Month: January 2014

5 Things I Specifically Hate About Korea

complainingBy Larry Lawrence

“Man alone is born crying, lives complaining, and dies disappointed.” ~Samuel Johnson

Like fans of a bloodsport worthy of Caesar, a great many expats residing in Korea find immense pleasure in complaining about all the things they hate about being here. Whether minor or major, “troublesome” or “alarming,” nearly all who pass through the turnstiles soon carry some sort of gripe, and they anxiously await entrance to the pissed off parties being held at the local bar, the myriad blogs or in the howl-led halls of the Facebook Colosseum.

It’s really quite the thing, you know?

I might well have exceeded the age where trends are a concern or current style is more than a wink and a nod, but I refuse to miss out on this one. So, with your indulgence, I would like to gain admittance to the party.

The Top 5 things that I specifically hate about Korea, in no particular order:

1.  Nothing
2.  Nothing
3.  Nothing
4.  Nothing
5.  Expats complaining about Korea

There you go.

Let’s examine my top five one by one.

Number 1: There’s nothing particularly bothersome about everyday life in Korea that I haven’t been bothered by elsewhere in the world. Be it the full demographic of citizens standing in my way on the escalator like it was a geriatric thrill ride at the amusement park; morning vomit in the elevator, obnoxious drunks who created the vomit the night before, cigarette burns in the stairwell, pools of spit on the sidewalk, pushy people on the subway, insane bus drivers, racist glares or blind nationalism. I’ve seen it all before, at home and abroad, and there’s nothing I hate about it more in Korea than anyplace else I’ve been.

Number 2: The strikingly shoddy journalism sometimes witnessed in the Korean English media is anything but unique. Crappy reporting and writing disgraces the pages of news outlets around the world. Much like here in Korea, I have elsewhere been peeved by “unnamed sources,” a lack of context, ideological slant, sensationalism and by a complete absence of objectivity. I have also witnessed such a worldwide abundance of bad grammar and piss-poor prose that I expect any day now the entire planet will break out into a chorus of We is da World.

Number 3: Fashion and style are, of course, amongst the many “beauty in the eye of the beholder” concepts. Being as I am said “beholder,” I find nothing any more “hateable” in Korea than I have found in other places I’ve traveled. Be it couple outfits, short skirts in the winter, bandannas, heavy makeup, facial reconstruction, lens-less glasses, obsessive dieting, overdone piercings or metrosexual males, I share an equal distaste for them all, no matter where they are.

I also harbor no bias in my disregard for people who dress up their dogs, dye their fur or carry them around in the streets—regardless of what street they are on, in whatever country it may be, and whether they plan to eat them or not.

Number 4: Bad driving exists everywhere I go and, from my experience, the difference between Korean drivers and the rest of the world is negligible. Be it senior citizens’ lack of familiarity with the rear-view mirror in Florida, pistol-wielding commuters on the LA Freeway, meth-infused Tuk Tuk drivers on the streets of Bangkok or piranha-like swarms of cyclists in Vietnam. And yet, cries ringing forth from the cheap seats in Expat Arena make it sound like the Korean roadway is in the midst of an automobile apocalypse.

Number 5: Much like the previous four above, expat bitching and moaning is neither unique nor special to Korea—people will turn nada into whine no matter where the podium rests. But, as I am living in Korea, and my stream of media is mostly based here, I am immersed in Korea-themed bickering on a regular basis. “I hate this!” and “I hate that!,” “Why can’t they do it this way?” or “Why don’t they do it that way?”

At the risk of stumbling on the metaphysical tripwire: You are they, they are you, we are all each other. And, as best I can assess, the aliens are likely waiting for a higher-evolved monkey before dropping in for dinner. In short, according to the universal scheme of things, we all kind of, you know, suck.

* * *

In retrospect, if I could add a sixth category, it would be my loathing of locals who say, “If you don’t like it here, then go somewhere else!”

The source of my distaste for this common utterance, heard the world round, is my belief that it is wrong to inflict upon the inhabitants of “somewhere else” another voice in the continuing chorus of global bitching by people doing the same damned things everywhere.

