officially call it into question.”  Playing the Get Out of Jail Free, papal dispensation, American Express Black, uber-trumper of all trumps, economy card, Ju deflected arguments that Park’s trip should be delayed out of respect for the Sewol sinking anniversary and amid the Sung Wan-jong/Prime Minister bribery scandal:  “There is no good reason to delay the trip, and it must go forward as planned. We have to create opportunities to help the economy, and ethnic Koreans in Central and South America are looking forward to the trip, so we will do what needs to be done.”

A year ago, people called the Sewol sinking Korea’s 9/11.  It wasn’t.  The similarities stop with what both represented to Americans’ and Koreans’ collective consciousness.  Even there, the Sewol tragedy falls short.  I can’t imagine the American president failing to adequately commemorate an occasion of such searing, binding pain in his people’s psyche …while scheduling an optional overseas trip …on the incident’s first anniversary …excusing himself citing money.

President Park’s trip comes amid the choking smoke engulfing her Prime Minister, her deputy for government affairs.  Korea is a less than one generation out of military dictatorship by coup and self-coup nascent democracy in a country without a culture or history of democracy, and the President’s spokesman sees “no good reason to delay the trip”?  As an expat living in Korea, I don’t know whether to take comfort in the President’s confidence or cover for her incognizance.  Regardless, the President’s overseas trip feels wrong.

…and no, the thought of the photo of the Sewol Captain abandoning ship serving as a visual metaphor for Park Geun-hye’s trip never entered my mind, and I am not incredulous that no Korean political cartoonist has drawn or photoshopped PGH’s head onto this piece’s featured image.

Suicide – A New Political Tool?

I can well understand Moon Jae-in at this point in time.

He realizes that he was robbed by the more radical elements in his own party during the last election and, now, he is attempting to realign his platform and change his focus and image by becoming much more pragmatic in his goals.

ticket_to_rideFor a completely different approach to politics, then there is this case within the Saenuri Dang: the case of the suicidal Saenuri Dang Prime Minister, who encouraged the corruption probe (War against corruption) that has caught him as well:

. . . Prime Minister Lee bet his life on his innocence Tuesday, but he refused to step down, although the ruling party made clear that it wouldn’t provide a shield for him.
“If there is evidence that I had taken the money, I will lay down my life,” Lee said during a National Assembly hearing.

All on the heels of Sung Wan-jong’s suicide due to a corruption probe by the prosecutor’s office. (link)

Using the threat of sucide to put off the very investigation that the PM demanded is unprofessional.  I would really hope that, if the PM decides he should kill himself, his leadership skills would inspire his beleagered compatriots to follow him.  Only then can this strange cycle of politcal evolutionary extinction end.

How much cash can fit in a box of Vita 500c

Lacking a political satire outlet like John Oliver or John Stewart does not matter that much in South Korea.

Why? Because the reality is funny as is.

How much won can you fit in a box of vita 500c, image taken from Daum

Here is a very seriously tongue-in-cheek report a la Mythbusters on how much Korean won in various denomination can fit in a box of energy drink (Vita 500c – tastes like Lucozade flavoured Red Bull). The assistant/driver of the dead man Sung Wanjong – see anonymous_joe’s post here is meant to have said in an interview that he delivered a box of energy drink -it is not clear whether he said that it was filled with money, though it is implied – when he accompanied Sung on 4th April 2013 on a visit to the prime minister Lee Wan-ku 이완구’s election campaign office.
성완종 is meant to have told the Kyunghyang shinmun in an interview before he died, that he gave the prime minister 이완구 3천만원 ~30,000 USD in cash when he went to see Lee at his election office.

Here is a better photo from Yonhap news of the recreation:

At first, the prime minister denied meeting Sung at all on the day – his condition was bad, he does not remember – let alone having a one-on-one meeting, but as more evidence piles up for the possibility of them having a meeting, it will be interesting to see where this ends up.

I still think it is possible after all that there is somebody random in that election office on that day who got more energy than he expected. Somebody who found out that Vitamin C and caffeine comes in denominations of 신사임당. Wehey!

More info (in Korean) here

And, yet even funnier, this article from Money Today is questioning the (mis)use of the 5 manwon notes printed in Korea, that it is used in times of low interest rates usually for shady purposes and bribes.

