Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Unification Minister seeing the light about The Kim Who Wasn't There™?

AFP is quoting a Yonhap article suggesting that even ROK Unification Minister Yu Woo-ik (the Tim Conway lookalike above) is having doubts that the ascension of North Korean strongman Kim Jong-il's son, Kim Jong-un, to a done deal.

From AFP:
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il faces challenges in transferring power to his youngest son, according to South Korea's top official on cross-border affairs.

"I assume that the power succession is under way, though the internal and external environment is not that good," Unification Minister Yu Woo-Ik told Yonhap news agency in an interview published Sunday.

Kim, 69, is believed to have speeded up the succession plan after suffering a stroke in August 2008.

In September last year he gave his youngest son Jong-Un senior party posts and appointed him a four-star general, in the clearest sign yet that he is the heir apparent.

Yu, whose comments were confirmed by his ministry, told Yonhap in the interview conducted Friday that the leader is healthy enough to perform his job.

He did not elaborate on Kim's health or what he meant by an unfavourable environment for the succession.

It is unclear whether the untested Jong-Un, in his late 20s, faces political opposition to what would be the second dynastic succession. Kim senior took power when his own father Kim Il-Sung died in 1994.
I, of course, have been saying this all along, but here and there I notice that others are jumping on the bandwagon.


Korean woman dies from Mad Cow?

It appears a South Korean woman has become the first person in the country to die from Mad Cow Disease. But it wasn't a Whopper that killed her; it was the use of bovine brain tissue in a complicated surgery that led to her contracting this disease.

From Yonhap:
The 54-year-old was diagnosed with iatrogenic Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (iCJD) after her death and is believed to have been infected during a subdural transplant surgery some 23 years ago, according to the Center for Disease Control (KCDC) and Prof. Kim Yun-joon, a professor at Hallym University's collage of medicine.

Kim determined that brain tissue from a cow used in the surgery to treat tumor growth infected her with the degenerative neurological disorder.
Given what we know about how Mad Cow was spread (largely from cows being fed other cows, particularly their brain and spine), I'm surprised they were using brain tissue from a cow for this type of surgery, as Yonhap is saying happened (the Wikipedia link on Lyodura says it was obtained from human cadavers). If so, it will be a big mess as they try to figure out who else in South Korea was exposed to Lyodura in 1987.

Over at ROK Drop, commenters are suggesting the chinboista leftists won't let the surgery angle get in the way of blaming this on American beef.

While I find that plausible, I should add that it's the Australians who are really behind the anti-American Mad Cow hysteria.


Korean English teachers preferred over foreign English teachers?

I guess all those articles on pot-smoking, child-molesting, skirt-chasing, drunk-teaching instructors have resulted in this shocking result: students, parents, and other educators prefer homegrown English teachers (assuming they speak English well) over native English-speaking teachers by about two-to-one.

Hmm... I was joking about it being all about the bad press, but I'm sure some will think that. What I think is really at work is the nervousness, uncertainty, and anxiety that so many KoKos feel when they learn English. They want, whether they should have it or not, to have someone hold their hand through the language learning process.

The thing is, most native-speaking English teachers cannot do that in Korean. And of course, those who do speak Korean reportedly are told not to do so. It's all a bit unfair, I suppose.

But I don't think this means the native-speaking English teachers are going anywhere soon. The survey was comparing them to Korean teachers who speak English well, which is almost a hypothetical creature in many schools. And there will always be those who feel that no matter how well a KoKo speaks English, it will never be as perfect and pure as an actual native, for whom there will always be a market.

Even despite the robots.


Monday, November 28, 2011

Shawshank Contraption

As part of its move to become the world leader in replacing job-seeking humans with cold, soulless machines, South Korea is reportedly planning to use robots as prison guards. A month-long test is being conducted in Pohang:
The robots are designed to patrol the corridors of corrective institutions, monitoring conditions inside the cells. If they detect sudden or unusual activity such as violent behavior they alert human guards.

“Unlike CCTV that just monitors cells through screens, the robots are programmed to analyze various activities of those in prison and identify abnormal behavior,” Prof. Lee Baik-chul of Kyonggi University, who is in charge of the 1 billion-won ($863,000) project, told the Journal.
I think this is a capital idea! Absolutely nothing could possibly go wrong with this plan, especially if they patrol the international wing of the jail where the robots' programming would never ever interpret foreigner behavior as abnormal.

By the way, this is what they're actually supposed to look like. Frankly, if this pilot study were being conducted in an American prison, I'd give it about 700 nanoseconds before K-prisonbot 3000 is made someone's bitch.


Sunday, November 27, 2011

Seoul showing some backbone with Beijing on repatriation of North Korean refugees?

It is appalling that Beijing continues to round up North Korean refugees inside China and return them to North Korea, knowing full well they will almost certainly be imprisoned, likely tortured, and possibly even executed. As much as we can criticize China for its own abysmal human rights record, even the PRC authorities (in most cases) wouldn't be as harsh as the DPRK is to its own citizens. And it's no surprise that Chinese netizens are  generally blissfully unaware of their own government's complicity.

So it's refreshing to read news like this that keeps the story on the front burner and makes it harder for Xinhua and other Chinese news services to ignore or obscure the issue:
South Korea's top official in charge of relations with North Korea on Tuesday asked China to quickly send North Korean defectors to South Korea.

Tens of thousands of North Korean defectors are believed to be hiding in China, hoping to travel to Thailand or other Southeast Asian countries before resettling in South Korea.

Unification Minister Yu Woo-ik sought cooperation from Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi to ensure that "North Korean defectors can quickly come to South Korea based on their free will."

As Pyongyang's key ally, China does not recognize North Korean defectors and repatriates them back to their homeland, where they could face harsh punishment and even execution, according to defectors and activists.

Still, Beijing has allowed defectors in high-profile cases to leave for South Korea in an apparent move to avoid international criticism.

Yang told Yu that China will handle defectors in accordance with domestic and international laws as well as humanitarian principles.

