Tourism

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 (May 21-27)

A distillation of select news from the peninsula


Tourism promotion has always been tricky business in Korea. In this writer’s humble opinion, one of the main stumbling blocks has been a problem of perspective, specifically, a tendency of Korean tourism promoters to consistently overrate the appeal of traditional Korean culture to international tourists.

People travel for a variety of reasons – experience, entertainment, relaxation, enrichment – but rather than consider what kinds of things tourists would like to see, do, or experience, tourism officials more often seem to promote Korea the way they would like people to experience it. As a result, their offerings and suggested itineraries often end up sounding less like an exciting holiday package and more like a high school class trip.

With the exception of Chinese and Japanese tourists ( who can pop over for weekend if they want), people from most anywhere else have to travel a long distance to get here, and the reason for doing so has to be something a bit more compelling than making kimchi, watching a mask dance, taking a pottery class, or visiting a museum dedicated to the history of the song Arirang (I’m not making that up). In short, Korea is a cool place to

Arirang score

All together now!

visit, but you wouldn’t always know that from reading the official tourism literature.

In other news, last Sunday, the band BTS won Billboard’s Best Social Artist prize, and in doing so became the first K-Pop group to win a Billboard award. I’m not a K-Pop fan (mainly because I’m a 46-year old male), but you have to give credit where it is due: winning at an American awards ceremony despite having no songs in English and only one band member who is fluent in the language is a remarkable achievement.

Some were quick to point out that we shouldn’t read too much into it however, because it was a fan-voted prize. Anyone who recalls 2011, when the K-pop singer Rain won Time Magazine‘s poll for “The World’s Most Influential Person” (beating out Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and a comically incredulous Stephen Colbert), knows very well that you never – ever – challenge a Korean entertainer to an online poll. You will lose. Badly.

BTS also sold out a 5-show arena tour in the US earlier this year, which has fired dreams of bigger success in the North American music market, something that has so far eluded Hallyu stars (who, to be fair, have mainly focused their energies elsewhere). If the current South Korean / Chinese spat over the THAAD missile system deployment drags on, cracking into the US and other markets could become a bigger priority for K-Pop acts. Stay tuned…

Mission Improbable – The Trouble with Traveling to Improve your Country

From February to June 1787, with all of his necessities packed in a single trunk, Thomas Jefferson traveled “incognito” by coach, barge, and sometimes mule across most of France and Northern Italy. Reading the extensive diary he kept of the trip, one encounters many passages like the following.

In the boudoir at Chanteloup is an ingenious contrivance to hide the projecting steps of a staircase. Three steps were of necessity to project into the boudoir. They therefore made triangular steps, and, instead of resting on the floor as usual, they are made fast at their broad end to the stair door, swinging out and in with that. When shut, it runs them under the other steps. When open, it brings them out to their proper place.

jefferson1787I don’t quote this because it was Jefferson’s most electrifying prose; it’s not, and to be fair, he never intended to publish it. What is striking about the diary is what it says about Jefferson’s sense of the grand purpose of travel, evidenced by the wealth of detail describing everything from soil types, methods of grape cultivation, the relationship of social conditions to regional crops, and sketches of practical contraptions like the one above. Every page reveals a man bent on devouring as much practical information as he could with an eye toward using it to improve both himself and his country on his eventual return to Virginia. In addition to scouting markets and securing contacts for American agricultural producers (his primary duties as a minister), he brought back with him new varieties of plants, architectural designs and ideas he would later implement, plans for technological devices, and an unparalleled expertise in European wines and viticulture. Not too shabby for an 18th century backpacker.

Despite competing with the leisure travel industry for our hearts and minds, the idea of traveling to improve one’s country is still discussed today, though it more often falls under the purview of travel scribes than presidential hopefuls. One of the most vocal and visible contemporary champions of what you might call national-improvement travel is the writer and entrepreneur Rick Steves. In his recent book, Travel as a Political Act, Steves explains the book’s eponymous theme thus:

When we return home, we can put what we’ve learned – our newly acquired broader perspective – to work as citizens of a great nation confronted with unprecedented challenges. And when we do that, we make travel a political act.

steves wine

Rick Steves, travel writer and man of a sober age.

