Friday, March 29, 2013

Just How Formidable are North Korea's Hackers?

[Index for translated Joo Seong-ha articles]

When it comes to North Korean news, the Korean has one simple rule: listen carefully to people who have actual access to the facts at the ground level in North Korea. One of the few people who do have such access is Mr. Joo Seong-ha, reporter for Dong-A Ilbo. 

Long time readers of this blog are familiar with Mr. Joo. He was born and raised in North Korea, and graduated from Kim Il-Sung University. In other words, he was on track to be an elite officer of the North Korean regime. Instead, he escaped from North Korea into China, and eventually made his way into South Korea, to work as a reporter. Because of his unique background, he is able to access the facts of North Korea like few others can. For example, in 2009 when American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee were captured in North Korea, Mr. Joo was able to speak directly with the North Korean border patrol who captured them.

From Mr. Joo, here is another good one. Recently, South Korea was rocked by a massive cyber attack, for which North Korea was suspected to be responsible. Mr. Joo spoke with one of the North Korean hackers to get a sense of North Korea's cyber attack capabilities. Below is the translation.

*             *            *

Conversation with North Korean Cyber Warrior

To write, or not to write.

I agonized long and hard about writing this article. It could be a violation of the National Security Act. Some may look at me askance. And do I really need to write something like this in this type of environment? But in the end, I decided to write this.

To confess--I know the two of the so-called "North Korean cyber warriors." Because of personal security issues, even the question of "know" versus "knew" is sensitive. At any rate, the person with whom I have had conversations for the last several months is not a former cyber warrior; he is currently one.

Recently, all kinds of myths about North Korean hackers are permeating South Korea: "The Mirim University in North Korea raises a thousand selected cyber agents every year"; "North Korea has 30,000 cyber soldiers"; "North Korea's hacking ability is commensurate to that of the CIA."

I asked one of the cyber warriors about Mirim University. He said: "That place is for soldiers who did not open a book for nearly a decade. The teachers for that school can't wait to transfer out to a different school." According to him, there are around 50 students who learn "a little bit" of computer skills before they graduate. In short, the idea that Mirim University is a training camp for cyber warriors is a massive exaggeration. Come to think of it, the original name for Mirim University is the University of Military Command Automation.

Then I asked which places teach computer skills. The answer was Geumseong Middle Schools 1 and 2, which are magnet schools. The schools apparently teach approximately 500 hours of Internet-related lessons for six years. But no one in the faculty of Geumseong has sophisticated hacking ability.

I asked if Geumseong Middle Schools 1 and 2 were the best; the answer was no. Those who excel from those schools advance to Kim Il-Sung University, or Kim Chaek University of Technology. But he said that the top destination for the North Koreans who learned computer skills is India. Since mid-2000s, North Korea sends around 10 computer engineers to study abroad in India; these are the best of the best. The very first team that was sent to India stayed there, for software development. Later, some of them were transferred to China.

I asked if there were several thousand North Korean cyber warriors in China. He said that there are around 10 teams that each has less five members; they somewhat know each other. But he added that they receive almost no assistance from the North Korean regime, because the "old men" (the decision makers) did not grasp the concept. I heard this a few years ago. Even though the young Kim Jong-Un's leadership began to grasp the concept, it is an unwarranted exaggeration to say that there are several thousands of North Korean hackers in China.

I did not ask about their missions, because that is the confidential information on which their lives depend. Other than that, there was nothing I could not ask, and no answer I did not receive. The cyber warriors who live outside of North Korea have not a shred of loyalty for the Labor Party. I regret that I cannot disclose the full transcript.

I used to live in Pyongyang. I know Mirim University and Geumseong Middle School. Therefore, I trust the people I spoke with about a hundred times more than the people who chatter without never having been to Pyongyang. Of course, this is not to say that we should ignore North Korea's capabilities for cyber terrorism. It only takes a few dozen truly great hackers to deal a significant amount of damage. But that is about as much as North Korea can do.

To conclude:  I know there is someone from Pyongyang who visited my personal blog on North Korea every day, because he leaves the traces of browsing around the different pages. I am sure he will see this article as well. I would love to speak with him too.

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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Korean Americans and Korean Pop Culture

Dear Korean,

There are people who are Korean but were born in America and don't really have any fellow Koreans around them. Later, they would be introduced to "Korean world" in high school and college, beginning watching Korean dramas, trying to become fluent in Korean, trying out Korean fashion, logging on to forums to get the latest news on Korean celebrities, etc.

Why is it that even completely American Korean-Americans get one whiff of Korean culture and then are obsessed with it like there is no tomorrow?

A Confused Friend

Why is Korean pop culture so attractive to Korean Americans? Why is it that, despite having spent most or all of their lives growing up in America, they gravitate so strongly to pop culture generated out of Korea, which can often be significantly different from the American pop culture in which Korean Americans grew up?

Why do Korean Americans stream to the Madison Square Garden to see SHINee?
Short answer: there is nothing quite like seeing yourself in an idealized form.

Believe it or not, a very similar question was raised a few years ago, albeit in a different area and with someone who may appear very different from K-pop idols:  in the NBA, with Omri Casspi. The Sacramento Kings drafted Casspi, a small forward, with their 23rd overall pick in the 2009 NBA draft, making Casspi the first Israeli first-rounder in NBA history. Casspi had a decent rookie season with the Kings, averaging 10.3 points per game.