The comments come as a stream of North Koreans continues to cross the border into China for eventual defections to South Korea, home to more than 22,700 North Korean defectors, according to defectors and activists.
Like any country, China has the right to round up those who enter the country illegally and expel them. But the case of Korean refugees is not so simple, given not only that these are people escaping famine and oppression, but also that there is a second country that counts them as their citizens and is willing to take them (i.e., South Korea).

There is no excuse for China to repatriate North Korean refugees to North Korea.


iPhone 4S "fast losing luster"?

"Oppa, I'm a big Apple fan, but please stop taking pictures of me with that
not wholly new, uncompetitive, losing luster iPhone 4S. Shirǒ!"

Various people in the K-blogopshere have noted that the Korea Times seems to have it in for Apple's iPhone, leading some to even suggest that they might be on the take from Samsung, Apple's home-grown rival (note, however, that the iPhone is full of Samsung innards).

This KT article on the release of the iPhone 4S seems to fit that mold. While I can see a number of reasons not to buy the iPhone 4S (I have an iPhone 4 purchased in June 2010 and I had passed on the iPhone 3Gs a year earlier), the article seems to overstate the case a bit. This sentence in particular stands out as sounding contrived:
"I dropped my plan to buy the iPhone 4S. It’s not wholly-new and also there are big problems relating to hardware-related issues. I am a big Apple fan. But I’m very disappointed by the uncompetitive iPhone 4S," said Park Yeon-gee, a 31-year-old office worker in Seoul, who’s been using the iPhone 4.
This is an all-too-common technique used by Korean reporters (though I know from first-hand experience that American reporters are guilty of it as well): massaging an actual quote to fit the reporter's narrative, or removing it from its original context. Although it's possible Ms Park referred to the iPhone as "not wholly new" (an unfair criticism, methinks), I have doubts that she referred to it as "the uncompetitive iPhone 4S."

And how would this "big Apple fan" know about the "big problems" relating to hardware-related issues (that's a lot of relating) if she actually hadn't bought one?

Ultimately, unless I see similar "losing luster" articles on Samsung, or see a more balanced one about Apple, I'm going to have to go with my running theory that the Korea Times is in Samsung's pocket. You can't spell on the take without KT.


Saturday, November 26, 2011

South Korea to build KTX linking Tokto with mainland

Well, no.

But there are massive development plans in the works, including a 200-meter tunnel connecting the two main islets, a breakwater to allow ships to dock, and an underwater observatory. All this is expected to be finished a year or two before the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyongchang, not far from where one would take a boat to get to Tokto.

Surprisingly, authorities in Tokyo had the Japanese Ambassador to South Korea, Masatoshi Muto, lodge a protest over all this construction on a set of islets they have claimed since essentially taking over Korea during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 but haven't effectively occupied since quitting Korea at the end of World War II in 1945.

I say "surprisingly" because apologists for modern Japanese policy as it relates to past Imperial Japanese acts tell us that it's only the Koreans who get their panties in a bunch over Tokto and no in Japan could care less. (By the way, I was being sarcastic.)

Frankly, it's the environmentalists who should be up in arms. Tokto is relatively pristine, justifiably making it a part of a provincial or national park covering all of Ullŭng-gun County (which would include Ullŭngdo Island), but turning it into tourist trap kinda sorta undermines that.


Seeing red on Black Friday

It's a madhouse here at Ala Moana, but at least it's a madhouse that began at a reasonable hour. Loads of people across the US are pissed off that major retailers have encroached on Thanksgiving Day family time with "Black Friday" sales that began right at midnight or earlier.


Thursday, November 24, 2011

Korea-Japan underwater tunnel?

I've written about it before, this idea of an undersea tunnel connecting South Korea's Pusan or Kŏjedo to Japan's Kyushu via Tsushima Island, several times in the past. It intrigues me.

Well, apparently it also intrigues the folks at the Chosun Ilbo (who usually only get intrigued by pictures of nude or scantily clad women).

They write that such a grand undertaking would take ten to fifteen years to construct and cost 110 to 120 trillion won. Trillion as in cho (조), a number you rarely ever get a chance to use (lop off three of the zeroes to see how much it would be in dollars). We could see this happening around the year 2020 (but don't expect too many English teachers to be helping out).

(HT to The Marmot and his Twitter feed)


Another threat by North Korea

Anybody know where I can get an accurate accounting of how many times North Korea has threatened to turn the entire country, the capital, some outlying island, a military base, or in this case the Blue House, into  "a sea of fire"?

It may literally be in the hundreds.

At any rate, I'm fairly certain that it would look something like this (imagine Diamond Head is Mt Kwanaksan):

Massacre on the Han


Korean lawmakers offer their mian culpa over the nasty FTA passage

I talked about it in this post, and apparently members of the National Assembly were paying attention (yeah, yeah, I know I wasn't the only one talking about how the lockout and the tear gas and the oy vey were a national embarrassment). They have apparently apologized for their handling of the whole affair.

From the Wall Street Journal:
South Korean lawmakers Wednesday apologized and tried to create a political advantage out of their dramatic confrontation over trade legislation a day earlier, which included a tear-gas assault in the main legislative chamber, but analysts said the event was unlikely to drive a major shift in political opinion. ...

The chairman of the ruling Grand National Party, Hong Joon-pyo, at a news conference Wednesday, apologized for Tuesday's hastily convened parliamentary session, which was designed to avoid a physical clash. He promised that parliament would create legislation to help Korean businesses that are hurt by the lowered tariffs and liberalized regulations set out by the FTA.

The two main opposition parties staged events where leaders bowed deeply before TV cameras, another show of apology but this one for not being able to stop the ratification. ...

Meanwhile, Mr. Kim, the lawmaker who set off the tear gas in parliament, told a radio talk-show host that he would fight criminal charges if they are leveled against him. Police said they would wait for parliament officials to decide whether to charge Mr. Kim, but they are investigating how he got hold of the tear gas, which was police-issued and restricted.
If he does face charges, all Mr Kim has to do was claim he was drunk at the time. Amiright? Amiright? (It's meme #83.)

Anyway, at least the politicos recognize that their behavior was appalling. And as a cautiously optimistic supporter of the FTA, I'm disappointed that the passage of such a controversial piece of legislation wasn't completely above board and beyond reproach.