Steves’s notion that travel can improve one’s country echoes Jefferson, who wrote to his nephew in 1787 that “men of a sober age” could travel to “gather knowledge, which they may apply usefully for their country.” There is however an important difference between them: The country Jefferson came home to was agrarian, weak, and relatively undeveloped, so many of his observations found an appreciative audience among a people who felt they had something to learn from Europe. In contrast, Rick Steves has to chip away against the popular conceit that America is exceptional and has little to learn from Europe – least of all the French, whose label as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” has been un-ironically accepted as the last word on France by the millions of FOX viewers who never quite grasped that learning international studies from Homer Simpson is a bit like learning feminism from Archie Bunker.

Attractive Expressive Young Mixed Race Female Student Sitting and Talking with Girlfriend Outside on Bench.

So like, oh my god, I have to tell you about this thing they use in Europe called the metric system…

But like Jefferson, Rick Steves is also a man fired with missionary zeal. In the book, he writes cogently about successful heroin maintenance programs in Switzerland, Sweden’s commonsense approach to underage drinking, the liberal stance toward prostitution in the Netherlands, and several other battle-tested European social policy triumphs. This is well and good until one recalls that Europe is no longer some distant land from which letters take weeks to arrive and none but seamen, diplomats, or the very rich will ever see in person, which points up another difference between Jefferson’s time and our own: the traveler coming back from Europe today isn’t really telling people much that they haven’t already heard.

So if we know about these things, why don’t we implement all these great ideas? Part of the answer lies in yet another important difference between the worlds of Jefferson and Steves: today’s traveler is sharing his European insights with countrymen who are too often hypersensitive to criticism (Love it or leave it!) and who seldom give a hot damn what Europeans do, think, or say. While some of Jefferson’s contemporaries may have replicated the “ingenious contrivance” he observed in the boudoir, today the phrase “solution X has worked in country Y” is rarely the premier feature of a persuasive discourse or a winning debate.

sarah-palin-flag-pin

Reality star Sarah Palin gazes vigilantly at Russia.

You don’t even have to look as far as Europe to overlook an idea. Case in point, socialized medicine in Canada. You can be for it or against it – and I frankly don’t care which – but one thing that should be very clear by now is that its implementation doesn’t lead down the dreaded “slippery slope” to inevitable and abject totalitarianism, as many Americans strangely imagine despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. For some Americans this is as easy to debunk as literally looking out the window (there goes Sarah Palin’s excuse), yet to point out that Canada has socialized medicine but no dictatorship is to be cheeky or obtuse, not a Jeffersonian visionary.

No doubt mindful of these obnoxious tendencies, Steves is obliged to draw doomed analogies between constructive personal criticism and criticism of one’s equally beloved country:

I enjoy bettering myself by observing others. And I appreciate constructive criticism from caring friends. In the same spirit, I enjoy learning about my society by observing other societies and challenging myself to be broad-minded when it comes to international issues.

I’d be out of my depth to deal with the question of whether the average person strives to better themselves, but even among people who do, embracing criticism is a leap that many still don’t make. Whatever the reason for that, it leads me back to some of the grand claims that are occasionally made in praise of travel, namely, the idea that the inevitable consequence of travel is growth, openness, or some other species of personal improvement. While it appears to make intuitive sense, the continuing struggles of people like Rick Steves to invite their fellow Americans to engage in transformative introspection or to brook well-intentioned and thoughtful criticism suggests to me that there are in fact prerequisites to this happy side-effect – call it ugly-american-thumbhumility or openness if you like – and that travel does not necessarily teach us those things. Traveling certainly affords the opportunity to learn, but in order to learn something it seems we must first acknowledge that we have something to learn in the first place. Without that mindset, the opportunity is wasted, as evidenced by every self-assured ding-dong, dipshit, and dunderhead who strapped on a backpack and came back with his ignorance intact.

I’m not saying that travel has not cracked open a stubborn nut here and there and managed to ram home an uninvited truth; that happens, though it strikes me as less common. It’s also not hard to find examples of travel gurus (Steves is one) advising us to open our minds prior to traveling in order to get something out of the experience, a tacit acknowledgment that we become travelers by becoming open, but that we can’t count on it happening the other way around.

If our goal is to better our country, is there still a point to purposeful travel, or is bettering ourselves the best we can do? And if openness is the main requirement to do that, does travel have any role in that at all?

