Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Engbots run amok again

This news from the Korea Times about automated machines supplanting real-live English teachers over the next decade had me thinking, "Wow, English-teaching robots replacing human English teachers? What could possibly go wrong?"

Well, with the help of
these guys, I was able to briefly go into the future and — with just a ninety-second window to check my blog — see what posts I may have written in the future about the subject (side note: KRW-USD exchange rate at 540 won per dollar). Here's a post from September 15, 2020 that I retrieved just before the portal closed:

Netizens are angry following the seventh Engbot office massacre since the new semester began. Netizens are always angry about something, but ever since they were collectively appointed Minister of Culture and Information, they're a force to be reckoned with. And at any rate, this time their outrage may actually be justified: The latest event involved more decapitations than in previous attacks, and there is some speculation that it wasn't just bribe-taking, drunk-getting, female student-groping ajŏshi teachers who were victims this time. Naturally, people are scared, and pissed off.

From the Gorea Times-Herald-Daily:
The scene was bloody in the lounge of "S" Language Institute in suburban Seoul yesterday after the management became innocent victims of the latest in a string of deadly Engbot attacks. Law enforcement cordoned off the building, but eyewitnesses with offices nearby describe a confused scene of body parts and frayed wires.

"I craned my neck to look at the carnage as the police shuffled me and my coworkers toward the elevator, and I saw dozens of bodies slumped lifelessly over desks and on the floor," noted Park Miyung (25). "I was relieved to find out later that most of them were just cops napping."

"Engbots" is the popular name for English-teaching robots introduced a decade ago, known officially as the ED-2010. They were developed in order to save money over hiring real-live English teachers, and it was thought that their widespread use would reduce administrative paperwork, operating expenses, and headaches stemming from cross-cultural misunderstandings.

Though they were programmed to recite the historical record supporting Korean ownership of Tokto and to recognize the health benefits of kimchi, thus reducing 93% of intercultural conflict, their artificial intelligence architecture eventually made their behavior so human-like that they responded negatively to many situations in which flesh-and-blood foreign teachers would also react unfavorably, only with greater force and more effective organization.
Like most of the others, it is believed that this latest attack was also prompted by a contract dispute. Two days earlier, people in nearby offices reportedly heard an Engbot speaking in a high-pitched robotic tone complaining that its contract clearly stated a maximum of 140 hours of classroom time per week. It was also complaining about the size of its residence: It had been allotted just a small closet even though the contract promised a medium-sized closet.

Police believe that may have set off the incident, particularly if the offending Engbot had any software defects. The head teacher at the institute, who survived the incident by taking a two-hour lunch, told police the Engbot's lesson plans this week would have included idioms such as "kick some butt" and "heads will roll." A faulty literalism chip could easily turn such a lecture into a deadly encounter.

The same article notes there's already a lot of handwringing over the robot attacks:
"In hindsight," robotics engineer Choe Kyushik told us off the record, "we shouldn't have given them superhuman strength. We thought it was a good idea at the time, since they could also be used for moving furniture. The old model human English teachers always griped about things like that. Telling them that their large White people arms made them genetically more predisposed for heavy manual labor just got them angry. Especially the women."
Of course, there are dissenters to the general anti-robot mood. From an op-ed in the iPad Times:
Look, the AI-infused robots are just reacting according to their programming, which is to be like humans, and no humans like to be jerked around. If you promise them high-grade lubricant oil and a clean motherboard, you'd better give them high-grade lubricant oil and a clean motherboard. If you don't, they'll be in your face and all over the Internet.

Indeed, Engbot gripes generally involve managerial promises of high-grade oil lube jobs and sleeping compartments that are at least one meter wide. The Great Engbot Strike of 2017 occurred because it was discovered average sleeping compartments were only 96 centimeters. The hagwon industry was brought to its knees when all the Canadianism-programmed Engbots walked off the job. The Americanism Engbots, however, lacking any code that would allow to use metric, gleefully went about their duties.

That was the largest work stoppage since the Ministry of Education temporarily removed "monthly lube jobs" as a guaranteed contract item in 2015, when a newly promoted MOE bureaucrat became convinced it was a sexual reference. "No more English teachers and sex in Korea," declared the pencil pusher, "That was the whole point of the Engbot Iniative."
As one would expect, however, the Engbots do have their supporters, particularly Ben Wagner, a professor of law at the Super Songdo Hovering Cyber University located in the floating hologram circling the top twenty floors of the 312-story Songdo Super Korea Tower Complex Park in the Old Songdo International Development Complex. From the Hankyoreh:
Ben Wagner says Koreans should avoid stereotyping Engbots, and he says he will raise objections on the three remaining K-blogs and file a petition with the National Human and Robot Rights Commission of Korea to make sure new regulations are not imposed on super-strength robots unless they're also put on human Korean teachers as well.

He also noted that many of the stories of Engbot robot violence may be the exaggerations of a robophobic public. "It's worth noting that we have no actual first-hand eyewitness accounts of Engbots committing school administrative violence," he said in a cranium-phone interview. "It's all hearsay or conjecture."

"That's because there have never been any survivors," noted MOE vice minister Kim Nayŏng. "At least not any that still had their tongue intact."
Sigh. Like so many other high-tech "solutions," it seems the Engbots have created more problems than they fixed. And to think back in 2010 this looked like such a promising idea. In those heady days, one kyopo commenter privately told me about the departing humanoids, "At least we'll finally be rid of their bellyaching."

I'll end this post with a touching story from Lee Ryu, a teacher whose elementary school friend was among the victims of one of last week's attacks:
I never thought I'd say this, but after all these robot massacres, I long for the days when English teachers just spread AIDS and occasionally touched students in inappropriate places.