최근 적발된 뇌물수수 사건에서 뇌물공여자들은 모두 5만원권을 갑티슈나 담배갑, 비누갑 등에 넣어 전달한 것으로 드러났다.
Many recent bribery cases involved the delivery of 5 manwon notes in tissue boxes or cigarette boxes (I guess they mean the 보루/보로 carton, not the individual hard case), or soap boxes (same as cigarette cartons, unless they are talking about bribing the homeless)

Back in the old days the container of choice for the discerning cash bribers to the same politically-inclined camp as today’s 새누리 were apple crates, talking of which, I need some wooden crates/boxes for my balcony garden. Anybody has any experience of growing 무우/배추 daikon radish/ Chinese cabbage in containers? (If I don’t digress some people might think it’s Robert himself who wrote the article and like it, so I feel the need to put in my signature)

Later Upate Here is the link to the transcript (in 6 parts)of the Kyunghyang shinmun telephone interview held a few days before Sung died, in its entirety.
Kyunghyang shinmun finally released it after sitting on it a few days. I think they did well in this case.
Sung was interviewed by Lee Kisu (sociopolitical editor/section-chief of Kyunghyang) and the recording lasted 48 minutes and 14 minutes, equivalent to around 84 pages of 200-word-manuscript paper.

A slight correction on the Update Kyunghyang shinmun was *made* to sit on the interview it seems as there was an embargo placed on (I guess from the prosecutors?) from releasing the contents to the public. The embargo was lifted today, and they published it in its entirety.

Asiana Plane skids off the runway on landing at Hiroshima Airport

There is breaking news (in Korean) that an Asiana plane which left ICN, Seoul at 6:49pm and landing at around 8pm at Hiroshima airport skidded off the runway on landing. Of the 74 passengers and 7 crew members on board, 23 people suffered light injuries.

In July 2013, a faulty landing at the San Francisco airport of the Asiana flight 214 resulted in the death of three people.

Update 1 :

It seems like the plane hit a ground antenna tower as it landed, exact cause to be obtained after more investigations.
Yahoo link (in English) here
Guardian Link (in English) here

A Solution for the History Textbook War


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

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

The part of the song that caught my attention was:

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

A man’s called a traitor or liberator.

A rich man’s a thief or philanthropist.

Is one a crusader or ruthless invader?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sung Wan-jong suicide aftermath: the noose tightens

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Sung Wan-jong, former chairman of Keangnam Enterprises was found dead yesterday.  Police suspect suicide.  Sung was Keangnam’s chairman until he resigned last month amid the widening anti-corruption investigation that touched Keangnam Enterprises and Sung’s personal business.

Sung was scheduled to appear Thursday at a court hearing over a detention warrant.  Prosecutors earlier this week charged Sung with misappropriating up to 46 billion won of government subsidies, based on falisfied accounting records.  Authorities suspect Sung embezzled 25 billion won of those funds “and was engaged in accounting fraud to the tune of 950 billion won.”  Sung denied all allegations of wrongdoing and even “strong” connections with the Lee government.

According to police, Sung left his house 5:11 a.m.  Sung’s chauffeur and sons found a suicide note in Sung’s house, and Sung’s family reported Sung missing to police at 8:06 a.m.  Police traced his two mobile phones and detected a signal in Pyeongchang-dong, (near an entrance to Bukhansan, his favorite hiking spot)  Jongno District at around 8:40 a.m and dispatched a manhunt with more than 1,300 officers.   At 3:32 p.m. and approximately 300 meters from the ticket office at Bukhansan, a police dog found Sung’s body hanging from a tree on an “untrodden” path near Jeongto Temple.  According to an officer at Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency,  “It was where Sung frequently went for a walk. He was hanging from a necktie tied to a branch two meters above the ground.”

Sung Jong-wan body from KT
Police officers carry the body of former Keangnam Enterprise Chairman Sung Woan-jong down from a mountainside, Thursday. Sung is believed to have committed suicide by hanging himself from a tree on Mount Bukhan in northern Seoul the same day. / Korea Times Photo by Shim Hyun-chul

Sung’s suicide “comes amid parliamentary probes into the Lee administration’s resource diplomacy policy.  The probes began to investigate allegations that Lee administration officials embezzled public funds during the government initiative.”

No, I’m not so cruel as to refer to Sung in this post’s lede.

At a press conference on Wednesday and less than 24 hours before his suicide , Sung dropped the 2MB bomb, specifically implicating former South Korean president Lee Myung-bak’s administration.  Korea Joongang Ilbo reported Sung’s statements as the following:

“I’m not an MB-man [someone close to former President Lee].  How can a victim of the former government become an MB-man? I actually worked for President Park Geun-hye, who was running the Grand National Party’s primary.”

