Monday, June 03, 2019

Korea's Nine Years of Darkness: Part VI - The Candlelight

A.  The Choi Soon-sil Scandal

Given how well the Choi Soon-sil scandal came to be known around the world (with a little help from yours truly,) only a brief summary of the scandal would suffice. Park Geun-hye turned out feeble in her mind, and outsourced much of her presidential duty to Choi Soon-sil, the daughter of a shaman Choi Tae-min who became close with Park because he claimed he could speak with Park’s dead mother. In addition to running the country on behalf of the president, Choi Soon-sil used her power as the shadow president to collect bribes, siphon government budget and dole out favors. (For additional detail, please refer to three massive posts that I previously wrote about the scandal: one two three.) 

In a photo circa 1979, Choi Soon-sil, Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak are
sitting in a row at a function. The hold that Choi has had over Park
was an open secret within South Korea's political circles for decades. (source)

The most remarkable thing about the Choi scandal was just how many people already knew about her. As early as 2007 when Park Geun-hye first ran for president, the US Ambassador for Korea noted in a diplomatic cable: “Rumors are rife that the late pastor had complete control over Park's body and soul during her formative years and that his children accumulated enormous wealth as a result.” Facing off Park in the primaries, Lee Myung-bak made her association with the cult leader Choi Tae-min as a campaign attack point, noting how every organization in which Park Geun-hye was involved included relatives of Choi Tae-min. 

There were even attempts to expose Choi Soon-sil in 2014, full two years before the scandal truly broke. Park Gwan-cheon, a presidential aide who was not connected to Choi, was conducting an internal investigation to check the rumors that someone with no official position with the Blue House was interfering with the presidential affairs. He discovered Choi and blew the whistle—to no avail, as the Blue House managed in short order to turn the issue into how the aide Park improperly leaked presidential records. During his investigation, the aide Park gave a statement to the prosecutors that would later become infamous: “Do you know the order of power in Korea? Choi Soon-sil is at the top, followed by [Choi’s husband] Jeong Yun-hoe, and the President is merely the third place.” The entire affair was like a strange and improbable gas leak: the stench was everywhere, and people kept lighting matches, but somehow, there was no fire. 

The scandal did blow up in the end; it took a trigger that may as well have been carefully engineered to piss off the maximum number of Koreans. It was revealed that Choi’s daughter Jeong Yu-ra received a preferential treatment to gain admission to the prestigious Ewha Womans University—and nothing upsets Koreans more than college admissions chicanery. As the Blue House scrambled for a response, the final straw came: cable TV network JTBC discovered Choi Soon-sil’s Galaxy Tab that contained confidential presidential documents with Choi’s mark-ups. The next day, Park Geun-hye gave a press conference, admitting she gave the documents to Choi for her review. Park’s approval plummeted to 5 percent, rendering any support for her to a statistical error. 

Meanwhile, a crowd of more than a million holding candles began filling up the Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul. 

(More after the jump.)

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Wednesday, February 20, 2019

How to End a Forever War

Young Korean girl with her brother on her back during the Korean War, c. 1951

North Korea and South Korea were never not at war, practically speaking. Less than two years after two governments were officially established in the Korean Peninsula, the two Koreas began the internecine Korean War in 1950. The war technically never ended, as the armed conflict only ended in a cease-fire in 1953 rather than a peace treaty. A Korean born in 1950 is 69 years old today. That means most Koreans—51 million in South Korea, 25 million in North, and 7.5 million scattered around the world—have never spent a moment of their lives not at war. 

Shortly after the end of World War II in 1945, two young colonels in the US military—Dean Rusk (the future Secretary of State) and Charles Bonesteel—grabbed a National Geographic map lying around them, and simply drew a line through the 38th Parallel. The Soviets would occupy north of the line, Americans the south. Rusk later would recall that the line “made no sense economically or geographically.” By late 1948, what appeared to be an informal and temporary division of the Peninsula became official and indefinite. North Korea’s Kim Il Sung invaded the South in 1950, and three years of hellish war ensued, killing millions. The United States came to the aid of South Korea; China did the same for North Korea. After the fighting ended, the Peninsula remained divided along the Armistice Line, which roughly tracked the 38th Parallel—the arbitrary line of division that never made any sense. 

