Month: June 2017

Korea This Week (June 18 – 24)

A selection of this week’s Korea-related news and commentary

Nuke-free Korea?

Korea’s oldest nuclear power plant, the Kori 1 reactor located in the suburbs of Busan, was permanently shut down last Sunday after 40 years in operation. Commissioned in 1978, the reactor’s initial 30-year life span was extended by ten years in 2008.

Since then, the public mood in Korea has somewhat soured on nuclear power. In March 2011, many Koreans were alarmed by the meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power

Fukushima reactor meltdown

The ruined Fukushima nuclear plant

plant in Japan, which prompted many calls for a review of Korea’s energy policies. And in 2012, the Korean public (and this Busan resident) were again rattled by the revelation that the Gori 1 reactor and others had been supplied with substandard parts backed by forged safety certificates, a major scandal  that resulted in several jail sentences.

President Moon Jae-in has vowed to wean the country off nuclear energy, which currently accounts for 22% of South Korea’s power generation, and to move toward renewables and natural gas. Critics of the plan have claimed that Moon’s move may hurt construction companies who have benefited from technology exports in recent decades. In addition to the example of Fukushima and the 2012 scandals, Moon and other proponents point to the potentially catastrophic combination of Korea’s population density, susceptibility to earthquakes, and a long-standing emphasis on cost and efficiency at the expense of public safety as justification for the push to go nuclear-free.

[Mis]adventure Tourism

Otto Warmbier, a 22-year old former student at the University of Virginia, died on Monday after being released from detention in North Korea, where he had been imprisoned since January 2016 for stealing a poster from a Pyongyang hotel. In response, Young Pioneer Tours (YPT), the company that brought Warmbier to North Korea, has announced that it will no longer accept American passport holders for its North Korea tours, while other tour groups that specialize in North Korea trips are expected to follow suit.

According to their website, YPT specializes in “ destinations that your mother would rather you stayed away from”, including Iraqi Kurdistan, Somaliland, and the site of the Chernobyl disaster. Regarding North Korea, the YPT website claims that it is “probably one of the safest places on Earth to visit provided you follow the laws as provided by our documentation and pre-tour briefings,” though it adds that if you do manage to break the law (even an absurdly minor one like stealing a poster), the consequences can be “severe”, or in other words, you’re totally screwed.

YPT also has a reputation for creating tours with a booze-fueled party atmosphere, and

Gareth Johnson of Young Pioneer Tours

YPT founder Gareth Johnson on a 2009 visit to Pyongyang.

for being somewhat lax in the organization of its tours. If you find yourself questioning the wisdom of a business model that encourages excessive alcohol consumption in a country where breaking the most minor law gets you shipped to a gulag for fifteen years, you’re not alone.

Love and Marriage: An Institute You Can Apparently Disparage

Over the past few years, anecdotal evidence has suggested to me that young Koreans are less willing to get married, or to delay marriage to their 30’s. The hard evidence for this trend is provided by Statistics Korea, who report that Korea’s marriage rate has dropped steeply since 1996, and last year recorded the lowest rate since 1970.

Against this backdrop, I was not quite sure what to make of this recent Korea Herald article, which reports that single-person households are now the most common living arrangement (27.8%) in Korea, while also noting that a majority of the people living alone (59.1%) are married.

It’s long been noted that many couples around the world, like this one in England, have found many benefits to sleeping in separate beds or even separate bedrooms.  Are Korean couples taking this marriage-saving trend to the next level by maintaining separate pads, or is it a dark omen that portends a further  weakening of the already battered institution? Stay tuned.

I Love Lucy

Still from the sitcom I Love Lucy. Though Lucy and Ricky’s separate beds were a product of prudish television moral guidelines, today’s viewers may more often see such sleeping arrangements as a crucial component of marital bliss. 

