To begin with an FYI, I have put in a final copy of my previous blog post “The Pitfalls of Half-Price Tuition” and it should eventually wind up at least over at Korea Business Central’s great “Economic Slice 2011” series (and perhaps publication in other sources, but no for sure word on that). For now, here’s what has my interest this days:
Educational Thunderdome, 690,000 students enter – 690,000 leave…emotionally and mentally wrecked
Well for over half a million young people, this is likely the most important day of their young lives, one that has been circled in their parents mind since the day they were born. Today an estimated 690,000 third year (senior) high school students will file into classrooms around the country to take the 대학수학능력시험 (College Scholastic Ability Test) and the exam forms they fill out over the next 7 hours will play a large role in the course of their adult lives. Essentially the countless hours of 학원 work, endless cram sessions and rote learning has been to get them to this point and any hopes of getting into a decent University (and job afterwards) rests almost entirely on the unforgiving examination. The pressure and weight placed on this exam can be clearly seen by the lengths the country goes to accommodate it. All government offices and banks didn’t open until 10am today to try to prevent traffic jams making students late to the exam and nearly the nations entire police force is out on the street and giving escorts to students, making sure they arrive on time. Additionally, last night was one of the busiest nights of the year for churches and temples as parents and family came to pray for good scores. So severe is the security of the test that the professors and teachers who wrote the questions will spend the day locked in a hotel room literally and technologically blacked out from the outside world.
Given what I have written previously, my feelings about this test and the educational system that revolves around it should be fairly clear and I won’t take the time to expand on them now. I’ll just say for now, good luck to all these young men and women. Regardless of what happens, they should walk out of the test with their heads held high as simply running the gauntlet of the Korean education system is an accomplishment in and of itself.
Two Foreigners, Two Crimes, Two Idiots
Not one, but two wayguk crimes have been reported in the past week that caught my attention. The first seems to happen every year, more or less, a teacher thinking they can be sneaky and just mail themselves illegal drugs. As you can read over at Gusts of Popular Feeling, Busan Ilbo and later Yonhap have reported that a Canadian ESL instructor was busted for shipping a package of drugs from back home to himself at school at the end of summer break. What’s interesting about this case is how the reports have described the substance as a “new kind of drug” – Hashish. I guess the media has a fairly short-term memory for this sort of thing as it was the same stuff that the infamous criminal mastermind Cullen Thomas was caught with a kilo of that he tried to send through international mail. Really, this is just more proof to point what K-bloggers have been saying since the beginning of time, if you really can’t go without using drugs, don’t come to teach in Korea. I have nothing against anyone who just wants to have a bit of harmless fun, but Korea does and I promise you are not likely smart enough to get away with it. Please take this story and all the others of people doing the EXACT SAME THING repeatedly as a warning and not an idea that you’re clever enough to get away with by putting the drugs in a cake or something.
The second crime that caught my attention was down in Jeju. The protests against the currently being constructed Naval base in Gangjeong have gone international (likely due to stories like this) and American Matthew Hoey was arrested last week for sneaking into the site and damaging construction equipment. According to reports, Hoey is a coordinator for the Save Jeju Island campaign, the minds behind this wonderful website, brimming with half-truths, baseless rumors and photos of little children who will obviously be blown to smithereens if this base is allowed. While I can agree that the government should have been a little more sensitive to location concerns, is too late for that now and the themes of the current protest (it will start an arms race, the US puppet masters are behind it, etc.) are complete nonsense. Like Hawaii for the US, Jeju is the best location for Korea to center its naval forces and protect its interests. These interests go far beyond simply North Korea and include the ROK’s very active role in piracy prevention, increased humanitarian efforts and yes, as a check against China’s increasingly aggressive moves in the Asian waters. Outside of agreeing that its probably a good idea, the US has no part in this equation what-so-ever and I strongly doubt that any American ships will ever call the base their home. Just some things to consider in case you were thinking about climbing barbed-wire fences with your bare hands and tear apart some hydraulics for yourself.
In some cultures its considered lucky to cut off your pinky twice, right?
As proof that South Korea needs absolutely no outside assistance in crazy protests, we have this story of a South Korean man who has been arrested for mailing a piece of his severed pinky to the Japanese Embassy after cutting it off himself (twice). According to this updated piece from Yonhap, the man named as Choi first cut off the little guy in April at a demonstration in from of the Embassy. After going through the trouble of having it stitched back on, Choi again nipped it off the very next month. Having been told by doctors that they couldn’t do the surgery again (my guess is they saw the pattern), this incredibly reasonable man did the only sane thing, putting the rotting bit of flesh and bone in a package and sending it out with the morning mail. Apparently doing such is illegal in this country (who knew?) and Choi has been arrested, although he now has a great conversation starter for the rest of his life. If you’re curious as to what spurred on this unusual form of protest, I’ll give you a hint in a fictitious quote I’d like to imagine Choi screaming as he was hauled away:
You may take our pinkies, but you’ll never take OUR ROCKY OUTCROPPINGS!
Either than or Han Myeong-sook celebrated her aquital by getting a lot of plastic surgery and the Asian Football Confederation chose a really unwieldy trophy for the Champions League, just try to haul that thing around a ticker-tape parade.
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.
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).