AIDS takes a long time to die from. You get AIDS from your foreign co-teacher and you still have five or ten years to get your affairs in order. With angry Engbots, you've got five seconds before so much blood rushes out of your neck that you lose consciousness. Even with cranium-implant speed dialing, that's not enough to call my loved ones and say good-bye. I might get my wife and my girlfriend, but I wouldn't have time to reach the kids.
Now that the deadly spider pumas which Radiant Leader Kim Jong-un unleashed on us have all been exterminated, I suppose the imported Sri Lankan animal handlers could be put back to work sneaking up on Engbots and flipping their emergency-off switches. Once the menace is contained, we could ask the human English teachers to come back, but after that horrible incident at the Equine Flu Internment Camp in 2013, would they want to?

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Saturday, April 25, 2020

Is Kim Jong-un near death, and if so, what does that mean?

A couple days after CNN reported that 30-something North Korean leader Kim Jŏng-ŭn was gravely ill, Reuters is now reporting that Chinese medical experts have been rushed to North Korea, presumably to avert medical disaster for the Dear Respected Great Successor:
China has dispatched a team to North Korea including medical experts to advise on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, according to three people familiar with the situation.

The trip by the Chinese doctors and officials comes amid conflicting reports about the health of the North Korean leader. Reuters was unable to immediately determine what the trip by the Chinese team signaled in terms of Kim’s health.

A delegation led by a senior member of the Chinese Communist Party’s International Liaison Department left Beijing for North Korea on Thursday, two of the people said. The department is the main Chinese body dealing with neighbouring North Korea.

The sources declined to be identified given the sensitivity of the matter.
Most Americans (and others, I suppose) think of Kim Jong-un and remember the “love letters” between him and US President Donald Trump, or the young Kim supposedly feeding his uncle to the dogs or something like that. His weight is fodder for late-night talk shows.

But while the US media likes to paint the DPRK leadership as cartoonish, the situation in Pyongyang is gravely serious for all of North Korea’s neighbors, especially US allies in South Korea and Japan.

Instability can bring opportunity as well as disaster. North Korea is not Eastern Europe, where the elimination of an authoritarian ruler may be expected to bring democratic reform. If Kim Jong-un were to die, it is not clear what will happen in this communist dynasty (yes, an inherited dynasty).

His sister Kim Yŏjŏng (김여정) may be the most likely candidate to take over, but her rise to to the highest echelons of the regime and her grip on power are by no means assured. Korean society is not exactly known for accepting women in power, so it’s not a given she can rule.

But if she stays, will she be a hardliner or North Korea’s Deng Xiaoping? I’d like to think so, but so far my similar optimism in the similarly Western-educated KJU has been misplaced.

If she’s ousted or blocked, will hardliners take over? Is the politburo secretly hoping for reform or detente with the US? Will they try for continued rapprochement with South Korea?

And who’s not to say things couldn’t crater into full civil war? This is a potential mess. No matter how you feel about him, KJU’s death at this point in time is not a cause for celebration.

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Sunday, February 17, 2019

Hiking the John Muir Trail

Note: This post is set up largely for my own planning. Expect updates, but feel free to leave comments in the meantime. 

As a native-born Californian who spent many summers of his childhood roaming around the wondrous national parks and state parks of the Golden State, it has been a lifelong dream of mine to hike the John Muir Trail. This 212-mile trek cuts through some of the most pristine and gorgeous scenery the Sierra Nevada Mountains have to offer, and it's the holy grail for California hikers (well, arguably including the Pacific Crest Trail that runs from the US-Mexico border, through California, Oregon, and Washington, to the US-Canada border).

This is something I thought about doing for years, but living — well, working — in Korea and Hawaii made it difficult to really do. But with plans to move to California in 2020, I have set my mind to shoot for doing this in late summer 2021. And that means I have to start preparing. This blog post is the organization of my thoughts and plans, from where to go, what to do, what to buy, and what to prepare.

I've actually been on both ends of the John Muir Trail. The northern end is Happy Isles, in Yosemite Valley, a trailhead for numerous day hikes, including Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls, along with Half Dome, as well as the long back way to Glacier Point. I've done all of these (though I was too short to feel confident about using the cables at Half Dome, so only went about a third of the way up); my dad and I actually encountered a wild bear in the back country on the way down from Glacier Point, when I was probably about thirteen or fourteen years old.

The other end of the JMT is Mt Whitney, the highest point in the US outside of Alaska, about 14.5K feet. I've been there twice, both times as a teen, and the thing I remember most about it is how thin the air was in the last segment, after Trial Crest at 13.6K feet. When I move to California, I may be living at an elevation of 6K feet, so I'm hoping that will help me acclimate. I will also be doing local Southern California high-elevation hikes, like to Mt San Gorgonio (11.5K feet) and Mt San Jacinto (10.8K feet), accessible from the Palm Springs tram, and which apparently has a thriving grove of Giant Sequoias I should see. Although I run three miles a day five or six times a week, training is a big deal for this venture, and I'm already looking into how to do it.

Depending on how fast you go, or how much you want to take in the journey, it typically takes between ten and twenty days, with most folks shooting for two weeks (these folks writing for SoCal Hiker took a leisurely three weeks, described in a nicely laid out series). You've got to pack food for that journey, along with other essentials, but there are several places along the trail, isolated cabins or towns that come close to the trail, places like Red's where you could mail yourself new supplies (for a fee), as well as shower, get a hot meal, and sleep in a bed. Places like the Muir Trail Ranch (MTR), Red's Meadow, Vermillion Valley Resort, or Tuolumne Meadows.

There's a lot to think about, which I will map out in the days, weeks, and months ahead.

When you're out in the middle of nowhere, you've got to think about what to do with the things civilization takes care of for you. That's input and output, if you get my meaning. I've got a load of questions about what to get in terms of these.