Out of the ashes of the war, two mirror images arose. Nominally, North Korea was a communist country in the Soviet and Chinese sphere of influence, while South Korea was a capitalist country in the US sphere of influence. For about 30 years after the war, however, the two Koreas looked rather similar at the ground level. In both Koreas, dictators took power, purged political opponents and massacred civilians suspected of being too friendly to the other Korea. Both Koreas operated gulags that imprisoned political dissidents. Both Koreas turned themselves into a permanent garrison state, staffed by conscripted men. Both Koreas pursued rapid industrialization to support the garrison state, aided by their respective global hegemon—US and USSR/China. It was only in the late 1980s that the two Koreas truly began to diverge, as South Korea democratized and North Korea was left in the wilderness as the Soviet Union fell. 

*                    *                     * 

The term “forever war” came to be in common usage as it became evident that the US-led war in Afghanistan and Iraq had no realistic end in sight. Ordinarily, a war ends by defeating the opponent, who evidences its surrender through a document of some sort—as Imperial Japan did with the Treaty of San Francisco following World War II, for example. In contrast, the post-9/11 War on Terror was not declared against a country, per se. The Authorization for Use of Military Force, passed by Congress on September 14, 2001, authorized the US president to “use all necessary and appropriate force . . . in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States”. Some have argued that this authorization has led to the longest war in US history, nearly 18 years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. 

Koreans, however, would scoff at the idea that 18 years is “forever.” As of 2019, the United States has been at war in the Korean Peninsula for 69 years. The US has over 28,000 soldiers spread across 15 bases in South Korea, as well as the war time operational control authority over the South Korean military. The US presence has driven North Korea to paranoia, as it vividly remembers the fact that the US military dropped more bombs across North Korea than it did during World War II, killing more than the Germans and the Japanese who died during the Great War. To ensure its survival after the fall of Soviet Union, North Korea began developing nuclear weapons to fend off any temptation of an attack. And until very recently, there was no indication that the Korean War would end any time soon. 

(More after the jump.)

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Monday, January 28, 2019

K-pop in the Age of Cultural Appropriation

“We created them, we taught them how to speak and think, and when they rebel they simply confirm our views of them as silly children, duped by some of their Western masters.”
- Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (1993)

This being the internet, I will state my conclusion first, in the vain hope that it would be impossible for the reader to miss the point of this post:  the idea of cultural appropriation is inapplicable to K-pop, because applying the concept of cultural appropriation ignores the historical context in which K-pop arose and developed.

It would make sense to discuss why stating this conclusion became necessary. Recently on the New York Magazine / Vulture, I, with a co-author, published an article titled: A Brief History of Korean Hip Hop. To my knowledge, it is the first article on a major English language publication that attempted to outline the history of Korean hip hop, a significant force in the global pop culture today. While the article was on the whole well received, two significant objections were raised: (1) the article did not refer at all to the idea that Korean hip hop engaged in a cultural appropriation of African American hip hop artists, and; (2) by arguing that “BTS no longer refer back to American hip hop and worry about how their music measured up to the original[,]” as they “had plenty of precedents within Korean hip hop itself[,]” the article did not give proper credit to the real influence of American hip hop that is affecting the Korean hip hop artists today.

Speaking only for myself and not my co-author, I did not include either point in the article because they are baseless and wrong. As to the first objection, the idea of cultural appropriation is inapposite to K-pop; below, I will explain further why this is the case. The second objection is a simple misread, as the point of the article was not that BTS (or any other Korean hip hop artist) ceased to look to US hip hop altogether, but that they stopped using US hip hop as the golden standard to which they must measure up. Yet both objections are related, in that they stem from the same source: ignorance about the historical context in which K-pop emerged, and the imperial arrogance that thinks Korean hip hop has no existence outside of the US influence.


Registration card for Korean musicians to play for a USFK club.
(Source: 신현준, 한국 팝의 고고학 1960 at p. 27)

Once again, conclusion first: K-pop is a product to imperialism by the West, and in particular the United States. Understanding this feature of K-pop must be the foundation of all intellectual endeavors assessing various aspects of Korea’s popular music.

On some level, this conclusion should be obvious. Clearly, K-pop is not indigenous to Korea. Western music did not arrive at Korea until late 19th century, through the typically hegemonic route: Christian hymns. Since then, the Western, and in particular American, influence over Korea would only grow stronger. At the end of World War II, two low-ranked US military officers* would divide the Korea with an arbitrary halfway line along the 38th Parallel, and the US came to occupy the southern half of the peninsula.

(*The two officers, one of whom was the young Dean Rusk who would go onto become the Secretary of State for John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, knew so little about the country that they used a National Geographic map that they had laying around. Rusk later admitted the 38th Parallel “made no sense economically or geographically.”) 

