Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Let's Play Criminals

Dear Korean,

In the movie Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, there was a scene where the main character had to reenact her crimes while cuffed and masked, with a slew of photographers around her. I was wondering if there is any real reason behind this. Is it simply for dramatic effect or does it serve a real purpose?

Curious White Girl

If you don't know what Curious White Girl is talking about, it looks like this:
Serial murder Kang Ho-soon, reenacting the disfigurement and burial of his victims. c. 2009

It is not necessarily typical, although not unusual, for Korean police to have the alleged criminal re-enact his crime at the site of the crime. Reenactment is a part of the police's field investigation, and the police can technically order any criminal defendant to participate in the reenactment. But since reenactment costs time and police budget, the police tends to save reenactments for significant cases, like murder. 

As a result, crime reenactment does resemble a media circus, with a legion of cameras trying to capture the most sensational moment. The picture above is the criminal reenactment of Kang Ho-soon, a serial killer who murdered at least 10 women between 2005 and 2008. At the time, Kang's crime caused such a sensation that many Koreans who shared the same name filed a court petition for name change. The picture above captures a chilling moment: Kang reenacting how he severed the digits of his victims before burying them, to make identification more difficult. For his crimes, Kang was sentenced to death.

Yet despite the sensationalism, crime reenactments do serve real purposes in criminal justice. The most important purpose, counter-intuitively, is the protection of the defendant who made a confession. By reenacting the crime, the police can prove to the court (through the prosecutor) that the defendant's confession is not falsely obtained, because the confession is consistent with the reenactment which gives a plausible account as to how the crime actually, physically happened. Reenactments can also reveal additional evidence, which may serve as a basis for additional crimes and/or crimes of a higher degree.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Leftovers from 2014: Serial

Until very recently, I did not even know Serial was a podcast. TK is an extremely visually inclined person, and very poor auditory learner. He hates listening to disembodied spoken words. He hates radio talk shows just as much as he hates talking on the phone.

All this is to say: TK has absolutely nothing to say about Serial. Stop sending questions about it.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Leftovers from 2014: The Nut Gate

Macademia advertisement poking fun at the "nut rage."

- This is probably not true, but TK will say it anyway: this may be the only news story that was driven mostly by the headline-maker's need for a pun. "Nut rage," "nut gate," "nutjob." We have seen every headline conceivable.

- In all seriousness, however, this was a really big deal in Korea, eliciting reactions that were almost disproportionate to the actual event. To be sure, what happened was definitely outrageous. But there have been more outrageous corporate misdeeds before--ones that actually caused loss of lives rather than a 20 minute flight delay. (One example here.) Yet this incident was the top-line headliner domestic news for two to three weeks straight. Why?

There may be some external factors. The prosecution has been blatantly leaking sensational investigative materials, possibly to help President Park Geun-hye's sagging approval rate. That Cho Hyeon-ah is a woman probably makes her a relatively easier figure to hate.

But TK thinks there is more: an interesting lesson about politics that is not obvious on its face. Perhaps nut gate was so resonant among Koreans because it was so easy to understand. Consider, for example, the Sewol incident. The ferry sinking had so many different angles and narratives that I had to devote four separate posts to the incident--which was still not enough to cover all the different aspects. To this day, Korean society remains divided over what lesson to be learned from the Sewol tragedy. 

In contrast, the nut gate? The entire event took less than 30 minutes with just three actors taking very simple actions. Yet the event managed hit a whole host of Korean society's sensitive spots: the chaebol oligarchy, nepotism within the chaebol, the contemptuous rich, humiliated employees, and so on and so forth. To TK, this is the real reason why the nut gate became such an issue in Korea. Never underestimate an event that gives an easy, neat narrative, no matter how trivial it is as a consequential matter.

- Although TK has a long history of complaining about American air carriers, he was never completely comfortable in Korean airlines--and this is why. The better service that Asian and Middle Eastern airline provides comes at a great psychic cost of the airlines' employees. TK is just fine with a service provider, but many airlines train their flight attendants to be servants.

