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!
With the death of Steve Jobs last week came an incredible outpouring of support and remembrance from around the world. From my perspective, a surprising amount of this came from South Korea, a place where the man’s products were late to the game and recently have had an increasingly contentious relationship with Korea’s flagship company. I can understand this, however, as even though I’ve never been an Apple person, I can recognize Jobs as a true innovator and the driving force behind game-changing products that have helped define both modern markets and our modern lives. In addition to honoring and memorializing the departed, many of the words spoken and written have had a decidedly introspective tone:
Is Chris Bangle Samsung’s Steve Jobs? (WSJ Korea Real Time 10/7)
‘Innovation’ had been a key word amongst Korean businesses for a while now, but is reaching fevered pitch these days. The common meme being that Korea needs to foster creative people and organizations to remain relevant in the future. While this theme is certainly not unique in international business, the notable rigid Korean organizational structure makes the comparisons particularly stark here. In my business English classes, it is a frequent point of discussion as “how” Korean companies can make this transition. Most, if not all, of the classes are able to recite off the usual business buzz phrases considered solutions, such as going “outside the box”, having “horizontal integration”, etc. However, when I ask for detail and explanation into these ideas the room tends to go silent. It seems that while the buzz has entrenched itself here, the processes (and problems of integrating these ‘Western’ thoughts into ‘Eastern’ organizations) seem out of reach. While I can’t claim to have the perfect solutions, it’s still important to ask the questions and start the conversation. Namely, how can Korea start the process of nurturing innovative organizations? Also, and perhaps more importantly, is doing so really necessary (or advisable) for Korean businesses?
Beginning at the beginning
First and foremost, organizations are made of people and people tend to be a reflection of the culture and society they grew in. A primary reason for why innovation seems so far out of reach for Korean organizations could be because the traits necessary for it (i.e. creativity, free-thought, experimentation) aren’t strongly developed in the young. To visualize this, I simply look to the education system (note: my personal experiences working within the Korean public education system leaves me with a tendency to rant on the subject, so I’ll try to control that). While there is plenty to like about education here, mostly the work ethic of its students, without question the unforgiving, test-focused measurements impedes growth in more subjective areas. This is not to say there are no creative, innovative Korean people, as there most certainly are, but rather they were created more in spite of the culture than with its support and many cite outside influences as key to their development.
A common attribute of those considered ‘great minds’ such as jobs (or historical figures like Einstein and Edison), is that they failed, a lot. Their path to success tended to be littered with false starts, bad ideas and poor decisions. For every light bulb there were plenty of kenetophones, or in modern terms, for every iPad there were plenty of NeXTcubes.
I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work. Thomas Edison.
In the West, stories of monumental failure leading to ultimate success are common. They are told to children to encourage the “get back on the horse” mentality that is common to the culture. This stands in contrast to what exists in Korea, something cultural anthropologists call a “shame society”. In short, such cultures use shame and the threat of being ostracized as a form of social control. While the real existence of this in Eastern cultures is argued, there certainly are plenty of evidence to suggest its existence in Korea (such as the high suicide rate discussed before). As to how such a societal structure affects business innovation, I personally can see two major obstacles. First, shame or “saving face” adds additional costs to failure and therefor encourages playing it safe and not taking risks. Second, by placing such high value on belonging and acceptance, standing out (especially in non-academic ways) is a scary prospect, as even elevation in status separates you from the whole.
To recap far too many words, it’s probably suffice just to say to become ‘innovative’, Korea (as a society) would require great amounts of cultural change going far beyond the board room, but into the classroom and the home. I’m sorry for you readers who read through everything else just to get to this point, especially because it’s likely not the most important question. As stated way back at the beginning, that question is this really necessary (or advisable) for Korean businesses?