The Joongang Ilbo observed, “Sung emphasized his innocence and shed tears.”

The Korea Herald published the following account of Sung’s Wednesday news conference,

Sung, a former Saenuri Party lawmaker, had called the investigations a politically-charged witch hunt.

“I am a victim of the Lee administration,” he said at Wednesday’s news conference, hours before his disappearance.

“I am much closer to President Park Geun-hye.”

“Many other companies had participated in resource development projects (under the Lee administration) at the time,” he added. “I do not understand why only we are being targeted.”

Police disclosed fragments of the suicide note Sung left in his house.  “I’m an innocent man who should be cleared from suspicions,” he wrote. “I will kill myself to prove it.”

Well, now. I’m convinced.

I do not understand the Asian custom (or is it only Korean custom?  My question is genuine, and I really do not know) of “proving” oneself innocent in the face of such scandalous, disgraceful, and especially criminal charges when presented with overwhelming tangible substantiating evidence through suicide.

Sung’s suicide makes prosecution’s pursuing its resources diplomacy case difficult.  Keangnam Enterprises played a major role in the probe. In another cultural difference I find incomprehensible, with suicide often accepted as proof of innocence, inquiries into the wider investigation often stop.

Nonetheless, make no mistake about it:  all, from business to governmental agency and education institutional, investigations so far show an Lee Myung-bak connection.  Lee Myung-bak seemed to have given enough rope in his time as president, and the noose appears to be tightening around him.

I’ll end with Sung’s last wish:  “Bury me next to my mother.”

(For a summary and impression of the extent of the anti-corruption probe, see here.)

Hope For Night Owls . . .

A new study suggests that being a night owl may promote health problems.

blue owlA study conducted here in Seoul found that many middle-aged night owls (people that keep late hours) had a higher instance of diabetes (in men) and abnormal levels of lipids (higher blood sugar) and too much fat around the waist.

Dr. Nan Hee Kim, an endocrinologist at the Korea University College of Medicine, thinks there is hope for night owls that want to switch to become an early riser:

. . . (sleep patterns) can be modified by external cues such as light, activity and eating behavior. But it isn’t known if this would improve the metabolic outcomes (blood sugar levels, etc.).

If you are not sure you meet the criteria of being a “night owl”, you can take the test that was used here. If you would like to know more about changing your sleep patterns, try this link at the Times and quit dreaming about it.


PGH’s Bipolar Presidency

I have never been so happy to be proved wrong.

I posted first on September 30, Pardon moi, and again on December 29, Pardon moi? (redux), that the Park Geun-hye administration seemed to be sowing the seeds of parole or even pardon for conglomerate owners and family members imprisoned for economic crimes such as embezzlement, breach of trust, and incurring losses to their companies.

PGH’s administration slung the dung, fertilizing the field:  in September,  two high ranking officials (Justice Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn and Deputy Prime Minister for Economy Choi Kyung-hwan) from two separate ministries made two separate statements on two consecutive days signaling leniency.  On Christmas Eve ruling Saenuri Party leader Kim Moo-sung and the day after Christmas Floor Leader Lee Wan-koo seemed to partake of the holiday parole punch.

I went so far as to “handicap the paroles and perhaps some pardons happening between Korea’s New Years: sometime after solar New Year, sometime before March 1, and with a probability density centered around Seollal.”  “…in absence of a major public backlash (they clearly anticipate and desire to diffuse the minor public backlash) the pardons will happen.”  Long-time Marmot’s Hole regulars laid their bets, waging virtual beers.

Then, …nothing.

In March, the PGH administration pulled a one-eighty, going polar opposite, and cataloging the (thus far) discovered corruption presents a daunting task:

  • A 105 member team “consisting of prosecutors, state auditors, police and taxation officials” targeted alleged malpractices involving Ilgwang Gongyeong, one of Korea’s largest defense brokers.  On March 11, prosecutors arrested Ilgwang Gongyeong chairman Lee Kyu-tae on charges that he “inflated the costs of procuring an electronic warfare training system from a Turkish defense firm” and “pocketing some 50 billion won ($44.4 million) by defrauding Seoul’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration.”  On March 12 prosecutors arrested a senior official of an affiliate of Lee’s company “for complicity in the case.”
  • In mid-March, a wide-ranging POSCO probe grabbed headlines, and POSCO’s share price plunged on March 31.  The investigation has spread to POSCO group and netted its first high-profile arrest at POSCO E&C  in a slush fund scandal Tuesday .  “The prosecution is expanding its probe into how the slush fund was created and used amid allegations that former President Lee Myung-bak’s key aides are at the end of the money trail.”
  • Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office is investigating Lotte Group’s shopping subsidiary for allegedly creating a slush fund.  According to the prosecution, “billions of won was sent from Lotte Shopping’s head office to affiliated businesses — Lotte Department Store, Lotte Mart, Lotte Super and Lotte Cinema — between 2011 and 2012, and why the money was transferred was unclear. The money was later withdrawn in cash.”  The Seoul Regional Tax Office imposed a 60 billion won fine on LG Group for tax evasion in 2013.
  • Dongguk Steel is suspected of, among other crimes, evading taxes, inflating the cost in the construction of a power plant, and fabricating the amount of goods imported from Japan and Russia.
  • On March 18, prosecutors raided Keangnam Enterprises Co., a Seoul-based builder, investigating allegations Keangnam misappropriated 10 billion won.  Investigators are also “looking into an alleged corrupt transaction between Keangnam Enterprises and the Korea Resources Corporation (Kores) in 2010.”  **UPDATE:  Lee Tae-hoon at The Korea Observer has reported the former head of Keagnam Enterprises has disappeared “hours before he was set to appear before police for a hearing to determine the legitimacy of his arrest”, leaving behind a will and suicide note. **  UPDATE 2:  “The body of Sung Woan-jong, former chairman of Keangnam Enterprises was found some 300 meters from a ticket booth in Mount Bukhansan. The cause of death needs to be investigated but reports said he appeared to have hung himself.”
  • Other companies under investigation include Kosteel, state run Korea National Oil Corporation (KNOC),   SK Innovation, KEPCO, and others in a search that seems to have given Goooooooogle its name.

According to Yonhap, the investigations began in mid-March “after Prime Minister Lee Wan-koo declared an ‘all-out war’ on corruption in an apparent attempt to prop up weak public support for President Park Geun-hye.”  The Korea Herald in an editorial Unfit corruption busters – Anticorruption agencies should check themselves first lamented,

There may be some political purposes behind this harsh corruption busting ― like taking revenge against former rivals and taming big businesses and the civil service. Nevertheless, it is imperative that we deal sternly with all cases of corruption.

Seeing the anticorruption war unfold, however, we cannot but raise a fundamental question: Are our anticorruption warriors clean enough to fulfill their mission? Few would say yes.

The recent cases point to the sad reality that some of our anticorruption agencies are rotten to the core. Police raided six tax offices in Seoul and Gyeonggi in a corruption probe last week. Before that, four senior officials ― two from tax offices and two from the Board of Audit and Inspection ― were caught having sex bought for them by those who they are supposed to be checking up on.

The case of the BAI officials is outrageous. They had dinner with officials from the Korea Electric Power Corp. and its affiliate ― the bill for the meals and drinks for the four was 1.8 million won ― and went to a hotel with two women who work at the restaurant.

KEPCO and its affiliates are subject to audits of the BAI and it is not hard to understand why they provide such generous entertainment to BAI officials. What’s more comical is that the two officials belong to the audit agency’s internal audit team which has been expanded in the wake of previous graft cases.

It is not rare for BAI and tax officials to be implicated in graft or other corruption cases. But the recent cases should reawaken Park and her aides to the importance of cleaning up the powerful anticorruption officials first.

PGH’s administration’s probes have widened from businesses to governmental agencies and educational institutions.  Only churches have (thus far) remained unscathed.  I suspect that will change in short time.

Interpretations for PGH’s administration’s about face run from trying to shore up her flagging poll numbers through providing a distraction to the Sewol Ferry saga to Korea’s political tradition of vanquishing one’s political enemies.   I opened the piece with PGH’s administration’s plans to pardon chaebol chiefs. “Nut rage” ended any possibility of that, and left PGH only with her campaign pledge.  I find all credible, not mutually exclusive, and additive.

The extent of the corruption should not surprise anyone who has been in Korea for any length of time.  Although I feel sad (I’ve made no secret of one aspect of my anonymous life:  my wife and children are Korean and of Korea) on the precipice of publishing, I remain a hopeful idealist.  The best thing that could happen to Korea is massive uncovering of the entrenched, unseemly side of Korean culture.

Pardon moi for taking a water droplet’s credit for its contribution to the flood.