Now, here is the parallel:  when Casspi began playing, the Jewish Americans absolutely loved Casspi. ESPN sportswriter Kevin Arnovitz captured it perfectly:
Ever since Omri Casspi hit the scene, I've had two general conversations with people I know: The first is with Jewish family and friends, few of whom follow pro basketball very closely. They've heard about this Israeli kid playing for some team in California. This is the greatest thing ever! Have you met him?! When is he coming to my city? What's the best way to invite him to Shabbos Dinner? Is he observant?
The second conversation occurs with non-Jewish friends, each of whom appreciates that Casspi carries great symbolic importance for Jewish folks. But, in the politest way possible, they want to better understand why the fervor over Casspi in the Jewish community is such a phenomenon. After all, there have been Jewish ball players before and, fifty years ago, they had a major presence in the league. Today, current Laker Jordan Farmar is a rotation player for the reigning NBA champs. There are a number of Jewish NBA owners and the league's front offices are filled with Jews. So--and we mean this in the least offensive way possible--why are NBA arenas packed by ecstatic Jewish fans every time the Kings show up?
Omri Casspi and Jewish masculine identity [ESPN/Truehoop]

Arnovitz's answer to the second question is extremely insightful: Casspi was popular among Jewish Americans because Casspi touched upon an important aspect of American Jewish psyche. To paraphrase Arnovitz's point, Jewish Americans adored Casspi because he came from Israel, a special place for the Jewish diaspora worldwide. This "specialness" is not necessarily a result of Judaism as a religion. Rather, Israel is special because it is the place in which idealized Jewish manhood can be realized.

In America, Europe and elsewhere, Jews faced antisemitism, one of whose many forms is a stereotype about being physically weak (while being smart and conniving.) As an ethnic minority, Jews could never completely defeat such stereotype. But not so in Israel, the Jewish State. Indeed, Maccabi Tel Aviv (Casspi's former pro team) was a product of the "Muscular Judaism" ideology, which sought to prove that Jews had the physical strength to overcome the oppressions of the 1930s. From here, the Korean will have Mr. Arnovitz explain:
One of the funnier snippets of Philip Roth's "Portnoy's Complaint" is American Jew Alexander Portnoy's arriving in Israel toward the end of the novel, in absolute awe of the virile Israelis: "And that's the phrase that does me in as we touch down upon Eretz Yisroel [the land of Israel]: to watch the men. I love those men! I want to grow up to be one of those men!"

There's a little bit of Alexander Portnoy in the American Jewish men who can't wait to watch this Israeli man fly around the court, shoot 3s, harass ball-handlers and run the break. Yes, some of that fascination is a simple expression of nationalism, but Casspi personifies something deeper for American Jews. The fact that he's not a slight, cerebral point guard but a rangy, explosive -- sometimes even careless -- young swingman makes him all the more appealing.
The central insight from this need not be confined to Jewish Americans, nor does it have to be confined to basketball and masculinity. It is about being able to see, in real life, our idealized selves--the ability to picture ourselves to be more beautiful, more powerful, more talented, more everything.

Korean Americans may not face the exact same type of discrimination that Jewish Americans face. (And certainly not the type that Jewish folks generally faced in the early 20th century!) But Korean Americans, living in America, nonetheless face marginalization. It would be easier to use negative stereotypes against Asians in the American media as the prime example of what causes such marginalization. However, the Korean thinks that the bigger driver of marginalizing Korean Americans (or Asian Americans for that matter) in the American media is the near total absence of Asian faces. For an unformed identity that desires to take form, even a negative portrayal is a step up from no portrayal at all. Thankfully, many pioneering Asian Americans (Margaret Cho, Daniel Dae Kim, Grace Park, John Cho, etc.) have somewhat eased that deficiency. But still, it only takes a little bit of watching American television and movies to make one realize that Asian faces are not really relevant in American pop culture.

Korean pop culture--which is now easily available in the United States thanks to the Internet and other technology--rushes in to fill that void of relevance felt by Korean Americans. Just like a Jewish American can visualize the idealized Jewish man through Omri Casspi, a Korean American can visualize the idealized Korean men and women through Korean pop idols, actors and actresses, performing in an ecosystem in which they are the main characters, not a token sidekick. Seeing those beautiful people performing great feats of talent represents a total validation of Korean American's ethnic identity. As the questioner described, only "one whiff" is quite enough, because the desire to see the greater form of self is just that strong.

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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Korean Fact of the Day: Declining Number of PC Bang

In 2009, there were 21,547 PC Bangs [Internet cafes] in Korea, which were the major contributor for Korea to become the world leader in professional online gaming. But in 2010, the number declined to 19,014, and in 2011 the number further declined to 15,817--according to this Dong-A Ilbo article.

Oversupply, faster wi-fi and competing entertainment venues such as coffee shops (whose number and quality vastly improved in the last five years) are blamed for PC Bangs' decline. The article notes that online game companies such as Riot Games, Blizzard and Nexon are working together with PC Bangs to help their survival, so that they may continue to serve as an outlet for their games.