The big question seems to be: how do you learn openness?  I don’t really know, but I’m pretty sure that if you’re headed into a boudoir in Chanteloup, you want to be ready for anything.

6a00e5518490a0883401a73d6a9491970d-800wi

Hello there, sailor.

Editor’s note: this piece recently appeared on Outside Looking In.

Korea Through the Eyes of Foreigners (through the Eyes of Koreans)

By John Bocskay

I came across in my news readings today a story about this survey by a group called the Corea Image Communication Institute, and the results are interesting for the little bit of light they shed on the gap that still exists between what Koreans think will interest foreigners and what foreigners actually find interesting about Korea. The survey “asked 308 Koreans what aspects of Korea they felt most pride in and 232 foreigners what they enjoyed most while visiting.”

This bit caught my eye:

seoul-street-market_9167_600x450

Personally I think this kicks the shit out of Skinfood and Tony Moly.

“For shopping spots, 45.8 percent of Koreans said they would introduce tourists to traditional marketplaces, while 42.67 percent of foreigners said they would prefer the more contemporary road shops and shopping streets, possibly due to the fact that English communication is easier in downtown areas.” 

It’s possible that English is more widely spoken in downtown areas, though the old folks at Kukjae Shijang or Dongdaemun Market seldom fail to get their point across with whatever level of English they have at their command. I couldn’t help but wonder whether one reason for the discrepancy is simply that many people are just more interested in contemporary Korea than they are in the traditional stuff.

HyundaiShipYard

Yeah, that’s great, but I don’t see anything that looks like a Pina Colada.

This finding also jibes with something I’ve often noted in the classroom. Over the years, I’ve had adult students plan an imaginary 2-day itinerary for a foreign friend who is visiting Korea for the first time. Some suggestions, like mask dances, temple tours, and palaces are common. You might be surprised at how many of them have included conference centers, shipyards, and automobile assembly plants on the must-see list. Who knows what our hypothetical tourist thinks about all that, but those are not really the things that leap to mind when I’m doing the 2-day tourist thing.

It’s natural to want to showcase great achievements and traditional heritage, but tourism planners do well to acknowledge things that travelers actually want to do (sauna, anyone?), as opposed to what the bigwigs would like them to experience. Surveys like this are certainly a step in the right direction, because as anyone who lives here knows, there are many features of modern Korea that are pretty cool.

Case in point: food. Regarding the popularity of fast food delivery service (over 50%), the article had this to say:

hitesoju

No thanks.

The fact that the singer Psy portrayed Korea’s delivery food culture in his internationally-watched music videos may have contributed to its popularity,” said the CICI in a press release.

Thanks Psy! And here I thought that was just because late-night food delivery is just utterly brilliant.

Actually, I do think it’s brilliant, which is why I like it. When I read things like this, I catch a faint whiff of the old insecurity that makes it hard for some Koreans to believe that without a spokesman or an aggressive (and occasionally hokey) ad campaign the world will be unaware that there’s a lot about modern Korea that’s not only cool but speaks for itself.

Maybe that’s reading too much into this (I’m sure you will correct me in the comments section), but I also note that Koreans are sometimes caught by surprise when something of theirs catches on. Psy’s viral hit was itself an example of Korean pop culture taking off in ways that no one could have anticipated, let alone packaged and pimped for global consumption. Watching this quirky Korean crooner skyrocket to global fame, it was hard to tell who was more surprised, the world or Korea.

spicy-sweet-ddukbokkie

Full disclosure: I purposely chose the least flattering photo of ddeokbokki I could find.

Not everything in the survey was unexpected: it showed strong agreement about food, with Korean restaurants being far and away the most popular food option among both Koreans and foreigners (76% and 77% percent respectively). However, a discrepancy in the second-place option shed light on another tendency: Korea’s chronic overestimation of foreigners’ enthusiasm for ddeok. For those of you who have somehow escaped it, Wikipedia describes ddeok as a rice cake made from rice flour and which has zero taste whatsoever until it is filled, sprinkled, drizzled or slathered with something that has some actual goddamn flavor (I’m paraphrasing). Anyway, survey said:

While 12.50 percent of Koreans guessed that tourists would seek out street food such as tteokbokki, 10.43 percent of foreigners replied that they prefer cuisine from other Asian regions such as pho noodles and sushi.

Glad I was sitting down for that. Your thoughts?