Happy Thanksgiving, nation of the undocumented and their offspring!
(A Gingrich post)

It's still Wednesday morning here in the Aloha State, but it's already Thanksgiving Day in Korea, so I might as well go ahead with what will pass as my Turkey Day post (though I might photoblog from my actually turkey dinner tomorrow, as I'm wont to do).

The New Yorker kicked off the holiday festivities with their yet another controversial cover this week, a reminder that even if they weren't illegal immigrants, they were undocumented.

Heck, I'm a Mayflower descendant (fourteenth and fifteenth generation from four voyagers) on one side of my family and I will proudly state that they entered North America without any papers. Never got them, either. Nor did they properly assimilate (they pretty much stuck with their own kind). Somewhere down the road I'm probably related to some other undocumented folks, but we won't get into that.

And that brings us to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has unexpectedly risen to the top of the heap in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. For months, it has been a tight race between Mitt Romney and whoever is not Mitt Romney, as conservatives who just can't stomach electing a closet moderate or a Mormon seek alternatives. And one by one they've championed losers.

Well, they weren't losers to start with. Rather they seemed to possess all the qualities prized by Tea Partiers and other conservatives (starting with, "He/She's not Mitt Romney"), but then their bright start fizzled out.

We had Sarah Palin (winning point: "She thinks like me!"; fizzling point: "She is dangerously uninformed — just like me."). Then Donald Trump (winning point: "He will prove Obama is a foreign-born Muslin!"; fizzling point: "He gave up on his search for the truth on Obama!"). Then Iowa straw poll winner Michele Bachmann (winning point: "No, she's the one who thinks like me!"; fizzling point: "Ooh, look! It's Rick Perry!"), followed by Rick Perry (winning point: "He's the quintessential Texas politician"; fizzling point: "Oh, crap, he's a Texas politician"). Rick Perry crashed and burned, allowing people to notice Herman Cain (winning point: "Nine-nine-nine"; fizzling point: women he worked with telling him, "Nein! Nein! Nein!")

And that brings us to Newt Gingrich (campaign slogan that sounds cool but actually makes little sense: "Old is Newt Again!"). This guy has actually managed to make it past Mitt Romney and hover in the low thirties. Lots of conservative voters love him for his tough talk against Obama and the Democrats, but moderate Republicans are kinda sort put off by some of his old school (medieval old) views on things. For starters, the little Dickens wants to bring back child labor. Give that fourth grader a mop, there are no free riders at this school!

There actually may be lots of Republican voters who agree with this position — for others' kids, like those in poverty, because, you know, it's a lack of work ethic instilled in nine-year-olds that's the problem in the inner city, not a lack of, you know, jobs and/or safe transportation to jobs.

I poke fun at Gingrich (I believe his campaign should run an ad essentially saying, "With a head this big, he's gotta be smart"), but I actually think were he somehow to make it to the White House, he is someone who could actually come up with the bold-stroke plans that would put the country back on the path of fiscal responsibility in a way that preserves much of what both Republicans and Democrats want — as he and then-President Clinton did in the mid-1990s, back before Bush43 trashed the budget with his tax cuts and misguided and grossly mismanaged war in Iraq.

Frontrunner Newt Gingrich shocks debate audience
when he states how big his next wife's rack should be.

But what I really want to say about Gingrich — and this is where it all ties in with the theme of immigration — is that he comes up with some principled and well considered ideas that buck the rest of his party (or at least the conservative wing). And he has done this with immigration.

Last night at Republican debate #892, which was to cover foreign policy, Newt spoke out in favor of compassionately dealing with undocumented residents, an issue that helped erode Governor Perry's popularity (the governor spoke out in favor of allowing those who came to the country illegally as children to get money for college).

From the Los Angeles Times:
And just like that, another GOP frontrunner is on the defensive after another debate. This time it's Newt Gingrich under the microscope after he seemed to advocate what critics call a form of amnesty for illegal immigrants.

The former House speaker weighed in during an exchange on illegal immigration and border security during Tuesday night's national security-focused debate on CNN.

"I do not believe that the people of the United States are going to take people who’ve been here for a quarter of a century ... [and] separate them from their families and expel them," Gingrich said. "I do believe we should control the border. I do believe we should have very severe penalties."

He continued, "I don't believe that the party that says it's the party of the family is going to say it’s going to destroy families that have been here for more than a quarter of a century. I'm prepared to take the heat in saying: Let's be humane in enforcing the law."
I do not support Newt's divorcing wife on her deathbed policy, but apparently I'm largely in agreement with him on immigration policy (penalties should be focused on the hiring of illegal immigrants, including imprisonment and heavy fines for the Americans who knowingly hire them). And I know that among Democrats and left-of-center moderates like myself I'm not alone.

Watching all these debates I've come to this conclusion: If you could take select pieces of each of the Republican candidates and put them all together, you'd have one damned fine Democratic nominee.

Yup, you'd have Mitt Romney and his health care plan while governor of Massachusetts, you'd have former New Mexico Gary Johnson and Representative Ron Paul's marijuana policy, you'd have Rick Perry's handling of undocumented youth and now Newt Gingrich's compassionate but tough-and-pragmatic ideas about curbing illegal immigration, former Utah governor and US Ambassador to Beijing Jon Huntsman's eyes-open approach to China, Representative Michele Bachmann's recognition that Pakistan is "too nuclear to fail" (I really had to scrape to find something Democrats would like about Michele "unproven HPV vaccination causes retardation" Bachmann), and Rick Santorum's something I haven't figured out yet.

The problem, of course, is that each and every one of these positions earns them boos from the primary voters, even if they make them more electable during in November. Indeed, Newt Gingrich may find his fate sealed with a hiss as conservatives declare him the latest disappointment. I hope that's not true, though, since he makes an awful lot of sense on immigration and I don't want that viewpoint to become radioactive among GOP presidential hopefuls and the GOP congressional leadership, much in the way moderately raising taxes on the very rich to balance the budget has become.

