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.