KORUS FTA Fight Night: Only on Pay-Per-View

November 1, 2011 Leave a comment

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.

Rep. Nam also announced that the GNP entrance music for the next session would be LL Cool J's "Mama Said Knock You Out", replacing "We are the Champions" that has been used since '02

“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.

Advertisements

Short Blogging Break

October 27, 2011 1 comment

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)

Categories: Uncategorized

They Just Can’t Stand the Sweet, Sweet Taste of Freedom…and marshmallow cream

October 20, 2011 Leave a comment

Oozing with Capitalism...and marshmallow cream

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.

Bit of Literature History in a New Google Doodle

October 19, 2011 Leave a comment

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.

This Wave Probably Won’t Crash American Shores

October 19, 2011 3 comments

Here’s the latest effort from Girls’ Generation (all English version):

So the Korean version is an uninspired, if decent enough Kpop example and an interesting break from the former SNSD image. The English track? Cringe-worthy (I did actually cringe with each “Girls’ Generation make you feel DA heat). I’m sure the ladies put a lot of effort in getting the words down (probably much more work than it takes for a Korean song) but in the end, like most English Kpop efforts, it just doesn’t work. Quite frankly, the worldwide Kpop fans out there are listening to the music for the words, but instead the polished production, dance moves and style that has been discussed on this blog before. If they really want to know what’s being sung they’ll simply look up a translation, trying to shoe-horn in a completely different language than the song was written for really just makes it worse. Let’s look at some examples:

Call an emergency
I’m watching the phone ring
I’m feeling this in my heart~ my heart~

I think Seohyun might require some medical attention (probably due to undereating)

Wanna know my secrets
From them I’ll never tell
‘Cause I got them magic
Touch them
Imma try and I fail
That’s right

Well at least Jessica was honest about the failing part…

All the boys want my heart
Better know how to rock in their stop

I seriously hope I am wrong on this lyric, “rock in their stop” what is that? It’s what I hear and all unofficial sources have the same right now. I guess I won’t be getting Hyoyeon‘s heart since I most certainly don’t know how to complete the required task.

It’s great for the international appeal of Kpop if the artists can speak and interact with their fans in English (or Chinese or Japanese, really any native tongues) but trying to perform in a second language tends to end up incredibly difficult and just an all around bad idea. I also hope this isn’t a prelude to a Wonder Girls style attempted Western expansion, as really such an effort isn’t good for anyone. I don’t want to seem to cynical as I can appreciate the ladies as great performers and sort of the mastheads of the current Kpop generation, but really don’t see this going anywhere good.

Quick Hits: Chris Gohomely, Samsung Firing Back and the USA RSVP

October 15, 2011 Leave a comment

Maybe now he can finally pursue that degree in Korean women’s studies

I assume he was struck by lightning just moments prior

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

Samsung's legal department preparing their patent cases

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).

Innovation and Korean Business – The could be’s, would be’s and should be’s

October 11, 2011 2 comments

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:

Can Korea Nurture its own Steve Jobs? (Chosun Ilbo Editorial 10/8)

Is Chris Bangle Samsung’s Steve Jobs? (WSJ Korea Real Time 10/7)

‘Creative Korea’ in the future (Korea Herald 10/6, effect of the news on a design conference)

‘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.

Future archeologists will undoubtedly debate its purpose...if any still exist

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.