Thursday, November 19, 2009

Things Obama should see in Korea

Over at ROK Drop, a frequent commenter named ChickenHead (don't even want to know why) has come up with a list of things that President Barack Hussein Obama should see, largely as an inspiration for how to change America based on what works in South Korea. It's an interesting list, and while I think it highlights some nice things about South Korea that expats and Koreans alike tend to take for granted, I think a bit of it calls for qualification.

The list comes right after the JUMP (and bear with me, because this is the first time I'm ever using "the jump").

ChickenHead's Top Things Obama Should See in Korea
  • ChickenHead's comment
    • Kushibo's response
(These are just off the top of my head without any deep though so I may get some flack… It won’t hurt my feelings if you make a good case that I am mistaken.)
  • An efficient airport staffed with friendly and helpful workers with excellent public transportation to and from all population centers across the nation.
    • Okay. This is definitely one I can agree with. In fact, I have gotten involved in Oahu's push for a railway-centered mass transit system by applying what works in Seoul to Honolulu's unique layout. But enough about me.
  • A society where all members, regardless of class or regional affiliation, hope for the success of their country and are willing to make personal sacrifices if necessary.
    • While this is true in South Korea (with some notable exceptions), I'm not so sure that it's not true in the United States. Certainly after 9/11, there was an amazing outpouring of national spirit. And even in the absence of that catalyst, there are things like AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps and other corps, etc. Personal sacrifice is a hallmark of many groups in the US.
  • An easy and efficient recycling program that is supported by the vast majority of the population.
    • Indeed, many American cities would do well to study how it works in Korea. American municipalities have trouble duplicating the Recycling Nazi™ ajŏshi, though.
  • A government that encourages national unity rather than one which demonizes patriotism, discourages unifying nationalism and attempts to divide the population so as to play groups off against each other for short-term political gain.
    • South Korean national unity exists up to a point, but there is still major factionalism in Korea that can be debilitating at times, something that has gone on for centuries. Even today, it's the chinoboistas versus the moderates versus the conservatives.
  • A society that doesn’t glamorize ghetto and thug cultures and doesn’t continuously try to rationalize how they are valuable contributions to “diversity”.
    • As I mentioned at ROK Drop, South Korean society is very much into glamorizing thug cultures, particularly a stylized romanticization of Korean ggangpae (깡패). Look how many of the highest grossing pictures are related to organized crime, in a way that definitely falls on the side of making it look cool. Sadly, many young people strive to imitate that nowadays, in speech, mannerisms, and behavior.
  • A clean, safe, efficient and reasonably-priced national bus and rail system as well as fantastic public transportation in even the smallest towns.
    • True that.
  • A culture of fame that stigmatized poor behavior rather than rewarding it to the point where notoriety becomes more marketable than ability and talent.
    • True that, although I see some of that changing a bit.
  • A school culture that respects how many math problems are correct on par with how well one can throw a ball.
    • True as well, for the most part, but Olympic athletes and World Cup stars have become major motivating role models in the past decade or so. Probably become more so as time goes on.
  • A society which generally rewards ability rather than creating arbitrary quotas to appease vocal minorities which have found it easier to get ahead by complaining than by working hard or correcting cultural flaws that are counter to success.
    • Well, this may well be because there aren't many ethnic minorities around to begin with. And in the United States, affirmative action was necessary at one time because it was the only way that many minority members who were in fact qualified would get a fair shake. Now it could be argued that there is no longer any need for it, or even that it now hampers the spirit of self-improvement, but where I've lived and gone to school, people still needed to fulfill substantial minimum requirements in order to qualify for affirmative action eligibility. In fact, South Korea today is seriously considering adopting such programs to help multicultural ROK citizens.
  • A society where the citizens generally don’t steal, destroy or spray paint every piece of public property that isn’t guarded, fenced off or locked down.
    • True that, though some ROK citizens don't mind papering their neighborhoods with litter. But like in the US, it's a minority of people ruining it for the majority. Having lived in a predominantly Black neighborhood, I can assure you that the average African-American living in a poor neighborhood that is subject to this is more dismayed by it than you are. 
  • A government that is generally interested in the public good and is willing to use the best parts of pragmatic socialism for the benefit of its citizens without falling into the ideological trap that it is an answer to all problems.
    • That notion of "pragmatic socialism" has actually been my take on South Korea's version of egalitarian social structure. And like you say, it usually is the parts that work (universal health care, for one) with market mechanisms taking over for the parts where socialism wouldn't work.
  • A police force that isn’t proudly militarized and doesn’t treat all citizens with default hostility as if they are drug dealers or terrorists.
    • True, but it does sometimes seem like the pendulum has swung too far the other way, with the police being too lax and nonchalant about serious crime.