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Korea This Week (June 11 – 17)

A selection of this week’s news and commentary on Korean culture


 

I must admit feeling very spoiled reading this recent WSJ piece about the difficulty (read: ‘virtual impossibility’) of wiring the rural United States for broadband. The problem of course boils down to too few customers spread over too large an area, which, barring some massive infrastructure spending initiative, makes laying the requisite amount of fiber optic cable unprofitable.

nebraskafarmer

A Nebraska small-business owner waits for an e-mail to load.

Clocking in at 28.6 Mbps, South Korea still has the highest average broadband connection speed in the world, at something like a third of the price of broadband subscriptions in my country of birth (The U.S.), which just barely cracked the top ten at 18.7 Mbps. Three cheers for population density!

 


 

A recent viral video showing Korean lawmaker Kim Moo-sung shoving a wheeled suitcase through an airport arrival gate door without looking has touched some nerves in Korea. In the video, one of Kim’s aids scurries to collect the bag without receiving any form of greeting or even simple acknowledgment, and many people who have viewed the clip have pounced on what they see as a symptom of a work culture whose demands for deference go far beyond simple etiquette and often seem to require something closer to slavish devotion to the boss.

I don’t really have a dog in that race, but the video does strike me as somewhat unflattering to Mr. Kim, though to be fair, his no-look pass could have been intended to fake out someone off-camera, perhaps his wife, who had warned him not to come home with duty-free cigarettes and whiskey…

nolookpass

No-look pass (the cool kind)


 

Every week, I come across a few articles talking about the spread of Korean cultural products (film, TV, food, music, fashion) to some new corner of the globe, a wide-ranging trend/global marketing strategy better known as Hallyu, or “The Korean Wave”. Some of these articles are legit, others are promotional flak for Korea Incorporated, and some are a bit of both.

Others, like this one noting the popularity of Korean films and music in Northeastern India, are oddly fascinating. In 2002, the People’s Liberation Army banned Hindi films and television broadcasts and suppressed songs sung in Hindi in the Northeastern state of Manipur, where the PLA has been waging an independence movement for several decades. Because nature abhors a vacuum, the people of the region have turned to popular Korean entertainment, which, according to several sources, has become “the prime source of entertainment” in the region.

piratedKoreandvds

Pirated DVDs of Korean films and TV dramas have flooded Manipur’s markets

The trend was noted in this 2014 Al Jazeera piece, and by this young Indian blogger, who describes the Korean “cultural imperialism” that has many young people in Manipur greeting each other in Korean, imitating Korean hairstyles and fashion trends, and even heading to Korea for schooling.

As a citizen of the country that gave the world Starbucks, McDonald’s, and Hollywood, I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t occasionally cheer me to hear another country donning the “cultural imperialist” label for a change. It almost even makes up for the slow internet. Almost.

And how was your week?

Korea This Week (June 4 – June 10)

A selection of this week’s news and commentary on Korean culture


When I came to Busan in 2000, there were a few small chicken joints in my neighborhood with quirky names like Goopy Chicken, Chicken Syndrome, and my personal favorite, Smoper, which presented a rare case of a foreign word – “smurf” – being transliterated into Hangeul (스머프), which was then used as the basis of its transliteration back smoperinto the Roman alphabet. All of them were more or less interchangeable in what they offered, and they sat pretty much right on top of another. I often wondered how they stayed in business.

The answer of course is that they didn’t. According to statistics from the Fair Trade Commission reported by the Chosun Ilbo, though over 41,000 chicken restaurants opened last year, 24,000 thousand went out of business. In other words, a chicken restaurant fails every 22 minutes, while the market inches even further beyond saturation.

While some point to a copycat mentality in explaining the proliferation of chicken places, others have pointed out that the explosion has its roots in the 1997 Asian economic crisis, when many out-of-work salarymen were attracted to the business by its low entry fee and operating costs.


angry-raccoonI got a chuckle out of this short video by NPR reporter Elise Hu, who recently visited a few of Seoul’s animal cafes. As Hu notes, animal cafes have been popping up in many Asian cities, and are often popular because they provide a way for people who can’t have pets to get their regular fix of animal interaction. While she quickly takes a shine to the dog cafe, the raccoon cafe is another story.