- Of course, the real winners are the sellers of macadamia nuts. Koreans generally don't eat macadamia, although peanuts, walnuts and pine nuts are popular. In fact, most Koreans have never seen macadamia nuts, and have no idea how it tastes. (To this day, Koreans still refer to the incident as 땅콩 회항, i.e. "peanut return.") This scandal gave macadamia nuts publicity that no amount of money could have bought.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Leftovers from 2014: The Interview Fiasco


- First things first: it is far from certain that North Korea actually hacked Sony. It appears that the FBI believes that North Korea is responsible for the Sony hack because the modus operendi of hacking resembles the hack of certain South Korean banks, which is believed to be North Korea's doing. But any hacker can simply imitate the M.O. and blame North Korea. Also, it is far from clear that North Korea is even responsible for the attack on the South Korean banks. As Dong-A Ilbo's Joo Seong-ha explained, North Korea hardly has the capability.

But then again, TK is not sure if it is necessarily a bad thing that North Korea gets blamed for this. Sure, it may not be fair, but do we really care about being fair to the North Korean regime? Any day that North Korea gets deprived of a luxury goods for the elite--say, the internet access--is a good day as far as I am concerned.

- Having said all that, it is difficult for TK to be worked up over this. This movie had all the signs of being a crappy one. Does it really matter if it gets shown in the American theaters? Some say it is the principle of things, but what is that principle exactly? That we will watch a crappy movie for spite?

- This is the best thing to read concerning this whole fiasco. Did Americans get this pissed off when millions were dying from starvation in North Korea? Did the U.S. president weigh in? But who cares about the millions of lives--if you messed with 'Muricans' god-given right to watch a crappy movie, SHIT JUST GOT REAL.

- The greatest tragedy about this fiasco is that the plans for a movie based on Guy Delisle's terrific book, Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea, was cancelled. Delisle, a Frenchman, had the unusual experience of directing a group of North Korean animators who were doing the grunt work for a French animation company. Steve Carell was supposed to play Delisle. 

But then again, maybe this was for the better as well. Delisle's book was great because of his introspective take on what he observed. Instead of offering grand theories about North Korea, Delisle calmly focuses on the small things that he saw. Steve Carell's movie, however, is described as a "thriller"--which means that it probably would not be calm. Which brings us to the ultimate lesson: the book is better. It always is.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

Friday, January 02, 2015

Leftovers from 2014: The KC Superfan

Note:  To make good on TK's promise to blog more, he will give a series of short posts discussing his impressions of Korea-related news with international flavors from 2014 that he could not quite get to last year. First up is Mr. Lee Seong-woo, the KC Superfan.

Lee Seong-woo, a/k/a Kansas City Royals Superfan

The marvelous story of Lee Seong-woo is a testament to the close relationship between Korea and the United States. Obviously, Lee's story is quite unlikely--which is why it became so viral. But Lee's story was able to overcome the unlikelihood because he was based in Korea. 

There was no superfan unless Philip Gillette, an American missionary, introduced baseball to Korea in 1907. (Recall that, on a global scale, baseball is a relatively regional sport.) There was no superfan unless Korea developed a robust baseball culture, which was clearly influenced by the American baseball culture. There was no superfan unless there was the U.S. troops stationed in Korea, as Lee watched the Major League Baseball on AFKN (now AFN,) the television network for the U.S. soldiers stationed abroad. Finally, there was no superfan unless there was a healthy amount of exchange of people, ideas and stories between the U.S. and Korea.

In Lee's story, parallels with other parts of Korean pop culture are numerous. Korean pop music, for example, moved to another level in the 1950s and 60s because Korean pop musicians had to cater to the U.S. troops who were stationed in Korea following Korean War. Later, K-pop became a global phenomenon as Korean pop musicians consistently knocked on the door of the American pop music market.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Most Popular AAK! Posts of 2014


Here is a quick look back at the most popular AAK! posts of 2014, by the number of page view.

Most Viewed Posts of 2014 (All-Time Posts)

Weight loss, as it turns out, was the greatest thing that TK has ever written about.

Most Viewed Posts of 2014 (Written in 2014)

The sinking of the Sewol ferry was the defining event of Korea for this year, and this blog's readership reflected that. 

TK already has one new year's resolution: blog more often. I have been quite negligent with AAK! this year--especially in the second half of the year. There were great stories about Korea that gathered international attention, such as the Nut Gate, KC Royals Super Fan, etc., that TK could hardly catch up to. In 2015, TK will reduce other commitments and redouble his effort on AAK!

