Happy New Year to all. First year on this blog, started fast but ended a bit slow (in reverse of the real world). I look forward to keeping it going in 2012, maybe all the life changes can provide a bit of decent material to use.
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,900 times in 2011. If it were a cable car, it would take about 48 trips to carry that many people.
Well first and foremost apologies for my blogging absence. Besides the baby news, the new Year is also bringing me a new job, a new city, and many other changes that will be discussed once I have my head wrapped around things.
That out of the way, time to repeat the big and obvious news I am sure you have heard before coming here…
Apparently he had a heart-attack on Saturday morning, after being weakened and fatigued by extensive travel over the past few days. I, amongst pretty much everyone on this side of the peninsula I’m sure, had an initial “Holy Shit” reaction, the military being put on emergency status as a precaution and the KOSPI taking a near 90 degree plunge down 5% (now recovering to around 3%). Although most would say Dear Leader has been looking better of late, there still was little question that he was not long for this world, so once the pure shock wore off, the reality set in that both sides have been prepared for this and the short term (at least through the official mourning period lasting until the 28th) we probably won’t see any major changes. What we are left with now is uncertainty, as no matter how prepared the governments could be for the death it’s impossible to know just what will happen from here. We’ll have a lot of opinions flying around in the days to weeks ahead, some educated and some not as much so. Here and now, I’ll give some of my brief thoughts (which admittedly likely lie within the latter category of opinions).
1. A sudden death was probably a good thing
One doesn’t have to reach very far to find evidence that Kim Jong-Il wasn’t exactly a sensible, reasonable person. Personally, I am happy that an unexpected heart attack took him from the mortal realm rather than drawn out disease. While it may not have been likely in the first place, it at the very least made certain a “blaze of glory” situation couldn’t happen where a death’s-door Kim ordered a massive attack as a final act. With, hopefully, more intact minds at the helm (with much more to lose) it lessens the possibility of rash action in my mind.
2. Tomorrow will be business as usual for most South Koreans
The president may still have a lot on his hands tomorrow, but for most Koreans, tomorrow will just be Tuesday. They may check the news sites or stock prices a tick more than usual, but otherwise they’ll be more worried about their Christmas plans than planning for an NK attack. One of the odd things about living in this country that you can’t really understand from the outside is that the general populous knows perfectly well that on any given day a shell could have dropped in Seoul and, for the most part, they know that nothing can be done about it so why think about it? This became really clear to me during the Yeongpyeong-do attack last year. Everybody at my work watched the news for an hour or so and when it became apparent the action was finished, went right back to making lesson plans.
3. It all comes down to China
But really, how is that different from any other day? Ever since the South began to take a hard-line stance during the LMB presidency, China has become the main (and near only) prop of the regime. The head of the regime may be gone, but I am certain the power players who make up the body knows just who really pays the bills and keeps them in their positions. I also have no doubt that the first call Saturday morning went to Beijing. The death doesn’t necessarily change the game, but it does force the hand a bit. Where and how China decides to exert pressure will shape the future of North Korea. Once again, that may be the same as any other day, but perhaps now the shaping will become a bit more direct and create some visible change.
In all the uncertainty, I’ve been trying to picture North Korea on December 19th, 2012. First of all, there still will be a North Korea one year from today and the current power structures will be more or less intact. There will have been no large scale conflict and in fact both the outgoing GNP administration and the assume incoming leftist government have been pushing for more open relations and trade with the North, perhaps even a meeting with the Brilliant Comrade is being planned by some. So Kim Jong-un will be the leader of North Korea, but much more in name only as the actual power and decisions will be made up of his Aunt and Uncle as well as other key military and party leaders. By “actual power” I mean these people are where the puppet strings coming from China will be tied and from here will come greater emphasis on Chinese-style economic reforms. As discussed before these reforms have already started, but the speed and scope may widen considerably over the next year. Unmentioned so far are the 22 million people of North Korea, just where will they be? Unfortunately likely little will change for their lives. There will be no mass defections across the border, no uprising, no dancing in the street or toppling of statues. Maybe, just maybe, there will be a little more food in the pot and a bit more heat on during the cold December night. The greatest thing these people might have next year is a tiny bit of hope that things might be improving ever so slightly.