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

Brief Note on the Gay Marriage Issue

As an attorney, it did not escape the Korean's notice that today, the Supreme Court heard the oral argument for Hollingsworth v. Perry--a case that may well become the most important Supreme Court case in 60 years.

Personally, I am split right in the middle. I am so conflicted on this issue that I am abstaining; I am resigned to letting things happen. I know this is not satisfactory to either side of the debate. But the decision to abstain is not a lazy forfeit. Rather, it is a result of having undergone continuous reading and reflection, and arriving at a question that is too difficult to resolve by any knowledge that I have. I am able to articulate and deliver the best versions of the arguments from either side. But while I can appreciate the strengths from each argument, I am not completely convinced by either.

Therefore, on this issue, I do not plan to advocate for either side. Instead, given the importance of this issue, I would simply urge everyone, to please, read the best versions of both arguments, and think for yourself. Politics in the Internet age has become a series of information balkanization, in which each side refuses to step out of the echo chamber of information that never presents the best version of the opposing argument. Step out of that echo chamber and face your opponent's best shot.

On this point, the Korean must note that people who are likely to read this blog--young and diverse--are not particularly likely to encounter a very high quality argument opposing gay marriage.  If you are inclined toward supporting gay marriage (as I imagine most readers of this blog would be,) you owe to yourself to read What is Marriage? by Sherif Girgis et al. It is a thoughtful, reasoned argument in favor of keeping marriage heterosexual. Like I said, it did not totally convince me, just like the best arguments I have read in favor of homosexual marriage did not totally convince me. But I was enriched by having examined the best case against gay marriage, and I am sure you will be, too.

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Monday, March 25, 2013

Ask a Korean! Wiki: Living Expenses in Seoul

Dear Korean,

I'm seriously thinking of moving to Seoul. Do you have an idea of what the budget listing would be for about a 15 week stay in Seoul, a detailed tally of expenses? Are there any other unexpected expenses expats/non-citizens are known to incur?


Here is the problem: the Korean never visits Korea as a foreign tourist. He always has a free place to stay in various parts of Korea, because he has numerous relatives and friends who would be positively offended if he did not spend a few days at their places. Half the time, his meals are free also. Plus, he would not purchase any large items (such as furniture,) or order any consistent service (like the Internet or cable television.) So while the Korean is aware of how much things cost generally in Seoul, he cannot confidently say exactly how much living in Seoul for, say, more than a month will cost. 

So let's hear from mid- to long-term residents of Korea. Can you describe your budget, with as much detail as possible? One thing to keep in mind is that many expats in Korea are English teachers who usually receive free housing--which is usually the biggest part of the living expense equation. For this exercise, it would be great to hear about the list of items that generate a constant stream of expenses, such as rent, utilities, etc. Future visitors to Korea will thank you.

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

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Ask a Korean! News: China Cracks Down on North Korean Restaurants

This is interesting. Yonhap News is reporting that China is cracking down on North Korean restaurants operating in China. There are several hundred North Korean restaurants in China, which serve as a valuable revenue generator for the North Korean regime. In an unprecedented move, the Chinese government are coming down hard on whether the restaurant workers have the appropriate visas, whether health regulations are being met, whether the restaurant is properly licensed to sell their wares (which include souvenirs from North Korea, etc.) As these regulations were loosely enforced previously, most North Korean restaurants are expected to pay a fine, or in some cases shut down.

The Korean is always hesitant to jump to any conclusion when it comes to North Korea, but this is an encouraging sign. 

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

Monday, March 18, 2013

Thank you for the birthday wishes, everyone. The Korean feels loved.

(If you are wondering, yes, I had seaweed soup. And a cake.)

Sunday, March 17, 2013

50 Most Influential K-pop Artists: 15. Kim Geon-mo

[Series Index]

15. Kim Geon-mo [김건모]

Also romanized as:  Kim Gunmo

Years of Activity: 1998 - present 

Picture Painted After Parting [이별 뒤에 그린 그림] (1992)
Kim Geon-mo 2 [김건모 2] (1993)
The Wrong Encounter [잘못된 만남] (1995)
Exchange Kg. M4 (1996)
Myself (1997)
Growing (1999)
#007 Another Days... (2001)
Hestory (2003)
Kimgunmo 9 (2004)
Be Like... (2005)
Scarecrow [허수아비] (2007)
Soul Groove (2008)
Everything's Gonna Be Alright (2009)
Autobiography & Best [自敍傳 & Best] (2011)

Representative Song:  잘못된 만남 [The Wrong Encounter] from 잘못된 만남 (1995)

잘못된 만남
The Wrong Encounter

난 너를 믿었던 만큼 난 내 친구도 믿었었기에
Because I trusted my friend as much as I trusted you
난 아무런 부담없이 널 내 친구에게 소개시켜줬고
I introduced you to my friend without thinking twice about it
그런 만남이 있은후부터 우리는 자주 함께 만나며
After that encounter we simply got together a lot
즐거운 시간을 보내며 함께 어울렸던 것뿐인데
Having a good time and hanging out together
그런 만남이 어디부터 잘못됐는지 
But at what point did such encounters turn wrong?
난 알 수 없는 예감에 조금씩 빠져들고 있을 때쯤 
As I was slowly stepping into mysterious apprehension
넌 나보다 내 친구에게 관심을 더 보이며 
You were paying more attention to my friend than me and
날 조금씩 멀리하던
Slowly distancing me