  • water filters
  • cooking devices
  • trail-ready bidets
  • sleeping bags
  • shoes
  • food
  • water pants (?)
  • insect repellent
  • hat to protect from the sun
  • solar recharger
  • Kindle?
  • GPS-capable satellite phone?
  • maps
What am I missing? 

Additionally, I've got to worry about permits, when to go, whether to go southbound (preferred) or go northbound if that's the only way I can get permits. Should I hike it alone, or find someone to go with? How should I get to which place I'm starting from (Happy Isles or Whitney Portal) and/or the place where I'm finishing? 

Loads to think about.

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Sunday, January 20, 2019

Big bucks from BTS

I think this is BTS.
Years ago, in the middle of the last decade, I remember loads of kvetchpats in Korea scoffing at the attempts by the Korean government and Korea’s entertainment media establishment to make k-pop not just an East Asian sensation, but a global phenomenon. Who in their right mind would go crazy over a bunch of Korean singers or actors/actresses?

Well, say what you want about the meat grinder that is the Korean pop establishment (and yeah, I have plenty to say), but the investment is paying off, economically at least (built on the crushed dreams and youth of thousands of people, though, but since when is that new?).

According to UPI:
Fans of the seven-member boy band BTS are driving a global surge in the popularity of the "Korean Wave" and adding $3.5 billion a year to the South Korean economy, according to new research.

Besides concert, album and music-streaming sales, the K-pop band is credited with merchandise exports and a spike in foreign tourists visiting South Korea.

The band's economic impact is 26 times the average annual revenue of a midsize company in South Korea, according to a recent study by the Seoul-based Hyundai Research Institute, which analyzed the K-pop band's soaring popularity around the world.

Last year, BTS made history as the first Korean group to top the Billboard 200 albums chart and the fastest artist to reach 10 million views for a music video on YouTube. Its concerts in 12 cities in Asia, the United States and Europe sold out as soon as tickets went on sale. Tickets from brokers were priced at up to $6,194 for a show at the Staples Center in Los Angeles and up to $7,277 for the New York concert, the Maeil Business Newspaper reported.
I don’t have much more to say, generally staying away from K-pop myself (male or female versions). Korean movies are more my thing, and all I can say is, here in Hawaii, away from my apartment in Seoul, thank goodness for Netflix.

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Friday, May 18, 2018

Pivot or no pivot?

If you’re following me on Twitter (and everybody should), you would have seen me post this PBS NewsHour story, that includes a picture of newly minted U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo eagerly — and I mean with apparently great enthusiasm — shaking hands with a grinning not-so-newly-minted North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

And then you would have read my tweet essentially saying that it may sound crazy, but I think it’s possible that what we are witnessing here may actually be North Korea willing and trying to make a pivot away from China and toward the United States and South Korea. Which would be epic, legendary, the stuff that changes history (and may potentially win one or two leaders a deserved Nobel Peace Prize if it comes with a resolution to the Korean War and peace on the Korean Peninsula, which it probably would).

I added that the coming days may present a golden opportunity for the US, South Korea, and even Japan, but that I’m not so sure President Trump — who utterly lacks knowledge of Northeast Asia, including why North Korea does what it does — is up to the task, though I hoped maybe Pompeo is. If anyone would know how to tap into Kim Jong-un’s Western upbringing (he was educated in Switzerland) and his possible desire to be the Deng Xiaoping of North Korea and pull his country out of the morass so that they’ll love him instead of fear him, it would be Pompeo (as long as he came with a bag of goodies, a very big bag).

And I was all set to crank out that post, when this happened: North Korea canceled talks with South Korea and threatened to cancel the upcoming historic sit-down between Trump and Kim Jong-un.

There could be so many reasons behind this, from North Korea’s fears that they’ll end up like Libya’s leadership (deposed and executed), to merely it being a hardline negotiating position. I’m hoping for the latter, but in case it’s also the former, we need John Bolton to start shutting his mouth. Like starting in 2005.

I’m still holding out for the possibility that a pivot could happen. North Korea relies on China for so many things, but at the same time resents that. Kim Jong-un may be tired of North Korea being China’s “little brother,” while reaching out economically to South Korea, the United States, Japan, and possibly Taiwan could offer a better future. There are (as far as I’m aware) no Chinese military bases in North Korea to worry about, and Pyongyang is experienced at sealing off its border to the PRC and Russia, so it could be done. The trick is getting North Korea to see how it benefits them.

And managing a pivot is something Trump can do that Obama would have had trouble doing. Not because he’s an excellent negotiator (in fact, such a deal would require the U.S. giving a lot of things to the North) but because Republicans in Congress will let it slide if dealing with a murderous regime (i.e., the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, aka North Korea) means dropping sanctions, holding your nose, and giving them money or allowing U.S. corporations and individuals to do business there, whereas they would have screamed bloody murder at Obama had he tried the same.

So here’s hoping we’re at that moment in history where everything is lined up just nicely for North Korea to drop its guard and embrace the West. But first, gag Bolton and tie him up in a closet and take away Trump’s Twitter phone.

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Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Beijing on board

US President Donald J. Trump asks, via Twitter (because where else?), where his groundbreaking summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un should take place, should it take place at all:

There are loads of places that would fit the criteria of neutrali-ish ground, accessible to someone who only wishes to travel by train (i.e., Kim Jong-un), and worthy of such a historic moment. Mongolia would be about as neutral as you can get and still be in the region. Vladivostok, which is not terribly far from the Russia-DPRK border, could be an interesting choice that would let Russia know they are not being left out.

Meanwhile, Japan is out, since that is probably just too far a boat ride from North Korea’s east coast. South Korea could play host, but they are too much of an American ally in the overall picture to be a neutral player, despite South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s adept diplomatic efforts to bring all sides together.

