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!
Just wanted to quickly post the Google Doodle I saw on my browser today (I assume just for Google users in Korea):
This image is a very nice little artistic tribute to noted Korean author Park Won-suh (박완서). One of Korea’s most respected authors, she passed away towards the beginning of the year. This image really could have been inspired by any one of her many novels or short stories that dealt with her experiences as a child growing up in rural Korea leading up to the war. Perhaps most widely available to an English audience is “Who Ate Up All the Shinga?” an autobiographical account of her childhood. The themes of her life as a woman in post-war Korea is evident as well in other works such as “A Sketch of the Fading Sun” Nice to get a bit of history and culture with my morning coffee.
Maybe now he can finally pursue that degree in Korean women’s studies
So in the wee hours last night, I hate to admit that I was awake watching Superstar K3 live (but to be fair it was with my wife…even if she was asleep), and unfortunately Chris’ rendition of “Run Devil Run” (SNSD), dedicated to a soul-crushing ex-girlfriend, wasn’t enough to get him through to the top 5. To his credit, Mr. Golightly, whose hair was getting progressively crazier each week (as you can see), didn’t whine, cry or complain about his “huge talent” to the cameras like he did the first time he thought he was eliminated, but seemed to almost expect the decision. Really just as the wonderful 윤미래 pretty much told him strait out at the audition, a completely non-Korean essentially had no shot at this winning the competition, so getting this far was probably enough. Personally, I do find him to be a halfway decent entertainer and if he gets some Korean language skills, could maybe have some sort of mini-career here and at the very least continue to write songs and other behind the scenes work in the industry. So with Chris out, we’re now left with Hipster Brad as the only completely non-Korean face, so he’d better to be ready to absorb a lot more of the awkward English attempts, Nic Cage comments and camera shots focused squarely on the big 외국 schnoz. I do predict Busker Busker is on the block next week, but really there’s no competition anymore as vocal group Ohlala Session has essentially already been crowned. Now I’ll go back to pretending I don’t care.
Iconic CEO deaths cannot save you from the power of Patent 234
Recent weeks have seemed to mark the decision of Samsung to take of the gloves and go on the offensive against Apple, both domestically abroad, in the two companies’ increasingly tangled legal dispute. In my view, the main difference between the two attacks is that where Apple has based their cases on “look and feel” arguments, Samsung is countering with patent infringement suits, something that has much stronger legal precedence. While Apple might not be shaking at the might of patent 234 “resolving the relevant problems without damaging the algorithm of the current standard system”, I do really have to wonder if they’re prepared for what Samsung can bring to bear. As the world’s largest electronics manufacturer, the Korean giant also has one of the largest technology patent collections as well. While there might not be a single smoking gun patent that can kill the whole Apple product line, the shear amount of patents undoubtedly can create a virtual Hwacha of patent cases, where at least one of the arrows can hit the mark. I’m not a lawyer, but I have to wonder if that’s a fight Apple can actually win (not to mention what will happen if their new part manufacturers isn’t up to task). The first salvo has already generated a ruling in the Dutch courts, with Samsung being told their 3G technology patent is open to use under FRAND (Fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory) practices for technologies considered industry standards, however also rejecting Apple’s argument that they didn’t violate patents, meaning if the two companies don’t come to agreement giving Apple licencing to use the technology, Samsung could bring it back to court. Not a win for either side, but a definite example of how muddied this case will become in the near future.
Now this party’s official (and I even hear they’re bringing a case of PBR)
On Thursday, Sec. Clinton and the US State Department officially announced participation in the upcoming Yeosu Expo. The privately funded 12,000 sq. foot Pavillion USA will feature “the United States’ unique shoreline through displays and programming that highlight the diverse nature of America’s ocean environments and coastal communities.” The public face and behind the scenes manager for the efforts is adventurer, author and famous grandson Phillipe Cousteau, Jr and will also feature Student Ambassadors, chosen from US universities, proficient in Korean to interact with visitors. Even a shiny new website has been set up to detail the project, http://www.pavilion2012.org/, and twitter as well Twitter.com/usapavilion2012.
Not to sound too Ameri-centric, but I really feel US participation was fairly necessary to making this Expo truly legitimate, so while it might have never been in doubt, the announcement might be a good shot in the arm as the preparations enter the final stages. Honestly, I am also impressed by the scale and depth that is going to be brought by this pavilion, as by all accounts it should be one of the largest on site and having a name like Cousteau involved with an ocean-based event is a big coupe. After many found the USA’s efforts at Expo 2010 in Shanghai disappointing, it would be great to see stronger efforts, even for a smaller scale event like Yeosu. On a mildly related note, the long-running official Yeosu Halloween party is going to be held at the Yeosu Hotel 여수관광호텔 this year, right next to the Expo grounds. Can’t wait to see where the progress has come on the site. (By the by, for those in country, if you have no Halloween plans, how about spending the weekend down here? Quite nice in the fall and a great party. Just bring a costume).
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.
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).