그 어느날 너와 내가 심하게 다툰 그 날 이후로
Then on that day when you and I got into a big fight
너와 내 친구는 연락도 없고 날 피하는 것같아
You and my friend stopped calling and began avoiding me
그제서야 난 느낀거야 모든 것이 잘못돼 있는 걸
Then I finally realized that everything went wrong
너와 내 친구는 어느새 다정한 연인이 돼있었지.
You and my friend had already turned into lovers
있을 수 없는 일이라며 난 울었어
I cried, thinking how this could be
내 사랑과 우정을 모두 버려야 했기에
Because I had to lose both my love and friendship
또다른 내 친구는 내 어깰 두드리며 
Another friend of mine tapped on my shoulder
잊어버리라 했지만 잊지 못할것 같아
And told me to forget it all; but I don't think I can

너를 사랑했던 것만큼 내 친구도 믿었었기에
Because I trusted my friend as much as I loved you
난 자연스럽게 너와 함께 어울렸던 것뿐인데
I simply hung out naturally together with you but
어디부터 우리의 믿음이 깨지기 시작했는지
Since when did our trust begin to crack
난 알지 못한채 어색함을 느끼면서
I did not know; I kept feeling awkward
그렇게 함께 만나 온 시간이 길어지면 질수록
And the longer the time we spent hanging out like that
넌 내게서 조금씩 멀어지는 것을 느끼며 난 예감을 했었지
I felt you were slowly drifting away from me, and then I sensed it
 넌 나보다 내 친구에게 관심이 더 있었다는 걸
You were more interested in my friend than me

그 어느날 너와 내가 심하게 다툰 그 날 이후로
Then on that day when you and I got into a big fight
너와 내 친구는 연락도 없고 날 피하는 것같아
You and my friend stopped calling and began avoiding me
그제서야 난 느낀거야 모든 것이 잘못돼 있는 걸
Then I finally realized that everything went wrong
너와 내 친구는 어느새 다정한 연인이 돼있었지.
You and my friend had already turned into lovers
있을 수 없는 일이라며 난 울었어
I cried, thinking how this could be
내 사랑과 우정을 모두 버려야 했기에
Because I had to lose both my love and friendship
또다른 내 친구는 내 어깰 두드리며
Another friend of mine tapped on my shoulder
잊어버리라 했지만 잊지 못할것 같아
And told me to forget it all; but I don't think I can

In 15 words or less:  Korea's king of pop, the "National Singer".

Maybe he should be ranked higher because...   In the entire history of K-pop, his popularity is matched or exceeded by probably no more than three or four other artists.

Maybe he should be ranked lower because...  At the end of the day, what exactly did he achieve musically?

Why is this artist important?
Take any K-pop musician at his/her peak. Then imagine asking Korean people at the time how they feel about that musician. What would be the response? In most cases, a certain group of Korean people would love that artist, and other groups will not. Jo Seong-mo, for example, enjoyed a level of popularity that is matched by few others in Korean pop music history. Yet at the end of the day, his popularity was propelled mainly by women in their teens through 30s. Few in the history of K-pop transcend that level. Korean women who are older than mid-20s could care less about Girls' Generation. Even PSY, he of a billion Youtube hits, has his detractors in Korea.

For those shining few who rise above that bar and become beloved by the entire nation, Korean pop culture bestows a moniker:  국민가수, the "National Singer." Depending on whom you ask, there are only three to five "National Singers" in the history of K-pop. But no matter whom you ask, the name Kim Geon-mo will come up as the representative "National Singer". 

To be sure, one can nitpick on Kim Geon-mo until the cows come home. He never was much of a singer;   this lack of talent was painfully exposed in the first episode of the reality show I am Singer, in which Kim suffered the disgrace of becoming the first singer to be dropped from the show. He did not compose his greatest hits, and he never created music or lyrics of any depth. (The lyrics of The Wrong Encounter, Kim's greatest hit, is positively cringe-worthy in its juvenility.) In fact, the moment he began composing his own songs was the moment when his career began sliding downward. At the end of the day, he was not much more than a dancing entertainer, who scored high on likability.

Make that "scored astronomically on likability," actually. Measured strictly by popularity, Kim Geon-mo's three-year peak from 1993 to 1996 was probably greater than any three-year peak of any K-pop artist in history, save maybe two (whom we will discuss later in this series.) Kim's perceived lack of natural talent ended up becoming a plus for his likability, as the narrative of his career became that of an underdog--who was not particularly handsome nor musically talented--that nonetheless succeeded against all odds. In the mid 1990s, Kim Geon-mo ruled the K-pop world like virtually no one else did, because absolutely everyone loved him. Even Seo Taiji, who is on the short list of K-pop's Greatest of All Time, avoided releasing any album when Kim Geon-mo released an album. 

Although Kim himself did not possess any particular musical talent, his popularity itself would become his musical legacy. Because of Kim Geon-mo, various dance music genres--reggae, electro-pop, sanitized hiphop--would graduate from the state of being imported music to become Korea's own. Kim Geon-mo was the moment in which dance music would become K-pop's mainstream. 