Focus on your strengths, not your weaknesses
To give credit where its due, my inspiration for this post began with a discussion over on Korea Business Central, asking the question if Korea can design a brand that is “distinctly Korean”, (an extension of a Korea Herald interview with brand consultant Martin Lindstrum). Over there, I made the argument that Korea’s recent history and tremendous economic growth is strongly tied to its decades of authoritarian rule. The powers of this time pushed growth and quantity above all else, making fast and cheap the names of the game. While this time (for the most part) has passed thoughts and images still remain (anybody want a 1986 Hyundai Excel?).
While some of these ideas are no longer applicable, many have simply evolved with Korean society, such as it being better to copy rather than create. When I say “copy”, I don’t wish to compare Korea to the Chinese firm manufacturing $100 jPads, but rather note that, especially in recent times, their strength does not lie in taking the giant leaps, but rather in the little steps between. Put frankly, if all companies were innovators, we’d have a ton of fancy new products (that don’t quite work properly). While it’s commendable to be on the cutting edge, taking and improving on the ideas of others can be a very good recipe for success. While my Western perspective initially lead me to argue that Korea companies need to be more innovative and begin the cultural changes necessary, further discussion and reflection makes me realize that it’s not the only way. For an example, let’s look at K-Pop music.
While a lot of the national hype about its growth is just hype, it is very true that there is an emerging international interest and appeal far beyond the size of the country producing it. This interest likely isn’t due to the creativity or uniqueness of the product (as really, no pop music stone is left unturned in the industry, including disco), but rather that it takes what has been done before and presents it in a highly polished, easily digestible package for the masses. The boys and girls on stage are highly trained, hard working and incredibly talented, not in the sense of writing words and making music, but instead at making something the masses want to consume. More than music, K-pop is a product, an increasingly successful one, that proves it doesn’t have to be original if it good and easily accessible. Really, in the end, Korean companies can continue to follow this model, grow and continue to be successful, as it fits within the current structures of society, ones that would be very difficult, if not impossible, to change. Perhaps the “Korean Steve Jobs” will come, but they undoubtedly will be, and probably should be, the exception rather than the rule. So, at least for today, I have to leave it with the belief that for Korean business to keep moving forward, they’re best left following, but just doing it better than those in the lead.
Over the past couple years, Korea really got bit hard by the reality/audition “become a star” type show that has been sweeping the rest of the world for a while now. One of the first to bring this wave upon 대한 was SuperstarK on Korean cable’s M.net. This near carbon copy of American Idol has also been one of the most popular shows, despite stiff recent competition from network audition programs, and many top competitors have been able to have some success on the Kpop scene following their time on the show (probably thanks in no small part to M.Net‘s powerful music label).
Last month saw the third iteration beginning and while I am not personally a huge fan (I can’t stand the “joke” auditions during the opening auditions) the wife does enjoy the show so I am catching most of the episodes. Now down to the final 9 and in the real teeth of the competition, one contestant does most certainly stand out.
Ardent fans of American Idol might just be able to recognize the waygook in the above picture. Chris Golightly was an announced as a final 24 contestant on season 9 until some controversy about prior contracts resulted in him getting the boot from the show. He gained a bit of notoriety for his sad orphan back story and big, curly hairdo. Well now he’s landed here, just with much bigger hair.
The trail of Idol loser to SuperstarK final stage had already been set by gyopo John Park, a fellow season 9 contestant with Chris and K second season runner-up. Alluded to in the show, Golightly was already in Korea working as a songwriter for Star Empire Entertainment groups such as Jewelry and ZE:A, including some writing on the girl group’s semi-hit Back It Up. The story goes that John encouraged Chris to try out for Superstar K and, despite worries about his ability to succeed on a Korean show, the judges were wow’ed enough by his talent to keep bringing him back.