The Korean wishes everyone a warm and happy end of the year. As always, thank you for reading this humble blog. See you next year.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Best of the Worst 2014

Come one, come all, to this humble blog's annual holiday tradition: the worst emails of the year 2014! Let's all gather around and wallow in the Interweb's swill of stupidity! Despite seeing the examples of dumb questions from 2008, 2009, 2010 (in Parts I, II, and III), 20112012, and 2013, people simply do not learn.

As usual, these are all real emails that TK really received from real people for the past year. Below, among all the shitty emails that TK has received, he has selected the douche de la douche, the crap de la crap. Other than redacting personal information, not a single thing about the email is changed or modified in any way. TK's comments and thoughts on the emails are highlighted in blue.

*                  *                 *

In Soviet Korea, All Foreigners are Subject to DNA Testing for Racial Identification

re:  I have a question

Hi The Korean! My name is Emily and I am an ethnically Japanese, Chinese, Hawaiian, Polish, Spanish American that looks really Asian. I also speak fluent English and Japanese. I am proficient in Korean and French. So, if I ever lived in Korea, how would I be treated?

Like a person. Moron.

re:  Korean Men and Chinese Women

Hey Korean Person,

I have a question. I am a Chinese woman in my late “tens” (18) and I have never been attracted to Korean guys until recently. Truth is, I actually had a Korean boyfriend before and the experience led me to believe Korean guys frankly, look down on Chinese girls. I read your blog post about what Koreans think of Chinese and as thorough as your post was, I don’t think it answers my questions. It was more of a historical and general viewpoint.

So my question is, what do Korean men think of Chinese women? I know Korean men are men before they are Korean but I am sure most Korean men would never date anyone of African heritage, even if the Kenyan woman happens to have 32D breasts with an amazing smelling vagina. So, Korean men like almost all race have a certain racial preference.

I can pass for either Chinese or Korean in the Winter and Filipino or half Spanish in the Summer so most people can’t really guess my race. I am just afraid that Korean guys might be turned off when they find out I am Chinese. From my experience, I have no problems with Korean Americans but I am talking about Korean Korean men. Koreans born in Korea who had spent the first half of their life in Korea.

Thanks a lot! :)

After many years of bad emails, TK developed a perverse appreciation for bad emails. This type is one of his favorites: an email that starts ok enough, then slowly degenerates into full crazy over several paragraphs.

re:  hellow

hi how ru, my name is amira and i have loads of question cuz im
moveing to korea in maybe 2to3 months got my visa already and i want
to know about life in korea would i make friends, would people be nice
to me, would i get a job and most importantly would i get harrased for
being black i really need information but its hard to get some and
also i had been watching kbs for 10 years such a big fan not just
dramas but everything was interesting i knw one friend in tv lol so i
got another question how would i get my oppa just so i can know the
feeling i would be happy if i can marry a korean too but i dont want
to go that far yet. please help me providing some infos i would
appriciate that thanks

"Here is my imaginary oppa. I love him but I don't want to marry him yet. Too much pressure."

More ridiculousness after the jump.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at But no stupid questions please. For God's sake, will you please think of the children?

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

AAK! Music: 90s Icon by Seo Taiji

Because when Seo Taiji puts out a song like this, it deserves to be introduced to the wider audience.

90s Icon
90s Icon

나이가 들수록 늘어 가는 변명들
The excuses grow as I age
세월이 흘러가도 망설임 따위 뿐인걸
Nothing but mere hesitancy as the time passes
내 기타에 스미던 둔해진 내 감성
My senses that used to soak my guitar are dulled
하지만 난 아직도 멈추지 못할 뿐
But still I simply cannot stop

한물간 90s icon
A washed up 90s icon
물러갈 마지막 기회가 언제일까 망설이네
Hesitating to find the last opportunity to disappear
질퍽한 망상 끝을 낼까
Should I finish this wet delusion

낡아빠진 액자에 갇혀버린 환영들
The phantasms trapped in decrepit photo frames
내 바람과 망상들로 내 방을 채워가네
Filling my room with my desire and delusion
덧없이 변해간 나는 카멜레온
I am a chameleon, changing haplessly
내 피부가 짓물러도 조용히 감출 뿐
Even as my skin rots, all I can do is to quietly hide

