A Reflection on Korea

As an English conversation teacher, I have spent most of the past year discussing everything from K-pop to politics to history to relationships with Koreans young and old. In that time I have learned about many supremely interesting aspects of Korean culture and why it is the way it is. There are many things that I like about Korea—public transportation, safety, and friendliness among them. Reflecting on what I’ve learned, however, I realized that my strongest feeling for Korea is admiration, an admiration encapsulated by an event which most Koreans would probably rather forget: the foreign exchange crisis of 1997. It is said that hardship reveals the true nature of a person; perhaps the same holds true for nations.

In 1997 Korea was a country on the rise. Having recently ascended to the 11th

Dongdaemun, a market district in the center of Seoul

largest economy in the world and per capita GDP climbing above $10,000 for the first time, it was practically indistinguishable from the war-torn wasteland of just over 40 years before. Seoul was emerging as one of the business hubs of East Asia and, with an unemployment rate of only 2 percent, any Korean that wanted a job could get one. Referred to by former Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan as a “symbol of Asia’s remarkable growth,” Korea seemingly had nowhere to go but up.

All Koreans over the age of 20 remember what happened next: due to a variety of causes, both internal and external, that are too complex to get into here, Korea was swept up in the East Asian Financial Crisis. Thousands of businesses went bankrupt or initiated enormous layoffs, in some cases thousands of employees per day. Businessmen, ashamed to tell their families they had been laid off, dressed for work and spent their days wandering around parks.

Up to this point the tale is familiar; indeed, many in the past few years have experienced something not dissimilar to what Koreans underwent in the late 1990s. But what happens next is simply remarkable. As we have witnessed in Greece, the United States, Spain, and countless other places, economic crises tend to lead to civil unrest and increased anger towards the establishment. Not in Korea. Instead of turning on their government and major companies, Koreans banded together. Unions and corporations agreed on new labor laws to aid the climb out of bankruptcy, even at the expense of worker rights and potential profit. But the most amazing event to me is the gold drive, where Koreans lined up to donate their possessions to the payment of Korea’s debt. Stop and think about that for a moment. Wedding rings, expensive jewelry, family heirlooms… all sacrificed by Koreans for the good of their nation.

Thanks to the efforts and cooperation of its people, Korea was able to pay off its IMF debt three years ahead of schedule and continue their rapid ascension up the international economic ladder. It’s the same attitude (known in Korea as bali-bali—quickly, quickly) that allowed one of the poorest countries in the world in 1950 to become the technological and industrial powerhouse of the present day. That Korea is where it is now is a tribute to the capacity of its people for hard work and perseverance against tremendous odds. There has never been a story like it in the history of civilization, and my admiration and respect for their efforts knows no bounds.

Are there negatives to this attitude? Of course. When my students and I weren’t discussing K-pop, politics, history, or relationships we were talking about the dangerously high stress level and absurdly long hours of Korean education and work cultures. Suicide rates are the highest in the world. Korea ranks 31st of 32 OECD countries in happiness. There are a bevy of serious problems caused by the bali-bali mindset. But it’s a lot easier to solve social issues with a full stomach and a roof over your head, and given their recent history, I wouldn’t be surprised if in 15 years we were talking about Korea as the happiest country in the world. I know I won’t be betting against them.

The Korean Fool


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It has become clear by now that “Gangnam Style” is unlike anything before seen by American audiences (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, where have you been and click here).  Artists from T-Pain to Josh Groban to Katy Perry have expressed their admiration and love for the bouncy track and mesmerizing video by PSY, South Korea’s newest cultural icon.

It is curious to note, however, that while PSY was a well-known figure in Korea prior to “Gangnam Style,” he was by no means at the top of his field in his home country, where pop groups like Wonder Girls, Super Junior, and Girls’ Generation rule the musical roost.  Indeed, these groups and others like them–young, attractive, and vacuous–have been the leading crest of 한류, or the Korean Wave, a surge of Korean pop culture which has swept across the Asian continent. Why these artists have not succeeded in America is a question for another day.  But that the new face of Korean culture in the United States is not only older but relatively unattractive goes against everything K-Pop has stood for.

As it turns out, PSY, or Park Jae-sang to give him his real name, is an atypical K-Pop star in more than just his age (a medieval–for K-Pop–34) and appearance; he writes and and choreographs his own music, a rarity in general in today’s pop music but particularly in Korea, where production companies churn out and program “artists” the way Samsung makes smartphones (by stealing from Apple!).  Park also attended both Boston University and the Berklee College of Music, and the exposure he gained there to American social protest music may well have informed his future career.  For Park was viewed by Koreans pre-“Gangnam Style” primarily as a comedian, a light-hearted fool who looked a little silly and did silly things.  But fools, as everyone from Shakespeare to Stephen Colbert have taught us, are often the truest social commentators, and PSY is no exception.