The division led to the Korean War, millions of Koreans dead, and even more American soldiers being stationed in South Korea. At one point, there were more than 200,000 American GIs in South Korea—roughly the population of Pittsburgh today.

(More after the jump.)

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Monday, December 31, 2018

Goodbye 2018, and Happy New Year 2019!

It was a big year for me, although you wouldn't know it from the blog. But in real life, my career made big strides and I produced more writing than ever. Oh, and there is now TKDaughter2 in addition to TKDaughter1. That seems important.

Here's a look back at the most popular AAK! posts of 2018.

Most Popular Posts of 2018 (All-Time Posts)

1.  Counting in Sino-Korean [Link]
2.  Becoming a Doctor in Korea [Link]
3.  World's First Alt-Right, from Korean Politics [Link]
4.  Meaning of Korean Last Names [Link]
5.  Gift Ideas for Koreans [Link]

Most Popular Posts of 2018 (Written in 2018)

1.  Busan, as Depicted in Black Panther [Link]
2.  Shin Jung-hyeon, the Most Influential K-pop Artist [Link]
3.  Another One for Tiger Parenting [Link]
4.  Nine Years of Darkness under Conservative Rule Part IV, the Darkest Moment [Link]
5.  Reasons to be Hopeful about North Korea [Link]

Experiencing the big changes in my life in the past year made me realize how much I love writing--and it is all made possible because readers like you keep reading my stuff. My heartful gratitude for reading this humble blog. Truly, it is you who make everything possible.

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Thursday, November 22, 2018

The 2019 NK News Stuff is Here (With a Discount Code!)

As long time readers may know, this humble blog has shared long time friendship with NK News, the finest source in English to get the news about North Korea. One of the proudest moments of running this blog was inspiring NK News to begin Ask a North Korean!, an honest and revealing look into the country that is so opaque from the outside. And now it's a book, written by former Economist correspondent Daniel Tudor! (Amazon link for the book here.)

Here is one way you can support NK News: buy their merchandise at As NK News usually does every year, there is a gorgeous 2019 calendar of North Korea pictures. New this year is a set of travel posters involving North Korean destinations: Pyongyang, Kaesong, Wonsan, etc. Although it's difficult to travel to North Korea today, with the improving relations among US, South Korea and North Korea, one can look at these posters and dream.

For readers of Ask a Korean!, NK Shop gives a special 20 percent discount on all merchandise by using this code: tknknews20.

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Saturday, August 11, 2018

The Misplaced Props in Pachinko

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is a good novel, fully deserving the rave reviews it has received thus far. But Pachinko is not merely good; it is important. Deep, literary exposition about Korea in English has only just begun in the last few years, but with books like Han Kang's The Vegetarian and Kim Young-ha's Your Republic is Calling You, there are now a solid stable of Korean novels in English that give a look into contemporary Korea. Yet Pachinko's subject—Zainichi Koreans—is a one that even novels originally written in Korean rarely broach, which makes Min Jin Lee's work not only good, but important. The hardship that these diaspora Koreans experienced because of Imperial Japan’s occupation of Korea, World War II, Korea’s division and the Japanese society’s discrimination is an important story that deserves to be told.

All this is to say: what follows in this post is not at all about the novel’s merits, but about my own peculiarities, and if any part of it seems like a criticism, it only comes from a place of love.

One peculiarity of mine is I greatly care about the mundane aspect of human lives. Indeed, I think the connotations that the word “mundane” carries—small, insignificant, unimportant—are exactly backwards. Most of our lives are spent in the mundane: eating, sleeping, fighting boredom at work, sitting in our room. Even if we experience the most dramatic day of our lives, the mundane returns the very next day as we must continue to wake up, eat, work, and sleep. Many find these things boring, but I do not—because like gravity, the mundane is what makes our lives possible by keeping us on the ground.

I deeply believe that the mundane, in fact, must be the most important aspect of our lives. Our everyday is not merely white noise that fills the gap between the exciting events worth remembering. What we eat, how we sleep, what we put in our homes, how we entertain ourselves—these are the most important things of our lives, for the simple reason that they are most of our lives. The expanded version of this proposition is how I understand history as well: the most important things in history is how people spent their mundane hours, eating, working and living. The events that are usually considered historically important—like a war, for example—are so only insofar as they have the power to radically and massively alter the shape of those mundane hours.