Whiplash and Bullying in Korea

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




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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Nagging Reminder About Trust & Transparency

This BBC article, on the current discontent the families of the Sewol victims have with the government’s position, is to the point:

Committee chairman Lee Suk-Tae, one of the members nominated by the families, said that the “attempt to appoint maritime ministry officials, who should be the very subject of our own investigation… is completely unacceptable” . . . We need full political independence to get to the bottom of this tragedy and to prevent accidents like this from happening again.” A statement from the victims’ families said that “the priority for the government should not be monetary compensation but getting to the bottom of the incident, salvaging the wreckage and finding the last missing persons”.

which really contrasts to the comments I personally heard from one conservative constituent in Taegu, who mockingly accused the Sewol families of holding out for more money.

If the next president ends up being any other candidate than a Saenuri candidate, it will be because of this lack of transparency and trust generated by the government and the party that has continually not acted upon one of the most obvious needs of society – having a government that can be trusted.

DNS Poisoning and Script Attacks – Made in China

Some website owners are baffled by what amounts to DOS attacks on their sites since they originate from China.  Why should some site that has nothing to do with things Chinese be subject to attacks that route back to the PRC?:

Software designer Craig Hockenberry noticed something very strange was happening to his small corporate website. . .  one morning last month: traffic had suddenly spiked to extremely high levels—equivalent to more than double the amount of data transmitted when Kim Kardashian’s naked photos were published last year. The reason, he quickly discovered, was that China’s Great Firewall—the elaborate machinery that China’s government uses to censor the internet—was redirecting enormous amounts of bogus traffic to his site, which designs online icons, quickly swamping his servers. (cite)

This resulting denial-of-service (DOS) attack happens due to something referred to as “DNS poisoning” when servers (in China) that keep the addresses of sites are used to redirect traffic away from certain sites that a deemed sensitive to government personnel, they redirect inquiries to completely different sites deliberately. The result is a mass of traffic is directed to one site, which can quickly overload their servers.

South Korea is not immune to this sort of Chinese DNS poisoning either, China has also done the same thing to South Korean Government sites in the past. As shown below, at one time, Chinese web users were unwittingly used to DDOS a Korean Government website – just because (cite).  Even French sites have been hosed by the Great Firewall – no where is now safe.

Korean gov DNS poisoning

Even now, an American company’s site – GitHub – has been subject to just such an attack, which appears to be a deliberate attempt by the PRC Government to prevent Chinese net users from gaining access to their GitHub tools that would allow users to view sites and information on the internet that has been censored behind the “Great Firewall” in China:

The attack on San Francisco-based GitHub Inc., a service used by programmers and major tech firms world-wide to develop software, appears to underscore how China’s Internet censors increasingly reach outside the country to clamp down on content they find objectionable. . . Specifically, the traffic was directed to two GitHub pages that linked to copies of websites banned in China, the experts said. One page was run by Greatfire.org, which helps Chinese users circumvent government censorship, while the other linked to a copy of the New York Times ’s Chinese language website.

Likewise, there are certain things related to South Korea that are off-limits to the average Chinese citizen as can be seen here.

Another variation of this DNS poisoning involves scripts to reroute traffic.  The basic pattern of this sort of attack is as follows:

  • An innocent user browses the internet from outside China
  • One website the user visits loads an analytics script – a sequence of instructions – from a server in China, for example Baidu, something that often used by web admins to track visitor statistics
  • The web browser’s request for the Baidu script is detected by Chinese equipment as it enters the country
  • A fake response is sent out from within China instead of the actual Baidu Analytics script. This fake response is a malicious script that tells the user’s browser to continuously reload two specific pages on GitHub.com


Vows to Cut Government Waste and an Oversized Rice Cooker

Prime Minister Lee Wan-koo announced today that  he will conduct a thorough check on government spending to ensure that taxpayers’ money is not wasted.

In today’s JoongAng Daily, however, it is reported that a former county chief of Goesan County, a rural area 160 kilometers (99 miles) southeast of Seoul in North Chungcheong province, attempted to increase the number of tourists to his county by building the world’s largest gamasot, which apparently didn’t work all that well.  Also, the promised tourists never showed up either.

This oversized rice cooker that can’t even cook rice properly cost a total of ₩500 million (or about US$450,000). Perhaps Prime Minister Lee can start his investigation there.

Of course, this is not the only example of government waste. One only needs to turn on the news to witness some form of government waste every day.

It reminded me of one of PJ O’Rourke‘s many quips:

Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.

If the Prime Minister was being sincere, and he has given no reason for anyone to doubt his sincerity, it seems like he has quite a Herculean task ahead of him. I wish him luck, but I do not think that it would be wise for any of us to hold our breaths for too long.