한물간 90s icon
A washed up 90s icon
화려한 재기의 기회가 언제일까 망설이네
Hesitating to find the opportunity for a spectacular comeback
질퍽한 이 망상 끝을 낼까
Should I finish this wet delusion

난 꿈을 꾸죠 은밀한 비장함 따위는 아니예요
I dream, but nothing like a secret resolve
전쟁도 끝났죠 나의...
The war of mine is over

눈감은 순간 흩어지는 바람에 밀려 버려지는
The scattering wind sweeps away in a blink of an eye
당신의 삶과 같이한 너와 나의 쓸쓸한 이야기
The lonely story of you and me who were with your lives

해답이 없는 고민
A dilemma without an answer
하지만 밤이 온다면 나의 별도 잔잔히 빛나겠죠
But when the night falls, my star will calmly shine

Briefly about Seo Taiji:  Easily one of the top three most significant K-pop artist in history. Everything about the modern day K-pop is traceable to his brilliant mind.

About This Song:  90s Icon is from Seo Taiji's 2014 album, Quiet Night. 

Translation Note:  As is typical with Korean lyrics, many sentences lack a subject, leaving poetic ambiguity as to the precise identity of the person who thinks and feels. Seo Taiji, in particular, is a master of such lyrical construction.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Is That Salt in Your Teeth?

Dear Korean,

My friend recently came back to New York after living in Korea for a year. She now swears by bamboo salt toothpaste. She says that bamboo salt is commonly used in Korean medicine and is much healthier that anything available in the US. What exactly is bamboo salt? 

Kristin K.

Short answer first: bamboo salt, called juk-yeom [죽염] in Korea, is a type of basked salt. One can manufacture bamboo salt by packing salt into a bamboo tube, and baking the tube in an oven multiple times. 

Bamboo salt baking

So that is the salt part. But how do we go from salt to toothpaste?

Before toothpaste became common in Korea, Koreans used to brush teeth with either salt or salt water. This worked just fine, as salt is a natural disinfectant. (In fact, brushing with salt may promote gum health.) When TK was younger, public baths in Korea would commonly place a large bowl salt, as older folks preferred using salt to brush their teeth.

Seizing upon this opportunity, Korea's toothpaste makers came up with various types of toothpaste based on bamboo salt. Although Koreans were certainly transitioning to toothpastes, the idea of brushing teeth with salt was still in people's mind. And not just any salt--salt baked nine times in a bamboo tube! Sure it had to be healthier, right?

Advertisement for a bamboo salt toothpaste

Makers of the bamboo salt toothpaste love claiming that their product prevents gum disease, and is a healthier alternative to other toothpaste. But much to TKParents' dismay, TK is not a dentist, so he is in no position to say if the bamboo salt toothpaste is actually healthier. He did use this type of product for about a decade, with no result that was significantly more positive or more negative than the one you may expect from an ordinary toothpaste, so there is that.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone! This year, TK is thankful for his first roasted turkey, a forward progress in his day job and his hobbies, renewed sense of faith, another year of wonderful marriage and another year of loyal readers for the AAK!

Meet Joseph Gobbles, TK's first attempt at roasted turkey. Joseph was delicious.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Ask a Korean! News: Assassination Attempt on Kim Jong-un, reported by Joo Seong-Ha

[Cross-posted on Sino-NK]

Mr. Joo Seong-ha deserves to be a personal UNESCO heritage site. The journalist has the most incredible life story: he was a professor at Kim Il-Sung University in North Korea, Then, realizing the tyranny of the North Korean regime, he escaped to China--and was captured, sent back to North Korea and survived the prison camp. On his second try, he succeeded in escaping North Korea for good and seeking asylum in South Korea. Now, as a reporter for one of the most prominent newspapers in South Korea, Joo utilizes his elite North Korea connection to give reports on the country like no one else can. TK has long been a fan of Mr. Joo: a complete list of Joo's articles, translated by TK, is available here.

Recently, Joo broke a story that was never known outside of a handful of North Korean elites: two years ago, there was an attempt at Kim Jong-un's life. Below is the story.