Interesting trivia:  In college, Kim Geon-mo majored in traditional Korean music.

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

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

North Korean Propaganda Video Shows that Western Journalists are Morons

Dear Korean,

I'm guessing I'm the bajillionist person to ask this, but just in case... I saw this news article today, and find it very very hard to believe that the voice-over is accurate in translation. (Although very hilarious- snow coffee and yummy birds for the americans!) Also hard to believe someone would just write a news article without even asking someone who spoke Korean if it was true, but... well, maybe not that hard to believe, unfortunately. Could you please let us know what the woman is actually saying?

Sylvia B.

Many, many readers sent questions today asking essentially the same question, which nearly caused the Korean to create a brand-new the-Korean's-head-sized hole on his wall as a result of repeated banging.

For the readers who are seeing this piece for the first time on this blog, here is the video in question:

And here is the original video, without the voiceover:

The Korean will tell you two things about this set of videos:

1.  The original video, indeed, is a real propaganda video from North Korea.
2.  The voiceover, however, is a joke.

How can the Korean be so sure about these two things? Because it only took very simple steps to verify them. The Korean could figure out that the original video was a real propaganda video, because when he typed into Youtube's search bar the video's title in Korean--갈수록 암담해지는 자본주의 사회 현실, which was right there at the beginning of video--the video popped up, showing that it was originally posted by Uriminzokkiri [우리 민족끼리], the official Youtube channel of the North Korean propaganda machine. If you are curious, here is their official website, Twitter account and Flickr account.

(WARNING.  If you are reading this from South Korea, do not click on any of those links. In all likelihood, you would not even be able to access it due to South Korea's own version of the not-so-Great Firewall. But visiting those sites may be a violation of South Korea's National Security Act. Just this past November, a South Korean man was prosecuted and found guilty of violating the NSA for re-tweeting the tweets from Uriminzokkiri. This is not a joke. Seriously, don't do it.)

Second, how could the Korean figure out that the voiceover was a joke? Because he went through the arduous process of . . . wait for it . . . watching the two videos in succession and noticing that the "translation" did not match up to the original.

Just in case you missed it, here are the two very simple things that the Korean did to fact-check: (1) Enter the (obviously presented) title into the Youtube search bar; (2) actually watch the two videos and compare the soundtrack. The entire process took no more than 15 minutes, and it would have taken less if the videos were shorter.

Now, let's look at the media articles that covered these videos. Surely, these luminous media organizations must have employed the most basic fact check methods that only took 15 minutes for a hobbyist blogger to implement, right? Nope--the coverage of this video reads like the greatest hits of journalistic malpractice.

(More after the jump.)

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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Ask a Korean! News: China's Elites Turning on North Korea

We may be nearing the critical tipping point, on which China finally realizes that shielding North Korea is not in its national interest. We already know that the Chinese public is no fan of North Korea, but now, several prominent Chinese academics have condemned North Korea's nuclear program. 

Among the academics, the latest volley came from historian Tao Duanfang, who claimed: "If North Korea provides the cause for war by breaking the Armistice Treaty, China has no obligation to interfere in that war." Jia Qingguo, assistant dean of the Beijing University Graduate School of International Relations, said: "China's attitude toward North Korea is entirely up to how North Korea acts . . . As to North Korea's nuclear program, China has always followed the principles of denuclearization, peace and stability, and resolution through dialog. If North Korea does not act properly as to the nuclear issue, China has no choice but to follow the decisions of the international community."

Even better, the criticisms of North Korea are trickling from the very bedrock of China-North Korea alliance:  the People's Liberation Army of China. Admiral Yin Zhuo, who is attending the National People's Congress in Beijing, said:  "We [China] do not have a military alliance with North Korea. The North Korea-China relationship is not the same as the U.S.-South Korea-China relationship. China has no military stationed in North Korea, nor does China direct North Korea's army. It is false to claim that China must not sit tight and not interfere with the North Korean issue, just because China and North Korea are geographically close." General Mao Xinyu, grandson of Mao Zedong (!), also said: "the Chinese people wish for denuclearized North Korea."

It is important not to over-emphasize these instances. After all, these are only words at this point. But they may be signs of things to come.

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Monday, March 11, 2013

Is It Safe to be in Korea NOW?

Dear Korean,

I'm supposed to go on a trip to South Korea next June with my boyfriend but due to the recent events, I'm quite concerned about the situation. I know this is a bit self-centered but I could use some advice or suggestions. I read the 2009 post and I wondered if you still believe South Korea is a safe place to stay for a couple of days ?


It is true that North Korea's threats are at a higher level than ever before. They declared that the Armistice Treaty (which stopped Korean War) to be void, cut off the hotline through Panmunjeom, and announced that "the time for the final showdown has come." So it might make sense to go over this question again: is it safe to be in Korea, or visit Korea in the near future?

Short answer: yes. 

The situation did not change since the Korean wrote the post about North Korean threat in 2009: the only scenario in which visiting Korea would be dangerous is in the case of a full-scale war. And if a full-scale war happens, it is an absolute certainty that North Korea will be annihilated and the Kim dynasty will end. Thus, a full-scale war is extremely unlikely to happen, and that low likelihood does not change regardless of what North Korea says. Because South Koreans--the people who would be the most directly impacted by another Korean War--realize this, their response has mostly a yawn. In the past weekend, even as North Korea blustered about a nuclear war, South Koreans enjoyed the warm weather outdoors. A hawkish, conservative Korean newspaper ran an op-ed chiding South Koreans for doing so, and was met with a round of boos in Korea's Internet.