Now, call me a skeptic, but really this story seems a little too coincidental. I think all TV watchers realize that “reality” TV really doesn’t have too much of it and even in these audition shows, there is a lot of script and planning done (especially in the early going before it goes to audience voting) to create the mix and stories they want to present. It just seems a bit convenient to me that a foreign singer with a pedigree and backstory like Chris just happened to already be in Korea and decided of his own accord to try out. This isn’t to take anything away from him as a singer, because really he is among the most talented on the show and by far the most polished performer, I can’t help but feel that all the screen time he’s gotten, the emotional response to being cut and then brought back and everything just feels a bit scripted. This seems especially true to me given a sudden trend of audition shows featuring one completely non-Korean contestant. Probably the most notable example of this was on MBC’s Star Audition over the summer, where Canadian Youtube cover artist Shayne Orok, aka 셰인, aka The Most Awkward Looking Teen in the World (as I called him), made it all the way to the final 4 on the back of strong vocal talents and a bristly, teenage mustache.
I would be remiss in failing to note that Golightly is not the only wayguk remaining on the show (a few gyopos made it to the final stage as well) nor even the only white guy as finalist band Busker Busker features be-soul patched, Caucasian hipster drummer as well. Although, outside of a couple lingering camera shots and getting called Nicolas Cage by the show MC, really nothing has been said about him, nor could I find anything on the net (if any readers out there are heavy into the Seoul indie music scene, got any clues?). I can appreciate the producers trying to make the show a bit more global, but really I’m not quite sure what the goal is. I can say that I am nearly certain that Chris will not win as, like Shayne before, his curiosity-based appeal will eventually give out to a native (looking) son or daughter. I do really wish him the best, however, and think if he keeps working on his Korean skills he could probably forge out a minor celebrity career here much easier than he could back West. As said before, he does have legitimate skills and I’ll keep watching, even without the wife, to see how far he winds up going. So I guess I might as well leave it with a hearty, 크리스 아자 아자 화이팅!
For those interested, here’s Chris’ performance from last week that got him into the top 9. The song is 진심 (Sincerity) by Kim Kwang-jin. (Not sure why the video is inverted right-to-left, copyrights maybe? Still the best quality I could find). Strong performance, the wife even commented that his pronunciation was good, so enjoy.
Recently, I have been asked to put together a short piece on the effectiveness of Korea tourism promotional efforts. It would help me out greatly if all readers would watch the four short videos below and share their impression on a brief survey HERE.
I have no affiliation with the KTO and data from this survey will be used solely to help me put together an article for a business and economic discussion on Korea Business Central. Thanks for your time and participation.
Video 1: “Come! See! Play!”
Video 2: “Charm Lee – Head of KTO”
Video 3: “Traditional Korean Experience”
Video 4: “The More You Know, The More You Want to Know”
Again, the survey can be done HERE. It’s my first attempt at such a survey, so don’t expect to much. Just a brief form to register some opinions. Also if you have any other thoughts or comments to share, please feel free to converse below.
Alright, lame title (EDIT: is the new alternate title any better?) I know but it’s the best I could come up with for a subject that none of you readers are likely all that interested in. On Friday, South Korean mega-everything star 비 (Rain) announced he would finally begin his mandatory military enlistment on Oct. 11th. For those of you outside Korea, you may have seen him as Taejo in the awful Speed Racer movie, or perhaps even as Raizo in the also awful, but awful in an amusing way, Ninja Assassin. I would hope you’ve, at the very least, seen his absolutely hilariously dance-off with Steven Colbert, but if not see it here.
I would argue these appearances make Rain, by far, the most successful South Korean star to enter Western entertainment. I also believe, probably more than any other star, 비 has also been the most successful branching out in different areas of South Korean media and that said I can say I am a fan of his work. First off, he’s an absolutely incredible dancer (I would rank him right up with Michael Jackson in his prime) and very engaging as an actor. I would recommend any Korean drama newbies to watch Full House (풀하우스), really a staple of the genre and what took Rain from a popular singer to megastar status. Finally, I would literally kill for those abs (and guys out there, be honest with yourself, you would too).
