Nonsense, horsefeathers, and idle musings from a decade in South Korea (2002-2012).

28 February, 2008

The Feng Shui of Contentment

By Aaron
28 February, 2008

In 1892, his honeymoon having been aborted by a Japanese bank failure, the British writer Rudyard Kipling left Yokohama and headed back to the New World, where he settled in Brattleboro, Vermont. As Paul Theroux tells it, Kipling "loved the American landscape; he was uncertain of the people. He hated the drinking, the talking, the spitting, the greed, the noise, the illiterate immigrants, the xenophobia - specifically a hurtful anti-British feeling which prevailed in the 1890s." Americans, thought Kipling, seemed to think that he was merely leeching money out of the country without sufficient gratitude for his position.2

Eventually, of course, Kipling had all he could take of the ill-mannered Americans and decided to take his brood and go home to England, where he and his family settled in Torquay on the coast of Devon. He didn't like it much there either, however, blaming what he claimed was the lousy feng shui of his house for all that ailed him.

Wherever Kipling went, there he was. As far as I can tell, though, nothing and no one told Kipling where to go or forced him to live in houses with bad feng shui. He just liked to gripe, bitch and moan. But then, as Theroux points out in a separate essay, a "man of the world, almost by definition, is never content anywhere."3

* * *

A few days ago, I left our apartment and, as I do on most mornings, headed to the office. As I neared the subway station I spotted, on the side of the road between two cars, a turd. Now, I'm no expert tracker but even I could tell that this particular dollop was human in origin, and I had to wonder why anyone would be squatting between a pair of parked Kias on a frigid winter night, dropping a deuce in our neighborhood. It seemed a tad uncouth to me, but then I remembered - as though I could have forgotten - that I live in the Guro district of Seoul.

Korea, sparkling.

On the best of days, Korea is a nuisance - perhaps no greater a nuisance than many other countries, but certainly not much less of one either. If you don't happen upon any open-air night soil, you'll still have to do a quick jig to sidestep the vomit on the sidewalk or to dodge a lugee horked by some churlish yokel in the subway station.

Any foreigner who has lived in Korea for a few years probably has - or should have - a healthy batch of mixed feelings toward the country. Each year of life passed as a foreigner in Korea adds equally to one's loyalty to the country as well as to a sense of utter disgust with the place. Ideally, a person can maintain a healthy balance between the two competing emotions, but the temptation to slip over into the dark side and just write Korea off as a hopeless backwater, filled with small-minded clodhoppers, is not an easy one to resist on the worst of days.

What the stranger in this strange land, the interloper, must resist at all costs, is the urge to feel superior to the people of his host nation. He must repel that creeping notion that whispers - when, yet again, crudeness trumps decorum - "these bumpkins couldn't carry my balls in a paper sack." This, however, is no easy task when some uncultured rube has just taken a shit on a street in your neighborhood.

And am I allowed to say that, like Kipling in 19th century America, my soft spot for Korea has been slowly but steadily eroded by the drinking, the spitting, the noise, the xenophobia? Can I say, without sounding cavalier, that the tiresome parts of Korea have slowly begun to outweigh any greater sum it might have once held in my mind? Eventually, like Kipling, I'd best pack up my satchel and make an escape of my own. To this end, I remind myself daily that I am an expatriate on contract, not an exile, but that the longer I stay here, the higher the risk that I will slip from the former into the latter.

I can only hope that I have not become, to the detriment of my own contentment, Theroux's "man of the world."

1 Illustration from The Atlantic
2 Paul Theroux, Sunrise with Seamonsters. "Rudyard Kipling: White Man's Burden."
3 ibid, but from "The Last Laugh," an essay on humorist S.J. Perelman

The Picking of Noses, and Other Such Choices

By Aaron

Nowadays, it's the nose.

My wife's younger sister, Min-young - now in high school and thus subject to all the slings and arrows of adolescent self-hatred - hates her schnoz, thinks it's ugly, and is just certain that plastic surgery is the answer to all of her life's teenage ills. Of course, she also sees no reason why her parents shouldn't pony up the money for such a makeover, as though my in-laws wipe their asses with 10,000 KRW notes.

"Some of my classmates' parents have paid for them to have nose jobs," said Min-young.

"That's because their parents think they're ugly," I said. "Yours don't."

After all, any parent who encourages their daughter, through funding, to seek cosmetic surgery might as well just come right out and say it: "You know, you're right, 'homely' really is too nice a word for that face of yours. Here's the money."