On the surface the message is very simple: Gangnam is an upscale neighborhood of Seoul and PSY is cheekily lampooning the ostentation and frivolity of the wealthiest of Korea’s population.  Nothing big, nothing earth-shattering.  And yet that message alone is notable, since as Korean-American consultant Adriana Hong notes in this excellent Atlantic article on the song, “Koreans have not had a long history of nuanced satire.” Earlier this year soldiers in the Korean Army were ordered to delete anti-government material from their smartphones, including a popular podcast criticizing the conservative administration, and all of the country’s major newspapers are run by the massive business conglomerates which have a vice grip on power.  That a song with a social message, however slight, is now being blasted across storefronts from Seoul to Busan is a step in a new direction.

But there is more to PSY’s song than simple dissatisfaction with the rich.  Gangnam, glittery, shiny, glamorous, is the embodiment of what most Koreans want–or rather, are trained to want from childhood.  The Korean life cycle for the past two generations has been: study very hard as a student so you can get a job at Samsung and work very hard so you can earn money.  This is an entirely justifiable attitude, given that 60 years ago Kenya had a higher GDP per capita than South Korea, but it is also anachronistic.  Korea has succeeded; it has become a developed nation with a standard of living unthinkable to Koreans even 30 years ago.  And as PSY hints at in his portrayal of the emptiness and futility of the chase for the “Gangnam Style” life, there is more to life than chasing money and prestige. Koreans finally have both the time and resources to stop and smell the roses.



Exploring the Capital


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I have tried to make a point recently to see parts of Seoul that I am not familiar with.  Because I have Tuesday and Thursday afternoons free, I try to pick one of those days and go to a park or site in the capital that I have never been to.  I have been on three such excursions so far: one to the old Japanese prison, one to Changdeokgung, the summer palace, and one to Boramae Park.

The prison, known as Seodaemun Prison, was built in 1907 and used by the Japanese invaders to hold political prisoners and Korean nationalists.  It was the sight of some of the most brutal torture of the natives and stands today as a symbol of Japanese oppression and cruelty.


An actual copy of the document which put Korea under Japanese control – 1910

The barracks of Seodaemun Prison








While Seodaemun dealt with recent history, Changdeokgung pertains more to medieval Korea.  Though not the biggest, the Palace of Prospering Virtue is arguably the most beautiful of the five Seoul palaces.  Partially this is due to the layout; while most Korean palaces were built according the Chinese feng shui principle, which in architecture terms means a mountain behind and a river in front, Changdeokgung is simply built in accordance with the contours of the land, making it much more pleasing to stroll through than some of the more famous palaces.  It also has a “secret garden” in the back which is more like a secret wood; it stretches over 80 acres and holds dozens of buildings and several ponds.

Part of the Secret Garden

One of the dozens of buildings inside Changdeokgung

Boramae Park is, unlike these previous two sites, just a park.  However, it does have a special feature.  Boramae means “hawk” in Korean, and indeed, Boramae Park used to be an airfield.  In tribute to its more glorious past, the Korean park designers have installed eight retired Korean air force planes next to the main green, and these, combined with several fountains and the big open green space, combined to make a very interesting park indeed.

One of the fountains at Boramae

This F-4 Phantom was just one of the airplanes at the park.








Well, that’s it for me today.  Thanks for reading!

Sea Change?


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Late last year, I wrote an open letter to the recently deceased Kim Jong-Il to mark his passing and muse on the past and future of his country.  In it, I speculated that as successful as he had been at cutting off knowledge of the outside world to the people of North Korea–and he had been extremely successful–it couldn’t last forever.  Already there are black markets selling foreign products and the courageous and tech-savvy have the capability to pick up South Korean TV stations.  The true hermit kingdom couldn’t stay closed forever.

And now here we are, six months into the reign of Kim Jong-Eun, and things have been happening.  Unlike his predecessors, the young Kim did not have deific authority upon taking power, leading some analysts to speculate that he would have to consolidate his power with external power plays similar to the shelling of Yeoungpyeong Island and sinking of the ROKS Cheonanin 2010.  Instead, Kim has turned inward in a reshuffle of the power structure in Pyongyang which culminated in the recent dismissal of Vice Marshal Ri Yong-Ho, chief of the army and one of the stalwarts of the late Kim’s regime.  Though the North Korean press reports that Ri is stepping down due to poor health, most experts think that the purge is an example of Kim exerting his authority.

Kim Jong-Eun with the recently dismissed Ri Yong-Ho, left, and head of the Central Military Commission Choe Ryong-Hae.

Speculation has been rife over the meaning of the change.  Some contend that it is merely symptomatic of the turbulence caused by a new leader, while others say that Kim’s uncle and fellow high-ranking official Jang Sun-Taek was behind the move.  Most interesting to me, however, is the theory that the dismissal of General Ri represents a fundamental policy difference between the young supreme leader and the established leadership, of which Ri was an integral part.  Ri was a strong supporter of the Songun, or military-first, policy set in place by Kim Jong-Il.  Recently, however, it has emerged that Kim has been using soldiers for “infrastructure projects,” in the words of Business Week, indicating an approach more economic than military in nature.  Analyst Cheong Seong Chang speculates that Ri may have been fired because he was resisting these initiatives.