Besides, who's left? We're still a month and a half from the first primary and all we have left from the debates are Rick Santorum and Jon Huntsman (I like the latter but don't care much for the former). Will they be the next shooting stars? What if they rise and fall before January? Will Ron Paul finally be given a serious look (the guy's a kook)? Will they actually start inviting Gary Johnson to the debates?

The winner in Iowa and New Hampshire might very well be whoever is on top of the "not Romney" pile when the actual voting begins. Right about now, I'm guessing, Tim Pawlenty is trying to figure out how to get back into the race (recap: the guy quit because Michele Bachmann won that Iowa straw poll).

Happy Thanksgiving!


Wednesday, November 23, 2011

(Mostly) free (trade) at last!
(Mostly) free (trade) at last!

Well, the way has been cleared for me to vote for President Obama in the 2012 election. Back in 2008, I withheld my vote for him (even though I preferred him over John McCain, who I wish had been the GOP nominee back in 2000) because of how he scapegoated South Korea (and Japan) for part of America's economic woes.

I even vowed that I would end my Democratic Party membership (I'm an Orange Dog Democrat — see sidebar) if Obama and/or any other Democrats were responsible for the Korea-US free-trade agreement (KORUS FTA) failing to be ratified.

He dragged his feet at first, but Obama eventually decided to push the KORUS FTA, but only after insisting on changes (which made everything topsy-turvy and cognitively dissonant for those whose world view was one where it is always the Koreans who can't be trusted to stick to an agreement and it's always the Americans whose word is oak). The SoKos and the Americans finally agreed, and it went to the respective national legislatures. The Republicans, though, were determined to force through less deserving FTAs with Colombia and Panama on the coattails of the FTA with Korea, a move that nearly torpedoed the KORUS FTA.

But it finally passed the US Congress. And then it was the ROK National Assembly's turn to approve it. Numbers-wise, it was a sure thing, but some South Korean parties don't yet understand that democracy means accepting things you don't like when they get passed through a fair and honest vote.

With the "progressives" (a mixture of politicos who genuinely believe the FTA will be bad for Korea and chinboistas who get their marching orders from Pyongyang) threatening to pull out all the stops, things promised to get very ugly before the FTA eventually passed.

But today it all got rammed through, and the FTA has been ratified. However, this is an example of sausage-making that is a downright national embarrassment. From the Marmot's Hole:
The widely expected date of showdown was 24th of this month, when the regular session of the National Assembly was scheduled. (Frankly, I was expecting that the FTA would pass on the 24th as well.) But GNP leadership secretly decided to hold the vote on Nov. 22, at 4 p.m., apparently because GNP received intel that DLP would attempt to occupy the main chamber at the end of the day on the 22nd. Even within GNP, only a select few knew about the d-day.

GNP held an Assemblymen meeting at 2 p.m. regarding the proposed budget, which ended around 3 p.m. Toward the end of the meeting, GNP leadership told its Assemblymen that they would be passing the FTA today. They moved into the main chamber, at which point the vice chairman of the Assembly Jeong Eui-Hwa (to whom chairman Park Hee-Tae delegated his authority while Park was out of town) called for a closed session — which means no one other than Assemblymen (and not journalists, staffers or anyone else) were allowed into the building. There would be no transcript of the proceedings either. The metal gates to the National Assembly building were shuttered, and the police surrounded the building.

Sohn Hak-Gyu, who was notified of the meeting shortly after 3 p.m., arrived at the main chamber around 3:20 p.m., along with 20 Assemblymen from DP, DLP and other minor progressive parties. By 3:50 p.m., there was a quorum of GNP Assemblymen, and the Assembly session began. At this point, DLP’s Kim Seon-Dong made history by detonating a tear gas canister in front of the chairman’s seat. (Photo here.) But after the commotion settled down, the Assembly ratified the FTA and passed the accompanying bills at 4:29 p.m., by the vote of 151 to 7, with 12 abstaining. (There are 299 Assemblymembers.) The abstaining Assemblymen were mostly the GNP members who called for a negotiation with the progressives. No progressive Assemblyman participated in the voting. The entire operation lasted approximately 80 minutes.
They ended up passing the FTA, 151 to 7, with twelve members abstaining. Those 151 are a simple majority of the 299 members of the National Assembly, but it's disturbing that it was handled in such a ham-fisted and heavy-handed way (that's the second time I've gotten to say that today). It stinks of the authoritarianism remarked by Ma Kwangsoo and other critics. A lockout and blackout of media coverage does not inspire confidence or transparency.

But even more disturbing was the wild, wild west tactics of the not-so-loyal opposition. When I said they were ready to pull out all the stops, I meant that they were ready to pull the pin out of a tear gas grenade.

From the New York Times:
Lawmakers of the governing Grand National Party caught the opposition by surprise by calling a snap plenary session. Opposition legislators rushed in but were too late to prevent their rivals from putting the bill to a vote.

In a desperate attempt, one opposition lawmaker detonated a tear gas canister, throwing the National Assembly chamber into chaos. A scuffle erupted, but members of the governing party outnumbered their foes and, while sneezing and wiping tears, passed the deal in a vote of 151 to 7. In the 299-seat National Assembly, 170 members showed up for the vote Tuesday, most of them governing party lawmakers. The opposition members either voted against the bill or abstained.

Glass doors were shattered as legislative aides from the opposition parties tried to barge in, and security guards formed a human barricade.
Un-frickin'-believable. I'd hoped we'd shed that image of Tear Gas City back in the 1990s, but here we have Kim Sŏndong somehow sneaking in such a device and detonating it right in the seat of national power. Really, how utterly lax is security that that kind of thing can happen?!

Were it not for UC Davis campus police spray-painting members of the student body with tear gas just a few days ago, Assemblyman Kim's bonehead move may have left an indelible mark in global news media. Instead, he may be about as memorable as the poo flingers of Kwangju. (They're sorta memorable, but mostly amongst those who follow Korean politics and social issues; the tear gas thing, however, is a much more enduring image, owing to its heavy use during the 1980s and 1990s. If you've never been exposed to it, no words describe its nasty, debilitating effects.)