Get over it, because overall, life is mostly quite good and we’re mostly all the same—no matter where we are.

Actually, I hate it when people say that, too.

Sea of Ire – One Writer’s Battle Against North Korea’s Most Worrying Mega-Cliche

By John Boscskay

In November 2010, North Korean howitzers opened fire on a populated area on Yeonypoung, a South Korean island near their maritime border, killing four people and causing widespread damage. The nearly hour-long barrage was a response to South Korea’s annual military exercises, during which the South Korean army fires artillery from Yeonypoung into waters they control but which North Korea also claims. Every year since the attack, North Korea has protested the drills, and last year was no different. Like the asshole at a nightclub who threatens to beat the crap out of you for brushing against his shoe, North Korea warned that if the drills didn’t stop, they would turn the South Korean presidential office (“The Blue House”) into a “sea of fire.”

As a writer and language teacher who has been living in South Korea for 15 years, North Korea’s warped sense of proportion is only slightly more disappointing to me than their continued reliance on the “sea of fire” cliché, which has been so thoroughly abused that it’s hard to recall a time before it was commonplace. The phrase first appeared in the inter-Korean dialogue in 1994, as nuclear anti-proliferation talks between North and South broke down. With the talks spiraling toward collapse, North Korea’s lead negotiator, Park Young Su, in an apparently unscripted outburst, declared that “Seoul will be turned into a sea of fire” and stormed out of the conference room. Concise, memorable, and suggestive of apocalyptic wrath, Mr. Park’s “sea of fire” immediately set the region on edge, but, for reasons we may never know, was considered inappropriate by North Korea’s leader, Kim Il-sung, who had Park sacked a month later.

Mushroom cloud (omegarobot)

The ominous phrase faded from use, but was apparently deemed appropriate by Kim Jong-il in 1999, when North Korea threatened to turn both South Korea and the U.S. into a ‘sea of fire’ if attacked. Throughout the following decade, the phrase was hurled about with wanton disregard for both human life and lexical variety: in 2003, when they threatened Seoul with a “sea of fire” while unleashing a barrage of unflattering adjectives on the U.S.; in 2004, when they threatened Japan with an explicitly “nuclear” sea of fire; and a year later, when they threatened to preemptively strike U.S. military bases, turning them into seas of fire while “thoroughly” wiping out anyone who helped them (read: South Korea and Japan).



Perhaps aware of the need to mix it up a little, in 2008, the KCNA warned that “everything will be ashes, not just a sea of fire”, which was encouraging but either contradictory or redundant, depending on how you read it. Later that year, Vice Marshall Kim Il-Chol threatened that a North Korean counterstrike would somehow be “unimaginably more powerful than nuclear weapons,” and that it would “not merely turn everything into a sea of fire but reduce everything treacherous and anti-reunification to debris and build an independent reunified country on it.” I don’t even know what that means, but it sounds eerily like a Stalinist version of the Genesis device from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan – a large torpedo that instantly reduces a lifeless planet to subatomic particles, then quickly reassembles it to make it habitable for the North Korean Worker’s Party.

Whatever he had in mind, the imaginative new threat was never elaborated, and North Korea was soon back to their old tricks. In 2010, when the South Korean military set up towers of loudspeakers at the border and repeatedly blared the song “Hit Your Heart” by the K-Pop group 4Minute, the North Koreans threatened to not only blow up the speakers (which is forgivable if you’ve heard the song) but to turn Seoul into a sea of you guessed it.

With the ascension of the 28-year-old Kim Jong-un to power in late 2011, I held out tentative hope for an end to the nuclear brinkmanship, or at least to the hackneyed phrases that accompany it. North Korean defense officials quickly squashed that, declaring that the world “should not expect any changes from us.” As if to underline the point, they warned that the “sea of bloody tears” of the North Korean people and army would turn into a “sea of revengeful fire that burns everything.”