In fact, South Korean government is so not worried about the North Korean threat that it currently has no plans to withdraw more than 700 South Koreans working in the Gaeseong Industrial Complex in North Korea. Think about that for a little:  the threat of a war is so insignificant that South Korea is leaving hundreds of South Korean civilians in the middle of North Korea. So why should you, a foreign visitor, worry about visiting Seoul for a few days? The worst that North Korea could realistically do is to cause a naval skirmish, or attack the small and sparsely-populated outlying islands in the Yellow Sea. In either scenario, an international tourist is far removed from the action. In terms of percentages, it would be much more rational to worry about death in Korea by a lightning strike than by a North Korean attack.

If you wish to be extra careful (or make your parents worry less,) you can register yourself with the American embassy in Seoul, which has an evacuation plan ready for all American civilians of which it is aware in case of an emergency. But again, unless there is a full-scale war (which would be impossible to miss,) feel free to visit Korea, and don't worry so much.

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Friday, March 08, 2013

Korean Fact of the Day: Price of Rice in Pyongyang

After its third nuclear test, the price of rice in Pyongyang jumped from 5,500 won per kilogram to 9,000 won per kilogram. The cost of other groceries likewise increased by around 70 percent. 

This jump is likely the result of China's stricter enforcement against smuggling across the China-North Korea border. China began cracking down on smuggling as an unofficial sanction against North Korea's nuclear test, which severely restricted the flow of goods from China to North Korea, particularly rice. This is a hopeful sign that China may participate more fully in the new round of sanctions approved by the United Nations Security Council. In the course of issuing the new round of sanctions, South Koreans diplomats say they have detected a new sense of resolve from the Chinese representatives.

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Thursday, March 07, 2013

Culturalism and Korea's Suicide Rate

Here is a leftover thought from the series on suicides in Korea, which just concluded. 

In the last post, the Korean noted that a frequent objection to his overall thesis of the series--i.e., that Korea's high suicide rate is the result of a violent social change since the 1997 financial crisis--is that there has to be something "cultural" about the reason why Korea has such high suicide rate. In the last post, several commenters raised this same objection, that there just gotta be something cultural about Korea's suicide rate. One commenter suggested that it may be Korea's relatively strict gender roles, occasioned by Korea's adherence to Confucianism. Another commenter suggested that it may be Korea's emphasis on "saving face."

Those explanations cannot be correct, and throughout the series, the Korean explained why they cannot be correct.  First, Korea had one of the lowest suicide rates in the industrial world in the 1980s. If Korean culture is to blame for Korea's high suicide rate, why would Korea's suicide rate change at all? Or to the extent it changes, why would the rate ever fall below the international average? Second, every single industrialized country in the history of the world experienced a huge spike in suicide rate in the process of industrializing, and later the country industrialized, the higher the spike. Korea is following this exact same trend--it industrialized very late, and therefore the spike in suicide rate is the highest in the world. If Korea is merely following this global, historical trend, why would Korean culture play any role?

At best, the only way the Korean could see how Korea's suicide rate is "cultural" is in a temporally restrained sense of the word "cultural":  that is, in the 15 years since the 1997 financial crisis, Korean people so repeatedly responded to the difficult conditions caused by the financial crisis that the repeated response (in this case suicide) attained a certain status of normalcy, such that one can fairly say that "suicide became a part of the culture in Korea in the last 15 years or so." But other than in that sense, I think the "cultural" explanation for Korea's suicide rate is rubbish. Any theory that resorts to any particular features of Korean culture--Confucianism, face-saving, respect for hierarchy, han, whatever--to explain Korea's high suicide rate cannot be taken seriously, because such theory cannot answer the two critical questions posed above.

Then why do so many people continue to resort to the "cultural" explanation? The Korean thinks this is another demonstration of the strong pull of culturalism. The Korean previously explained culturalism in this post:  essentially, it is the impulse to explain away the behavior of foreign people with "cultural difference," even when there is no reason to import culture into the discussion. It is the same force that blames the Chinese culture for being bad at soccer (although China is actually just fine at soccer) and the Japanese culture for being prone to nuclear power plant meltdowns (although one never hears about the American or British culture that led to the BP oil rig disaster in Louisiana.) No matter how smart one may be, and no matter how many counter-arguments there may be, the impulse to resort to "culture" as the magical agent that explains all just never goes away.