I went to the cupboard, got a paper shopping bag, and handed it to Min-young.

"Here, cut a couple eye holes in that and wear it when you leave the house. No one will ever see your nose and it's a helluva lot cheaper than a rhinoplasty.

As it happens, though...

In addition to the Joong-Ang, my daily copy of the International Herald Tribune also usually includes a pestilent fashion section, always cluttering up the middle of my paper and clinging to at least one page of the business section, such that I can't just remove and discard the unwanted pages. Most days, I just grumble to Na Young over my coffee cup and move on past the Style section, but today the above picture caught my eye. It seems that designer Junya Watanabe has come up with a way to make money off those people who don't like their nose, but who like the knife even less (image above).

Someone ought to direct him to my sister-in-law's high school.


Photo from Reuters

24 February, 2008

Steamed, Fried, or Endangered?

By Aaron
24 February, 2008

Seoul's Joong-Ang Daily newspaper, which comes folded into my morning copy of the International Herald Tribune, seems to have the idea that we can all have our endangered species and eat them, too. For two months running now, the Joong-Ang has printed articles lamenting the depletion of certain marine life, only to then accompany that article with a list of recommended restaurants where the reader might avail him or herself of dishes made with that species.

As this article points out, the city of Ulsan, located on the southeastern coast of Korea, has long been known as "Whale Meat City." Even today, according to the Joong-Ang, the city of Ulsan accounts for 80% of Korea's consumption of whale meat - a dubious honor if you ask me, given that the International Whaling Commission banned commercial whaling in 1986. Make no mistake, though: no whale meat in Ulsan would ever be obtained illegally. That whale meat on the tables of the restaurants? Oh, that whale was dead when we found it.

To avoid illegal trading in whale meat, the authorities are making a last-ditch effort. The Whale Research Center at the National Fisheries Research and Development Institute recently announced that it is offering a 10 million won ($10,670) reward for any sighting of a gray whale, dead or alive, in the area. The gray whale was last seen in the East Sea in 1964. The same institute is also offering 5 million won to anyone with a photograph or videotape of a live gray whale in the sea.

The turmoil over whale meat, however, is not strong enough to overpower the appetite of culinary nerds. Ulsan still attracts busloads of tourists on gourmet trips every year to taste a sample of Korean-style whale meat.

Given that whales and the sighting of them is so rare in the waters near Korea, what does the Joong-Ang Daily decide to do? But, of course: provide you, the reader, with the names, locations and phone numbers of a few restaurants known to serve fine whale entrees. Alternatively, if a person wishes to economize, the Joong-Ang has this recommendation: "A cheaper option is to buy whale meat in Joongang Market in central Ulsan, but be ready to compromise on sanitation."

I initially dismissed the Joong-Ang article on whaling and whale meat as unintended - if irksome - irony on the part of the newspaper, which I've never held in much regard anyway. When it comes to the English-language press in South Korea, though, I've learned not to say that it can't get any worse - because it usually does, somehow, find new ways to further disappoint.

Just last week, in fact, the Joong-Ang published this article about the disappearance of Alaskan pollack (or myeongtae, in Korean) from the waters around Korea, due to overfishing and warming seas.

In the past, the nets of fishermen trawling the eastern shores of Korea brimmed with myeongtae. You could see the fish drying next to the icicles outside houses in rural areas during winter.

But today, all that’s changed.

“Myeongtae? There are no fishing boats here that catch myeongtae,” said Kim Geum-cheol, 50, the captain of the 3.5-ton fishing boat Haegwangho.

“That fish is on the brink of extinction,” he added. “Today we count [myeongtae] in kilos [instead of tons].”

Nowadays, most Alaskan pollack consumed in Korea has to be imported from Japan, Russia and the United States. To be fair, I don't know the condition of the pollack stocks in those countries' waters, but I still have to question the decision of the Joong-Ang to first bemoan the disappearance of pollack from Korean waters and then, at the article's conclusion, provide the names and contact information for six restaurants serving that very fish.

I fully expect the Joong-Ang Daily, for one of their March editions, to dispatch a crack reporter to China for a story on Siberian tigers, in which we'll learn that the entire wild population of this big cat numbers in the hundreds and, for a taste of their meat, you can visit these fine restaurants.