A box of fire

One noticeable change has however occurred under Kim Jong-un’s tenure: rather than conjuring nuclear annihilation, ‘sea of fire’ is used more literally to describe limited attacks involving any sort of fire at all. Case in point: the aforementioned attack on Yeonpyoung Island, in which incendiary shells set fire to fields, trees and a couple dozen buildings. This November, they even threatened to turn individual structures, like the Blue House, into a sea of fire, which would only seem to require a lagoon of fire, or, if you’re feeling generous, a bay. Maybe ambiguity is what they’re going for, or maybe they’re being lazy, but either way it screams rookie mistake. Here in Busan, a city more than 300 kilometers from the DMZ, nuclear missiles worry me. Artillery rounds? Not so much.

It’s hard to square such rhetorical complacency with a country whose fluency in insulting people has inspired the creation of a random insult generator, an Internet honor previously reserved for William Shakespeare. Verbally eviscerating one’s enemies is something of a national pastime in North Korea. According to defectors, this type of invective is instilled in society by the state-run newspapers, which regularly slander enemies of the state in order to rally the people around the ruling clique. If there were an international competition of political “Your Momma” putdowns, North Korea would own the podium every year. I can imagine North Korean high school kids facing off in the schoolyard:

Your mother is such a sycophantic political dwarf that her remarks often reveal her utter ignorance of Juche ideology, to say nothing of her fitness for parenting tomorrow’s revolutionary vanguard!

Is that so? Well your mother is such a half-baked philistine that she couldn’t mercilessly wipe out an enemy bulwark if the Korean people’s glorious victory depended on it!

While they do overuse stock terms to describe us Yankee “imperialists” and our South Korean “puppet” allies, the KCNA have also displayed an ability to stretch and flash their chops, especially during the “brigandish” (one of their favorite adjectives) administration of George W. Bush. The KCNA referred to the Bush team as “a bunch of tricksters and political imbeciles who are the center of a plot breeding fraud and swindle,” and often called them out singly for verbal smackdowns. President Bush, who famously tarred North Korea as a member of an Axis of Evil, was described as a “hooligan bereft of any personality…a half-baked man in terms of morality and a philistine who can never be dealt with.” When Bush had a shoe thrown at him by an Iraqi reporter in 2008, the KCNA waxed poetic, writing that Bush just stood there “like a chicken soaked in the rain.” They landed some of their best zingers on jaynebootonhis cabinet, calling Vice President Cheney a “mentally deranged person steeped in inveterate enmity towards the system [in North Korea]” and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld a “human butcher and fascist tyrant who puts an ogre to shame”.

Despite the chutzpah of these KCNA broadsides, reading them you soon notice that they employ an inordinate number of antiquated words like “trickster” “stooge” and “lackey.” According to Joo Sung-ha, who defected from North Korea and is now a journalist in South Korea, this is because they rely on dictionaries published in the 1960s and have few or no native speakers to proofread their diatribes. The result of this linguistic isolation is that North Koreans roll out our old verbiage in much the same way that Cubans deploy our old Plymouths, Buicks, and Chevys: keeping them in wide circulation despite a dearth of imported parts, polishing them to a surprising luster, and revving them up with obvious relish. OK – denouncing someone as a ‘flunkey’ might not achieve the same degree of cool as a Havana cabbie in a ’52 Ford Victoria, but there’s an oddball charm in the glimpse it offers of a bygone linguistic moment, painstakingly restored by those quirky curators of Cold War bombast.


Hold on to your sphincters, Korea.

Having seen their potential, it’s disappointing to pick up the paper and read that we’ve once again been threatened by a “sea of fire”, which now sounds more like an award-winning 5-alarm chili than code for Armageddon. Will KCNA broadcasts someday swear to turn Washington into a “moldering mound of marble” or transform everything below the DMZ into a “rat’s nest of ruined rebar”? I don’t know, but the status quo has got to go.

Top 20 Rejected Names for This Blog Making a Pun on the Word ‘Seoul’


By Mr. Motgol

Oh, Seoul, you tentacled leviathan! Your tendrils reach into every valley, islet, and far-flung corner of this nation. Nothing goes down in Korea without your stamp; every other prick in the country shrivels with shame. No one comes close to sizing up.