The funniest thing about all of this for me is simply the timing. We are less than two weeks shy of the new year, 2012, the centennial of the birth of Kim Il-Sung, the countries founder. For years Kim Jong Il has been propagating that this would be the year that North Korea would become a great nation, but now he himself couldn’t reach that day. No, North Korea won’t be a great nation in the coming year, but perhaps it will be a better one.
The official state broadcast
So the blog has been in its biggest lull since I started it and I just wanted to say there is good reason for that. I will be writing again as soon as possible, but at this time my mind is somewhat preoccupied with another topic. I’ll let the Wonder Girls give a hint to what’s up…
So to make it official for the world to hear, little more than a week ago we found out that my wife is pregnant. Not much to report outside of that at this point, mainly because at only 4 weeks I believe the little 한미 creation probably looks something like a peanut. Coincidentally, and appropriately, it was the above Wonder Girls’ song that the wife was learning at dance class when we got the news.
Still being a relatively new blogger and equally inexperienced as an expectant father, I’m not really sure how the two will mesh, but I’ll get it figured out and be back musing on the news of the day soon.
A couple of North Korea stories recently caught my attention and while I well know that any information that comes out of the country has to be taken with a whole shaker of salt, the dynamic between the two really put into stark contrast between the haves and have-nots in that country. Nothing against the Occupy movement, but honestly “the 99%” of the US knows absolutely nothing about repression and wealth inequality when compared to 99.9% of the DPRK populace who don’t seem to even have the strength to complain, much less a Facebook account to complain on.
First lets take a look at the haves. From the AFP we have this report of a new luxury goods department store opening in Pyongyang. This would appear to mesh in with reports of massive construction and rejuvination projects around the capital in preparation for the 2012 celebrations commemorating the 100 year anniversary of the birth of the “Eternal President“. The store is said to sell a wide variety of goods from clothes and furniture to food and medicines. High-end brands such as Chanel and Armani are also available, although according to Chanel no permission has been given to act as a distributor. It’s likely safe to assume that the purpose of Potongkang is to provide a non-black market source of goods for the Pyongyang elite and also generate the hard currency needed by the nation for its Pyongyang projects, which have been chronically underfunded.
As said above, the current construction boom in Pyongyang is racing towards the 2012 celebrations, to provide proof of North Korea being a “great and prosperous nation”. Despite other pressing needs in the country, it would seem these projects are consuming all available resources, including drafting students and military as construction workers. Around the city, new apartment high-rises have sprung up along with parks, theaters and other public venues (although not likely actually open to the public). Even the iconic eyesore Ryungyong Hotel (류경호텔) is at least superficially near completion, almost 20 years after work originally halted. Combine this with the stories of increased cellular, and even smartphone, availability and even brief nudity on government controlled TV and it seems life is getting better for the haves, or at least they can have more.
On the other side of the equation, we have reports from Yonhap among others of the realities of the other side of North Korean life from face-to-face interviews. Civic groups Greater Korea United and the Committee for the Democratization of North Korea conducted the interviews with 14 North Korean citizens in a Chinese border city in August and released the results and some video clips this week. Lowlights include the currency reform and chronic food shortages already discussed on this blog. Additionally we have word of a growing drug problem in the North with widely available “ice” (methamphetamine) which has become a replacement cure-all for the necessary but nearly impossible to obtain medicines for any number of diseases. Like the South, there is also a growing number of suicides in the nation, although I dare say North Koreans have much better reason to consider it. Undoubtedly these interviews have been presented with the specific agenda of painting a bleak picture, and thus garnering further support, but the hard evidence does tend to back it up. First off, photo-manipulation aside, the North was completed ravaged by flooding over the summer. Given the resources devoted to the capital it is doubtful that any real reconstruction efforts have occurred. Also, massive inflation is continuing unabated, if not outright created by the regime, with the staple price of rice nearly doubling since last month.
As someone with a genuine interest and concern for North Korea, I do sometimes have to fight the urge to simply ignore the stories, given that they essentially all say the same thing without any real solutions in sight. Without a doubt, this is a broken nation and in my mind the absolute worst regime in the world by decent measure. How it will continue to limp along, I do not know, the big question being do we help the people (and as a result support the system), sit back and watch, or actively hasten its demise.