*               *              *

Two years ago, on November 3, 2012, there was an assassination attempt on Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang. That day, Kim was scheduled to visit Munsu Street in Pyongyang. There, he was set to go to Ryugyeongwon, a health club; People’s Outdoor Skating Rink; and a rollerskating rink. These facilities were only several tens of meters away from one another, with a street in between them.

On the morning of that day, a loaded machine gun was discovered cleverly hidden under a low-growing juniper tree near Ryugyeongwon. The gun was immediately reported to the Ministry of State Security. It was clearly an attempt on Kim Jong-un’s life. The assassins were apparently aiming for Kim Jong-un’s visit to the area. Even so, Kim Jong-un summoned enough courage to visit as scheduled.

The North Korean regime never found who was responsible. But the predominant speculation is that a high-ranking person must have been behind it. Kim Jong-un’s line of movement is top secret, with few knowing where he is planned to be. Also, it had to be someone who could smuggle a machine gun in from abroad, as firearms are strictly controlled in North Korea.

(More after the jump)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Shin Hae-cheol's Quotes

Shin Hae-cheol was perhaps the freest talker in all of K-pop history. His fame was built on his ability to speak critically and incisively, as much as it was built on his innovative music. Here is a selection of his quotes that showed the manner of Shin Hae-cheol's speech.
  • "The world will self-destruct if young people were never negative or cynical. The world needs the younger generation to look down on the older generation."

  • "It's easy to think that achieving your dreams is the be-all, end-all. But I hope everyone remembers that there are things that you must not lose in the course of achieving your dreams, that the dreams do not necessarily lead to happiness. God does not care what dream you achieve; but he does enormously care whether you are happy."

  • "I think talking about the society or the politics is all part of music. When you start thinking that politics and society have nothing to do with music, that's when music starts getting strange."

  • "Some of the music by Rain and DBSK received a rating that says it is harmful for the youth. But right now, what's happening at the National Assembly is hardly instructive for the youth. The National Assembly should be designated as a harmful location for the youth; it should be rated R, and should not be shown on television, including the news, to protect the children."

  • (To his wife) "Before I was married, I had such strong suicidal tendencies that I received therapy for it. Since we had children, I was naturally cured because I was so happy. Even in the next life, I want to be your husband. In the next life, let me be your son, your mother, your brother, your dog--anything to keep us tied."

  • "We should not take revenge. We may not be able to forgive. In between those two, we can reconcile."

  • "Not being embarrassed that you're worried, taking anxiety as a natural part of life--that, I think, is the first step toward resolving that anxiety. It's not as if your life gets truly better if that anxiety goes away.  . . .  But the worst thing is to lie to yourself, that you're not worried."

  • "There is a lot of criticism toward the young generation, about how they are not willing to work hard. But there is a difference between working in a situation in which one can dream, and working in a situation in which one cannot see anything. Labor without future is not the answer. The young people are standing in darkness; they cannot tell if a cliff is just a foot away. It's not the case that they do not move because they are too tired; they cannot move because they cannot see ahead."
Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

Shin Hae-cheol, the K-Pop Icon

Fate can be cruelly ironic. Only a few days after TK covered him in this space, with hopes to cover him more going forward, Shin Hae-cheol passed away from cardiac arrest on October 27, 2014. He was only 46 years old.

As TK explained previously, Shin is K-pop’s greatest rock icon of the 1990s. Through his outspoken activism and direct communication with his loyal listeners, his influence extended well into the 2000s, and well beyond the consumers of pop culture. No one in the history of K-pop left a footprint quite like Shin’s. Though his life was tragically cut short, it deserves to be known to a wider audience who appreciates K-pop, and wishes to understand where it came from, where it has been.

*                *                *

K-pop nearly died in 1975. The Park Chung-hee dictatorship saw pop culture, especially rock music, as a threat to public order and ultimately its regime. When Shin Jung-hyeon [신중현], the greatest rocker of the time, refused to write a song praising the dictatorship, the government banned his music and arrested him on trumped-up drug charges. Numerous K-pop artists met the same fate.

Korean pop music, which stood near the forefront of global pop music trends in the 1970s, took a massive step back. Only the inoffensive, melodramatic soft rock could survive for the next decade, as the next dictator Chun Doo-hwan--whose rule ended in 1987--was hardly a fan of rock music either.