So, in conclusion, the FTA passed. President Lee is vowing to look into concerns of the opposition (particularly in the agricultural sector), and with any free-trade deal, we must look closely at the results to make sure people on both sides are getting a fair shake and real benefit. There will be some losers in all this, and their respective governments need to make sure they get the help they need, including training and what-not to transition to other jobs.

I'm glad this is all over. It has dragged on for far too long (the FTA was originally signed by former US President George W. Bush and leftist former ROK President Roh Moohyun — with support from his progressives!) and was always the 227-kilogram gorilla in the room, a hurdle that needed to be jumped successfully in order for ROK-US relations to keep growing stronger and stronger. Now we're there, so let's make the most of it.

UPDATE (following day):
The politicians on both sides have apologized for this whole mess, offering deep bows and mian culpas (see how I did that?).


Time archives: Ma Kwangsoo and "Democracy of the Mind"

This post on the troubles faced by Chinese artist (and social critic) Ai Weiwei includes a link to an April 2000 piece in Time that is worth a read by itself. It is penned by Yonsei University literature professor Ma Kwangsoo, who was imprisoned in the mid-1990s under circumstances very similar to those faced today by Ai Weiwei: squeamish authorities overseeing a still socially conservative nation uncomfortable with expressions of sexuality have reacted in a way that is simultaneously heavy-handed and ham-fisted (and let's face it: if you had hams for hands, they would be heavy).

It was written eleven years ago, which in South Korean social-time would be several decades most other places. But some of the things Professor Ma talks about still ring true:
Wanted: Democracy of the Mind
South Korean society hasn't shaken off its authoritarian streak

One day in 1992, state prosecutors walked into my home at 7 a.m. and arrested me without a warrant, which was legal in Korea. I had just published a novel, Happy Sara, about a female university student discovering the joys of sexual freedom before marriage. I was found guilty of writing obscene material and sent to prison for two months. In the book, I tried to say that women had an equal right to enjoy life, including sexual life. This irked the authorities because I was challenging the sanctity of virginity, which in this country applied only to women. Had the book been about, say, John instead of Sara, no one would have raised objections. The book is still banned.

Koreans have been crying out for freedom and democracy for decades. Many intellectuals fought to overthrow military dictatorship and demanded respect for human rights. They tried to suggest alternative political and social models based on assorted ideologies. But Korean society clings to antiquated perspectives. We are still caught up in the Confucian mentality of the 19th century Chosun dynasty, which favored uniformity, authoritarianism and a closed door to cultural influences from abroad. The resulting isolation retarded the country's modernization.

In a way, all Koreans are tainted with an authoritarian streak. Our basic mentality is still driven by rigid hierarchy, conformity and blind obedience to power. These values are so strong that even under a democratically elected government, it is hard to realize substantial change. This is a country where, as an airliner is about to crash, a junior pilot will hesitate to speak out to a senior pilot for fear of not showing respect.

Most of the Korean elite are afraid of freedom. They are terrified that things will spin out of control and they will lose clout. Bureaucrats are the major opponents of deregulation, which they know will cost them their perks and power. Authoritarian culture helps many ambitious bureaucrats advance their careers. They envelop themselves in titles to confirm their existence and power. They flatter their bosses and pledge blind loyalty, perpetuating the authoritarian culture that is opposed to the democratic system other Koreans are trying to build.

Patriarchy, another feature of authoritarianism, is nearly a religion in Korea. Officials suppress sexuality and over-emphasize their own impeccable moral superiority to justify their control over society. These rulers can make the nation commit moral terrorism against artists, who are a weak and easy target--and often a major challenge to the system. This is why it is difficult even for the younger generation to escape the yoke of authoritarianism. No matter how loudly they cry out for democracy and liberalism, cultural tradition smothers their voices.

When military dictatorship was blamed for all the evils of the authoritarian culture, it was easy to offer a remedy: get rid of the military dictatorship. But now that Koreans have democracy, we are unable to explain why authoritarian culture remains dominant. The ultimate solution is for Korean society to embrace pluralism and tolerate freedom of expression, including sexual expression. Yet the majority of the elite merely howl empty slogans like Let's recover our morality, when rampant corruption and immoral behavior are right under their noses.

What stands in the way of genuine democratization in Korea are ascetic, feudal values that hold non-conformity in contempt. A large number of Korean intellectuals refer to this mentality in embellished terms like Asian values and Confucian values. Whatever you call it, this attitude has bred a society deprived of freedom and pluralism and hampered in its move toward political modernization. Obsolete politicians insist on treating the public as though we are still living in an agrarian system, and they impose themselves on us as feudal lords. It is almost impossible for an average person to meet with his local member of parliament; it's like asking for an audience with a king. Public attitudes are not much better. Many Koreans are still parochial, refusing to consider the issues in an election campaign. Instead, they unconditionally support politicians from their hometown or region while irrationally hating anyone from outside their turf.

What Korea needs is not just a change in the political system but more openness and cultural modernization. The problem is less about structure than about mentality. Without tolerance of pluralism and freedom of expression, Korea's celebration of democracy will be premature.

Ma Kwang Soo, 49, is a novelist and a professor of Korean literature at Yonsei University in Seoul

Getting ready for 2012...

Remember the movie 2012, where John Cusack and his brood barely escape Los Angeles in a small plane just as major pieces of the L.A. Basin crack apart and fall into the sea?

Well, this bit of news — and pictures like that above — had images from that flick popping into my head. (Images from 2012 really disturb me.)

Indeed, this stuff about a 600-foot stretch of San Pedro's Paseo del Mar breaking up and falling into the ocean seemed an eery foreshadowing of the grandest snuff film ever made (all but 0.0001% of the population outside Africa dies — though they continue to have excellent cell phone service up until the very end).


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Going all the Weiwei (possibly NSFW)

Kushibo wishes he had minions who would get naked and/or pay millions of dollars in (bogus) fines if I asked them to. Instead, Kushibo can barely squeeze a latte out of anyone.

But if you're Ai Weiwei, your supporters will strip and then take pictures of themselves to show their support. Then they'll post them online. This is enough to get them slapped with investigation for pornography by Chinese authorities.