21 February, 2008

The Heroes & Villains Suite

By Aaron
21 February, 2008

"Movements are for Beethoven and the bowels."
-Tom Robbins

One of the best capitalists I ever met was a Socialist named Dave. This fellow could have sold sand to a Saudi and I was ever-amazed at his ability to move - to actually sell - copies of The Socialist Worker to the most unlikely of customers: robber barons, hedge fund managers, sentient beings.

In a previous life, Dave had probably been a Jain merchant or a huckster of Old West patent medicines, but when I met him he was the de facto director of sales and marketing for the Washington, DC branch of the International Socialist Organization (ISO). Yes, even the Socialists need a marketing department because, after all, there's no such thing as a free lunch and you can't topple the plutocrats with good intentions.

What made Dave such an ace salesman was that - as far as I could tell - he actually believed in his product, as did his fellow Socialists. Walking into a weekly ISO meeting was not unlike entering a church, full of fervently true believers, ready to share with you The Good Word, in all its splendor. And just like in a religious service, the adherents refused to believe that anyone could be but passionate about their gospel. I mean, c'mon, this is The Truth we're talking about here and it shall set you free, goddamnit.

"America," said Alan Ginsberg, "I used to be a communist when I was a kid I'm not sorry."

I'm not sorry either, Alan, but ultimately, I just never could see the merits of either religion or Socialism in all their hopped-up piety. I tried to give myself over, I really did, but in the end, I was was like the sober dude watching a Cheech & Chong film: I just didn't get it.

* * *

And so, it's confession time.

Here's mine: I can't understand the frenzy surrounding Barack Obama. The media adore him; college kids go weak-kneed in his presence; Halle Barry has offered to "collect paper cups off the ground to make his pathway clear." Hell, I'm even afraid that there will be riots across the United States if some Danish newspaper dares to print a cartoon depicting his likeness.

To be sure, Obama is a handsome, charismatic figure, seemingly full of optimism and capable of the most soaring rhetoric. In other words, he's a politician, and a very talented one at that. If experience has taught us anything, though, it's that the more talented a politician is, the more vigilant - indeed, suspicious - we as citizens ought to be.2

Skepticism is doubly healthy when it comes to mass movements, which - whether good or bad - often lead to a mob mentality, as seen in religious services, political rallies, Amway conventions and rock concerts. Such events are designed to manipulate your emotions, and to think that Obama and his staff are unaware of his effect on people, or that his camp would do anything but exploit it, is naive.

As potentially the first African-American president, Obama rightly inspires a sense of hope across the United States, a desire to believe that perhaps all that hooey about boot straps and melting pots is true. A similar truth goes for Hillary Clinton, too, where gender is concerned. But if the color of one's skin or the nature of a person's genitalia shouldn't be reason for voting against a person, such factors similarly should not be reason to vote for a person.

I am not, for the record, a Democrat, and even less in this critique of Obama am I endorsing Hillary Clinton. In fact, from a purely strategic point of view, I can't see why the Democrats wouldn't nominate Obama for their push to recapture the White House in 2008. Beyond the fact that Obama stands a better chance of defeating John McCain, Clinton comes packaged with such a pre-congealed opposition that her presidency could be nearly as divisive and unproductive as the previous seven years.

For all his talk of post-partisanship, change, and transformation, however, Obama offers a rather down-the-line liberalism that is almost certain to produce partisanship and deformation aplenty. Given the trainwreck that has been the Bush administration, the next US president will likely enjoy a brief grace period following his or her inauguration - "finally, someone else" - during which much might be accomplished. That next president, however, is set to inherit an unpopular war and a battered economy, the unwinding of which will require that tough decisions be made, and in Washington tough decisions tend to be fraught with partisan bickering. As David Brooks wrote recently, the issues of Iraq and the economy loom darkly on the horizon:

On withdrawing troops from Iraq:

There would be furious opposition from Republicans and many independents. They would argue that you can't evacuate troops just as Iraqis are about to hold national elections and tensions are at their highest. They would point out that it's insanity to end local reconstruction and Iraqi training just when they are producing results. They would accuse the new administration of reverse-Rumsfeldism, of ignoring postsurge realities and of imposing an ideological solution on a complex situation.
All dreams of changing the tone in Washington would be gone. All of Obama's unity hopes would evaporate. And if the situation did deteriorate after a quick withdrawal, as the National Intelligence Estimate warns, the bloodshed would be on the new president's head.