This is one of the reasons I rarely read fiction. Why read made-up stories, when there is so much fascinating mundane to learn about? The few fictions that I do find interesting are the huge tomes that relentlessly focus on the mundane. For me, the best part of Les Miserable was Victor Hugo’s 15,000 word description of the Paris sewers, so vivid that as you are reaching the story of Valjean carrying Marius through the sewer, you would marvel at the majesty of its architecture even while wincing from its smell. Pak Kyongni’s Land, a massive 16-volume epic about Korea in the late 19th and early 20th century, was an unstoppable read for me because of Pak’s placement of all the mundane things in the small town of Hadong—not only minor characters, but also every animal and plant that makes an appearance—serves to push the story forward with a greater weight than a simple succession of dramatic events could possibly do.
(More after the jump.)

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Saturday, July 07, 2018

Save the Tigers


Here’s the story of my immigrant family. We came from Korea to the United States in late 1997. I was 16 years old, my brother 14. Immigrant life was hard. Our immigration lawyer was a crook, stealing most of our family’s money while leaving us with an uncertain immigration status. We lived in a succession of shitty little houses, dealing with nasty landlords who never repaired broken fixtures in time. 

My brother and I waited for the once-a-week special from the neighborhood McDonalds’, when it would sell ten hamburgers for 99 cents. (It was one dollar and seven cents after taxes.) Ever bought a hamburger from McDonalds’, because a cheeseburger cost too much? (Ten cheeseburgers were $1.29.) We would bring home those shit sandwiches, and our mother would improve them by taking them apart and sliding in the cheap vegetables from the Korean market. Our parents had to adjust from a comfortable upper middle class life in Seoul to that. My father was in a constant state of simmering rage, ashamed that he could not provide for us in California like the way he did in Seoul and fearing we might lose our immigration status because he was duped. My mother, a smart and proud woman, cried all the time. 

Things worked out in the end. My parents threw away their lives that they have built for decades and came to the U.S. for the sole purpose of giving my brother and me a better path of education. Knowing this, we ensured that our parents would accomplish that mission. Both my brother and I entered school knowing minimal English, but we picked it up quickly. We both benefited from the University of California systems, which gave us excellent education and a good diploma. I am a lawyer at a big law firm, my brother an engineer at a big tech company whose name you’ve certainly heard of. People around us say we’re successful.

*                                    *                                    * 

Right now, there is a confluence of two major education policies that involve claims of discrimination against Asian Americans. With New York high schools, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan would eliminate the entrance examination for the city’s magnet schools and instead have the schools take the top students from each of the city’s middle schools—a move to bring in more black and Latino students in place of Asian students. At Harvard, a lawsuit filed by an Asian American group claims Harvard’s admission has marked Asian applicants as scoring low on the “personality” category, taking fewer Asian American students as a result. 

I’ll be honest: I don’t find these debates all that important. Obviously, I think education is important. It’s just that I am not at all convinced marginal improvement on one’s high school or college changes one’s life in a meaningful way. If you insist that I state my position, I’d give a lukewarm, split-the-difference answer: keep the entrance exam with New York high schools, but it’s also fine for Harvard to maintain an informal racial ceiling against Asian Americans for the sake of diversity. This is mostly based on practical considerations. College is the time for the young adult to leave the home, and a student who narrowly misses out on Harvard surely has a dozen other comparable options around the country. On the other hand, if a New York high school student misses the cut for one of the magnet schools, the drop-off might be significant, and it would require the entire family to move to a different city to mitigate the drop-off. My attitude probably stems from the fact that I neither attended my town’s magnet high school nor an Ivy League college, but feel that my life worked out mostly fine. But given this obviously anecdotal basis, I have no strong commitment to my position. 

What I do find interesting, however, is the debate underlying the admissions debate. The way in which each Asian American draws her battle line usually relates to how she processes the current reality of Asian Americana: a group with all-abiding dedication to education, such that it produces a wildly disproportionate number of high-status professionals such as doctors, lawyers and engineers—what people might call “successful” professions. This leads to the Model Minority stereotype, with the implications that Asian Americans do not face discrimination and that other racial minorities too can overcome and be doctors and lawyers and engineers. 

The Model Minority stereotype is bullshit, and deserves to be slammed. But I have seen a curious streak among many Asian Americans: in the process rebelling against the Model Minority, they also rebel against the importance of academics and the idea of “success” in assessing career paths. Asian parents care too much about schools, they say. The hard work of rote-learning and test-prepping produce uncreative automatons. The focus on being a doctorlawyer is a sign of vulgar materialism that chases after prestige. When Yale Law School professor Amy Chua spoke of "tiger parenting," she faced a firestorm of criticism, much of it from Asian Americans who saw tiger parenting as a backward attitude of their parents' generation that finally gained a name by which it can be reviled.