There are more photos here, but be warned: most are men. Be also warned that someone thought it would be funny to throw in a picture of the Dear Leader and see if anyone noticed. (Or is Kim Jong-il secretly a supporter of decadent Chinese nudity?)

(Oh, and this post would come with a full-blown, bold-faced "NSFW!" warning, but I don't know where you work; this kinda thing may be ay-okay in your office place.)

D'oh! I forgot to include anything on why Mr Ai Weiwei is a famous artist in the first place. I've seen his work here and there, but my most profound "encounter" with his work was viewing this 14-minute documentary on the production of his presentation of a 100 million (?) fake sunflower seeds (all ceramic and each hand painted) at The Tate in London (which is where my camera got stolen in 2007).

I also forgot to mention one of my original points in writing this: It smells of the tribulations of Professor Ma Kwangsoo (마광수), the Yonsei University professor who was imprisoned in 1995 when authorities deemed his novel Happy Sara to be obscene and pornographic, the same accusations thrown at Ai Weiwei.

South Korea was still sloughing off the vestiges of dictatorial rule, and it would be a while before the authorities realized they end up creating heroes out of their ideological foes when they treat them this way. It may be a while before the communists in Beijing realize how ham-fisted such heavy-handed tactics can be.


Do you know taco?

I've written a few posts (see here, here, here, hereherehere, and here) about the Korean taco craze that started in Los Angeles and rode the Korean Wave across the United States.

But Korean tacos are to Urinara cuisine what Domino's is to Italian. And by that I mean a blasphemous bastardization that would be wholly unfamiliar to locals back in the motherland who would scoff at accepting such food as "theirs."

And it is against such a backdrop that the Korean taco has finally made its way "home" to Korea.

From the Wall Street Journal:
In an alley just off Garosoo-gil, the tree-lined street in Gangnam that has taken over from Apgujeong as the coolest place to be seen on weekends, is the three-month-old Grill5taco restaurant that has created its own version of Kogi’s fusion of Korean and Mexican foods.

Grill5taco was started by Ban Joo-hyung and Kim Hyun-chul and their original thought was to sell their tacos from trucks just like Kogi does. So they brought one over from the U.S. and hit the streets for a short time last year.

But the police kept slapping them with fines. Apparently, it’s OK to sell food from tents and from trucks that have permission to work in certain spots. But it’s against the law to just drive around wherever you want and sell food.

Mr. Kim said that’s when they decided to open the restaurant. “Garosoo-gil was the only neighborhood we considered,” he said.
Karosu-gil (Garosoo-gil) is a trendy little district not far from Shinsa-dong Station and Apkujŏng that is meant to be a harbinger of taste and style, so if it works there, it may work anywhere.

But will it work there? I think kalbi or pulgogi tacos are not a tough sell (the complementary starch from rice is replaced by a fried tortilla) as long as they make the cilantro optional, but kimchi quesadillas?! KoKos love themselves some cheese, but it's not something usually eaten with the spicy and pungent pickled veggies of Korea's national dish.

But who am I to talk? I like potato on my pizza.


Sunday, November 20, 2011

Kushibo says HABO (again)

As in, "help a brother out" (again).

It seems one Michael Milne, a teacher in Miryang in the southern part of South Korea, has encountered some serious health concerns that involve the need for a liver transplant. He needs a liver, your prayers, and (if you're able) some cash. The details can be found here.

The Facebook page in that link includes the information for fundraisers and bank transfers within Korea (and I suppose outside of Korea, but for a hefty fee), and they're working on setting up a PayPal account.

I'm one of those there-but-for-the-grace-of-God kind of people, so as soon as I can get access to my money within South Korea, I'm in for 100K won (bank account details below).

Nonghyup Bank 
(농협은행, National Agricultural Cooperative Federation)
Name: 마이클 (Michael Milne)
Account number: 811057 52 067773

And if anyone knows any more details on his condition, please feel free to leave some information.

I belatedly saw that Brian in Chŏllanamdo also has put up a post on this which includes useful information on the blood/organ donation issue. One of his commenters asks about the insurance issue, which I also addressed below (the lengthy third comment).


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Ain't misbehavin'... much

According to the Chosun Ilbo, North Korea has actually committed far fewer incursions over the Northern Limit Line*, the de facto border since the end of the Korean War which Pyongyang has been adamantly disputing as of late:
North Korean violations of the Northern Limit Line, the de-facto maritime border, have decreased to one-sixth the frequency of last year since January.

According to data the Joint Chiefs of Staff submitted to Future Hope Alliance lawmaker Song Young-sun on Tuesday, violations of the NLL by North Korean patrol and fishing boats grew from 21 in 2006 to 95 times in 2010. But there have been only 16 so far this year.

North Korean patrol boats crossed the NLL 11 times in 2006 and 13 times in 2010 but only five times this year.
I guess the Lee Myungbak's limp-wristed response to the sinking of the Ch'ŏnan and the shelling of Yŏnpyŏng-do is working!

(Oh, by the way, I was being sarcastic.)

* Do not go here for a map of the NLL. It's the blue line in the graphic above, but the Norks insist on the red line. For a translation of the Korean text in the graphic, go spend two hours learning the frickin' alphabet. 


Monday, November 14, 2011

Park pens

Monster Island's favorite Stupogant™, Robert Park, the daytripper who decided to traipse into North Korea to purposefully get himself arrested, has penned an op-ed in the Washington Examiner on the food shortages in North Korea. As you may recall, Mr Park eventually had to be fished out of Pyongyang by the Obama administration, which almost certainly had to use some of its own political and/or actual capital in order to rescue him. His retrieval from North Korea occurred only after he gave a glowing thumbs-up to the regime (which he later recanted).

Though I disagree with the guy's former tactics and I think he is mentally unstable, I do pretty much agree with the gist of his article (what does that say about me?!), which is that any famine up in the DPRK is not caused by natural disasters but rather is orchestrated by the regime, which uses food as a means of control. Go and read it yourself.