Also on the topic, take a look at this Fareed Zakaria piece for CNN on the chances of a popular uprising in North Korea:
Ah so it has come again, that most sacred and ancient of the traditional Korean holidays, Pepero Day. It is the day when the young and young at heart share thin, chocolate covered breadstick snacks with those they love, or like, or are casually acquainted with. The story goes that on some long past November 11th, some middle school girls in Busan exchanged boxes of 빼빼로 in the hopes that they could all be long and thin like pepero sticks (hopefully not as prone to snapping). They chose this day, because it was 11-11 and that looks like four snack sticks. That makes today especially special, or perhaps a sign of some sort of 빼빼로 Apocalypse, as it’s 11-11-11, a full third more stick-shaped numbers.
Anyways, to turn off the sarcasm, Pepero is made by the Lotte Company and may be better known to those in the States (at least those who go to World Market) by the Japanese product it copied, Pocky. I somewhat doubt the origin story of the “holiday”, as I heard similar references in Japan to Osaka middle school girls giving each other Pocky to be tall and thin, I will say the Lotte Company has done an amazing job marketing it strongly into the cultural consciousness of people. Rather than deny that they contrived the holiday, they should be proud of their gimmick turning into a full-fledged national event. I’m happy enough for it as it means that I have eaten several boxes of the snack over my life here in Korea without actually having to ever purchase any (they go relatively well with coffee).
In fact, the holiday has worked so well, that there’s even a social campaign not to eliminate it, but share it with a (supposedly) healthier alternative 가래떡 (Garaetteok) Day. Personally I am all for that as roasted 가래떡 is incredibly delicious for something that really has no flavor of its own and I am a well known lover of 떡볶이 (tteokbokki). So feel free to pick your poison, just honor the day somehow with some long, cylindrical food.
To begin with an FYI, I have put in a final copy of my previous blog post “The Pitfalls of Half-Price Tuition” and it should eventually wind up at least over at Korea Business Central’s great “Economic Slice 2011″ series (and perhaps publication in other sources, but no for sure word on that). For now, here’s what has my interest this days:
Educational Thunderdome, 690,000 students enter – 690,000 leave…emotionally and mentally wrecked
Well for over half a million young people, this is likely the most important day of their young lives, one that has been circled in their parents mind since the day they were born. Today an estimated 690,000 third year (senior) high school students will file into classrooms around the country to take the 대학수학능력시험 (College Scholastic Ability Test) and the exam forms they fill out over the next 7 hours will play a large role in the course of their adult lives. Essentially the countless hours of 학원 work, endless cram sessions and rote learning has been to get them to this point and any hopes of getting into a decent University (and job afterwards) rests almost entirely on the unforgiving examination. The pressure and weight placed on this exam can be clearly seen by the lengths the country goes to accommodate it. All government offices and banks didn’t open until 10am today to try to prevent traffic jams making students late to the exam and nearly the nations entire police force is out on the street and giving escorts to students, making sure they arrive on time. Additionally, last night was one of the busiest nights of the year for churches and temples as parents and family came to pray for good scores. So severe is the security of the test that the professors and teachers who wrote the questions will spend the day locked in a hotel room literally and technologically blacked out from the outside world.
Given what I have written previously, my feelings about this test and the educational system that revolves around it should be fairly clear and I won’t take the time to expand on them now. I’ll just say for now, good luck to all these young men and women. Regardless of what happens, they should walk out of the test with their heads held high as simply running the gauntlet of the Korean education system is an accomplishment in and of itself.
Two Foreigners, Two Crimes, Two Idiots
Not one, but two wayguk crimes have been reported in the past week that caught my attention. The first seems to happen every year, more or less, a teacher thinking they can be sneaky and just mail themselves illegal drugs. As you can read over at Gusts of Popular Feeling, Busan Ilbo and later Yonhap have reported that a Canadian ESL instructor was busted for shipping a package of drugs from back home to himself at school at the end of summer break. What’s interesting about this case is how the reports have described the substance as a “new kind of drug” – Hashish. I guess the media has a fairly short-term memory for this sort of thing as it was the same stuff that the infamous criminal mastermind Cullen Thomas was caught with a kilo of that he tried to send through international mail. Really, this is just more proof to point what K-bloggers have been saying since the beginning of time, if you really can’t go without using drugs, don’t come to teach in Korea. I have nothing against anyone who just wants to have a bit of harmless fun, but Korea does and I promise you are not likely smart enough to get away with it. Please take this story and all the others of people doing the EXACT SAME THING repeatedly as a warning and not an idea that you’re clever enough to get away with by putting the drugs in a cake or something.
