Korea: The Impossible Country

November 27th, 2012 · Interviews · 0 comments

Journalist Daniel Tudor has written an introduction to modern Korea, titled “Korea: The Impossible Country” and published by Tuttle, who were nice enough to send a copy to me.

And I have to say, it was quite an enjoyable read. The book begins with a brief overview of Korean history up to the 20th century, then begins its real task of assessing the Korean journey of the past 100+ years. Initially the focus is on the Japanese colonial period, the post-Korean War years, and the rebuilding of the economy under Park Chung-hee. There’s a fair amount of colorful detail in these chapters, and Mr. Tudor’s brisk writing kept the pages turning for me.

The book then turns to the post-democraticization Korea known by most westerners, myself included. This section is structured as a series of comprehensively bite-sized chapters on many aspects of Korean society, most of which should be familiar to those who have been in the country for at least a couple of years.  Although each chapter is short, each is also dense with information, tidbits, and bits of interviews with Koreans. You could quibble with a few things being left out, but the book has to end sometime, and what’s there is a good read for those new to Korean culture especially. The only other such overall introduction to Korea that I could think of is Michael Breen’s “The Koreans”, the revised version of which was published just before I started living in Korea — in other words, a lot has changed since then.

If you’ve been keeping up with Korean current events since then, you likely won’t find too much in this book that you don’t already know. The flip side is that if you’re new to all things Korean, you should consider picking this up. Oh, and for a quick and entertaining introduction to Korean shamanism, I’m not sure this can be beat.

Mr. Tudor graciously wrote to me with answers to a couple of points about the book I was curious about, and I think what he said gives a good picture of the book’s flavor.

– Although you write objectively, your affection for Korea comes through. Was there a balance you felt you had to strike?

If that’s how it comes across, then I’ll be very happy. Frankly I like Korea a lot, and consider it a place that people don’t know enough about – so I don’t mind being a little bit of a cheerleader. But that doesn’t mean I won’t criticise. After all, this is an entire country we’re talking about, so that means that there’ll be plenty of good and bad. And a lot of the things I do criticise are the same things that Koreans are tired of as well – excessive competition in society, and the depressing amount of corruption in politics, to name a couple. All the way through, I just said to myself that I wanted to be honest but respectful. I hope I’ve done that well enough.

– You’ve lived in Korea for a number of years, but the book is virtually up-to-the-minute. Did you find yourself having to revise sections to keep up with events?

Absolutely, and it was a pain! Especially the politics chapter – I was forever revising that one. I find it pretty amusing that both main political parties changed their names during the time I was writing it. And I was weighing up whether to mention Ahn Chul-soo, or the so-called ‘jongbuk’ scandal, for instance. Maybe ten years from now, their presence in the book will make it look horribly dated – so it’s kind of a gamble mentioning current issues like that.

– In the book you cover many of the standard Korea-observer bases — democratization, education, pop culture — but also less-comfortable topics such as discrimination, homosexuality, and media bias.

It was a deliberate effort, really, to cover topics that I felt others weren’t bothering with. Generally, English-language books on Korea focus on the ‘miracle on the Han’, the Korean War, or North Korea. And I also feel that Korea gets painted as this hyper-conservative, Confucian country, when people are actually becoming less and less like that with every year that goes by. So I thought, what are the topics that show a ‘newer’ Korea, and haven’t been discussed much yet? Some of the criticism I had for this book relates to that – a couple of people said that parts of it felt like a collection of informative essays rather than a singular, unified book with a common thread running through every chapter. I don’t really mind that, as I was happy to sacrifice some unity at times to just get interesting information out there.

And the topics I chose were (well, I think, at least) important. The media in Korea is too biased, in both directions. The people working in it themselves will say so, too. And as for homosexuality… one early reader told me that it was ‘really not mainstream stuff’, as though I had some sort of agenda. I disagree; though it is difficult for gay people to publicly state their preferences in Korea (and many other countries), that doesn’t mean that those preferences don’t exist. There are 28 chapters in my book, and one of them is about homosexuals. Are one in 28 people homosexual? Probably. But it’s just that most of them don’t feel they can be open about it.

– An interesting, if implied, theme is the tension between influential ideals of Confucian harmony and the reality of a fractious, competitive nation where those who fail to “make it” can feel ground down.

Yes, I think this tension does exist; traditionally, Korea was ruled by a highly entrenched yangban aristocracy, so there was very little motivation or opportunity to pursue social mobility and betterment. Park Chung-hee saw that as a problem, and for similar reasons hated Confucianism.