Where would we be without you?

When titling this blog, it was so tempting to pay tribute to your magnificence by turning a nifty pun from your glorious name! After all, you sound like so many words and syllables in English, that the temptation proved ALMOST too great. I mean, how hilarious and clever would it be???

My collaborators and I met to discuss the matter. We squabbled heatedly, with much jostling and even fisticuffs! In the end, such a tribute was denied. This was not due to lack of effort on my part. I, Mr. Motgol (always your humble servant), constructed a voluminous list of Seoul-related names, but alas, my cohorts (being utter rubes and Philistines) rejected them all.

But droop thine divine visage not! They live on in written form! Please allow me to happily present them right here and now for your (and everyone else’s) perusal:





















The Revolution Will Not Be Grammaticized


By Ralph Karst

The Arab world is on fire.  The death-throes of an old order are convulsing Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, and Syria as tyrants battle rebels, Sunnis battle Shiites, Iran proxies  battle Saudi proxies—the entire region whipping into a hellish whirlwind of civil war and fanaticism, with maybe—just maybe—a few scant seeds of democracy struggling to germinate somewhere in the desert sands. People are flooding the streets, filling the squares, storming the TV stations and the palaces, taking up arms, making history. And the question on everyone’s minds is, when will The Scorpions head into the studio to record an Arabic version of “Winds of Change?”

However, as they say, all politics are local. So what’s the local angle here in South Korea, besides rising gas prices and a 2-for-1 “revolution special” at hookah bars in Itaewon?

Well, what if I told you that one of my students—a South Korean high school student— started it all?  That a slacking, screw-up, C+-at-best student is the one single person responsible for crying havoc and letting slip the dogs of war? How could this be? How could a dim, feckless 16-year-old Korean kid uncork the rage of a region?

Go with me on this one.

True story: in May, 2010, Mr. Mustapha Khammari, the Tunisian ambassador to South Korea, visited the high-class private foreign language high school where I used to teach. Naturally, this was a fairly big deal for us, so we prepared a big to-do:  a reception where our students prepared multi-media presentations on various aspects of Tunisian culture, history, economy, and government.  The goal: to educate the rest of the school community, and to show the Ambassador that our students knew how to cut-and-paste from Wikipedia.

Ambassador Khammari was a late-middle-aged man, hair gracefully retreating and graying over his round, olive-skinned face. He was tall, a little stout, and had the friendly, relaxed demeanor befitting a person who, like most ambassadors, had an unbelievably easy job, consisting mostly of hosting dinner parties at the embassy and trying to stay awake at silly PR events like ours. He smiled warmly as he shook hands with our principle, student body president, and head of faculty. He gave out boxes of Tunisian dates as presents.  He wore a really nice suit. He spoke French with one of our students who had spent a few years in Belgium.  He was accompanied by an aide, a shorter, stouter, harried-looking man who can only be described as Sancho Panza-like. The aide scurried around and set up a video screening of a typical government tourism-board promotional video.  Blah blah blah Carthage! blah blah blah Hannibal! blah blah blah Star Wars filmed here! blah blah blah religious tolerance! blah blah blah attractive for foreign investment! blah blah blah zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Then the student presentations started. Most of them just repeated stuff in tidy Power Point form that was already on the official promotional video. Yawn-inducing for sure, but the Ambassador, really earning his keep, paid smiling attention as our students droned on (in pretty good English) on his own country’s chief exports, industrial re-investment policy, preservation of historical sites, and on and on.

The last presentation was on Tunisian politics and government, from 1st year student Jeong-min (not his real name). Jeong-min was in a little over his head at our school — in English ability, in basic intellectual acumen, in work ethic, in study habits, and in honesty and integrity. Other than that, he was a terrific student. The best work he produced was his numerous letters of apology and pledges of better conduct to various faculty and administrators in response to this bombed exam, that missed essay, this dorm rule violation, or that Facebook expletive-filled anti-teacher rant that the whole school saw.