The second crime that caught my attention was down in Jeju. The protests against the currently being constructed Naval base in Gangjeong have gone international (likely due to stories like this) and American Matthew Hoey was arrested last week for sneaking into the site and damaging construction equipment. According to reports, Hoey is a coordinator for the Save Jeju Island campaign, the minds behind this wonderful website, brimming with half-truths, baseless rumors and photos of little children who will obviously be blown to smithereens if this base is allowed. While I can agree that the government should have been a little more sensitive to location concerns, is too late for that now and the themes of the current protest (it will start an arms race, the US puppet masters are behind it, etc.) are complete nonsense. Like Hawaii for the US, Jeju is the best location for Korea to center its naval forces and protect its interests. These interests go far beyond simply North Korea and include the ROK’s very active role in piracy prevention, increased humanitarian efforts and yes, as a check against China’s increasingly aggressive moves in the Asian waters. Outside of agreeing that its probably a good idea, the US has no part in this equation what-so-ever and I strongly doubt that any American ships will ever call the base their home. Just some things to consider in case you were thinking about climbing barbed-wire fences with your bare hands and tear apart some hydraulics for yourself.
In some cultures its considered lucky to cut off your pinky twice, right?
As proof that South Korea needs absolutely no outside assistance in crazy protests, we have this story of a South Korean man who has been arrested for mailing a piece of his severed pinky to the Japanese Embassy after cutting it off himself (twice). According to this updated piece from Yonhap, the man named as Choi first cut off the little guy in April at a demonstration in from of the Embassy. After going through the trouble of having it stitched back on, Choi again nipped it off the very next month. Having been told by doctors that they couldn’t do the surgery again (my guess is they saw the pattern), this incredibly reasonable man did the only sane thing, putting the rotting bit of flesh and bone in a package and sending it out with the morning mail. Apparently doing such is illegal in this country (who knew?) and Choi has been arrested, although he now has a great conversation starter for the rest of his life. If you’re curious as to what spurred on this unusual form of protest, I’ll give you a hint in a fictitious quote I’d like to imagine Choi screaming as he was hauled away:
You may take our pinkies, but you’ll never take OUR ROCKY OUTCROPPINGS!
Either than or Han Myeong-sook celebrated her aquital by getting a lot of plastic surgery and the Asian Football Confederation chose a really unwieldy trophy for the Champions League, just try to haul that thing around a ticker-tape parade.
In US politics, “pushing through” a bill, “clearing the obstacles” and “holding up” passage tend to be figurative speech, showing the difficulties of negotiation by alluding to physical confrontation. Even casual political watchers in South Korea, however, know such phrases can be taken quite literally here. In what I would consider the pre-fight weigh-in dramatics for the KORUS FTA passage, last night opposition lawmakers physically occupied the foreign affairs committee chambers, preventing GNP members from holding a meeting on the topic.
“I am not going to push anymore to hold a session today.” said translated comments of Rep. Nam Kyung-pil, the committee chair and he absolutely meant it, as for hours ruling party politicians were trying to jostle their way into the packed room. This is not the first time attempted meetings of the committee have been disturbed as previously opposition sat in the actual chair of the Chairman, refusing to move and preventing him from officially beginning proceedings. All this is happening despite party leaders on both sides already having agreed on several concessions and compromises, but not enough for many in the opposition who still feel the agreement still too strongly favors the US. Now, with the ruling party seemingly unwilling to bend further, it seems the stage is set for physical confrontations on the National Assembly floor.
Of course such scuffles are nothing new in South Korean politics and this particular event is downright tame compared to what happened when the FTA was being ratified back in 2008. Back then, opposition lawmakers showed up at the parliamentary committee’s door with a sledgehammer, crowbars and of course a full media entourage. After managing to break in the door, they were met with fire extinguishers from the ruling party inside. Fistfights erupted in the chaos, all under the eyes of news cameras and resulted in national embarrassment that only seems to last until it happens again the next year.