My favorite part, though, is the description of the author at the end:
Human rights activist Robert Park traveled to North Korea in December 2009.
That inadequately understated sentence reminds me of Kenneth Markle, the former USFK soldier who served fourteen years in ROK's foreigner prison for the brutal rape and murder of a South Korean bargirl. From his cell, he would write occasional pieces that got into the Pacific Stars & Stripes and even Korea's English-language papers, with the simple description that, "The author is a resident of Cheonan."


Kim Daejung and the Nobel Peace Prize

From The Marmot's Hole, we get a reminder of a persistent meme:
It was a progressive President (Kim Dae Jung), who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his summit with KJI. It’s comical now to see their famous photo together in light of the obvious payoff that got that photo-op in the first place – for which one of Kim’s administration was sentenced to prison.
A persistent but incorrect meme, attributed not just to the above commenter but shared and spread by countless commenters, bloggers, pundits, and journalists.

To be specific, the meme is that it was the Kim Daejung-Kim Jong-il summit in 2000 that got him the prize. That would be the null hypothesis, whereas the alternate hypothesis would be that without the summit he would still have gotten it.

Let's go directly to the horse's mouth for the reasons Kim Daejung was awarded the Nobel, the Nobel Committee's announcement itself:
The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided to award the Nobel Peace Prize for 2000 to Kim Dae-jung for his work for democracy and human rights in South Korea and in East Asia in general, and for peace and reconciliation with North Korea in particular.

In the course of South Korea's decades of authoritarian rule, despite repeated threats on his life and long periods in exile, Kim Dae-jung gradually emerged as his country's leading spokesman for democracy. His election in 1997 as the republic's president marked South Korea's definitive entry among the world's democracies. As president, Kim Dae-jung has sought to consolidate democratic government and to promote internal reconciliation within South Korea.

With great moral strength, Kim Dae-jung has stood out in East Asia as a leading defender of universal human rights against attempts to limit the relevance of those rights in Asia. His commitment in favour of democracy in Burma and against repression in East Timor has been considerable.

Through his "sunshine policy", Kim Dae-jung has attempted to overcome more than fifty years of war and hostility between North and South Korea. His visit to North Korea gave impetus to a process which has reduced tension between the two countries. There may now be hope that the cold war will also come to an end in Korea. Kim Dae-jung has worked for South Korea's reconciliation with other neighbouring countries, especially Japan.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee wishes to express its recognition of the contributions made by North Korea's and other countries' leaders to advance reconciliation and possible reunification on the Korean peninsula.
Nowhere does it mention the summit, though that would be covered more generally under "sunshine policy." However, the reward itself was by no means just for the Sunshine Policy, as is clear by the statement by the Chair of the Norwegian Nobel Prize Committee in the award ceremony speech:
The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided to award the Nobel Peace Prize for the year 2000 to Kim Dae-jung. He receives the prize for his lifelong work for democracy and human rights in South Korea and East Asia in general, and for peace and reconciliation with North Korea in particular. We welcome the Laureate here today.
Again, the summit is not mentioned, and what it is a part of is mentioned secondarily. It was his work long before 2000 that got him notice and got him the prize. That, in fact, was specifically mentioned when he was awarded the prize in 2000:
The question has been raised of whether it is too early to award the prize for a process of reconciliation which has only just begun. It would suffice to say in reply that Kim Dae-jung's work for human rights made him a worthy candidate irrespective of the recent developments in relations between the two Korean states.
But, you might protest, would he really have gotten the Nobel without the attention-grabbing Kim-Kim summit? Again, we can look at the words of the Nobel Committee for the answer. Kim Daejung's "lifelong work for democracy and human rights in South Korea" is on par with other award winners, notably Aung San Suu Kyi from Myanmar/Burma in 1991, Lech Walesa of Poland in 1983, Nelson Mandela in 1993, etc. The latter is notable because Kim Daejung has often been referred to as "the Nelson Mandela of Asia."

At best, the June 2000 summit may have caused the Nobel Committee to take notice of Kim Daejung's nomination, which would have been received by February 2000, four months before the summit actually took place, but a lot more happened prior to that which would also have gotten them to take notice. South Korea and its very messy moves toward democratization were a major story in 1987 and 1988 as the Olympics had all eyes on the ROK.

This was part and parcel of an Asian Spring that flourished a decade and a half before there was an Arab Spring. It was the likes of Corazon Aquino and Kim Daejung, among others, who shaped the East Asia of today, and it is for that primarily that Kim Daejung was awarded the Nobel.

These are people who risked their lives to bring democracy and respect for human rights to their country and their region. To diminish this by saying Kim Daejung "bought the Nobel Prize" — even if the case can be made that he bought that summit — is a revisionist travesty.

(More on Kim Daejung here, in my ode to him after he died)


Sunday, November 13, 2011

Holy backfiring North Korean hijinks, Fatman!

So, North Korea sinks a South Korean vessel, and then later bombs Yŏnpyŏng-do, killing military and civilians... The end result may be US troops stationed on the forward-situated "Five Islands of the West Sea" (서해오도):
South Korea plans to build barracks for US troops on an island near the tense sea border with North Korea in case of emergency or military drills, according to the defence ministry.

The barracks will be built on Baengnyeong, a front-line island and flashpoint in the Yellow Sea, a ministry spokesman told AFP.

"US soldiers will use the barracks during joint military drills or in case of emergency," he said, declining to give details.

The South will start building the barracks capable of housing some 160 US soldiers next year and construction will be completed by 2013, Yonhap news agency said.
This makes me happy. North Korea needs to see consequences for its actions, and if its outbursts over the NLL are met with a bolstering of US and ROK defenses, that's great.


LAPD takes Jindo K9s off the menu

Do you know Chindo?

From the Los Angeles Times we get word that the Great Chindo K9 Experiment of 2011 has been a bust:
In a canine experiment in better policing, the LAPD recently spent months training a pair of South Korean-bred Jindo puppies as possible new street enforcement partners.

But the Jindos are in the doghouse as a replacement for more traditional European bloodlines, such as German shepherds or Belgian Malinois. The loyal but excitable Jindos, officials said, just didn't take to the exacting work of crowd control, weapons detection and drug sniffing.