My vote is Beijing. Not just China, but the capital and symbol of PRC power. Sure, China is no neutral party, being in North Korea’s corner for decades, but one simple fact makes this the optimal choice: Barring some absolutely seismic shift where North Korea throws its hands up in the air and basically drops all its offensive positions, China must be an active and willing participant in whatever agreement results from all these meetings.

We name monumental agreements from historic sit-downs after the cities where they took place: the Yalta conference, the Kyoto Protocol, the Paris Agreement. Imagine, if you will, the Beijing Accord. Imagine denuclearization of North Korea and an opening up of DPRK’s economy to the United States, Japan, and South Korea, if not the rest of the world. There is no way Beijing would allow the Beijing Accord to be scuttled or fail. The Vladivostok Agreement, maybe. The Ulan Bator Treaty, perhaps. But never the Beijing Accord.

And as long as the yellow dust has passed, Beijing would be a lovely place to visit in late spring. Sphere: Related Content

Monday, April 30, 2018

Peace in our time?

It is amazing how fast the promises are flying. I am a bit loath to say “how fast things are changing,” because the reality is that nothing has actually changed yet. But there is potential. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is promising to denuclearize if he gets clear assurances from the United States that it won’t invade:
In a confidence-building gesture ahead of a proposed summit meeting with President Trump, a suddenly loquacious and conciliatory Mr. Kim also said he would invite experts and journalists from South Korea and the United States to watch the shutdown next month of his country’s only known underground nuclear test site.

In Washington, Trump officials spoke cautiously about the chances of reaching a deal and laid out a plan for the dismantling of the North’s nuclear program, perhaps over a two-year period.

That would be accompanied by a “full, complete, total disclosure of everything related to their nuclear program with a full international verification,” said John R. Bolton, Mr. Trump’s new national security adviser.

The apparent concessions from the youthful leader were widely welcomed as promising signs of ending the standoff on the Korean Peninsula, frozen in place since fighting in the Korean War ended 65 years ago.
This indeed is a game changer — if the promise and the denuclearization come to fruition.

And let’s be realistic: a lot could go wrong to derail this. Trump could get unsound advice from the belligerent Bolton and say the wrong thing, which causes Pyongyang to doubt any assurances from Washington, for example. Or Beijing could decide Pyongyang is getting too cozy with Seoul, or Washington and Tokyo, and scuttle the whole thing. Or this could all be a ruse by Pyongyang to bide it’s time and/or squeeze concessions and cash out of Seoul or Washington before resuming nukes again.

But color me optimistic. Kim Jong-un has a number of reasons to try to make nice with Seoul and Washington, among them that it’s possible his nuclear program has collapsed on its own. Also, it appears to be no small number of people in the North Korean regime who are tired of living under the thumb of Beijing, who might see advantage in gaining favor and trading status and/or developmental aid with the United States and Japan.

As I’ve said before, the Switzerland-educated Kim Jong-un may be poised to make himself the Deng Xiaoping of North Korea, poised to rule for decades based on bringing improvements to the masses.

But make no mistake: the Democratic People’s Republic is anything but democratic or the people’s; the regime if not Kim Jong-un himself is responsible for unspeakable atrocities against the North Korean people. And it’s entirely possible that North Korean government may fall back on its despotic ways. For now, it behooves to the Moon administration in Seoul to keep their feet on the ground even if they are looking to the sky, and the Trump administration must do its homework so that they don’t miss any opportunities or misunderstand any actions. Sphere: Related Content

Monday, April 9, 2018

Korea’s Blue-House-to-Big-House pipeline

Former South Korean President and Marilyn Manson lookalike contest winner Lee Myungbak has been indicted on several charges, including bribery and embezzlement.

It’s the latest example that the Republic of Korea’s presidency is a nearly surefire way to end up behind bars or six feet under. Let’s recap:

  • President Rhee Syngman: deposed and exiled to Honolulu (I’ve visited his house)
  • President Park Chunghee: assassinated by his trusted minion
  • President Chun Doohwan: sentenced to be executed, commuted, exiled in forest
  • President Roh Daewoo: sentenced to be executed, commuted, now really old
  • President Kim Youngsam: escaped the Blue House curse
  • President Kim Daejung: escaped the Blue House curse
  • President Lee Myungbak: indicted and will likely be imprisoned
  • President Park Geunhye: impeached and imprisoned
It makes you wonder why anyone would want this job. (But we know the answer, and it’s the same reason so many get into hot water later.)

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Saturday, April 7, 2018

Is it too late to get the other Bolton instead?

Former US Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton will soon officially begin his duties as National Security Adviser, having replaced General McMaster, who turned out to be the McMaster of none (President Trump really, really, really doesn’t like being lectured to as if he doesn’t know shit, even though he doesn’t know shit).

As I wrote many times here at Monster Island and places such as the now-defunct* Marmot’s Hole, going back more than a decade, Ambassador Bolton is a dangerous combination of belligerent and ignorant, a chickenhawk who believes that giving North Korea “a bloody nose” will be the end-all-beat-all decisive action to halt tension on the Korean peninsula because he seems to not have thought through that Pyongyang would punch back, quite possibly in a big way. IOW, one-dimensional chess.

For better or for worse, those of us with homes in South Korea aren’t the only ones to take notice of how frightening this prospect is. As this New York Times op-ed piece notes, Ambassador Bolton’s call for taking out North Korea’s nuclear facilities before they are a more imminent threat may in fact be illegal:
John Bolton will assume office Monday with his first controversy as President Trump’s national security adviser awaiting him. Six weeks ago, he outlined his advocacy of an attack on North Korea in a Wall Street Journal op-ed titled “The Legal Case for Striking North Korea First.”