Typical is the attitude shown by attorney Ryan Park in his recent op-ed for the New York Times. Park tut-tuts at Chua’s tiger parenting as “fanatical parenting choices,” saying the second generation Asian Americans are “largely abandoning traditional Asian parenting styles in favor of a modern, Western approach focused on developing open and warm relationships with our children.” The second generation parents, according to Park, “are striving to cultivate individuality and autonomy in our children in a way that we feel was missing from our own childhoods.” Park then concludes: “I aim to raise children who are happy, confident and kind—and not necessarily as driven, dutiful and successful as the model Asian child. If that means the next generation will have fewer virtuoso violinists and neurosurgeons, well, I still embrace the decline.” 

My eyes gently roll. 

(More after the jump.)

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Saturday, June 02, 2018

This Time Will be Different

So—a lot happened since I posted last in late April! The U.S.-North Korea summit was on, then off, then on again. 

Now that the summit is back on, so is the familiar chorus singing: “we’ve seen this all before.” The chorus points out North Korea promised to denuclearize, then lied, cheated and reneged on the promises, repeatedly for the past 25 years. North Korea previously put on the show of taking down a cooling tower of the Yongbyon nuclear facility in 2008, and the demolition of the Punggye-ri nuclear testing site last month is also likely to be a sham, to the extent that North Korea claimed the demolition shut down the testing site irreversibly. 

North Korea previously put on a grand show demolishing
the cooling tower of the Yongbyon nuclear facility in 2008 (source)

The historical facts are, of course, undeniable. They all really happened. But it is a bit too much for the critics to argue that nothing will ever change when it comes to North Korea, as if North Korean behavior is the laws of physics. That simply cannot be true; the future never looks exactly like the past. It is entirely unreasonable to claim that time will pass but nothing will ever change, as if our world in 2018 is exactly the same as the world in 1994 or 2002 or 2007. History serves as a guide only to the extent that we can discern how the present is different from the past. Saying this time will be different is not naivete; rather, it is a rational conclusion based on noting the many differences between the past and the present. 

When it comes to North Korea, there are essentially four players divided into two camps: North Korea and China in one, South Korea and United States in the other. Each one of the players is in a different situation compared to the past, and so is each camp collectively. 

What’s different about North Korea? Here’s an obvious one: they are all but finished with building nuclear weapons and long-range missiles that could reach the United States. It has been amply established that North Korea sought the nuclear weapons and missiles as a form of deterrence against the attempts to overthrow the Kim regime, now in its third generation with Kim Jong Un. There simply is no “first use” option for North Korea that does not immediately turn it into a radioactive wasteland in a massive counterattack by the United States and South Korea. Prior to 2018, North Korea had enough reasons to cheat from its agreement: the payout for cheating was a better, more complete deterrence in the form of nuclear-tipped ICBMs. But now, the nuclear-tipped ICBMs are complete, bringing North Korea to peak negotiating position—which is a major reason why Kim Jong Un came out to talk in January 2018. It would be an overstatement to say North Korea has no incentive to cheat. But compared to 1994 or 2002 or 2007, it has much less incentive to do so. 

(More after the jump.)

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Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Inter-Korean Summit

International relations is supposed to be a high-minded discipline. It is politics at the highest level, as the world knows no higher power than a national sovereign. The politicians in the international relations are often elevated beyond the banalities of governance, having transcended the pedestrian worries about keeping the road free of potholes. They are considered “statesmen,” the titans of humanity that set the rules for the world we live in. All kinds of abstract theories proliferate about how states, through their statesmen, think and behave.

Then we come to a moment like this, that suddenly breaks us out of the spell of those theories, and makes us realize this is all human endeavor, whose foundation ultimately is one man speaking to another.

Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un's tea time, broadcast live to the world. (source)

Plenty of history was made in the inter-Korean summit on April 27. It was the first time that a North Korean leader stepped foot on the South Korean territory. It was the first inter-Korean summit that was televised live. It was the first inter-Korean summit in which North Korea put denuclearization as a topic for negotiations. It was the first inter-Korean summit in which wives of Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un—Kim Jeong-suk and Ri Sol Ju, respectively—met each other to dine together.