Now from an American perspective, this all seems pretty unimaginable, as ever since dueling pistols went out of fashion, the biggest threat on our Capitol Hill is having to listen to someone talk for a really, really long time. Personally, however, I try not to be too judgmental and in fact would occasionally prefer physical action over how our politicians tend to fight.
Also I think it is important to add a bit of historical context as a possible source of these confrontations. With the 빨리 빨리 true democratization of South Korea, it’s easy to forget that within a generation, Koreans did literally have to fight and die for the right to have their voice heard (the Gwangju Massacre was a mere 31 years ago after all, 광주 민주화 운동). While the issues today are petty by comparison, I can understand the willingness (and perhaps expectation) of politicians to physically prove their dedication to a cause. Similar to how the Korean protest culture has evolved, this is first and foremost a show to draw attention and rally support. In the end, I don’t think any of these lawmakers expect to prevent the passage of the FTA through these demonstrations (especially now that party leaders have made agreements) but rather want to show their supports, peers and string-pulling seniors that the literally fought the issue without giving in.
Real world school and work has really cut back on my blogging time, but should be cleared up by sometime next week. I look forward to plenty of strong posts in November. Have a few ideas, just need the brain space to flesh them out. Thanks for reading and in the meantime, enjoy the first solo effort of a fully vetted and verified Tablo - “Bad” (나쁘다)
Word comes from Yonhap that the Kaesong Industrial Complex is under threat by outrageous workers demands, to replace the currently provided Choco Pies as snacks with cold, hard cash (which may have better nutritional value anyways) or perhaps instant noodles (which most certainly does not). Of course the authorities can see these demands are not truly from the workers, but rather with the strings being pulled by the heartless North Korean regime who fear the spread of capitalistic ideals through mass-produced snack cakes. Turns out up to 10 pies a day are given out to workers (with up to 6 million being delivered to the complex each month) and some of the South Korean labeled sweets are finding their way to high prices on the black market. Some observers go so far to claim that the Choco Pie has become a symbol of the success and prosperity of the South, something the media has termed a “Choco Pie Revolution”. Undoubtedly fearing the spread of such ideas, Pyongyang recently failed to respond to an offer of millions of dollars in flood aid from Seoul, in apparent protest of the massive amount of choco pies that would be included thus heading off the possibility of a “Choco Fall” of riots demanding democracy (or a glass of milk). Managers at the complex have obviously come to understand the power of social change within the confections, as they denied the request for change.
So if it wasn’t obvious, I feel Yonhap might be giving the power of the Choco Pie a bit too much credit. While the little cakes are a nice snack, I don’t see the masses flying banners of empty snack wrappers invading the capital anytime soon. Really this story is nothing new, just a continuation of ongoing thread of chocolate-covered capitalism slowly taking over the North (see this Marmot post from 2009). The problem I personally have with this train of thought is that it’s not average Nork that is consuming the pies (among other SK goods) but rather the upper-crust who are likely well aware of their country’s failings, but unwilling to risk losing there place in it. If a Choco Pie goes for nearly $10 on the black market, as the media has claimed, I doubt the common man is giving up a couple days income for the privilege of eating one.
Of course no mention of North Korea and Choco Pies would be complete without looking back to the 2000 Chan-Wook Park domestic blockbuster 공동경비구역 JSA (Joint Security Area) and one of the better scenes from that film (not quite a classic, but well worth a viewing). In it, the unlikely group of North and South soldiers are having a friendly hangout in the former’s sentry post with DPRK Army Sergeant Oh (Kang-ho Song) happily stuffs his face with a Choco Pie while bemoaning the inability of his nation to produce such a treat. This leads his Southern counterpart Sgt. Lee (Byung-hun Lee) to suggest he defect and eat all the cakes he wanted. The first broach of this taboo subject causes the suddenly silent Oh to indignantly spit the mashed up pie into his hand and loudly proclaim his dream to one day see his great land produce a confection of such high quality, before returning the mass of chocolate and marshmallow to his mouth. The scene really sets the tone for what is off-limits in the unusual relationship being forged between the soldiers which has further meaning later on. Most likely anyone who even watched the film even in passing had this highlight stick with him, so perhaps this is the source of the “Choco Pies of freedom” meme. Just as the snack failed to pull the soldier across the border, however, so to is it unlikely to really cause fear in North Korean leadership.