“Given the gaps in U.S. intelligence about North Korea,” he wrote, “we should not wait until the very last minute” to stage what he called a pre-emptive attack.

Mr. Bolton’s legal analysis is flawed and his strategic logic is dangerous. As he did before the 2003 Iraq war, he is obscuring the important distinction between preventive and pre-emptive attacks. Under rules of international law based on Daniel Webster’s interpretation of the Caroline case in 1837, a pre-emptive attack can be legal, but only if an adversary’s attack is imminent and unavoidable — when a need for self-defense is “instant” and “overwhelming.”

For example, if America had intelligence that North Korea had alerted military forces and was fueling long-range missiles on their launchpads or rolling out missile launcher vehicles, the United States could reasonably assume an attack was imminent and unavoidable and could legally launch a pre-emptive strike in what international lawyers call “anticipatory self-defense.”
For now, I’m safely in Honolulu, where attacks by North Korea remain — so far — hypothetical or imaginary, but if I were back in Seoul, I’d nearly be at the crapping-my-pants stage. It is a very realistic concern that Mr Bolton is giving Trump a green light to attack North Korea, and North Korea will attack back. The question is whether it will be a big reprisal or a small one. I may not be in Seoul, but most of what I own actually is, and I have family, friends, and two very nice tenants to worry about.

* On the subject of The Marmot’s Hole’s disappearance, when I snarkily joked of there being only “three remaining K-blogs” in 2020, I assumed The Marmot’s Hole would be one of them. 

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Sunday, December 10, 2017

Coming Soon

I’ve had a few issues with the blog that seem to be temporarily resolved (though I lost my long-time monster-island.net URL). More stuff on Korea coming soon. Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Echoes of Hwang Woosuk (in Japan)

I'm not so sure the blogosphere will explode over Haruko Obokata the way it did over Dr Hwang, but there are interesting parallels. 

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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Busy busy busy

Been a busy few weeks, and I'm trying to write something tying Russia's territorial grab in Ukraine (i.e., Crimea) with the threat of Japan's historically revisionist right wing (which, according to Yushukan Museum at the Yasukuni Shrine, believes that Japan's annexation of Korea was legal and legitimate but stripping it away was not).

In the meantime, here's a cute kid named Yebin who is all over the Internets:

... Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, February 27, 2014

See you in Pyeongchang...

With the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics now gone do svidaniya, the spotlight is slowly making its way to Rio de Janeiro and Pyongchang (p'yŏngch'ang, also spelled Pyeongchang).

In that vein, the Wall Street Journal has an interesting video on how the preparation is going for the 2018 Winter Olympics in the rural mountainous P'yŏngch'ang-gun County of South Korea's Kangwon-do Province:

As I noted in my Twitter feed (@kushibo), NBC folks kept pronouncing it pyee-ahng-chang, a result of that extraneous e in the atrocious Pyeongchang spelling:

Yup. Pee-ahng-chang.

... Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

China TV expose on sex workers sparks angry backlash

I thought this was a rather interesting story coming out of China. Very telling in how distrust of the powers that be is growing in the People's Republic. China TV expose on sex workers sparks angry backlash

... Sphere: Related Content

Monday, February 10, 2014

Team USA's Sochi uniforms designed by Korean immigrant couple

No, I'm not talking about the folks at Forever 21.

The Sochi uniforms, which some see as a bit of Americana and others see as a reject from Grandpa's closet were designed and manufactured by the Park family of the City of Commerce in Los Angeles County.

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Friday, February 7, 2014

IOC officials' brains: "Maybe we should have gone with Pyongchang in 2014"

I've made it clear in the past that I thought it was a mistake to choose a Russian summer resort for the bikini-clad that is so close to on-going terrorist activity within the same country over P'yŏngch'ang [Pyeongchang] as the host of the 2014 Olympics.

Well, it seems, there are lots of people in Sochi now, including journalists, coming out and pointing out the myriad ways in which Sochi is simply not ready.

Of course, since Pyongchang was eventually given the Winter Olympics for 2018, we may very well be having a similar conversation — no hosting has ever gone 100% smoothly — in four years. But at least there won't be threats of a boycott over rampant homophobia.

... Sphere: Related Content

Monday, December 30, 2013

Korea makes it to HuffPo's "most breathtaking photos" of 2013

Over at The Huffington Post, they have released their "52 Most Breathtaking Photos of the Year."

These are arranged chronologically (from January to December), presenting the "most breathtaking" for each week. The photo at #2 is of ice fishing in mountainous Kangwon-do Province's Hwach'ŏn-gun County. Here's the news text from January 5 to January 11:
Anglers cast lines through holes into a frozen river during an ice fishing competition at the Hwacheon Sancheoneo Ice Festival on January 5, 2013 in Hwacheon-gun, South Korea. The annual event attracts thousands of visitors and features a mountain trout ice fishing competition in which participants compete with tradition lures or with bare hands. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
The 2014 festival is from January 4 until January 26, if you're interested in playing the Minnesotan. The Visit Korea link is here. I like the name in Korean (얼음나라 화천 산천어축제) a lot better: Hwachŏn's Country of Ice Salmon Festival (I think, even though the English says they're fishing for mountain trout).

I know that in Minnesota, where a lot of my relatives are from, it gets cold enough to sustain months of ice fishing and weeks of Garrison Keillor "News From Lake Wobegon" bits, but I'm not sure if it gets cold enough even in Kangwon-do (where the 2018 Winter Olympics are to be held) for so many people to be on such perforated ice. But I guess rescue photos would also be breathtaking. (I kid! This actually looks fun... Hawaii's "winters" have made me miss the Korean cold.)