So it may be a bit of a letdown that the substance of the Panmunjeom Declaration—the first joint statement between the leaders of the two Koreas—seems a bit thin. It’s not nothing, to be sure: the two Koreas agreed to cease all hostile acts, engage in a mutual reduction of forces along the demilitarized zone, and set up a “peace zone” in the Yellow Sea so that civilian fishing there could resume. The two Koreas would establish a liaison office in Kaesong, North Korea, and link together rails and roads. Separated family meeting is set for August, followed by Moon Jae-in’s visit to Pyongyang. Most importantly, the two Koreas will work toward denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and a peace treaty that formally ends the Korean War that technically is ongoing.

(More after the jump.)

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Sunday, April 22, 2018

Korea's Nine Years of Darkness: Part V - The Turning Point

I.  Early Resistance 

From the start, Park Geun-hye was not merely unpopular with South Korea’s liberals. Rather, her election was offensive. Regardless of Park’s fairly legitimate achievements as the conservative party leader, it was clear that most of her appeal derived from her dictator father Park Chung-hee. To Korea's liberals who cut their teeth in politics by fighting against the dictators, the fact that the voters would voluntarily elect as the politician who openly peddled dictatorship nostalgia was repulsive. With the spy agency scandal hobbling the early part of her presidency, Korea’s liberals resisted Park Geun-hye from the very beginning. 

With no warrant, the riot police destroys the glass door of the Kyunghyang Shinmun office,
in an attempt to arrest the striking KORAIL labor union leaders. (source

The first flare-up was in December 2013, when the labor union for KORAIL—the company that runs Korea’s railway system—began a general strike opposing the government’s proposal that would have led to privatizing the rail business. The Park Geun-hye government declared the strike illegal, and obtained the arrest warrant for the labor leaders. More than 4,000 riot police were marshaled to break the strike. With only the arrest warrants (and not a search warrant,) the riot police destroyed the doors of the building that housed the headquarters of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, Korea’s leading labor union. 

The building also housed Kyunghyang Shinmun, a leading liberal newspaper, but that did not matter to the police. In a scene reminiscent of the darkest days of South Korea’s dictatorship, the riot police trashed the offices of a liberal newspaper en route to arresting the labor union leaders (who managed to escape.) In a clear violation of Korea’s labor laws, KORIAL placed all employees who participated in the strike—more than 6,000 workers—on an indefinite administrative leave, effectively firing them. The raid of the proudly militant KCTU sparked a series of strikes and protests, with each demonstration drawing up to 100,000, that lasted until February 2014. 

(More after the jump.)

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Monday, April 09, 2018

Korea's Nine Years of Darkness: Part IV - Death, Death Everywhere

[Series Index]

A.            Sleepwalking

The downfall of Park Geun-hye, following a bizarre corruption scandal involving a shaman’s daughter, is perhaps one of the best known stories about South Korean politics. So it may be difficult to believe that, at the time of her election in 2012, it was not unreasonable to admire Park Geun-hye for her political leadership. Of course, everyone knew that the seed money of Park Geun-hye’s political capital was from her dictator father Park Chung-hee. But as a politician, Park Geun-hye could claim genuine achievements.

Park Geun-hye carrying out her party's nameplate to the tent-office, c. 2004.

She led her conservative party through the Roh Moo-hyun administration, during which the party faced multiple dire straits. (Dire straits of their own making, but still.) In 2003, the revelation that the Grand National Party received literally trucks filled with cash (trucks included!) for the 2002 election crushed the party’s credibility. Then in 2004, the GNP impeached Roh Moo-hyun based on a technical violation of the elections law, because Roh had a stray remark supporting the liberal candidates when the elected officials had the duty to remain neutral. The backlash from the transparently partisan impeachment attempt nearly destroyed the conservatives. Park Geun-hye, leader of the GNP at the time, put on one of the greatest political theaters in Korea’s democratic history: she vacated the party’s office, took off the party’s nameplate from the building, and moved the party headquarters to a tent city as a show of penance. Park rescued the conservatives once again in 2012 by holding off the liberal wave fueled by Lee Myung-bak’s deep unpopularity, earning the nickname the “Queen of Elections.”

(More after the jump.)

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Sunday, April 01, 2018

Korea's Nine Years of Darkness: Part III - the Election of Park Geun-hye

[Series Index]

A.            Into the Night

Having disposed of Roh Moo-hyun, Lee Myung-bak began implementing in late 2009 the crown jewel of his presidential campaign promises: the Four Rivers Project. Lee Myung-bak, after all, used to be the head of a construction company. Initially, he wanted a “Grand Canal” that would have traversed the whole Korea via waterway—a ridiculous project which would have included (among other insane things) drilling a giant water tunnel through the mountain range in the middle of South Korea to connect two separate rivers. The Grand Canal project became one of the targets of the 2008 candlelight protests, and the Lee administration backed off it, proffering instead the scaled-down version in the Four Rivers Project.