Perhaps it was not a coincidence that an upstart band, calling themselves the Infinite Track [무한궤도], came onto the stage as the last contestant of the MBC College Pop Music Festival in 1988, a year after Chun Doo-hwan dictatorship was toppled. The College Festival, which began in 1977, became the new path to stardom after the dictatorship decimated the existing pop music scene. But for a long time, the college bands that performed on the Festival mimicked the larger trend. Their music was soft and meek, tear-jerking without being daring.

That is, until the Infinite Track took the stage. The Infinite Track seemed to be an unlikely band to challenge the status quo--its members were the classic definition of elites, as they were students of Seoul National, Yonsei and Sogang. When the baby-faced lead singer and guitarist Shin Hae-cheol gave the pre-performance interview, few expected what was coming next.

Then the song began, with blaring fanfare. A rush of synthesizer followed. The drums crashed harder than they did all night. The lights of the freshly constructed Olympic stadium--which just finished serving its purpose in the Seoul Olympics--blinkered wildly to the beat. The song, called To You [그대에게], instantly owned the crowd. (It would continue to own the crowd for the next thirty years, as it is one of the favorite songs for Korea’s cheering sports fans today.) When the Infinite Track finished performing, there was no doubt about who won the 1988 College Pop Music Festival.

(More after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

History Behind Seo Taiji's Sogyeokdong

[Cross-posted on Dramabeans]

Dear Korean,

Recently, Seo Taiji released a song called Sogyeokdong. From the music video and my limited Korean skills, I gathered that Sogyeodong must be a historical place. What exactly transpired there and what is the significance of the setting for Seo Taiji's music video? 

Curious person with poor Korean skills :(

Here is a simple rule for AAK!:  if you ask something about the new Seo Taiji song, your question will be published. First, let's listen to the music in question.


나 그대와 둘이 걷던 그 좁은 골목계단을 홀로 걸어요
I walk alone, on that narrow alley stairs that the two of us used to walk
그 옛날의 짙은 향기가 내 옆을 스치죠
The thick scent of the past sweeps by me

널 떠나는 날 사실 난...
On the way I left, actually I...

등 밑 처마 고드름과 참새소리 예쁜 이 마을에 살 거예요
I will live in this pretty village, with icicles on the roof and sparrows chirping
소격동을 기억하나요 지금도 그대로 있죠
Do you remember Sogyeokdong? It still remains the same

아주 늦은 밤 하얀 눈이 왔었죠
On a very late night, the white snow fell
소복이 쌓이니 내 맘도 설렜죠
As they piled on, my heart stirred too
나는 그날 밤 단 한숨도 못 잤죠
I could not sleep that night, not even a wink
잠들면 안돼요 눈을 뜨면 사라지죠
Don't fall asleep; it all disappears when we open our eyes*

어느 날 갑자기 그 많던 냇물이 말라갔죠
The stream that used to be so big suddenly dried up
내 어린 마음도 그 시냇물처럼 그렇게 말랐겠죠
My young heart, like that stream, must have dried up too

너의 모든 걸 두 눈에 담고 있었죠
In my two eyes, I carried everything about you
소소한 하루가 넉넉했던 날
The days when the small days were more than enough
그러던 어느 날 세상이 뒤집혔죠
Then one day, the world turned upside down
다들 꼭 잡아요 잠깐 사이에 사라지죠
Everyone hold on tight; it all disappears in a moment

잊고 싶진 않아요 하지만 나에겐
I do not want to forget; but to me
사진 한 장도 남아있지가 않죠
Not even a single photo remained
그저 되뇌면서 되뇌면서 나 그저 애를 쓸 뿐이죠
I can simply try, repeating to myself, repeating to myself

아주 늦은 밤 하얀 눈이 왔었죠
On a very late night, the white snow fell
소복이 쌓이니 내 맘도 설렜죠
As they piled on, my heart stirred too
나는 그날 밤 단 한숨도 못 잤죠
I could not sleep that night, not even a wink
잠들면 안돼요 눈을 뜨면 사라지죠
Don't fall asleep; it all disappears when we open our eyes*

*Translation note:  Although TK assigned "it all" and "we" as subjects in this sentence, in the original Korean lyrics it is unclear who is opening his/her eyes, and exactly what is disappearing. Because Korean language does not require a subject in a sentence, this type of poetic ambiguity is common.

