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

30 October, 2008

How to Massage This One...

By Aaron
30 October, 2008

A van is set on fire during a protest by dozens of blind masseurs who threatened to leap from a bridge into a river in Seoul on September 18, 2008, in protest at a ruling which they fear will cost them their jobs. Two protesters jumped into the river but were rescued by police while 26 others were detained.

When Vladimir Lenin implemented his New Economic Policy (NEP) in the Soviet Union in 1921, he immediately faced a backlash of criticism from the purists in his camp who claimed that, by allowing small business to pursue private profit, he had put the collective foot on that slippery slope toward capitalism.

Chill out, Lenin said, these small outfits will seek their profits but the state will continue to control the commanding heights of the economy: mines, railroads, foreign trade, banking and the military. We'll control the input, the output, and we'll decide who works in each sector.

Of course, even the NEP couldn't save the Soviet Union from itself, but at least Lenin had the good sense to understand that the state, if it wishes to encourage a healthy economy, needs to keep its hands off certain sectors of that economy - i.e. as many as possible.

Perhaps, we could arrange for the Korea's constitutional court to have a sit-down with Lenin's corpse. In the event, the judges might stand to learn a thing or two, namely that these commanding heights do not include the massage industry, and that the Korean government is doing no one any favors by deciding who is allowed to rub your back. I mention this because the Constitutional Court can't seem to decide whether the government has or does not have the right to decide who can become a licensed massseur in Korea.

According to the JoongAng Daily, the massage service industry has been reserved for blind people since 1912, a time of Japanese occupation. There are now about 7,000 blind masseurs in Korea, but the exclusive right to ply their trade has been under threat throughout this decade by people who can see just fine and who would also like to take a crack at that knot in your back. This latter group - the fully-sighted, would-be masseurs - have filed numerous petitions with the Consitutional Court, alleging that the government's protection of the massage industry violates their right to choose their own profession.

The Court, for it's part, has come to exemplify flip-floppery on the issue. In 2003, it ruled in favor of the blind people, but in 2006 it overturned its own decision. And, in what should now come as no great surprise, the court on Thursday ruled 6-3 that restricting the massage industry to blind people is once again constitutional, as being a masseur is one of the few professions open to the blind.

"One of the few professions open to the blind?" Am I to assume, then, that the Constitutional Court will declare that each of these other professions are similarly the sole province of blind people? It's safe to assume, I guess, that soon only blind people will be permitted to do voice-overs for radio and TV. The court is also expected to rule tomorrow that only short people will be allowed to work as shoe-shiners and that only hearing-impaired folks will be permitted to work with table saws.

This form of market meddling by a government is irksome on multiple levels. First, if I'm a consumer who wants a massages, I want the best massage my money can buy and I don't care if the masseur (or masseuse) is blind, sighted, or a paraplegic hermaphrodite. Some blind masseurs are probably excellent at their trade, but I'd venture that a far greater number are merely adequate at best, having been funneled into their job by these government provisions. In the end, restricting entry into this field serves only to lower the overall level of competence therein. Consider the consumer ill-served.

Furthermore, by allowing only blind people to legally become masseurs, the government and courts have willfully trammeled the rights of countless other citizens to freely choose to their profession and to sell their services to any willing buyer. Small wonder, then, that a sizable group of sighted, wannabe masseurs has a burr in their butt over the court's ruling.

I realize that blind people, on average, have more than their share of challenges, and that perhaps society, via the state, needs to look out for them. But why do it on the front end by distorting the market and restricting the rights of others? I, for one, could more readily abide a small increase in my taxes to fund disability payments to such people than I can the blatant restrictions placed on the rest of society by the current restrictions.

Somehow I think even Lenin would agree with me on this one.

25 October, 2008

Korea in the Hour of Chaos

By Aaron
25 October, 2008

As the current financial crisis grew over the past fifteen months, South Koreans largely maintained an admirable stoicism, coupled with a healthy gallows humor. After all, they had seen all this - and, locally at least, worse - during the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997-98.

"I've boiled my shoes for soup before and I'll do it again if I have to," a Korean friend told me last month when the benchmark KOSPI index was still at the comparatively rarefied height of 1400 (it closed on Friday at 938, down from a high of over 2,000 one year ago).

Either because of or in spite of - depends on who you ask - a $55 billion IMF bailout in 1997, Korea recovered remarkably quickly and well from that financial calamity, such that any shoes being boiled for soup this time around will be far snazzier than those of the last brush with the four horsemen. The Korean economy is now fundamentally stronger and the Korean people wealthier than ever before, and the government now sits atop approximately $230 billion of foreign reserves, the sixth-largest stash in the world.

But then, the "IMF Crisis," as many Koreans refer to it, was a far more localized phenomenon than what we're experiencing now and one wonders if, in repeating the "larger foreign reserves" mantra, we aren't re-fighting the last war, so to speak. That is, while Korea is now strong enough to weather a crisis of the 1997-98 magnitude, is it strong enough to ride out this one?

Some people are starting to wonder, but shhhh, don't talk about it, because as William Pesek of Bloomberg wrote this week, Korea "has become the Bear Stearns economy:"

Just as excessive gloom on the part of pundits accelerated the demise of the 85-year-old investment bank, a bubble in negativity is causing a run on Korea. Bets that Asia's fourth- biggest economy is headed for a 1997-like crash risk becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy.

And as Martin Fackler notes in today's IHT, "South Korean stock markets and currency have dropped more than 30 percent since last summer as foreign investors have fled in droves." In fact, the Korean won has been the worst-performing currency in Asia this year. Consider that for a moment: Korea is the world's 13th largest economy, and Asia has its fair share of historically quirky currencies (Indonesia? Thailand, anyone?), and yet the won has beat all Asian comers this year for this dubious distinction.