So, Jeong-min begins his presentation on Tunisia’s government, and the only thing I’m thinking is that it will soon be over and I can go back to the office, check the NBA scores, and eat some delicious Tunisian dates. Then the bullet-points start coming, read off by Jeong-min in a flat, lifeless monotone:

Tunisian government:

* Democracy in name only.

* Police state lacking in basic civil liberties.

* Brutal repression of political opposition.

* Rigged elections.

* Freedom of the press severely limited.

Well, cheers Mr. Ambassador! I and the other foreign teachers were sitting in the front row of the auditorium, with Khammari on the stage just a few meters away. I wish I could report on what his facial expression was as a Korean teenager shat on his country. But I was too busy staring at the floor, trying thrTips-to-avoid-sleeping-in-class-for-students-school[1]ough sheer force of will to conjure a hole in which to hide. My face and neck went crimson with shame. I heard a few teachers next to me whisper “Oh my God! and “No, Jeong-min, no!” (I’d like to stress here that neither I nor any other of the native English-speaking foreign faculty were assigned to oversee, edit, or otherwise vet the students’ presentations.  Nope, that would have made too much sense.)

When Jeong-min finally finished his PowerPoint demolition job, Khammari came to the microphone to say a few words. Everyone in the audience (at least those who knew what was going on) tightened into a collective mega-cringe. He began by thanking the students generally for their very comprehensive and well-researched presentations. He thanked the whole school community for our hospitality. He praised our beautiful campus with its blossoming cherry trees. Then he said, “I’d also like to say a few words to our young friend who made the final presentation.” (Deeper cringing—really sphincter-clenching stuff.)  “I know it’s easy to make quick, unstudied generalizations on a country or people based only on some cursory Wikipedia web-searching. Before I came to South Korea, I know I had some very inaccurate preconceptions on this country, and on Korean people, based only on what I’d seen on the internet.  But then I came here, and saw the wonderful richness of Korean culture, the kindness of its people, and the dynamicism of its economy. I hope that someday our young friend here can visit Tunisia and see the reality of who we are, and what we are trying to become.”

Well, of course.  He WAS a diplomat, after all, right?  The tenseness in the auditorium lifted, and we all unclenched our sphincters.  An international incident was averted.  Later, back in our school’s main building, a few of us foreign teachers cornered poor, clueless Jeong-min for a haranguing: WHAT! WERE! YOU! THINKING?!  His mouth hung open and his eyes flicked around in bewilderment.

“But everything was true!” he said.  “I got it all on Wikipedia!”

Imagine the sound of eight foreign teachers slapping their own foreheads, oy-vey-style.

What follows is conjecture. Some might call it fiction.  Some might call it utter bullshit.  But I’d like to think of it as the Oliver Stone, “JFK” variety of bullshit, a take on what could have happened, or an alternate view of what happened—something that captures a feel, a tone, a spirit of both the crazy events at my school here in South Korea, and the much more vital, vaster events happening these days across Northern Africa and the Middle East. Could there actually be a connection between the two? Could Jeong-min’s cluelessness really have been the flap of the butterfly’s wing that started the hurricane?

* * *

It’s early Friday evening at the Tunisian embassy in Yongsan, Seoul. The Ambassador sits alone at his desk in his corner office, leaning way back in the chair, a pensive expression creasing his face.  His assistant knocks and comes in to remind him of the appearance he’s supposed to make at 8 pm at some vaguely defined function at the Hyundai headquarters across the river  Rush hour traffic as it is, they’re going to have to get going. The Ambassador sighs loudly, still leaning back, then after a long pause that rather worries the assistant, he tells him, “Call in sick for me, will you?  Give my regrets.  Send them a box of dates.  Make it a crate, actually.” The assistant gives him a quizzical look, then nods and scurries away.