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Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Suicide in Korea Series: VI. Case Studies -- KAIST and Ssangyong Motors

[Series Index]

Why do people kill themselves? And why do Koreans kill themselves much more frequently than others? Here is a recap where we have been throughout this long series on Korea's high suicide rates:
  • Korea suicide rate, at one point, was extremely low for an industrialized country -- only 6.6 per 100,000 deaths in 1986, significantly below the current OECD average of 11.1 per 100,000 deaths. In just 20 years, however, Korea's suicide rate would more than quadruple to 31 per 100,000 deaths. Thus, to understand Korea's suicide phenomenon, we have to understand how Korean society changed from late 1980s to the late 2000s.
  • Sociological studies on suicide strongly suggest that modernization/industrialization entails a rise in suicide rate, and the spike in suicide rate will be higher as a country modernizes/industrializes later. Although there are certain regional variations, the trend is unmistakable:  every single country, in the process of industrialization, experienced a spike in the rate of suicide. Even within the same country, an industrialized city experiences higher rate of suicide than a non-industrialized rural area. 
  • Korea has been able to avoid the suicidogenic factors of industrialization until the late 1980s, thanks to the East Asian development model that allowed for the country to industrialize while maintaining a sense of community among works. The scheme, however, fell apart in 1997, as East Asian Financial Crisis swept Korea. Koreans faced a very different reality after the East Asian Financial Crisis, the one that was particularly conducive to suicides.
What is it about modernization that causes suicide? Modernity comes with capitalism and individualism, which travel hand in hand. Reduced to its core (and thus risking gross over-generalization,) modernity causes suicide because it commodifies individuals. 

What does it mean to be commodified? In a pre-modern society, people's social identity is defined by their unchanging relationship to the larger society. If you are someone's father, you never cease to be the father (short of a catastrophe.) Accordingly, your duty and worth as a father likewise never change throughout your life. Such unchanging constancy is precisely the character that a commodity lacks. The worth of a commodity is strictly proportional to its usefulness. If the commodity loses its usefulness, it automatically loses all of its value. The commodity, quite literally, becomes worthless. And once rendered worthless, its existence no longer matters.

Perniciously, modernity commodifies human beings, with sophistication and precision never seen before in human history. In a capitalistic society, every "human resource" (hideous words, if you think about it) comes with a sticker price, precisely indicating his/her value. A lawyer costs $350 an hour; a stripper, $20 a song. And inevitably, for a large number of humans, the value is zero or near zero--useless, therefore worthless. Likewise inevitably, for even larger number of humans, the sticker price that are given to them (which is something that they can only partially control) is far lower than their own ideas of their intrinsic value. This discrepancy pushes such people to view themselves as worthless. The next step is easy--the commodity whose existence no longer matters proceeds to end its existence.

In 2011, there were two "suicide clusters" that made the news in Korea:  at the prestigious KAIST University, and within the labor union for Ssangyong Motors. The members of those two clusters are very different. KAIST students are highly educated, generally belong to upper-middle class and are on the track to become Korea's elites. Ssangyong Motors workers are blue collar, less educated and a part of Korea's lower-class masses. But ultimately, they killed themselves for the same reasons.

(More after the jump.)

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Monday, March 04, 2013

Korean Fact of the Day: Fan Clubs in Lima

In Lima, Peru, there are more than 60 fan clubs for Korean pop music--and that was before Gangnam Style.

More interesting facts about the economic cooperation between Korea and Peru in this article from the Financial Times.

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Sunday, March 03, 2013

Fast Times with USFK

When PSY's anti-American lyrics made the news, the Korean wrote that there have been plenty of occasions with the U.S. military in Korea that were enough to make Koreans to lose their temper and say, "fuck these people." In the Korean's opinion, that does not excuse the excessive severity of PSY's language, but that does help one understand where he was coming from.

What happened recently in Seoul is exactly the type of thing that the Korean was talking about:
According to Seoul's Yongsan Police Station, police received calls shortly before midnight Saturday that two American soldiers, including the injured, were threatening civilians with an air gun in the multicultural district of Itaewon.

The two U.S. soldiers were approached by Seoul police near Itaewon Station, but they refused to identify themselves and fled in a vehicle, leading to the car chase through the capital city.

When they came to a dead end in southeastern Seoul, police fired off a warning shot and three rounds of bullets as the vehicle tried to rush through police officers despite warnings. The car's driver was hit by one of the bullets and another officer was slightly injured in the process, according to police.
One U.S. soldier shot by police in car chase [Yonhap]

The news report in Korean is more detailed. The car with U.S. soldiers topped at 170 km/h (~93 mph) and the chase lasted between 10 to 15 minutes. At the dead end when the police finally stopped the car, the U.S. soldiers attempted to get out of the jam by running over the police. After being shot by the police, the soldiers actually drove away and escaped into the base, and in the process ran over the police officer's foot. Why were they so desperate to get back to the base? Because once they are in the base, Korean police cannot interrogate them unless the USFK voluntarily turns them over. By the way, one of the soldiers was a staff sergeant.

So, to reiterate: a foreign army is occupying the middle of the city, and some of them are dumbasses who were threatening civilians with guns, engaged in a late night car chase, tried to kill a police man and got away with only injuring him in the process. And Koreans cannot do anything about it unless USFK voluntarily turns the soldiers over, and good luck getting that to happen. 

Try putting the shoe on the other foot here, and imagine something like this happening, say, in the middle of Manhattan around once a month, for decades. How fast do you think somebody in America would say, "fuck these people"? How long do you think it would take before a celebrity singer, who lets his emotion run high and does not quite think things through, makes a song about killing them?

The Korean cannot tell you to feel one way or the other. If you feel that, even under these circumstances, nobody may ever be forgiven for making an ill-advised, excessively emotional song, go on and feel that way. But one does have to wonder how reasonable that position is.