I also came across this piece on kimchi juice, which is not referring to the liquid that pools at the bottom of your kimchi container, but a bottled “100% organic kimchi juice” that the manufacturer describes as “fresh, raw, and alive” and is selling for $16.99 per 32 ounce bottle.

It has an Amazon rating of 4.2 stars, but some of the reviews seem a bit, shall we say, overenthusiastic. One reviewer called it “the nectar of the gods”, while another had this to say:

My kids used to argue about who got the juice from the Kim Chi jar, now they can drink to their hearts content.

While I don’t see myself fighting my kids over who gets to guzzle the last drop, I will say

kimchi cocktail

Kimchi cocktails are another possibility

that I have found one use for kimchi juice – the old-fashioned, bottom-of-the-tub kind, that is: I drizzle it into my kimchi bokkeumbap to give it a bit of added moisture and flavor.

One of the other takeaways from the article is that the product contains a microbe that is named after kimchi: a species of lactobacillus called lactobacillus kimchii that was proposed as a distinct species in 2000 by JH Yoon et. al. Time will tell if the proposed classification holds up to peer review, but for now, our wide and wonderful world contains a living organism named for kimchi.


Korea This Week (May 28 – June 3)

A selection of this week’s news and commentary on Korean culture


Is K-Pop a genre?

With the appearance of the all-American, self-proclaimed “K-Pop” group EXP Edition, the opening of K-pop cram schools in New York, and Jaden Smith announcing his intention to “drop a K-Pop single“, it was probably inevitable that fans and critics of K-Pop would eventually weigh in on the question

EXP-Edition-Group-Photo-Featured

EXP Edition

of what exactly K-Pop is; specifically, whether it is by definition a thing made only by Koreans, or whether it is a genre (like rock, hip hop, jazz, and many others) that has escaped the boundaries of its birthplace and is now open to any performer anywhere to borrow, imitate, or appropriate.

Last week, two K-blog heavyweights weighed in on the issue. “The Korean”, of the popular Ask a Korean blog argued that K-Pop is not a genre, and that the term refers to any form of popular music that is a product of Korea (read his full take on the subject here). Roboseyo, writing on his long-running, eponymous blog, argues that K-Pop is in fact a genre, and notes that the label is not used to refer to all music out of Korea. Whatever the case, if you find the question interesting, these are two considered opinions very much worth reading in their entirety.

Siesta, Korean style

studentsleepingKoreans are one of the most-sleep deprived groups of people in the world, clocking fewer hours of sleep than any other OECD country. Because of this, it’s still common to see commuters dozing on trains and buses, students nodding at their desks, and office workers consuming much more caffeine than was the case even a few years ago.

Since 2014, sleep-deprived office workers in Seoul have had another option to remedy their lack of shut-eye: the opportunity to get some quality downtime in a “sleep café”, which are places where visitors can pay a small fee and crash for a while before heading back to work. Personally I am cheering for these places to take off – many times have a wished there were a place to crash other than my office chair or local Starbucks sofa.

On the appeal of K-dramas in Malaysia

Though some Westerners these days are tuning into Korean dramas, many others (like myself) often find it hard to understand the appeal. Apparently this is true of a lot of Asian observers as well, like the staff at Cilisos, a Malaysian news magazine, who recently asked Malaysian fans of K-dramas what they liked about them. The resulting comments were interesting and touched on everything from the lack of

kdramakiss

Kissing tends to come late in the season, and is thus a bigger deal.

lighthearted fare from Hollywood, the focus on emotional rather physical intimacy, and the fact that Korean dramas often end after one season (which makes committing to a K-drama seem a lot less daunting than diving into an American serial drama).

Though I occasionally tune into whatever current drama my wife and kids are watching at home, I still don’t know if I’m sold, but it’s good to keep in mind that much of that stuff wasn’t made with middle-aged American guys in mind. To paraphrase Bill Clinton’s campaign manager James Carville, “It’s the Asian market, stupid!”