Alone once again, the Ambassador opens the bottom desk drawer. He pulls out a small silver flask, unscrews the top, mutters “Allah forgive me” and takes two quick swallows. He puts the flask back, rises, and moves to the south-facing window. Below him, the Friday rush hour traffic oozes out in all directions, a river of cars to match the Han River flowing somewhere out there behind the sprawl of new apartment complexes. Not an extraordinary view, by any means. Not for a capital city of a G-20 nation with a top-12 global economy. But on the heels of that thought comes this one:  50 years ago they had nothing.  Their country was in ruins. 

It’s a thought that he’s had many times, but somehow tonight this idea seems to lodge deep inside him, nestled under the ribs, like a cramp, or heartburn. Even in the mid 1970s, their GDP was neck and neck with Bangladesh.  Bangladesh! And it’s not like this is a Thailand-like economy, with all the wealth clumped in the capital and rice paddies and ringworm everywhere else. He’s travelled around this place. Cities of barely a few hundred thousand still have their department stores and E-Marts and Starbucks and plastic surgery clinics. Places like Changwon or Cheonan or Jeonju or Gumi.

From his window, he knows that without the apartment towers, he’d have pretty much a clear view  across the river to Yeo-euido, with the General Assembly and the nexus of the Korean mass media – the KBS, MBC, and SBS headquarters—all clustered together. And further to the east, the glittering nuveau-riche splendor of Gangnam and Apgujeong.  Democracy. A free media.  And cash, baby, cash. Suddenly it hits him. That kid. At that school  Giving his idiotic, tone-deaf presentation on the Tunisian government. Democracy in name only. Police state lacking in basic civil liberties. Brutal repression of political opposition. Rigged elections. Freedom of the press severely limited.

He was right.

The Ambassador knows this. He cannot deny it. The kid was right. Outside, it’s dusk, the city lights flickering to life against the gathering dark, illuminating the thrumming metropolis. South Korea, a “mature democracy” as the World Bank calls it, has dragged itself into the modern age. Why is his country so far behind? Why are his people so far behind? The answer, he has always thought, is complicated. Or is it? Can it be as simple as giving the people a stake in their own country? The keys to their own future? A voice?  A vote? A hot, tingling burst of hope rises up through his chest, warming his neck and the back of his head. Or is that just the brandy?  He crosses back to his desk, takes out the flask and takes another swig. Allah will provide all the answers. Allah will provide.

He takes out a pad of official embassy stationary and picks up a $500 Montblanc pen, a gift from some chaebol vice-president who called him “Ambassador Calimari”.  And he begins to write:

To the long oppressed people of Tunisa.  To the long oppressed but still proud, brave and righteous souls of the Arab world.  The time is nigh.  You have withered too long in the darkness of tyranny. Rise up and seize what is yours. With the infinite grace of Allah, you will prevail.

He signs his name with a flourish, and with the most urgent purpose he has ever felt in his life, he goes out the front office. His assistant is there, doing paperwork.  The assistant asks if the Ambassador is feeling better. “I’ve got a fax I want you to send,” the Ambassador says, and hands his assistant the letter.  The assistant takes the letter and reads it. His brow furrows, and his eyes almost squint in sudden concern. Then his face clears, becomes calm, almost serene.  He looks up at the Ambassador and smiles. And the Ambassador smiles back.

* * *

Could there actually be a connection between the two? Could a Korean high school kid really have sparked the Arab Spring? Nah. Not really. But sometimes it’s fun to imagine that our teaching (or lack of teaching, in this case) can have such a global impact. And really, it’s not so far-fetched to picture Ambassador Khammari – who left his post in late 2010, before the shit really hit the fan – remembering amidst the turmoil of the following months and years his little visit to our school, and remembering that kid who was just stupid enough to speak truth to power – if you could really call the Tunisian Ambassador to South Korea a figure of power. Good luck to you, Mustapha Khammari, in whatever role you’re taking in your new civil society. And thanks for the dates. They really were tasty. And good luck to the Tunisian people.  At least you’re not nerve-gassing each other and eating each other’s livers like in Syria. With luck, soon you too can have a brawling national assembly just like South Korea’s!