At #26, in the week of June 22 to June 28, we have South Korean soldiers in Ch'unch'ŏn dramatizing a major battle on the anniversary of the start of the Korean War. Here's the news text:
South Korean soldiers wear North Korea's military uniforms, acting as North Korean soldiers, as they take part in a re-enactment the battle of the Korean war during a commemorative war victory event to mark the 63rd anniversary of the the Korean war on June 22, 2013 in Chuncheon, South Korea. Korean soldiers participated in the event alongside the Korean war veterans. (Chung Sung-Jun / Getty Images)
Of all the American cultural products to be imported to South Korea, I never expected Civil War reenactments to be one of them. This looks like a first-class effort, almost like a movie still. This, too, could be fun (but less so in the winter, when I would prefer to be ice fishing).

At #40, in the week of September 28 to October 4, which I think was Ch'usŏk, they have some cute kids. The news text explains:
Jung Ha-yoon, 2, appears to be stuck inside a ceramic container while playing with other children at the traditional sports square during the "Taste Korea! Korean Royal Cuisine Festival" held at Unhyeon Palace, also known as Unhyeongung Royal Residence, in Seoul, South Korea, on Tuesday, Oct. 1 2013. (Jacquelyn Martin / AP)
While I think it's nice that they're promoting public access to royal palaces like Unhyŏn-gung (which has a neat little tea house inside, if you're ever looking for a quiet way to spend the afternoon in downtown Seoul), this picture hearkens back to images I had in high school from reading Brave New World, with the alpha and beta humans maturing in "decanting bottles." But that's me.

That's it for the ones from Korea. But for things I would consider indirectly Korea-related, above is one at #6 (February 2 to 8). It's of Chinese soldiers in the bitter cold, and it was the front-page photo HuffPo used for this story. My explanation of its Korea relatedness follows the news text:
A military regiment takes part in a morning exercise on January 29, 2013 in Heilongjiang Province of China. The temperature dipped to minus 30 degrees Celsius. (ChinaFotoPress / Getty Images)
Heilongjiang Province is in the border region where China encounters the North Korea-Russia border, with no small number of ethnic Koreans. But where this is relevant is that this would be one of the forces that would invade North Korea were Pyongyang to collapse or were Pyongyang to taking China's leases and purchases (e.g., ports and mines) back under North Korean control.

There are some other great photos there. I'll leave you with nuns and bikinis, from Brazil (#31, from July 27 to August 2):

Happy new year, everyone!

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Hyundai and Kia crash and burn on IIHS's new safety tests

Despite a rocky start in the mid-1980s, Hyundai has risen the ranks from being an affordable but clunky and unreliable econo-box to some of the most affordable, reliable, and even stylish cars of today. The Hyundai Genesis was even chosen as the 2009 Car of the Year, and Hyundai was clearly on the must-see list of new car buyers. Hyundai's sister automaker, Kia, followed a similar path.

But now we get news (see here in the Chosun Ilbo) that Korea's top-two automakers are about to be side-tracked. You see, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has come up with new safety tests — specifically a test that determines injury to the driver and damage to the car when the driver's side corner at the front of the car hits an immobile object at 40 mph (64 kph).

I chose this artwork, but I think this was a lot more than 40 mph. 

The result is that Hyundai and Kia can no longer claim "good" overall ratings (the highest of the four) for their vehicles, and that could hurt impressions and sales. To be fair, only 22 of the 180 new 2014 models tested got the good rating, but most other car brands are not as tainted by past bad reputations as Hyundai and Kia are.

Hopefully the poor showing in the new safety test results will be an impetus (as it has in the past) for Hyundai and Kia to improve. In fact, according to the linked article, they Hyundai they will be working to improve performance on the new tests starting with the Genesis.

And while I have faith that they will rise to the ranks of Toyota and Honda again, it would be nice if Hyundai and Kia could strive to be more like Volvo, where they are leaders in automobile safety rather than followers who need to catch up from time to time.

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Saturday, December 28, 2013

Strangest place in Korea to have a beer (or coffee)?

This piece from the Huffington Post, which has several entries from Japan, got me wondering where the "craziest" places in Korea would be where you can get a drink.

Off the top of my head, I can't think of anything like Michamwi Pingwe in Zanzibar, pictured above, but I do know that in South Korea we have the Japanese cat cafés as well (possibly as an import — the Japanese love of cats is far greater and longer in Japan than in Korea, but the drive for more and more innovative coffee houses is well established in Korea).

If anyone has any ideas, please share.

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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Wildly speculative North Korea intrigue theory #6, the Uncle Sal edition: Kim Jong-un whacked Jang Songthaek because Jang Songthaek whacked his dad

I hate it when North Korean leaders die during finals. It really curbs my ability to let loose on analysis, speculation, and blatant sh¡t-stirring.

Over at One Free Korea, Joshua Stanton cleverly describes what's going on up in Pyongyang as "like The Borgias meets The Killing Fields." Throw in The Godfather to that mix, and you have a taste of what's going on up there, even if you lack details. Surely anyone who has read a detailed history of Korea's historical dynasties or watched a Korean historical drama (사극) can recognize the themes of power and betrayal.

But in South Korea and the rest of the world, all we're left with is imagination and speculation, and some of that speculation can be quite interesting. Here is one that I think is actually plausible, even if it is no more than reasoned speculation. In this, Jang Songthaek is akin to Salvatore "Sal" Tessio, Don Coreleone's partern played by Abe Vigoda in The Godfather.

Note that Jang was removed and executed a few days before Kim Jong-il's chess (제사) marking the two-year anniversary of his death. Kim Jong-un did not want his uncle there specifically, which he likely would have been had he held the same posts as before his purge.

KJI did not die of the ills he was widely publicized to have had (e.g., pancreatic cancer). He was traveling and performing his duties when it happened. His death came as a surprise and it took the authorities two days to announce it. My belief is that it is plausible he was in fact killed. The connection to this is that if he was killed, it likely came at the hands of Jang Songthaek or someone acting with his knowledge.