On the economy:
Which brings us to second looming Democratic divide: domestic spending. Both campaigns promise fiscal discipline, as well as ambitious new programs. These kinds of have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too vows were merely laughable last year when the federal deficit was running at a manageable $163 billion a year. But the economic slowdown, the hangover from the Bush years and the growing bite of entitlements mean that the federal deficit will almost certainly top $400 billion by 2009. The accumulated national debt will be in shouting distance of the $10 trillion mark. With that much red ink, the primary-season spending plans are simply ridiculous.
It'd be 1993 all over again. The new Democratic president would be faced with Bill Clinton's Robert Rubin vs. Robert Reich choice: either scale back priorities for the sake of fiscal discipline or blow through all known deficit records for the sake of bigger programs.
Choose the former, and the new president would further outrage the left. Choose the latter and lose the financial establishment and the political center.

Granted, an ounce of magnetism - of which Obama clearly runs a surplus - can go a long way in smoothing feathers otherwise ruffled in such debates, but let's not forget that the American political system is inherently nasty.

"But," argue Obama's supporters, "this man is different. He's...he's....he's transformative. He can change the system."

At the risk of sullying Obama's halo, though, I'd like to play buzzkill and suggest a moment of detached cynicism. Specifically: we shouldn't, as Russell Roberts has noted, delude ourselves into thinking that everything would be crackerjack wonderful if we could just get the right people into office:

We should be realistic about politicians. George Stigler used to contrast his theory of politics with Ralph Nader's. In Nader's view, all of the ugly aspects of government were caused by the wrong people getting elected. If we could just elect better people, then we'd get better policies. Stigler argued that it didn't matter who the people were—once they got in office, they responded to incentives. They would convince themselves that they were doing the right thing, either because they really thought so or because doing the wrong thing was necessary in order to be able to do the right thing down the line.

Being a Stiglerian in this area, I expect less of my politicians and I am rarely disappointed.
Just as this is not an endorsement for any candidate, neither should it be construed as a condemnation of Obama. Of all the candidates left standing, he may well be the best person for the job of President, though he has yet to convince me. What worries me about his fan base (for lack of a better word) is the religiosity - bordering on self-righteousness - the unquestioning adoration that leads people to believe that the politicians operating the levers, rather than the machine itself, are the answer to all of our ills.

But hell, if he doesn't get elected, I might know where he can get a job selling papers.

1 Photo from ABC News
2 John McCain, by contrast, has never struck me as a great politician. As Nicholas Kristoff wrote:
[McCain's] pride in "straight talk" may arise partly because he is an execrable actor. When he does try double-talk, he looks so guilty and uncomfortable that he convinces nobody.
Or maybe McCain is actually so talented that he's able to convince us that's he's untalented, like some MC Escher painting turned human.

17 February, 2008

Blessed Be Them Czechs

By Aaron
17 February, 2008

As a university student in Washington, DC, I took a couple of film classes with Arnost Lustig, the Czech writer of plays, novels, and screenplays. From the first day of the first class, it became apparent that this man had, in the first twenty-five years of his life, lived through more than most people could ever hope to survive in three lifetimes. He also happened to have one of the bawdiest and best senses of humor of anyone I've met, before or since.

Born in Prague in 1926 and sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp when he was a teenager, Lustig eventually escaped from a Dachau-bound train when it was bombed by the Allies. He eventually made his way back to Prague and got involved with the underground resistance. He worked as a journalist during the Israeli war for independence in 1948 before returning to home to Prague, from whence he would be forced to flee the Communist regime following the Prague Spring of 1968. He spent time in Yugoslavia and Israel before eventually finding his way to the United States, where I met him.

Lustig would generally shuffle into the classroom, glance around the room for a second or two, and then set into whatever story he felt like telling that day, wandering up and down the aisles between the desks as he spoke in his thick Czech accent.

One day, I was sitting with my father in Terezin [the Czech name for Theresienstadt] and we saw a beautiful young woman. My father said to me, 'Arnost, look at her. Isn't she pretty? You should go and make love to her.'

I was sixteen and I was in a concentration camp, so I said to my father, 'what are you talking about? Look where we're at, and you're talking about such things.'