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Saturday, March 02, 2013

Korea's Gunless Fight Against Tyranny

The memorial near Sandy Hook Elementary School

Regular readers of this blog are probably well-acquainted with the Korean's aversion to American gun culture. In the wake of the Newtown Massacre and the gun control debate that followed, Andrew Sullivan, popular political commentator and an immigrant from Great Britain, wrote:
Gun violence is one of those things that an immigrant is first amazed by in America. The second thing a non-American is shocked by is the sheer passion of those who own and use guns in this country.
As an immigrant to the United States, I share that sentiment. America’s gun violence, and its love for guns in the face of such gun violence, make no sense to me. To be sure, I understand the recreational value of guns: if you like hunting, for example, I have no objection that you love your hunting rifle. But we all know that the current gun debate is not about hunting rifles--it is about the widespread and under-regulated gun ownership.

Because I so relentlessly advocate for strict gun control, I have encountered equally relentless counter-arguments from gun advocates who would not countenance any regulation of their firearms. From those encounters, I found that every pro-gun argument falls into one of five categories. They are:
  1. Red herring: "Guns are not the problem; violent video games/mental healthcare/racial minorities are the problem."
  2. Legal:  "Gun ownership is a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution."
  3. Public policy:  "More guns prevent crimes."
  4. Pragmatic:  "It is not practically possible to eliminate guns from the United States."
  5. Political philosophy:  "Civilian gun ownership prevents tyranny."
All five of them are wrong, and it is quite easy to show how they are wrong. The first argument is a genuinely dishonest red herring. When pressed, even gun advocates have to admit that guns make deaths happen much more easily and efficiently. Whatever murderous tendencies Americans may have, there is no question that guns provide an easy connection between murderous tendencies and actual deaths. A data point here would suffice: suicidal acts with guns are fatal in 85% of the cases, while suicidal acts with pills are fatal in 2% of the cases. (This is why we arm our military with guns, not pills.) And regulating a single category of item makes much more sense than, say, putting every single American through mental examination or pre-screening all video games to make sure none of them is too violent.

The legal argument is also wrong. Here, I particularly delight in exposing the self-made constitutional scholars, since I wrote a lengthy paper about the Second Amendment implications before District of Columbia v. Heller was decided in 2008. To be sure, Heller was a laughable decision. It was a 5-4 decision a la Bush v. Gore, i.e. straight along the partisan line. More importantly, Heller--which was decided only five years ago--was the very first Supreme Court case ever to find that the Second Amendment guaranteed individual rights of gun ownership, even though the Second Amendment has existed for more than 200 years. In doing so, the five conservative justices of the Supreme Court overturned hundreds of years of legal precedents that have held, consistently, that there is no individual right to gun ownership under the Constitution.

But even if we are to treat Heller as the law of the land--and we must, out of respect for the Constitution--the Heller opinion itself clearly leaves room for increased gun ownership control:  “nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on . . . laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.” In short, there is nothing unconstitutional or illegal about, say, banning all assault weapons or high-capacity magazines from civilian ownership. Likewise, there is nothing unconstitutional or illegal about instituting a gun buy-back program, or imposing a significant amount of tax on every gun and bullet sold (as long as the tax is not so great that it effectively acts as a bar to ownership,) or requiring every gun owner to purchase a liability insurance.

Public policy argument is just as easy to dispatch. Numerous studies confirm again and again that having guns at home doubles the risk of homicide. This holds true at an international level as well. Among developed countries, United States has incomparably high gun ownership rates, and likewise has incomparably high rates of both gun-related homicide and ordinary homicide. The developed countries that do have high (but nowhere nearly as high as U.S.) rate of civilian gun ownership have a level of gun control that would be unimaginable in the current-day United States. Switzerland, for example, requires that the citizens keep all their bullets in the army barracks.

The pragmatic argument appears to be sensible in the first blush, but quickly loses its strength in the face of a real world example. After a mass shooting in 1996, Australia instituted a gun buy-back program that reduced the civilian ownership of guns by 20%. In the next 10 years, Australia's firearm-related homicide plunged by 59%, while non-firearm homicides remained the same. What is more, the firearm-related homicide dropped more precipitously in Australian states that had higher gun buy-back rates. (As a bonus, firearm suicides fell by 74%.) In fact, Australia's example shows the hollowness of the "public policy" argument as well. In all likelihood, only law-abiding citizens would participate in a gun buy-back program. Then how is it that gun-related homicide dropped by nearly 60%, when (according to gun advocates) only "bad guys" would have guns?

That leaves us the "political philosophy" argument--the idea that we need guns to overthrow tyranny. And this is the real reason why I write this post, to address this risible argument.

(More after the jump)

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Friday, March 01, 2013

Korean Statistic of the Day: U.S. in the Red

[This title seems to be a more accurate description of the new gimmick item.]

In 2012, America's trade deficit against South Korea increased by 25 percent compared to 2011. The dramatic change is mostly attributed to Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. Much of the deficit came from the automobile industry, as the U.S. deficit in the auto industry against Korea increased by 22 percent compared to the previous year. The U.S., however, managed to significantly reduce its deficit in the electronics/space/IT industry, going from $6.2 billion in deficit to $1 billion in deficit.

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