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

25 February, 2009

The Defense of the Indefensible

By Aaron
25 February, 2009

Bloggingheads posted a fascinating conversation (see video above) over the weekend between Mark Leon Goldberg of UN Dispatch and Kevin Jon Heller of Opinio Juris. Heller, an American law professor at the University of Melbourne in Australia, is currently involved as an advisor to the defense of Radovan Karadžić, the accused Bosnian Serb war criminal, in Karadžić's trial at the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague. For those of you not old enough to remember the 1990s, Karadžić is allegedly the man behind the massacre at Srebrenica in 2005, in which 7,500 men and boys from the area were killed.

Not surprisingly, Heller has come in for some criticism for his decision to be involved in any way whatsoever with the defense of a man like Karadžić (who, like Slobodan Milošević, is representing himself). Heller, however, answers his critics by saying that part of what defines liberal, democratic cultures is the belief that even an accused monster deserves a fair trial. As brutal and despised as Saddam Hussein was, his trial and subsequent execution at the hands of a jeering lynch mob did not sit well with people around the world who value a judicial system based on law rather than revenge. Having said this, though, Heller, citing his Jewish heritage as a conflict of interest, goes on to say that he would not have represented Adolph Hitler had the Führer not offed himself in the waning days of World War II.

And how, you're no doubt wondering, does any of this relate to Korea?

Let's say North Korean leader Kim Jong-il somehow finds himself in a jail cell at the International Criminal Court in The Hague later this year. And imagine that you're a criminal defense attorney. Would you represent him?

22 February, 2009

Life, Liberty & the Pursuit of Trifles

By Aaron
22 February, 2009

Perhaps the greatest evidence of the economic prosperity enjoyed in Korea is the ability of the country's citizens to pursue the most puzzling and seemingly pointless pursuits. As evidence, I offer the case of Kim Sun-Ok, a South Korean housewife who recently broke the world record for marathon singing by belting out tunes for more than 76 hours straight at a local karaoke bar. Via the AFP:

She started singing at 11.14am local time on Thursday and sang a total of 1,283 tunes before she gave up at 3.21pm on Saturday following her family's appeal for her to quit for the sake of her health, it said.

Under Guinness World Record regulations, she was given 30-second breaks between songs and five-minute breaks every hour. She was also barred from singing any song she had already sung less than four hours earlier.

I emphasize that Ms. Kim is a homemaker in a country where women traditionally performed the great bulk of housework - cooking, cleaning, child-rearing, and everything in between and on the edges. In the past, if a woman worked before marriage, she would typically quit that job after the nuptuals and stay at home to raise the kids and keep the homefront in order, a full-time job and then some that had her working long hours.

Slowly, though, as the world and then Korea became more prosperous, the formerly backbreaking routine of a housewife (doing laundry by hand, for instance) gave way to an "outsourced" life: the laundry to a machine, for example, or the food prep to restaurants and department stores. Add to this a declining birthrate that has also returned a fair chunk of time to your average ajumma's day and what Korean cities are left with is roving packs of bored, middle-aged women, always on the prowl for some way to fill their time.

All of which has given Korea's housewives the time and energy to head down to the noraebang and act the diva for 76 hours without stopping. Show me the Korean housewife of 30 years ago who had the time for such shenanigans.

19 February, 2009

Networked Minutiae

By Aaron
19 February, 2009

I was born in 1979, which puts me in the final generation to remember what life was like before the internet and cell phones and the other assorted technology that has made our lives so much easier and more interesting. Hell, our family even owned a black-and-white television. As a result, I often feel that I appreciate the wonders of our modern world more than, say, folks who were born after about 1985 and who thus never had to learn how to use a library card catalogue or miss a phone call because the only phone they had was mounted on the wall in their kitchen.

The flipside of having a toe-tip in ancient times, however, is that I am simply unable to see the attraction in many of the latest applications of all this new technology. As this site attests, I appreciate the impact - both potential and realized - of blogs, and photo sites like Flickr are truly a marvel. But I have yet to see a good explanation for the popularity of Twitter, and while in theory I see the attraction of Facebook, I find that I can't read the status updates of more than two friends without wanting to yell, "who the hell cares how many songs you just loaded onto your iPod or what color of socks you're wearing?"

If these social networking sites allow us to be more connected than ever before, they also remind me of why, in the past, I resisted being more connected than I already was: online, just as much as offline, the minutiae of other people's lives is boring and I take offense when they imply, via their Facebook status updates, that I might be interested. My life may not be a thrillride but it's not so bad that I have to care about what you're drinking right now.

These sites do, however, show just how slick a lot of people are at marketing, particularly at marketing themselves. With a site like Facebook, a person can portray himself exactly as he wishes to be seen: no dandruff, no dirty dishes in the sink, no smut under the mattress, no penis stuck in the bathtub drain again. One thing’s for sure, though: Facebook doesn’t make a loser any less pathetic, as evidenced by all the invitations I initially got from the same people to join “Siamese Zombie” groups.