'Exactly,' said my father. 'You're going to die anyway, and you're so young, so go make love to that woman, and don't disappoint her.'1

From Theresienstadt, Lustig and his family were sent to Auschwitz, where his father died and where Arnost, somehow, survived:

[A friend of mine] saved my life in the most incredible fashion. We hadn't had anything to eat for the six days in the transport train, from which we eventually escaped. On one occasion when the train stopped, we drew lots to see who was to go and steal bread, because we were weak and wouldn't be able to escape if we didn't get any food. The lot fell to me. I had only sixty seconds to get to the German provision van and sixty seconds to get back. Ten seconds to get hold of the bread. I was very proud of being able to show how fast I could run. I thought, now my life depends on how fast I am. I was fast.

I got there. I counted sixty. The bread was at the bottom of the van, but my arms were too short to reach it. I tried again and nearly broke my arm. You must understand, even in camp your reputation mattered. To some people it might seem strange but it was a question of honour. It was the last thing a man had left. I would have been ashamed to fail. I kept trying till I succeeded.

I knew the return journey would be difficult. I had already used up twenty seconds. The guard was shouting "Halt!" Before he could stop me I threw the bread to my friends but they couldn't catch it.

I was able to tell the guard I didn't have any bread. He said if I didn't give him the bread before he counted three he would shoot me. I repeated I hadn't any bread, hoping that that would save me. He aimed his pistol at me and began counting. I kept my eyes on the man's pistol and on his thick finger on the trigger. He said 'two' and cocked the pistol. I knew that at three it would be all over.

At that moment my best friend leapt out in front of me shielding me from the pistol. The German said 'Shit!' but with a note of admiration. He couldn't believe the courage of the boy who had run between me and the gun. My friend said in very bad German,'Don't shoot! Can't you see he hasn't any bread?' I pointed to three Polish Jews who had grabbed the bread. The guard turned round. The bread had gone. They had eaten it.2

One Friday afternoon as class ended and we moved to turn in our homework, Lustig waved us off and said, "I don't want it. I'm going to Prague this weekend to see Milos and have a drink."

The "Milos" to whom he referred was the film director Milos Forman, a friend of Lustig's from their days in Prague and a giant of cinema who scarcely needs any introduction but who - in the unlikely event the name is unfamiliar - brought you classics such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Amadeus and The People Versus Larry Flynt, amongst others.

It was because of Forman, actually, that I got to thinking of Arnost Lustig this afternoon as I listened to this excellent interview that Forman recorded with Terry Gross for National Public Radio's Fresh Air in 1994. The interview was being replayed last week as a two-week retrospective of Forman's work gets set to open at New York's Museum of Modern Art.

Forman lost both of his parents to the Nazis and, like Lustig, spent years working under the Communist governments of what was then Czechoslovakia before finally coming to the United States, where he earned his greatest fame. If you're at all like me, listening to this interview - which you should certainly make time to do - will amuse and perhaps even enlighten you. Mostly, though, it will make you realize that, no matter how world-weary and streetwise you think you are, you're nothing but a cuddled-up pipsqueak compared to these fellows.


1It's been over a decade since I heard that story, so I sure hope I'm doing it justice, both in the facts and in the retelling. Then again, as my grandfather once told me, one should never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

2A story I recall hearing but which is also, thankfully, preserved in a 1990 interview with Lustig in The World and I, an American magazine. I'd post a link to the interview, but it requires a subscription, which I doubt many of you have.

2Photo of Milos Forman by Bertil Ericson (AFP), via

12 February, 2008

Tales of Oil, Gates and Woe

By Aaron
12 February, 2008

Unless you've been holed up in a cave, you've no doubt heard by now that some old bugger with a chip on his shoulder (right next to his faulty noggin) set Namdaemun alight a few days back. Burned it flat to its base, too. Hell, even the Japanese, Chinese, Mongols and North Koreans had more decency than to raze one of Korea's most symbolic relics.

The Namdaemun fire comes a mere two months after the Taean oil spill, in which a maritime accident in the Yellow Sea resulted in Korea's west coast being smeared with 2.8 million gallons of crude oil.

At first glance, this might strike you as a nasty run of luck, but luck has nothing to do with - and especially not where Namdaemun is concerned. The suspect in the this act of arson - a former fortune-teller named Chae - was convicted in 2006 of setting fire to Changgyeonggung, a historical palace in Seoul. Chae was let off with a fine, however, because he said he was sorry and, after all, he is elderly. Being male and being old, as Mr. Hurt of the Metropolitician laments here, is about the best get-out-of-jail-free card one can hold in South Korea.