  • A society where a small business can be started for very little money and a minimum of government interference.
    • True, although super high rental costs create other barriers. 
  • A nation with a president that doesn’t bow to the emperor of Japan.
    • Yes, but a nation that too often lets issues related to Japan derail good judgement. And if Emperor Akihito were to ever come to South Korea and offer an imperial apology for all the events of the half century or so that ended in 1945, I wouldn't be surprised if Ōsaka-born President Lee would in fact greet him with such a gesture, as a way of saying thanks for his imperial contrition. 
  • A government that tolerates special interest groups to demonstrate but almost always follows the will of the majority and the best interests of the country.
    • Given the sway that the well-organized chinboistas have over the media, academia, and even many corporations, causing them to run scared about towing anything other than the nationalist party line, I'm not sure I completely agree with that. 
  • Demonstrators and sports fans who don’t loot, burn and overturn everything in their path.
    • True that. Although there are occasional drunken brawls, I'm told, on the subway ride home from the stadium. And the Mad Cow protests weren't exactly vandalism-free gatherings.
  • A society that respects get-rich-quick but realized the true key to lasting success is education.
    • True that. A love of education to a fault.
  • A semi-legal prostitution industry not filled with junkies and crackheads.
    • But one that still relies on duping young women or kidnapping them out right. South Korea's prostitution system could be altered in ways to make it more transparent and therefore safer for the women involved, but it's by no means a model system right now.
  • A medical system where small problems can be treated for a reasonable price (even without insurance) before they become big problems.
    • True that. In fact, hallelujah to that.
  • Schoolgirls in short skirts… yeah, baby!
    • Hmm... I'm not sure sexually objectifying underaged girls is really such a great thing. Especially in a society where they tend to be chronically objectified even into adulthood.
  • A society where even the poorest people are not revoltingly filthy in their living conditions and lifestyle… and where those who have to take public money are not “empowered” to the point where they are proud to be taking advantage of the system.
    • True that. Although I'm detecting from you this idea that you see this as a color issue, when in fact it's a race-defying problem in America.
  • A society where the man who fills the ATM machine opens it up, sets his suitcase full of money on the ground next to him and puts handfulls of bills into the machine with his back to the crowd.
    • True that. And let's pray for keeping Russian mafia under control so it stays that way. I'd rather not see Seoul turn into Hong Kong or Macau with gun battles on the street following daylight bank robberies.
  • Really complete cellphone coverage.
    • Indeed, South Korea has spoiled me on that. There's something wrong with the system if you're losing cell phone service on an Interstate or US Highway.
  • A society where an angry man cuts off his finger or shaves his head rather than shooting up a public place.
    • Setting aside the idea that finger-chopping is particularly common at all, I would agree with this sentiment... usually. Although there are the occasional psycho who goes and incinerates subway stations or national treasures. Just sayin'. 
  • Car companies that are seriously committed to producing and selling high quality cars rather than simply grifting the government out of money to keep the scam going another 6 months.
    • Well, that's what they do now that they actually have to compete for market share (in overseas markets). Back before the 1990s, when Korean vehicles were essentially the only game in town, there wasn't much incentive to make super-high-quality vehicles.
  • A nation where a man who grows up as a poor child, becomes a lawyer, runs a campaign based on emotion and ideology, becomes a cult figure to young voters, appeases his nation’s enemies and oversees a stagnant economy, has the decency to commit suicide at the first opportunity.
    • Wow, so Obama — is that who you're getting at? — should whack himself? Suicide is a very serious problem in South Korea, and it's dismaying to the nth degree that the president would do such a thing. I think you should rethink your glibness on this.
Anyway, that's the list. I could think of some other things to say that are good stuff Obama should see, but this list was pretty thorough. And hey, I can now point people in the direction of this post the next time I get accused of being an apologist for Korea or some such.


  1. That was pretty fair and balanced Kush...

    How did you ever become a MH pariah?.. ;)

  2. Well, with 400+ hits a day nowadays (which is only 10% of The Marmot's Hole's hits) and linked to on a number of sites, I'm not so sure I'm a pariah or if I ever have been one.

    On the other hand, since I tend more toward wanting to analyze the causes of problems and solutions — as well as whether they are in fact legitimate problems — instead of validating some people's rage and bigotry, I earn the ire of those people and get labeled an apologist.

    People, especially critics, tend to see what they want to see. And a lot of people would rather dismiss what I write rather than analyze their own outrage or bigotry. It's easier to just write me off as a Korean apologist.

    I've been trying to find it, but no luck so far... Back in 2006 someone was trying to make the case to me that anti-Japanese sentiment was far more widespread than I realized, and this person's shocking evidence that would rock my view was... wait for it... the post on "Corea" ... my own post (he wasn't aware I had written it). I really need to find that, but IIRC it started out a topic having nothing to do with Japan, so I can't remember where it was.


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