It’s an unfortunate reality for 대한민국-born male musicians, TV/movie stars and athletes that they will lose almost two years of their prime to their countries mandatory military service. The news is always right on top of whoever is enlisted, such as 현빈 who immediately following his big star break on Secret Garden not only began his service, but signed up for the ROK Marines (which means an extra three months and infinitely more hazing and beat downs). Even bigger are the stories of those who try to get around it, like rapper MC Mong who may or may not have had his own teeth intentionally pulled. The biggest names get hero’s welcomes when they return, but undoubtedly mandatory service has hampered or outright derailed a large number of careers (not only for stars).
Personally, I’m of two minds on the subject of mandatory military service and could easily do a whole post outlining my views on it. I understand that the unique situation of South Korea pretty much requires the military man-power that only mandatory military service can provide and while you don’t want to be giving preferential treatment, it also seems a waste to have the most talented young men in your society lose two years of their careers. There are already exceptions to the rules, such as gold medal winners from the Olympic and Asian Games and professional footballers can possibly serve their time playing for Sangju Sangmu Phoenix, a K-League side ran by the military, so it would seem to me that other options should exist for exceptional people in all fields. It does become a slippery slope for who would qualify and who doesn’t though, so I understand the difficulties. Anyways, I will end by wishing Rain (and all those serving in the military forces here in Korea) the best and hope for a safe and successful return to the entertainment soon.
Another week, another long blogging delay. It seems that there just plain isn’t anything interesting going on these days. Maybe just a hang-over from the Chuseok holiday but all is quiet on the eastern front, with no foreigners punching old people, missile launches or anything to get the bloggersphere going. Oh well, anyways in the spirit of putting words to paper (or screen) simply for the sake of doing it, here’s a couple of things which have caught my attention.
At least they got to see some of the beautiful Kurdish countryside (HT to ROKdrop.com)
Via the Chosun Ilbo, we have word that a 2008 project ballyhooed by then recently elected President Lee has resulted in $400 million USD spent and pretty much none of the promised 1.9 billion barrels of oil. In retrospect this figure was a bit over-ambitious considering that, although northern Iraq has untapped oil reserves, the five areas under this agreement barely had a drop.
As a single incident, this story isn’t exactly noteworthy as while the price tag seems large in terms of international development projects (especially natural resources related ones) it’s hardly enormous. The main point of this is, as said above, it was one of the original “successes” of Korea‘s recent push towards Resource Diplomacy, the idea of using international resource development as a tool for strengthening global influence and power position. In the years since, there have been many stories about big name/big number projects done in cooperation with other governments or won by state supported companies and agencies. The question becomes, then, what is Korea getting out of all this? By this recent article in Yonhap, not very much.
According to the report submitted by the Ministry of Knowledge and Economy for the annual parliamentary audit, 100 of 270 overseas development projects in which South Korean firms invested money were judged commercially non-viable in 2010. Only 17 projects were considered successful, while the remaining 153 are in the process of being evaluated.
The report also said that a total of 419 overseas mineral resource development projects, worth US$8.53 billion won, have been registered with the ministry since 1977, with South Korean firms having recovered $3.62 billion, or 42.4 percent of their investment.
Government-backed development projects also had a low success rate, with 46 failing and only 15 yielding resources that could be utilized, it noted. Nine out of 30 resource development agreements that were signed by the Lee Myung-bak government since April 2008 had been discontinued as of July because of low profitability or a breakdown in negotiations, the report said.
So all around we have a fairly low success rate all around between the public and private sectors. For big business this is definitely bad news, but what about for the government attempts? The idea of resource diplomacy is two-fold in both providing resources to your country and increasing influence on others. While the first goal certainly hasn’t been met, one can definitely make the argument they helped raise the Korean profile on the world stage. So, in the end we might have here is some learning experiences and minor failures rather than complete catastrophes, depending on your perspective.
The term “a rare glimpse” is probably overused as it is applied to everything that comes out of North Korea, be it undercover footage smuggled across the border or State approved, if not sponsored, media. These photos are at the very least interesting, good quality and nice “daily life” snapshots without ulterior motive or purpose.