To judge by editorial cartoons like the one above, though, you'd think think that Korea was under the boot of some everlasting curse. And, if that's what you thought, you'd be right in line with the local sentiments in these parts.

There is, in Korean culture, a concept that goes by the name of han, which most dictionaries translate simply as "a bitter feeling; an unsatisfied desire," but which - if a Korean explains it to you - is far more vague. Supposedly, han is the collective feeling of having been shit upon for generations and lamenting the feeling of being oppressed and generally having gotten an unusually short end of the proverbial stick - but, you know, still being plucky about it. I translate the idea as a self-pitying notion that says, "we feel emotion more deeply than other people." Most Koreans feel that it's han which binds them together as one, and as prevalent as the resulting behavior is, I wouldn't disagree with them.

Michael Breen, in his book The Koreans, quoted the historian James Freda on the topic:

"Han in the modern era became widely used as a way to make sense of Korea's modern traumas. In other words, Koreans have felt a need to make sense of the injustice and suffering they have experienced. While people commonly have to work through such traumas individually or, when they are overwhelming, as in the Holocaust, often take the option of denial and repression, discourse on han, in my opinion, demonstrates a collective effort to face, deal with, and work through all sorts of social suffering." (p. 38)

And Bradley Martin, in Under the the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader, describes Han as:

"...a prickly combination of pessimism, vengefulness and xenophobia that had evolved over centuries, in response to the frustration aroused by the country's status as a small nation bullied by bigger and more powerful neighbors." (p. 19)

You can be sure that this han notion will make an appearance whenever Korea faces adversity of any degree. Didn't win the Olympic gold? We're cursed. Oil spill? Yet another in a long line of woes to befall us. Namdaemun burns down? 'Tis our fate to suffer so.

Few would dare deny that, for most of its history, Korea had a rough upbringing. Invasions, poverty, colonialism, war, Confucianism - you name it, Korea got whacked with it. And you can hardly expect the society to overturn its most deeply rooted mores in only a few decades, but even now, as a prosperous, independent country, Korea remains stuck in the victim yoke, shoving everything that goes wrong into the han drawer for later lamentation. And when any situation does turn sour, the common reaction is to assume that it must be the result of some injustice resulting from a rotten karmic curse that comes with being Korean. It couldn't possibly be that, as in the case of the late Namdaemun, Korea simply has a lousy legal system. No, indeed, because admitting in a democracy that something could have been prevented would demand action and diligence to prevent it from happening again in the future.

Blaming fate just tastes better sometimes.

1 Editorial cartoon from the Joong-Ang Daily. 12 February, 2008.
2 Photos of Namdaemun from The Korea Times

11 February, 2008

Tourist Magnets

By Aaron
11 February, 2008

Gearing up for my move to Korea in 2002, I walked over to Powell's bookstore in downtown Portland, Oregon one day on my lunch break and bought a copy of Lonely Planet: Korea. That evening at home, I opened the book at random and landed in Gangwon Province, where I read the following:

If you want to see everything that can go wrong when a local government uses all its powers to set up a tourist resort, then come to Jeongdongjin. In addition to fetid, polluted water and uncontrolled construction, you will find: a train station on the beach; a memorial to the first landing of the North Koreans during the Korean War; an enormous ship on the top of a hill; the largest hourglass in the world (a memorial to the Korean soapie Hourglass, which shot a scene here); a Drama & VID Memorial Center (another memorial to the same soapie); and even an invading North Korean submarine (perhaps the North Koreans had seen the soapie in Pyongyang). If this is too much to handle, then just enjoy this place from the safety of the train window. 1

Now, it takes a kinghell effort to louse up a place so badly that Lonely Planet, rather than just omitting the town from its guide, sees the place as horrible enough to warrant a visit. As promised, Jeongdongjin is indeed just such a calamity.

And so it was that I found myself on that beach some eight months later at 6:00 AM on a cold December morning, blasts of wind from the Sea of Japan blowing discarded trash in my face as clouds and mobs of tourists obscured the sunrise we'd traveled seven hours on a slow overnight train to see.

We disembarked at the beachfront train station and the first thing I saw was the hilltop ship, its builder clearly not having considered how he was going to launch the vessel once he finished building it. I imagined a perplexed man standing next to his ocean liner, looking back and forth between a notepad in his hands and the ship, chewing his lip and trying to figure out where in his calculations he'd gone wrong.