*                   *                   *

As the questioner gleaned, Sogyeokdong [소격동, pronounced "soh-kyok-dong"] is an actual place in Seoul. Located within Jongno-gu [종로구], it is in the heart of the old Seoul, abutting the Gyeongbokgung [경복궁] palace on the east side. Together with Samcheong-dong [삼청동], Gahoe-dong [가회동], Jae-dong [재동], Gye-dong [계동], etc., it is a part of the neighborhood called Bukchon [북촌]. Because of its quaint narrow alleyways and well-preserved traditional Korean houses, Bukchon today is a popular tourist destination. 

Due to its central location, Sogyeokdong has been at the forefront of Korea's turbulent modern history. However, Seo Taiji did not choose to sing about Sogyeokdong simply for the sake of history. He actually grew up in the neighborhood, having attended the nearby Jaedong Elementary School (which is Korea's oldest elementary school, established in 1895.) In an interview, Seo said that he simply wanted to sing about his childhood, but doing so would have been impossible without touching upon the history he had seen. The result, in TK's estimation, is a more elegant expression of the sinister sense of fear and loss that permeated the experience of Korean children at the time.

Seo Taiji was born in 1972, which means he experienced his Sogyeokdong childhood in the early to mid-1980s. What was going on in Korea in the 1980s?

(More after the jump.)

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Saturday, October 18, 2014

Korea's Labor Productivity, and How to Interpret Data About Korea

An article titled Seven Reasons Why Korea Has the Worst Productivity in the OECD, from March 2014, has been recently making rounds in TK's Facebook feed again. It was a dumb article at the time of the publication, and it remains dumb today. Regardless, the article continues to receive approving reactions--which merits pointing out exactly what is dumb about this article.

First, the article itself. The author Michael Kocken, writing for Business Korea magazine, begins with this:
Korea was recently named the worst place for worker productivity in the OECD, which was featured in a recent article by this magazine. This news is not surprising for any professional previously or currently working in Korea, as the notorious overtime hours coupled with years of low growth have been a widely-discussed issue over the past few years.
Then the article makes the familiar, banal complaints about Korea's corporate culture:  Korea's corporate structure is too rigid and hierarchical; there is no honest and direct communication; worker distraction from the Internet and smartphones; hungover workers, valuing form over substance, new workers who are poorly equipped, and the need to put in useless "face time."

Typical office scene in Korea. Is this the home of low productivity?

What's dumb about this article?

First, the article's starting premise is flatly untrue. Korea's labor productivity was not the worst in the OECD. Korea's labor productivity per worker in 2012 (which was the most recent data available as of the article's writing) was at 23rd place among the 34 OECD member states. Sure, 23 out of 34 is still in the lower range. But it is a far cry from being at the worst place.

But let's be generous and make an ample allowance between the bottom third and the rock bottom. After all, it would be good for Korea to aspire to be on the above-average side of the OECD. However, even this allowance cannot save this article. The main problem with the article is that the author does not seem to understand what "labor productivity" means. This is apparent from the second sentence of the article's opening paragraph, which refers to Korea's long overtime hours. Even setting aside the factual inaccuracy that TK noted earlier, this is a strange statement.

Why is it strange? Because OECD measures labor productivity by, essentially, dividing "output" by number of hours worked. (The precise methodology is somewhat more complicated, especially on how one defines "output." If you are interested in the actual methodology, you can find it here.) This necessarily means that the longer one works, the lower the labor productivity, because if you increase the denominator while holding the numerator at the same level, the result is always a smaller number. In other words, Korea's labor productivity is low because of long overtime hours, not despite the overtime, as Kocken appears to imply.

This leads us to the most important lesson:  what OECD means by "labor productivity" is not what an ordinary person would think. When OECD states Korea has low labor productivity, the word "productivity" is not being used in the same manner in which regular people talk about being "productive at work." But the latter is exactly how the author Michael Kocken uses the term "productivity." Then the article simply runs with the incorrect understanding of the term, and make the trite, stereotypical complaints about Korea's corporate culture.

(More after the jump.)

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