"We worked hard with the dogs to develop their skills of sniffing out the odor of guns for detective work," said Sgt. Doug Roller, chief trainer for the K-9 platoon of the Los Angeles Police Department's Metropolitan Division. "They pretty much mastered the task, but once they got out of the training environment, they got distracted in the real world.... A leaf would blow, and they'd go chase it."

The Jindos — named Daehan and Mingook, which together translate as "Republic of Korea" — have been placed in private homes after trainers determined they lacked sufficient focus and consistency.
So the Chindo dogs were essentially canine versions of Korean yuhaksaeng: well disciplined and highly capable, but going hog wild when let loose abroad.

I don't really know what to say about this. I think Chindo dogs (sorry, but I don't like the "Jindo" spelling) are great as watchdogs, but it might take a lot more special breeding and training in Korea for them to be ready for prime time in the wild-and-woolly American police context.

For that matter, are Chindo dogs actually used much in Korean law enforcement? I suppose employing them more in a Korean situation to find out which strains are better equipped for real-world police work would be a good next step.

But the dogs used as drug-sniffers at Incheon International Airport are, famously, cloned canines, but not Chindo: they're Lab retrievers, straight from the lab. I suppose cloning some more of them and successfully getting them out in the field in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, or Peoria would also be a win for national pride.


Saturday, November 12, 2011


I celebrated Peppero Day (빼빼로 데이) by going to a Chinese restaurant that serves 자장면.

These noodles are laid out so they say "11-11-11," but they look a bit like we're getting ready to dissect some worms.

Yeah. I'm twelve years old.


Hug a Veteran Day

I've never served in any war, and that's all the more reason to admire and honor those who have risked their lives fighting in those conflicts that have left our nation and our allies stronger, freer, and more secure.

There are two people, one verified and one not verified, who are the last remaining veterans of World War I. They are Florence Green of the UK who served in the Women's Royal Air Force, and Andrew Rasch, who claims to have been in the US Navy. Both of them are 110 years old.

Of course, there are still thousands of World War II veterans, including 87-year-old Daniel Inouye, one of Hawaii's two US Senators. There are loads of veterans from the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Desert Storm, the second Iraq War and the Afghanistan conflict. My hat's off to them all, along with those who served in dangerous conditions during the Cold War or otherwise between wars.

Frank, a family friend now in a nursing home, is a veteran of the 100th Battalion. Along with the 442nd Infantry Regiment of which Daniel Inouye was a part, they became famous as nearly all-Japanese-American fighting units distinguished by their immense bravery. I sometimes ask him questions about his time in Italy, but while his mind is still sharp at ninety-something, it's hard for him to speak. The conversations are limited, but he enjoys watching old cowboy movies, which I bring him on DVD. 

At the same nursing home as Frank is a woman named Jackie who was a pilot in the WAC (Women's Army Corp). Her job was flying newly minted aircraft from the Mainland (usually California) to Hawaii or elsewhere where they were needed by combat pilots and male officers authorized to fly in combat. She was still flying her own private airplane up and down the California coast past the age of eighty, when a mild stroke left her in a wheelchair and unable to drive, much less fly. Listening to her tell stories about the war and California and Hawaii back in the day has been fascinating, but I get the impression that I'm the only one who ever hears them. What little family she has never visits her. (Don't even get me started on the utter disregard for human life when people ignore those in nursing homes, simply because they fear their own ridiculously low threshold of discomfort will be crossed if they enter such a facility and actually speak to someone there.) 

I have a number of relatives who have served in the US military, though I haven't had the chance to hear many stories. One grandfather, who died years before I was born, served in Europe and then Japan and Korea, and became a career soldier. Two uncles were in Vietnam, and one of them also made the military his career. A cousin is an officer who has recently served in Iraq and Afghanistan. I expect some of his kids will also follow suit.

An uncle by marriage lied about his age and joined the Navy, and he eventually fought at Iwo Jima. He passed away recently, having been going through the stages of Alzheimer's Disease, the "long goodbye." I wrote about him here and here. He died less than three weeks after I wrote that first link and I spent the last part of my summer arranging the funeral.

Nursing homes are full of veterans. Go visit one. Not today, but tomorrow or the next day, when most everyone else will have forgotten them until next year.


Friday, November 11, 2011

Kvetchpat of the day: "the dirtiest members of society"

Leave it to the Metropolitician to take a nice fluff piece on English teachers dressing up like Confucian scholars and cleaning up the local riverside park, and twist it into a story of English teachers (aka, "the dirtiest members of society") being negatively depicted as a miserable and wretched lot:
Pagoda apparently had its English teachers out in traditional Korean dress for a big cleanup detail. Is this a new branding exercise on behalf of foreign English teachers? The dirtiest members of society, out and about, cleaning up its own act? An symbolic baptism in the dress and manners of morally upright Confucian gentlemen? Well, at least it's a show that we're not out molesting children, raping hapless Korean maidens, or spreading HIV around town.

I certainly agree with the sentiment in the motto "I can do!" The irony of an English-teaching institute touting such a grammatically/idiomatically incorrect expression aside, I say all us dirty foreigners should adopt this positive attitude, a la "We can do, too!"

Perhaps the donning of duds from the days of aristocracy gone by will help stave off my hankering for seducin' elementary school children and getting innocent Korean virgins hooked on crystal meth.
For his uncanny ability to see negative portrayal of English teachers and foreigners wherever he looks, the Metropolitician earns our Kvetchpat of the Day award. I'd go over to his blog and announce his achievement in person, but he might take that Rhode Island-sized chip on his shoulder and chuck it at me.


Saving 15% could cost you your life

When I first saw this Geico commercial (with bonus footage here), I couldn't help but think they were directly influenced by this story from South Korea of robots in the classroom. See also herehere, here,  and here. (That story was of course mocked and ridiculed across the K-blogosphere here, here, here, here, and here — if you mocked them, too, send me a link.)

I'd also like to think they were inspired by my own apocalyptic take from the future.

The Huffington Post used a picture from Japan for this Korea story.
Feel free to make up your own caption for this one.