"So the water's down there, but the ship is up here..."

Truth be told, it was merely a restaurant in the shape of a ship - a ship-shape eatery, in the most literal sense - built for folks who enjoy eating on ships but without the hassle of going to sea. Seeing this ill-placed vessel reminded me of a restaurant housed in an old passenger jet that used to operate at the McMinnville Municipal Airport in Oregon when I was a kid. I used to beg my parents to take me there for dinner and they always figured out a way to avoid making that wish come true, obviously knowing - as I hadn't yet learned - that eating aboard an airplane is part of the price of travel, not part of its pleasure. So, too, I suspect with ships on top of hills.

A gaggle of young, giggling Taiwanese women gathered near the giant hourglass, jostling for pictures next to the monument. Korean pop culture - for a reason that defies all notions of good taste - has enjoyed a period of overseas success, primarily in East Asia, that continues to this day. In consequence, thousands of foreign fans of Bae Young-Jun and Lee Hyori descend on Korea every year in hopes of experiencing whatever it is that they saw on TV, which if Jeongdongjin is any indication, was a true holiday in hell.

I've long known that the only reason Koreans build anything is so that they - or similarly-minded people, in this case Taiwanese girls - will have something in front of which to pose for pictures. Jeongdeongjin offered further confirmation of this theory. Package tour leaders screamed and waved their small flags, but their unruly charges were more interested with being photographed amidst the whirling trash and paid their guides no mind.

Jeongdeongjin offered nothing if not Truth in Advertising: it was just as horrible as promised.

* * *

In an attempt to attract more tourists and erase an ever-increasing travel account deficit - presently at $16 billion - and ignoring the rule that nicknames shouldn't be self-applied, the Korean National Tourism Organization (KNTO) has come up with a few of their own handles. Recently disgarded was 'Dynamic Korea,' which didn't exactly have foreign tourists banging through the immigration gates at Incheon Airport, probably because the slogan sounds more like an advert for a laboratory - say, the Stanford Linear Accelerator - than for a place where a sane person would choose to spend his one annual week of vacation, let alone a place he would fly twelve hours to reach.

Korea has always been up against some brawny competition in the tourism game, competing against other Asian destinations that start from an advantage where attractions are concerned. While Malaysia's "Truly Asia" slogan may be a bit disingenuous - who, after all, can say what is truly Asian? - the place has beautiful beaches, kaleidoscopic diving, and a diverse ethnic make-up. India, as the jingle has it, is truly incredible and, for all the dirt, danger and difficulty of traveling there, no other country can offer the Taj Mahal, the beaches of Goa, and the Himalayas.

To its credit, the KNTO has made marked strides recently, ditching the aforesaid "Dynamic" chestnut in favor of their new slogan: "Korea, Sparkling." Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether Korea does, in fact, sparkle - and why anyone thought break dancers would be a draw for tourists - the following video portrays Korea surprisingly well and has won several awards for excellence in advertising:

Slick production, to be sure, but I wonder if travelers who followed that video to this peninsula wouldn't come away disappointed. Whatever merits Korea may have, pulse-pounding excitement is not one of them, unless you include motorcycles on the sidewalk or nuclear brinksmanship.

Not surprisingly, President-elect Lee Myung-Bak has weighed in with his own ideas of how to attract more tourists to this peninsula. Lee, you see, is convinced that Korea needs a cross-country canal to transport freight more cheaply and efficiently, a plan that has been met with stiff resistance from some quarters. Lee and other proponents of the canal, in their attempt to argue for their plan in any way possible, claim that this canal would also be a boon to Korea's tourism industry.

Leaving aside the necessity of such a canal, I find it hard to believe that a significant number of tourists - excepting groups of engineering enthusiasts - would be ready to change their travel plans for the chance to see a canal in South Korea. The Suez and Panama canals may be worth visiting for their historical importance, but the average tourist heading to East Asia is unlikely to shave time off their visit to the Great Wall or Mt. Fuji just to see an artificial inland waterway.

Then again, it couldn't be any worse than Jeongdeongjin.

1 Lonely Planet: Korea, 5th edition, 2001. p. 189
2Canal map from BBC News.

05 February, 2008

The Weight of My Words

By Aaron
05 February, 2008

Goodness, but my words do pack a punch.

Having read my previous post (on Korea's ongoing efforts to reform its law schools), Minister of Education Kim Shin-Il resigned his position yesterday.