We all know that NK is a fairly poor country and a fairly odd country, but even then there’s something off about a great number of these images. Take this one for example, outside of the odd makeup and clothing making the boys fairly gender ambiguous, they just seem too skinny. As noted in a previous post, there is a big malnutrition problem in the DPRK, but these (and all the children in the pictures) are ones chosen to be presented to foreign media and images allowed to be taken. That means these kids must be at the very least among the North’s “middle” class or comparably privileged, but there’s not a chubby child among them. Maybe I was looking with a skewed lens to prove my prior points. Either way, all the images are definitely worth a look and feel free to share your opinions here.
That is the question. A belated Happy Chuseok to everyone in Korea, I hope the time was spent enjoying the holiday with friends and family rather than backed up in traffic. It seems to me that most everywhere in the world has some form or another of a “Thanksgiving” holiday and this tends to entail eating large quantities of food (which I most certainly did). One place this seems not to be the case (at least for most of the population) however, is North Korea.
Coming via CNN, with have this story and the accompanying video of the ever-present food problem in North Korea. Like almost all of the small amount of footage of lives outside of Pyongyang, it is saddening to watch:
As such, we once again are faced with the question of food aid to North Korea. The World Food Program undoubtedly put together this video to show the dire situation and to drum up donations and support for resumed aid operations and the fact that the North Korean government allowed them to do so shows that even they recognize how bad the situation is. After watching, of course the instant emotional response is to give aid as likely no one out there is pro-starving children. When we take a moment and step back, however, we find a much more complicated question and (as with most things North Korea related) no easy solution. Can we support these people without supporting the regime of North Korea?
To begin, we have to look at what brought the DPRK to the precipice where they currently stand. As noted by the WFP, it has been as especially bad season with many crops destroyed by rains and floods, however this isn’t a sudden crisis created by natural disasters, but rather a long, steady march into hell that has already left millions of innocent lives beneath its feet. While this doubtlessly began with the formation of the state and the Korean War, recent events have definitely quickened the pace. Of note we can look to the currency revaluation (or Great Currency Obliteration as coined by Kushibo and I highly recommend reading his posts on the subject for greater depth) which occurred about two years ago. While on the surface, the Stalinist nation is fed by government rations (the three potatoes as noted in the video), in reality private markets are what really kept things going. When the revaluation occurred, in the simplest terms having two zeroes lopped off the end of won notes (1000won became 10won etc.), the government disallowed use of the old notes and strictly limited the amount that could be exchanged and only that which was already in state banks. This meant marketers who hoarded cash from their officially “illegal” businesses suddenly were left with piles of paper. In a frantic move, last year the North lifted all restrictions on private markets, but only to show the next problem, there is nothing on the shelves and once again the reasons for this go far beyond the natural. It is important to note that this is not the first food shortage in the recent history of North Korea, as beginning in the early 90’s a famine hit the country which resulted in estimated deaths in the millions (perhaps as much as 10% of the population). While the argument can be made that this crisis has continued to today, it is undoubtedly true that a short reprieve occurred at the turn of the millennium thanks to the North’s biggest benefactor, South Korea. While other countries, notably China, participated strongly in the aid efforts it was the Southern neighbor (with whom North Korea is still technically at war with) who most lifted people back to their feet. During these years of the “Sunshine Policy“, food flowed across the border and while much ended up in the hands of elites and the military, enough trickled down into the markets to somewhat stave off starvation. While there was genuine hope at this time and foundations seemed strong, they quickly eroded through provocations and changing political environments. The structures of support that had been built were blown up by nuclear testing, burned to the ground with the election of hard-liners such as Lee Myung-bak and the embers dashed with the Cheonan sinking and shelling of Yeonpyeong-do. Unsurprisingly, with the aid trucks of rice now silent across the border, North Korea has now offered to re-return to the negotiation table, but many in South are skeptical about beginning the cycle anew.