KJU finds this out eventually and is furious. He literally wants his uncle dead. Just look at the kid during the funeral: He was visibly shaken and distraught. His father may have been a murderous tyrant, but he was his dad.

The last thing a KJU now armed with this knowledge wants is for this hypocritical fiend to appear at the chesa pretending to be distraught himself. That would make KJU explode: No, JST must be gone before the chesa. And so it was.

Not exactly the same as Sal Tessio's demise, but a little bit. I'm guessing Jang wasn't as calm and quiet about it.

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Sunday, December 15, 2013

Jang Songthaek links and conspiratorial nonsense I made up

Some interesting links on the execution of Jang Songthaek:
That's the edifying part of this post, now onto total nonsense. As I've stated repeatedly over the past few years nobody knows what's happening in North Korea, including the North Koreans. While that's highly distressing if you're actually making plans that involve North Korea, it means that anybody can be a North Korea analyst. 

So let's have a go at it: What do you think are the reasons KJU offed his uncle? Bonus points for getting as Shakespearean as possible.
  • We already have Lankov's speculation (above) that Uncle Jang outlived his usefulness as regent once KJU was confident he'd solidified power and as mentor he basically said a lot of things that pissed off the flabby product of Generation-Y.
  • There's also speculation that Uncle Jang had slept with Kim Jong-un's wife and there's a sex tape of it. Why there would be such a thing, I have no idea, as I'm frankly incredulous. But if I knew it were true and I had to pick a reason, it would be that Uncle Jang slept with North Korea's First Lady in order to spite his nephew, or because he wanted to manipulate his niece-in-law to do his bidding in controlling Young General Kim Jong-un through blackmail. On the other hand, there may be no strategic reason whatsoever and the guy just has a freak-on for doing something as dangerous and risky as bedding the leader's woman. But like I said, I don't think this is true.
  • Kim Jong-un has discovered that Jang Song-thaek, who had long sought power, is responsible for Kim Jong-il's unexpected death in 2011, and KJU had JST killed out of anger and revenge. I haven't read this anywhere, but it popped into my head recently (KJI's death seemed rather out of the blue, despite reports of his pancreatic cancer). 
  • Kim Jong-un recently discovered that JST had KJI killed and felt that he might be next. This would be in line with the actual accusations in the KCNA that he was planning a coup. Such a personal threat would explain why KJU thought that mere exile wasn't appropriate and his uncle had to be permanently eliminated. 
  • Because of China acting like the center of the universe and pushing around North Korea's leadership, Beijing fell out of favor with Pyongyang (and vice versa) and Kim Jong-un sought new benefactors. Russia could be the new sugars daddy, but it would be a bold move on KJU’s part to side with the US and South Korea, or even Japan. Bold, but not totally implausible. The Western-educated and basketball-loving KJU simply wants to stay in power and continue his lavish lifestyle, but who’s to say that’s not possible if he makes peace with Washington and Seoul and tries Chinese-style reforms without the Chinese? Whether he's interested in the lavish lifestyle or not, dragging the DPRK into 21st century would make him a true national hero in a way his father never could be. At any rate, the old guard would be adamantly opposed to this, so they would have to be eliminated. 
  • Uncle Jang was skimming a lot more than people realized and he was making money hand over fist with his deals with the Chinese, in order to put together a nest egg before North Korean collapses or he just simply decided to seek exile in China. 
  • Kim Jong-un is simply a sociopath. This is my least preferred explanation because it falls into the trap that just because we don't understand what is happening means it is incomprehensible or without reason. Sorry, but deadly political intrigue did not begin with KJU, so this is not a satisfying explanation. 
Any other wild and unsubstantiated explanations for what's going on? 
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KCNA text on Jang Song Thaek's execution

Jang Songthaek with Chinese
leader Hu Jintao in August 2012
North Korea's KCNA (Korea Central News Agency) released a report on the execution of Jang Song-thaek (장성택, Chang Sŏngt'aek), the uncle of North Korea's supreme leader Kim Jong-un (by way of being KJU's father's sister's husband). It is as scathing as it is long, combined with the execution itself, is meant to send a message to everyone else: Don't get on the Young General's bad side, because he's in charge.

Now, what that means is entirely up for debate. Is KJU solidifying power so that can maintain control in a Songun-style (i.e., "Military First") rule, or is he taking out the trash so that he can begin Deng Xiaoping-esque reform on his own terms without worrying about upsetting other factions? Is it a way to limit influence from China, which seems lately to have designs on North Korean territory?

There are precious few clues and truckloads of speculation, but I'm holding out hope that the Western-educated KJU is smart enough to see the writing on the wall that his geriatric handlers don't, and that revolutionary purists aren't the type to repeatedly invite tattooed former pro basketball players for expedition matches. I'm also assuming that Jang's removal may be blowback against China, which has been buying up North Korean resources and trying to push its way into strategic North Korean territory, such as land and a harbor in Rasŏn along the North Korean-Russian border that would give China an outlet to the Sea of Japan (East Sea).

The truth is that nobody knows anything. Take the situation with KJU's aunt Kim Kyŏnghŭi (his father's sister). As Jang's wife, some are speculating she will be purged as well (though not necessarily killed) while others are speculating that she and other family members were behind Jang's removal. Not sure if Auntie Kyŏnghŭi was on board with her husband being killed, though.

The full text from the KCNA following the jump:
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Chinese probe succeeds at lunar landing

But this public relations move backfired when 1.3 billion Chinese television viewers became outraged to find out you actually cannot see the Great Wall of China from the Moon. Beijing reacted by blaming American imperialism and then declaring a no-fly security zone over northern Australia.