Green algae bloom in Nakdong river. After the Four Rivers Project,
the river would spend up to half a year as a thick green slush. (source)

Even as a scaled-down one, the Four Rivers Project was the largest infrastructure project in Korean history—which is saying something in a country whose entire infrastructure had to be rebuilt from scratch after the Korean War. Costing an eye-popping US $20 billion, the project called for dozens of new dams, dredging riverbeds and beautifying the surrounding areas. The entire project was extremely unnecessary; in fact, in certain areas, the newly constructed dams affirmatively damaged the environment, turning huge stretches of river into a slow-moving green slush that reeked with rotting, dead fish that could no longer breathe in the water.

Other forms of corporate welfare prospered as well. Under Lee Myung-bak, Korea’s largest corporations were encouraged to “liberalize the labor market” through mass layoffs and outsourcing. Labor unions, the reliable redoubt of liberal politics in Korea, fought tooth and nail. The most notable fight was at Ssangyong Motors in the summer of 2009. The Ssangyong Motors, an underperforming auto maker in Korea, conducted a mass layoff of more than 2,600 workers, or nearly 40 percent of its workforce. To stave off the mass layoff, the labor union initially offered a compromise, then began a strike inside the factory. The management cut off food, water and medical supply to the factory and sprayed tear gas from helicopters. Then the police, mixed in with hired goons, broke the strike with rubber bullets and tasers. The fight was so violent that, according to a volunteer psychiatrist for the union, 93 percent of the union members suffered from PTSD.

Riot police breaks up the strike at Ssangyong Motors. (source)

Having physically broken the strike, Ssangyong management offered a final “compromise”— 48 percent of the workers who were set to lose their jobs would be on "unpaid leave" rather than complete dismissal, and no charges against the workers would be filed. The management broke these promises the moment the strike was over, as the police arrested 96 laborers. Nobody who was put on "unpaid leave" would regain his job. Those who managed to keep the job worked murderous hours, as they had to handle the work that was left behind by nearly half of the factory's manpower. A wave of suicides followed the end of the strike, as dozens of labor leaders and their families, suffering from bodily injuries and PTSD, took their lives one by one.

[Here is a post I wrote in 2013 about the suicides at Ssangyong Motors. Check out my concluding paragraph: “as a Korean American, I would like to urge Americans to take a close look at what happened in Korea for the last 15 years, because that is what will happen in America for the next 10 years. The social devastation of the 1997 financial crisis reaches far beyond the elevated suicide rate. In Korea, it has caused the middle class squeeze, ever-higher pressure for education (as it is seen as the only way to improve the worth of human capital,) higher rate of violent crime and more dysfunctional political culture.” How’s that for a prediction?]

(More after the jump.)

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Thursday, March 29, 2018

Korea's Nine Years of Darkness: Part II - the Lee Myung-bak Years

[Series Index]

A.            Sundown

In 2007, Republic of Korea was concluding a decade of liberal administrations: first one led by Kim Dae-jung, the second one by Roh Moo-hyun. And by early 2007, Roh Moo-hyun’s low approval ratings made it fairly clear that he would not have a liberal successor.

Lee Myung-bak and Roh Moo-hyun

Roh Moo-hyun’s 2002 election itself was a small miracle. Prominent liberal politician Yu Si-min once said being a liberal in Korea was like playing soccer in a field tilted against you. Liberals were fewer in number and split into a number of factions that were barely holding together. Roh managed to overcome the structural deficit through a combination of personal charisma and the perfect storm of events, which included: conservatives trotting out the old and wooden Lee Hoi-chang as the candidate one more time; liberals instituting the primary elections system for the first time, allowing the underdog Roh to dramatically overtake the more established Lee In-je; the sudden uptick of anti-American sentiment due to the Yangju Highway Incident, and so on.