This would be interesting enough by itself, but the fact that Kim Jong-Eun’s perceived policy shift is not the only way in which he has distinguished himself.  In his six months in power, the Swiss-educated Kim has admitted error (over the botched rocket launch in April), made two public speeches, and been seen with a woman thought to be his wife or girlfriend in public, all things which his father never did.  He has been seen in restaurants selling pizza and french fries and just recently attended a show performed by unlicensed Disney characters (video here), items condemned by his predecessors as products of the corrupt and decadent West.  And then there’s the firing of General Ri.  As Richard Bush of the Brookings Institution puts it, “The reason it’s a big deal is because General Ri was clearly designated to be one of Kim Jong Un’s guardians during the period of succession and transition, which reflects the wishes of the father.  For the son to go against these ostensible wishes reflects that something really serious is going on.”

This is not to say the Kim Jong-Eun is a progressive, open-minded dictator.  He has continued developing the nuclear arms program against the wishes of the global community, went ahead with the rocket launch despite the threat of a stoppage in food aid and has continued the great North Korean tradition of making grandiose threats to South Korea and the United States.  But there are signs that Kim, still under 30 by most estimates, is trying to forge a different North Korea than the malnourished and poverty-stricken nation he has inherited.  In perhaps the biggest change of all, Kim has reported signed an agreement with China to send thousands of its skilled workers across the border to earn much-needed currency for its depleted coffers.  This is perhaps the riskiest act in the history of North Korea, as it would be significantly harder to maintain the curtain of ignorance integral to the continued existence of the North Korean regime if its workers are exposed to foreign cultures.

Change begets change.  It may well be that Kim has no intention whatsoever of opening his country to the outside.  Perhaps in thinking that he can control the influx of foreign culture he is exposing his youth and naiveté.  But whatever intention he has, the change can only be good for the long-suffering populace.  Things are happening in North Korea.  Let’s hope they continue.

Korean History: The Three Kingdoms


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It has recently occurred to me that almost all of my posts have dealt with my daily comings and goings or the state of Korea in the present day.  As a history enthusiast, this seems like a problem.  I am going to try to devote more words to Korea’s past, which will hopefully will help explain how Korea became the country it is today. I am most interested in Korea’s recent past, but I will touch on the previous eras as well.

The first archaeological evidence of life on the Korean peninsula dates from some 10,000 years ago, around 8000 BCE.  Over the next eight-odd centuries, many significant things happened; kingdoms were created, wars were fought, and dynasties were begun and ended.  But I have to draw an arbitrary line somewhere and I’m going with the turn of the century.  From that point on we will deal in history with which I am a little more familiar.  Today will be the Three Kingdoms period.

The Three Kingdoms in 400 CE.

When you ask a Korean about interesting times in Korean history, this is usually one of the epochs which crops up.  The Three Kingdoms period spanned about 600 years (57-668 CE) and in many ways marks the beginning of modern Korean history.  As the name indicates, the Korean peninsula was broken into three separate realms: Baekje, Goguryeo, and Silla.

The Baekje kingdom, which at its height controlled most of the western half of Korea and whose longest-tenured capital was present-day Seoul–at the time called Wiryeseong–is the least heralded of the three kingdoms.  Interestingly, and uniquely in Korean history, the lords of Baekje had a strong relationship with Japan, though this is less impressive than it sounds as Japan at the time was little more than a battleground for warring clans.  Indeed, some think that the Japan imperial line has Baekje blood.

The Goguryeo kingdom was the biggest by far in area, at its occupying all of modern-day North Korea as well as parts of South Korea and Russia and a significant portion of Chinese Manchuria.  The Goguryeo kingdom was expansive enough that some Chinese texts view it as Chinese, giving Koreans north and south occasion to descend into fits of rage.  The most martial of the Three Kingdoms, Goguryeo’s capital was for many years at Hwando on the Yalu River, the border between North Korea and China.  It was later moved to Pyongyang.  Goguryeo is held highly in Koreans’ esteem, primarily because of the influence and power it wielded at its height.  In fact, the name Goguryeo was later adopted and modified by the Goryeo dynasty (918-1392 CE), from which the modern name Korea is derived.

The Silla kingdom (pronounced Shilla) ruled the south-eastern portion of the Korean peninsula and had its capital at Gyeongju for the entirety of its existence.  Despite being the weakest and smallest for much of its early existence, the Silla emerged as the dominant power on the peninsula, conquering Baekje in 660 CE and using an alliance with the Chinese to conquer Goguryeo in 668 to effectively taking control of all of Korea. Because of this, and because of a focus on artistic and religious culture unequalled by the other two kingdoms, the Silla dynasty has the most influence on modern Korea.  Gyeongju is a popular field trip location for students due to its numerous temples, shrines, and other artifacts.  Buddhism, until the last 50 years the dominant religion in Korea, was practiced most ardently in the Silla kingdom, in which originated the family names Park and Kim.  Silla ruled a least a part of Korea for a millenium before it submitted to the nascent Goryeo dynasty.