What’s most amazing to me is that a concept as simple as Facebook could be so goddamned successful, or that they could actually charge money for some of things on offer, such as JPG images of a jalapeno pepper for $1 that you can then give to your friend (this - not surprisingly - seems to have disappeared). I’m forever surprised at what people will pay for, and even more at the fact that I couldn’t have thought of charging them for it before someone else did.

Back to Basics

By Aaron

Today's issue of the IHT has a fascinating article by Su-hyun Lee on the adjustment of North Korean defectors to life in South Korea. After years of peddling their "North Korea as Communist Shangri-la" myth, the regime conceded some time ago that, yes, South Koreans have the better standard of living of the two countries, a level of prosperity they have attained by selling their souls to imperialistic occupiers from the United States. A lot of defectors, then, arrive in South Korea expecting that their lives will be a featherbed of delights, only to be sorely disappointed:
After she defected here from North Korea in 2006, Ahn Mi Ock was shocked to learn that most South Koreans lived in small apartments and had to struggle to buy one.

Ahn, 44, had fully expected that once in the South she would enjoy the same luxurious lifestyle portrayed in the television dramas she had watched on smuggled DVDs. It had not occurred to her that the fashionably dressed characters sipping Champagne in the gardens of stylishly furnished houses were not, well, average South Koreans.
For my part, I've long been fascinated by the exposure of North Korean defectors to the outside world and to a semblance of reality. Due to the regime's near-monopoly on information in North Korea, many citizens have never heard of, much less used, basic ideas and technologies that we take for granted every day. When they arrive in South Korea, defectors generally spend three months in a government-run "reeducation" center - ideological detox, if you will - in an attempt to gain a basic understanding of how a market functions and how to conduct one's daily life in such a system. Three months, though, is scarcely time enough to learn the things that the rest of us have absorbed for our entire lives. To that end, other programs have been established:
To alleviate their confusion, a Newspaper in Education program to encourage young people to read was introduced a year ago at Setnet High School, an alternative school for North Korean defectors. There, they can ask an instructor to explain concepts they encounter in newspaper pages.

"What is business and sales?" asked Park Jeong Hyang, 18, during a Setnet class.

"Amateur? Is that something to do with sports?" asked Mah Gwang Hyuck, 23.

"Can you explain what marketing is again?" asked Kim Su Ryun, 18.
Where to begin?

10 February, 2009

Guys in the Sky

By Aaron
10 February, 2009

Foreigners, with good reason, are usually surprised and perplexed to learn that Korea has a Ministry of Gender Equality. Not that the relations between the sexes in Korea couldn't stand to improve, but I, for one, am skeptical that simply creating another layer of government bureaucracy will have any appreciable impact on the matter. Of course, as the Korean economy is liberalized and becomes more globally competitive, the opportunities for women will expand accordingly - as they have over the past thirty or forty years. Officials over at the Ministry of Gender Equality, however, will no doubt be quick to take credit for these gains in the status of women, but what we'll really have is a problem of simultaneity: opportunity increased and Korea has a ministry that ostensibly promotes such advances, but correlation does not indicate causation.

My reason for bringing this up?

The JoongAng Daily yesterday ran a lengthy feature piece on the relative scarcity of male flight attendants on Korean airlines. Despite having won numerous industry awards for excellence, Asiana and Korean Air continue to come under fire for discriminating against men:

Korean Air has 463 male flight attendants, which is about 11 percent of its total flight attendant contingent.

The ratio is 34 percent for Air France, according to [The National Human Rights Commission], and 6 percent for Asiana Airlines, according to Asiana management.

To which I can only ask: so what? These airlines continue to win plaudits for their customer service so we can assume that they're doing something right. Perhaps the management at these companies knows something that the human rights watchdog and the Ministry of Gender Equality don't, namely that customers, for one reason or another, prefer female flight attendants and are willing to patronize carriers that provide them. That may - or may not - be sexist on the part of the passengers, but meeting that preference is wholly rational on the part of the airlines. Quite frequently, companies are merely reflecting their customers' preferences when they adopt employment policies unrelated to technical productivity.

The JoongAng article does, however, point out that male flight attendants can at times be preferable to their female counterparts:

...there are times when a male presence is called for. Kim, who still flies about 10 hours a month, says there are still a few old-school (if not chauvinistic) passengers who demand male flight attendants, saying that they will talk only talk to another man.

Kim also mentioned an incident when a sick passenger defecated in his pants and Kim helped him get cleaned up.

“If I were a woman, I think the man would’ve been extremely humiliated,” Kim said.

(Yes, I'm sure that having a man there to clean him up meant that the incontinent old bugger could see the full humor in his situation.)

Finally, it bears noting that this particular instance of gender discrimination takes place in a highly-regulated and protected airline industry (although it is becoming less so), where for many years entry by foreign firms has been subject to all manner of local barriers. Coincidence? Maybe.