Said Kim, "If I've lost idiots' collective, I've lost the nation."

In related news, the Roh administration finally got around yesterday to proposing a bill that, if passed by the National Assembly, would open Korea's legal market to foreign firms, within limits.

"After reading Aaron's comments, we realized that we must take immediate steps toward a liberalization of Korea's legal market," said a spokesman.

All in a day's work here at the big IC.

04 February, 2008

The Flaws of the Law

By Aaron
04 February, 2008

As hackles go, mine are about as easily raised as anyone I know and, as such, I probably shouldn't even live in a place like Korea because this, as Korea's official unofficial nickname says, is "the land where logic goes to die."

The local newspapers and policy augers have had their knickers in a twist for the past few days over the Korean government's decision to allow a select few universities to open new law schools in Korea. And twisted the knickers should be.

But first, a bit of background...

At present, Korea only admits 1,000 new lawyers to the bar annually, regardless of how many students are capable of taking or passing the bar exam. One thousand, that's it. The result of this, as you might have guessed, is that Korea has a pitiful dearth of lawyers - 10,000, at last count, compared to one million in the United States - and, as often happens in fields with limited competition, those lawyers are not what you'd call "world class." Additionally, Korea has what by many accounts is the least-open legal market in Asia, in which foreign law firms are not legally allowed to open offices here.

What we're thus left with, when we walk this quota system out to its logical consequence, is a legal market that promotes collusion amongst attorneys, with predictable results: Korean companies are not satisfied with the locally-available legal advice; lower and middle class consumers cannot afford legal advice; and motivated, capable students who wish to become lawyers are kept out of the field by quotas pushed by the legal lobby and backed by the government.

Fancying itself the swashbuckling hero, the Roh1 administration last week put forth the kind of "solution" we've come to expect from a group of nincompoops that clearly slept through Economics 101. Their Grand Resolution - and I don't think I could've made this up - is to raise from 1,000 to 2,000 the quota of annual bar entrants. To do this, the government spent countless hours and liberal sums of taxpayer money to decide which universities should be allowed to open new law schools and how many students they should be allowed to admit each year (see table2).

The Korean government, as governments are wont to do, presumes that it knows better than the university administrators the capabilities of each school. What no one has yet explained, however, is why any university - particularly a private institution - should not be allowed to open a law school provided it can attract the resources, staff and students to make it a competitive venture.

Even more galling has been the public response to this proposal. I have yet to see anyone of public note suggest that quotas of any kind in this area ought to be abolished. The debate ranges merely from the universities whose law school ambitions were snubbed to those who think quotas are fine, but that the present numbers are too low.

"We demand that the government raise the total number of students at law schools to at least 3,600 so that 3,000 new lawyers will enter the market per year," wrote Lee Ki-Su, chairman of, not surprisingly, an association of law professors in a recent editorial.

I understand why Korean lawyers, like any labor group or special interest, would oppose any further liberalization of their personal market, but I've been stunned at how readily the Korean public has stepped up to support quota systems in the legal and law school markets. The rationalizations are myriad:
  • The government must direct our nation's human resources, otherwise people will waste their time in occupations for which they're ill-suited. (An argument not even worth dignifying with a counterargument)
  • Certain universities are not capable of operating quality law schools.
  • Without quotas, Korea will have too many lawyers.
Of course, an open and free market would naturally take care of any school - and the graduates thereof - that offered low-quality legal education, as it does for schools that provide lousy education in any other area. Even if law graduates from these lower-tier schools could pass the bar exam, they'd face difficulties finding employment and would certainly command lower wages than those from schools with education of a higher quality. This, it bears noting, would all happen absent any government intervention.

I have no particular affection for lawyers as a species, which is why I'd like to see more of them. If that sounds paradoxical, consider that expanding the number of practicing attorneys would force them to compete with one another and make them, if not likable, at least better at what they do and thus of more use and of lower cost to the rest of us.

And if Korea does somehow find itself with "too many" lawyers, it can always turn to a solution that's worked well in the United States: open hunting season.

1 Another head-scratcher of the current system of legal education is that a person need not graduate from an accredited law school in order to sit the bar exam (thankfully, this will supposedly change under the new system). Korea's president, Roh Moo-Hyun, is himself only a high school graduate, but he managed to eat his way through the test prep books and pass the bar exam.

2 Table from Joong-Ang Daily. 31 January, 2008