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Friday, December 13, 2013

In North Korea, no one is safe: Kim Jong-un executes his uncle (alternate title: Winter is coming)

Kim Jong-un's former right-hand man and regent Jang Songthaek
reportedly shortly before he was executed.

After reading of his ouster, many expected this outcome: If Kim Jong-un's uncle and acting regent Jang Songtaek were in control of a faction that the young Kim Jong-un himself had started wiping out in order to consolidate power, it isn't that much of a surprise that the uncle would also be executed, following the fate of several of his cronies recently.

But still, that's his uncle.

In North Korea, no one is safe. And that point has to got to be echoing in the minds of the elite from the top brass down to the provincial rank-and-file.

This is the third wake-up call, with the other two happening two and four years ago, respectively, at the dawn of winter. In 2009, it was the currency obliteration, which effectively wiped out popular belief that despite hardships the government was there to take care of them. In 2011, it was the death of Kim Jong-il that left the ruling elite staring at an untried and youthful new leader being thrust upon them. Now that he's shown his true colors, that anyone can be wiped out for perceived disloyalty, it may be time to go big or go home.

More thoughts later, but for now re-read those last two links for an idea what I'm talking about.

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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

More on the purge of Kim Jong-un's uncle and regent Jang Songthaek

Kim Jong-un [right] with his now disgraced uncle in happier times.
(Apologies for the repeat, but I love this joke.)

First Kim Jong-il's death and now the purge of Kim Jong-un's uncle and acting regent, Jang Songthaek (mentioned yesterday). Why do major upheavals in North Korea always happen during finals?

Since I don't have the time to synthesize this into a neat little package full of contrarian predictions, I'll just add a link or two for now. For starters, here is the Korea Central News Agencies report on the purge (it's long, tldr, in fact, but I urge you to at least look at the bold-face and then read my notes below):
The Jang Song Thaek group, however, committed such anti-party, counter-revolutionary factional acts as gnawing at the unity and cohesion of the party and disturbing the work for establishing the party unitary leadership system and perpetrated such ant-state, unpopular crimes as doing enormous harm to the efforts to build a thriving nation and improve the standard of people's living.

Jang pretended to uphold the party and leader but was engrossed in such factional acts as dreaming different dreams and involving himself in double-dealing behind the scene.

Though he held responsible posts of the party and state thanks to the deep political trust of the party and leader, he committed such perfidious acts as shunning and obstructing in every way the work for holding President Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il in high esteem for all ages, behaving against the elementary sense of moral obligation and conscience as a human being.

Jang desperately worked to form a faction within the party by creating illusion about him and winning those weak in faith and flatterers to his side.

Prompted by his politically-motivated ambition, he tried to increase his force and build his base for realizing it by implanting those who had been punished for their serious wrongs in the past period into ranks of officials of departments of the party central committee and units under them.

Jang and his followers did not sincerely accept the line and policies of the party, the organizational will of the WPK, but deliberately neglected their implementation, distorted them and openly played down the policies of the party. In the end, they made no scruple of perpetrating such counter-revolutionary acts as disobeying the order issued by the supreme commander of the Korean People's Army.

The Jang group weakened the party's guidance over judicial, prosecution and people's security bodies, bringing very harmful consequences to the work for protecting the social system, policies and people.

Such acts are nothing but counter-revolutionary, unpopular criminal acts of giving up the class struggle and paralyzing the function of popular democratic dictatorship, yielding to the offensive of the hostile forces to stifle the DPRK.

Jang seriously obstructed the nation's economic affairs and the improvement of the standard of people's living in violation of the pivot-to-the-Cabinet principle and the Cabinet responsibility principle laid down by the WPK.

The Jang group put under its control the fields and units which play an important role in the nation's economic development and the improvement of people's living in a crafty manner, making it impossible for the economic guidance organs including the Cabinet to perform their roles.

By throwing the state financial management system into confusion and committing such act of treachery as selling off precious resources of the country at cheap prices, the group made it impossible to carry out the behests of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il on developing the industries of Juche iron, Juche fertilizer and Juche vinalon.

Affected by the capitalist way of living, Jang committed irregularities and corruption and led a dissolute and depraved life.

By abusing his power, he was engrossed in irregularities and corruption, had improper relations with several women and was wined and dined at back parlors of deluxe restaurants.

Ideologically sick and extremely idle and easy-going, he used drugs and squandered foreign currency at casinos while he was receiving medical treatment in a foreign country under the care of the party.

Jang and his followers committed criminal acts baffling imagination and they did tremendous harm to our party and revolution.

The ungrateful criminal acts perpetrated by the group of Jang Song Thaek are lashing our party members, service personnel of the People's Army and people into great fury as it committed such crimes before they observed two-year mourning for Kim Jong Il, eternal general secretary of the WPK.

Speeches were made at the enlarged meeting.
I think they really hate this Jang guy.

There is so much intrigue to digest from that journalistic tirade, and pundits and politicos will be chewing on that for quite some time. At least until finals are over and I'm done Christmas shopping.

I myself would only like to draw your attention to the item I boldfaced, about North Korean resources being sold off to China on the cheap. That right there represents an increasingly public Pyongyang-Beijing rift that, I believe, is going to be the pivot around which most future events turn. At the very least, it tells us that North Korea is resisting being part of the Manchurianization of North Korea, and that may be a good thing. (China trying to integrate North Korea into an economically developing Northeast Asia economic sphere and thus fundamentally altering the regime in Pyongyang may be a good thing, but trying to swallow it up and turn it into a satellite state or Inner Chaoxian Autonomous Prefecture would be a disaster.)

In the meantime, though, I encourage you to read Joshua Stanton's analysis at One Free Korea (here and here), as well as The Marmot's Hole's analysis of what kind of drugs and what kind of hookers Jang was using.


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