A quick look through history tells you that this is a game that North Korea has played before, playing on the emotions of benefactors to ensure its domestic sustainability while utilizing its own resources for power plays and the personal gain of the leaders and elites. It is easy, then, to wonder if this is just a continuation a genuine crisis. There are most certainly signs of the latter, with defectors calling the current famine far deeper and more widespread than in the 90’s and even reports of large numbers of the military going hungry. However, on the reverse there is equally damning evidence of business as usual. Kim Jong-un, son of leader Kim Jong-il and MAYBE presumptive heir to the dictator, certainly doesn’t seem to be suffering with his people given his girth and plethora of luxurious residences all built since the currency revaluation. In addition to the estimated monetary costs (around 150 million USD), it is also thought that agricultural land was destroyed in their construction and laborers would pulled from farms to build rail lines and roads to them. Additionally, figures have shown luxury good imports of $10 million over the first half of the year, and the Arirang Festival (or Mass Games) are currently running unabated at costs that can’t possibly be made up by ticket sales. Without even factoring in military and nuclear development budgets, hacking projects and leadership travel (presumably to ask for aid), the question becomes whether North Korea can’t feed its people or it simply won’t. A bit of quick math with the old charity line “a dollar can feed four starving children” line suggests that if Dear Leader had allowed Brilliant Comrade to crash in one of his eight or so palaces, 1.6 million children could have been fed for the year. Additionally somewhere around 1000 tons of rice could have been purchased on the open market with the $500,000 spent on high grade beef destined for the leaders table and those of his entourage this year.
So all this being said, where do I stand? Since you waded through the thousand or so words to get here, I am going to assume that you are interested in my opinion and therefor here it is. Unfortunately, I have to count myself among the bastards standing against resumed food aid to North Korea, even if it does hurt each and every time a report like above surfaces (and I promise you, I pay attention to each and every one). I am not among the doubters who believe that the current starvation is a ruse, planned and propagated by the regime to secure aid and supplies, perhaps ahead of the planned 2012 celebrations (celebrating the 100 year anniversary of founder Kim Il-sung’s birth). I truly believe there is a major crisis to the north, but still the only food aid I can agree to is what I would call “hand to mouth” aid, where workers are physically give ready food to the needy and watch as it is eaten. This means no bags of rice handed out in villages, no crates of supplies cracked open and handed to outstretched hands. These days I wouldn’t even consider packaged baby food and formula safe from confiscation by government officials. I do fully realize that this type of aid can’t possibly meet the need and therefor many thousands, if not millions, will die of starvation that could have been prevented. The onus of guilt for this catastrophe, however, should not be burdened by the international community however, but by the leader of this country and the responsability of the people is to make the cries for justice so loud that even his deaf ears can hear them high atop his perch. Honestly, I don’t have high hopes for this and find the Arab Spring connotations inaccurate as the situations are incomparable. However, it is said that that wave that washed over Tunisia, Egypt and Libya (among others) began with the death of a street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi, who immolated himself for the injustices committed against him. Whereas his face was burned in the minds of millions who eventually revolted, I the picture of someone in my mind which will define these events for me regardless of the outcome.
Her name is not known, just that she was 23, homeless 꽃제비 (orphan) who for a brief moment became famous as she was filmed picking grass to eat featured in the KBS special “North Korea’s Third Generation Succession: Who Is Kim Jong Eun?” and gained international media attention. The filming occurred in June of last year in South Pyongan Province and according to sources died on or around October 20th of starvation. I remember first seeing the video and then the news of her death. Each time I wondered about who this girl would be if she had been born a few hundred miles to the South, she likely would have just been finishing University and underneath the dirt and vacant eyes, you can imagine she would have been pretty at this time and most importantly with a future. Perhaps the time for her being a catalyst of change has already past and photos of her face aren’t going to become banners held by the people of North Korea in protest, but still I can hope that the current times will lead to a better future. Too late for her, but in time for millions of her people who hopefully will remember.