09 February, 2009

Godly Pecs

By Aaron
09 February, 2009

It does beg a question or two (from Prem River):
I was out on a Sunday at about midday, when I saw a man doing this...most disciplined of push-ups. He seemed to pause forever at the bottom and at the top. But he was not at the park or some inconspicuous spot. He was doing it on the steps of a nice-looking church.

That it was Sunday was interesting and I got to wondering about it. Was he walking past, and suddenly remembered that he had not done his daily allowance of exercise, and chance had it that Church happened to be there? Had he arrived late for church and missed the service, and decided to pay homage to his deity in another way?

Or, finally, has the Church doctrine been rejigged and re-tweaked for modern times?

In the movies when the actor goes to confession, and says "I did this" and "I did that" and "I'm sorry father," the priest usually orders him not to do it again, and to say ten Hail Marys. But these days perhaps he is told not to do it again, to go outside, get down and "do 50 good ones."

06 February, 2009

SERI's "New Familism"

By Aaron
06 February, 2009

This week, in the Samsung Economic Research Institute's "Weekly Insight" paper, research fellow Jeon Young-Jae offered a five-page summary of Korea's ten major economic trends for 2009. These trends are mostly the usual suspects - deflation, a credit crunch, proposed government spending, and the like - but amidst all the negatavism, Jeon is also predicting that you and your mother-in-law will finally stop bickering and learn to get along:

Under such [dire economic] circumstances, a new “familism” may come forth as people seek to ease financial and emotional difficulties stemming from a sagging economy through family solidarity. Amid an anticipated painful period of restructuring, many workers who had been preoccupied only with work will rediscover the value of family. Business activities will tend to decrease whereas non-business activities among family members and relatives will generally improve.

How a person who works for a (supposedly) reputable think tank can offer such nattering sociological nonsense is beyond me. Isn't it equally likely that as a result of the economic turbulence more people will discover the value of a bottle of soju and a day at the horse track?

03 February, 2009

Your Prize, Mr. Hill? Iraq.

By Aaron
03 February, 2009

If this is the reward, I'd hate to see the punishment.

In a show of gratitude for his years of loyal service in dealing with the North Koreans, the Obama administration appears ready to send Christopher Hill on an all expenses paid trip to...Iraq. According to CNN, Hill will replace Ambassador Ryan Crocker when Crocker retires next month.

Hill, of course, has had a long career in the foreign service:

Hill was widely credited with helping persuade North Korea to agree to abandon its nuclear program in favor of better ties with the West.

During the Clinton administration, Hill was the U.S. ambassador to Macedonia and special envoy to Kosovo. He was also part of the U.S. team that negotiated the Bosnia peace settlement.

He also served as U.S. ambassador to Poland and South Korea during the Bush administration before taking over the North Korea assignment as assistant secretary and lead negotiator to the six-party talks aimed at getting the country to end its nuclear program.

And just how, you may wonder, is the process of de-nuking the North coming along? Well, funny you should ask, because just today UPI reported our trusty friends north of the 38th having this to say: "North Korea Vows to Retain Nuclear Weapons."

Finally, an interesting tidbit of trivia which might interest Mr. Hill: if you look up "impossible" in the dictionary, it gives as examples "bringing peace to the Middle East or dealing with the North Koreans."

02 February, 2009

The Most Hated Family in America

By Aaron
02 February, 2009

I've moved around a fair bit in my life and, as a result, have had the inevitable misfortune of living next to some of God's stranger creations, including - as chronicled on this site - the Munsters and the Dragon Lady. During my university years, I lived in a second floor apartment above an aspiring jam band that regularly tried to set records for longest drum solo. Fed up with the noise, I finally moved, only to land in another upstairs unit, this one above a man with severe mental illness who once or twice a week would punch out his windows.

Never, though, have I lived next to anyone as odd as this:

The video is a BBC documentary, hosted by Louis Theroux, entitled "The Most Hated Family in America." The hated titular brood is the Phelps clan of Topeka, Kansas, who, along with their patriarch Pastor Fred Phelps make up almost the entire membership of the Westboro Baptist Church. To call this family "homophobic" would be unkind to homophobes, but then, I'm not really sure what the next step up the ladder of hate is called. Suffice it to say, I've never seen anyone as obsessed with fags and fornication, to use the parlance of the Westboro parishioners, as these folks.

I do find it, um, queer, however, that the state of Kansas hasn't raised more of a fuss about the kids being raised in such a hateful atmosphere, especially when the parents take them to their protests, which as one incident in the BBC documentary shows, often puts them in harm's way. If the state of New Jersey can take a kid named Adolph Hitler Campbell away from his parents,1 what's it take to get a child extracted from the Westboro nuthouse?

1 To be fair, New Jersey officials claim that young Adolph's name was but one reason for their concern.