But five years later, Roh’s unlikely triumph was a distant memory. Roh’s flair for the dramatic, which served him so well during the campaign, came to be perceived as childish, petulant and unpresidential—which tired out the general electorate. Much of Roh’s liberal base also abandoned him. He was elected as a brash progressive, but governed as a center-left, pro-U.S. president. Although George W. Bush’s Iraq war repulsed the Korean public (as it did most people around the world,) Roh dutifully sent Korean troops to Iraq. Roh also negotiated for a number of free trade agreements, including one with the United States, which did not please the anti-American faction among Korea’s liberals. From them, Roh would earn the charges of “neoliberalism” and “making a right turn after putting on the left turn signal.”

Lee Myung-bak, the presidential candidate of the conservative Grand National Party, appeared to be the antithesis of Roh: a pragmatic, worldly figure with a steady hand. The most favorable version of Lee’s life story was a rags-to-riches one, paralleling Korea’s rise from the ashes. In 1965, the 24-year-old Lee Myung-bak entered Hyundai Construction as an entry level clerk. At age 48, Lee was the president of Hyundai Construction. Lee entered politics in 1992 as National Assemblyman, and became the mayor of Seoul in 2002. Even his most ardent detractors generally agree that Lee Myung-bak was a fine mayor, as he spearheaded the urban renewal project that revived the decrepit city center into the lively Cheonggyecheon stream. His nickname was “the bulldozer,” someone who gets stuff done.

(More after the jump.)

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Saturday, March 24, 2018

Korea's Nine Years of Darkness: Part I - Introduction

[Series Index]

Candlelight protests from November 2016
Until about a year ago, the Republic of Korea went through nine years of darkness. In late 2007, and then again in late 2012, Korea elected as presidents the worst versions of themselves: first one was a venal and corrupt businessman, the second one daughter of a murderous dictator. It was nine years of steady erosion of civil liberties and staggering corruption, nine years that genuinely put the future of Korean democracy in doubt—until March 10, 2017, when the Constitutional Court removed Park Geun-hye from presidency following an impeachment vote. For the next several posts, I will tell the story of how these nine years went. 

I tell this story with my home, the United States, in mind. I offer this story as a counsel, a story that is at once inspirational and cautionary. I want to make sure my fellow Americans understand that, although this moment may be a unique one in their lives, it is not unique in the history of democracy. Others have experienced similar moments, in similar circumstances, earlier than Americans have. 

This counsel, I think, is particularly necessary because most Americans have no real experience of living in an unfree society. They have no idea how it feels to live each day in an authoritarian dictatorship. All they have is a paranoid fantasy they saw in the movies, like the cartoonish description of Hitler’s Third Reich. Typical Americans’ imagination of unfreedom does not go much further beyond the SS knocking down your door to snatch your loved ones to a concentration camp. 

But for most people, the day-to-day living in an unfree society does not feel all that different from living in a free society. You wake up in the morning, tend to your spouse and children, have your meals and go to work or school. Even during Hitler’s Third Reich, most Germans did not have their doors knocked by SS. More typical was a life like one lived by Brunhilde Pomsel, secretary of Joseph Goebbels: simply living her life and doing her job, even though the job was typing up Nazi propaganda. 

Instead, what you do have in an unfree society is a vague sense of unspoken boundary around you. Don’t criticize the president. Don’t join labor unions. Don’t say anything good about that foreign country we are supposed to hate. It is only after you cross that boundary do you realize how unfree your society is. For saying the wrong thing, you would lose your job. Your family would be targeted for harassment. The government may detain you indefinitely, and no one will care. A bigot may kill you, and your death will remain uninvestigated and unpunished. 

The mark of an unfree society is the manner in which that boundary gets smaller and smaller. Every day, the list of the people you shouldn’t talk to, the meetings you shouldn’t attend, the topics you shouldn’t broach in public grows a little longer. This is what the Korean people have endured from February 2008 to March 2017, and this is what is happening in America today. 

Fortunately, this is a story with a happy ending. On March 10, 2017, the Constitutional Court removed Park Geun-hye from presidency following an impeachment vote, ending 3,302 days of conservative rule. A massive series of peaceful protests, which drew an average of a million participants 13 weeks in a row, made this result possible. But it is not a story with a steady progress, with each day in the 3,302 days of Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administration being better than the day before. It is a story with many false dawns, dashed hopes, and petty internecine squabbles. It is a story with hundreds of government-caused deaths, the ugliest displays of human cruelty, and long stretches of deep, dark despair. 

By telling the story of Korea, I want my fellow Americans who love freedom and democracy to recognize the historical moment in which they stand, and anticipate what may be coming next. I firmly believe that better days are ahead, but I want my friends to understand the progress will not be a linear one. By looking at the experience of those who traveled down this path before, our journey hopefully will be made faster. 

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