One of the expected benefits of the EU-Korea FTA that went into effect in July was that Korean wine enthusiasts would have greater access to pompous, overrated European wines would be available at slightly less (grossly) overpriced prices, but apparently this hasn’t been happening as quickly as some would like. In a recent Yonhap feature, the finger is pointed at red tape and still complicated tax procedures that are confusing wine producers and prevents the Seoul elite-ish from sniffing and twirling their products. Personally, I do try to keep red wine as my most often consumed alcohol (although noticeably less during the hot summer months), even if my selection in Korea, and especially in Yeosu, is quite limited. That said, I am also very anti-snobbish wines which I feel a great number of European (especially French) products are. My tastes were developed back in Colorado among the dozens, if not hundreds, of low priced, quality Californian and Australian wines available. For that reason, even here in Korea, I could never justify European wines providing a worse drinking experience at a higher price. Back to the story, even after the FTA kinks has been worked out, it is unlikely that these prices will come down too much, as even though tariffs are eliminated, taxes and other fees remain. Likely reduced costs will be seen by the middlemen, but the best consumers can expect is an uptick in choices, especially from smaller producers.
What can eventually bring down prices, however, is increased volume and without a doubt Korea is growing as a wine drinking country. Next week, I hope to do a piece on the Korean wine industry for KBC Business Talk and a full blog post may go along with it.
Today the IAFF World Athletic Championships will be wrapping up in Daegu. Unfortunately, of the six finals featured on the final day, none will have a Korean athlete participating. This cements what was a strong possibility before the events began, that Korea would become the third country in the past 25 years to host the Championships without winning a medal. Even the team’s sadly ambitious “10 in 10″ goal (top-ten finishes in ten events) came up woefully short with only a couple race-walkers hitting the mark. While this was not particularly surprising to me, given the lack of interest and development of track and field sports in Korea, what I have found interesting is how soundly negative the domestic press has been about the event. Outside of the event stories, nearly everything I have read about the games have been criticisms of the organizers, facilities and highlights of volunteer shortages, language problems and disorganization. While there have been a couple negative notes from the international press in Daegu, in general they and the athletes have seemed satisfied with the event. This is far from the picture the Korean press is presenting, so I wonder the reason behind this disconnect. Either way, I completely disagree that this events will provide any lessons for or give expectations to the (distant) upcoming Winter Games, which should be a well prepared event.
A GNP lawmaker recently reported numbers from the Ministry of Education showing that, according to averages from their annual audit of student mental health, around 13% of Korean school students may require in-depth mental health examinations. Given the high pressure, constant studying and complete lack of social education that Korean students deal with, I personally believe that number to be short by about 87% or so. During my time as a public high school teacher, I met a number of great kids, but none of them I would consider to be particularly mentally well-adjusted (even by teenager standards), but this was no surprise given their environment. Unfortunately, even when the system likely causing a lot of the issues determines the kids may need some help, it seems the parents aren’t too strongly listening. According to the same data, annually only half or so of the children recommended for further mental evaluation receive it due to consent being needed from parents. As noted briefly in the article, this could be indicative of the stigma that exists in Korea to mental health problems and negative perceptions of treatment.
Last up, perhaps able to give a little shot up to your personal mental health, here’s a new Kpop song I find myself enjoying.
It’s aptly titled “Good Good Time” marking the return of 코요태 (Koyote, pronounced Koh-Yo-Teh rather than my preferred Colorado style of Kigh-Yo-Tee) and is just one of those unnecessarily happy, high energy songs that I really enjoy from time to time. While such songs have been the groups usual since their debut, this time around it seems especially appropriate given member 빽가’s return from being diagnosed with a brain tumor two years ago.
Stay tuned the coming week, I have some ideas in the pot and hopefully something will turn out. Till then, have a good time (a g-g-good time).