Many people in South Korea - where suspicion of globalization and the free markets has long held sway - blame the current woes on the vicissitudes of global finance, claiming that the country is too open and transparent where foreign capital is concerned, and further arguing that this crisis is evidence that Korea should retreat from its growing embrace of the global financial herd. This, if not a new sentiment, is one I fear could gain traction amidst the ongoing turbulence.

Fackler touches on the flight of foreign investment in Korea when he writes:

Foreign investors have been leaving South Korea since subprime problems first hit global markets last year. In the first six months of this year, net foreign direct investment in South Korea turned negative for the first time since 1980, when such figures started being kept, as foreign investors withdrew a net $886 million, according to the Bank of Korea.

What Fackler doesn't mention, however, is that, as The Korea Times reported in July, FDI has been steadily departing Korea for the past three years. Korea, in fact, now ranks 29th out of 30 OECD countries in terms of FDI (only Norway attracts less). There are, then, deeper problems in Korea where foreign investment is concerned - "complex regulations, bureaucratic red tape, higher land prices, surging costs of living, and frequent labor disputes," all negative marks against Korea long before this current turmoil.

Helluva time to address such problems, eh?


Related Reading:

William Pesek (October, 2007): "US Doing What It Told Asia Not to Do"

23 October, 2008

Correspondence as Catchbasin

By Aaron
23 October, 2008

"Political campaigns are designedly made into emotional orgies which endeavor to distract attention from the real issues involved, and they actually paralyze what slight powers of cerebration man can normally muster."

As generally happens after a week of being offline, I returned home from Jeju last week to find my email inbox overflowing with messages from family, friends, colleagues and a woman named Tanti asking for my help in ferreting money out of Lagos - all of which is to be expected when a person doesn't clean out his inbox for a few days. The trouble is, I happened to leave my account unattended in the heat of an American presidential election. I thus came home to emails galore from those same family, friends and colleagues warning me that, if I vote for McCain or Obama, the sky will fall, my savings account will evaporate, and we'll all be plunged back into an age of atavistic darkness where bedposts are the only source of nutrition.

From one corner came the emails from my friends on the political left, who are forever trying to convince me that The Conservatives are tapping their telephones, monitoring and often deleting their emails and just generally hiding behind every tree, waiting for their chance to take over the world. In the opposite corner are my friends who hang to the right of the American political center. They email me stories disparaging The Liberals - often noting in their messages that such emails have a tendency to disappear - and warning me to be on the lookout for America-hating leftists. I'd like to forward the emails I receive from The Liberals to The Conservatives, and vice versa, but the labor of simply deleting them gives them far more time than they deserve and I've thus resisted the urge.

I do, however, have this one simple favor to ask of the people responsible for these emails: get a damn blog. Hell, if you give me the link I might even take a look at it once in a while. This will save you the energy needed to send me every piece of paranoid advocacy you find and it will save me the energy required to roll my eyes and click 'delete.'

And as an early Christmas gift to me, I'd also appreciate not seeing the words liberal or conservative again until after the election, if not forever. Despite their place in the dictionary, I have tried, of late, to scrub these words from my own writings and conversations simply because I can't seem to keep up with the changes in their amorphous meanings. Besides, as political monikers these terms are applied, shall we say, so liberally and haphazardly as to render them void of any definable meaning.

In his essay Politics and the English Language, George Orwell tackled the issue of meaningless words, such as democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic and justice, and I daresay that, were he alive today, he would append liberal and conservative to his list.

"In a word like democracy," he writes, "not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it," whereas the word Fascism "has has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies 'something not desirable.'"

In most of the politically-themed emails I receive, liberal and conservative are used either as obloquy - in the same way one might use the word cockroach or pederast - or as a form of home-team cheerleading, not unlike a Yankees fan praising himself while disparaging the Red Sox. In neither case do the words rise above the level of epithet, much less offer a concrete meaning. Such usage is slovenly and, as Orwell wrote in the same essay, "the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts."

And to send Aaron foolish, paranoid emails.

18 October, 2008

Back to the Guro Boogie

By Aaron
18 October, 2008

Been a long time, no?

The reasons for my protracted absence from this cauldron of idiocy are numerous actually, but a week of vacation explains as much as everything else combined. My mother, whom I hadn't seen in nearly two years, made her third trip to Korea, joining Na Young and I for a life more Arcadian in the sun of Jeju Island last week and I thus managed to avoid all things electronic, including this site.

Despite living in South Korea for seven years, this was my first trip to Jeju. During my time in Korea, I've come to distrust the travel recommendations of most Korean folks, because in following their advice I usually find myself on some unremarkable patch of land where one scene of a TV drama was filmed in 1994. I'd thus long ago written Jeju off as little more than another over-ballyhooed, over-priced golf resort for the plaid-clad ajoshi set.

But what a pleasure it is to be pleasantly surprised.

We had the great good fortune of visiting Jeju - and Udo, too, which was an easy day trip - in mid-October, when the weather is at its best and the crowds at a minimum. Had I not forgotten my swimsuit, in fact, I could have happily passed entire days on Jeju's Jungmun Beach or Udo's Sanhosa Beach, both of which were nearly deserted. Let that be a lesson to you, then: if you're planning a trip to Jeju, plan it for October.

Unfortunately, returning to Seoul from a place like Jeju is never easy, especially when our corner of Seoul happens to be Guro. I spent last night dreaming of orange groves and horses on the slopes of Hallasan, only to be awakened by the expectoration of one of the aforementioned ajoshi outside my window at 5:30 this morning. I'll say this much for Seoul: the morning oysters are bigger here.