But the creation of modern Korea saw the rise of meritocracy. I think that was very good for the development of the country, but the competition it fostered also creates a lot of pain – especially in a country which has a certain amount of ‘natural socialism’ as I see it, and a desire for greater social unity that comes from historic experience. It seems wrong to many Koreans that their society feels so dog-eat-dog.

But I think we’re also seeing the rise of a neo-yangban class. Early South Korea was very meritocratic, but now, through education, those who did well financially out of the meritocracy are passing on their advantages to their children through private tutoring, overseas schooling, and the US graduate school education that seems to have become almost compulsory among the top people in the worlds of academia, business, and thyou have to be absolutely brilliant to overcome this hurdle. Like the yangban, one’s place in this elite group depends largely upon the ability to get top scores in exams. There is therefore a focus on getting the result, rather than the process by which it is achieved. Creativity is sacrificed in favour of the ‘right’ answer. And it also means that there is a very limited definition of who is considered successful, intelligent, and so on. I think this itself is creating big problems in terms of leadership in Korea.

Korean interview with Australian ESL teacher

August 6th, 2011 · Education and ESL, Interviews · 0 comments

Original article in Korean is at this link.

Korea is in a situation where you cannot live well if you cannot speak English, where you need a high TOIC score to get a job, where everyone competes over English speaking ability. The English fever begins at a young age and undergraduate students spend three months to two years studying foreign languages. We have our children spend an average of ten years studying English beginning at elementary school. This level of studying should be expected to produce not a second language but a second native language. But what is our actual English ability? How many Koreans can confidently explain the way to a foreigner who asks for directions? After 10 years of studying English, living in Korea with English fever, and attending language classes, why are we stuck in place?

I asked this to Craig Grigg, who is 34 and from the Gold Coast of Australia. He has been an English teacher in Korea for four years and now teaches the many Korean students in Australia.

You taught English for four years in a kindergarten in Korea. Recently many parents want to begin their children’s English education at a very young age. What do you think of the English fever in Korea?

Frankly, young students can pass an English test with 30 to 60 minutes of good studying per week. But that won’t really help their future English ability. English teachers have to help them remember their lessons better and become interested in the subject. This is because later they will be studying more and more difficult English, and so we have to get them really interested in learning English. Young students need games, music, dancing, really physical language learning, and so right now in Korea we need to see a lot more support for these diverse kinds of learning. But before that, we need passionate teachers with lots of energy.

As a native speaker, how do you view Koreans’ English ability overall?

Overall it seems Koreans’ English ability has really improved. English study programs have also increased and schools and families spend a lot of time on English. Also, through the Internet many students can experience English study experiences. In language hagwons in Australia, there’s a trend towards expanding the number of Beginner/Elementary classes, and the number of Korean students coming to those classes for basic instruction is increasing. Generally, students from Korea are at the Pre-intermediate and Intermediate levels.

Right now you are teaching many Korean students, is it difficult?

Korean students already have a strong desire to study English, so teaching them is relatively easy. However, one problem is that they have studied English grammar through rote memorization for a long time. When I look at the Korean students studying in Australia, I find that they aren’t likely to actively participate in classes where they have to have debates and present their opinions. However, students from Europe and North America are different. They have more trouble with grammar, but they do very well in conversation-based classes, so they improve much more quickly.

What issues are brought by Korean students who come to learn English?

I don’t want to say that everyone is the same, but the first concern is that they are exposed to strong Korean culture. Sometimes students waste the opportunities that come with being in a new environment, and never leave the Korean society from food to karaoke to Internet cafes to travel. They bring with them the habits of their lives in Korea and never let go of them. For example, Korean students getting together on Friday nights to have samgyeopsal parties, drink beer, and watch Korean TV. In my experience, doing a homestay for a month or two while you study will have a better effect on your speaking ability. This is because those students have the chance to talk with their foreign families, and also because they choose not to live a convenient life with other Koreans.

Is there anything else you’d like to say to them?

What I want to say to Koreans who come to study in Australia is to have an open mind and join a lot of organizations or clubs. Volunteering is good. Hanging out only with Koreans makes it so easy to communicate and so it’s no good. They need to practice speaking with many different kinds of people.

Lee Eun-ung gets another soft interview

July 27th, 2010 · Education and ESL, Foreigners, Interviews · 0 comments

I missed this earlier in the week due to a combination of illness and my parents coming to town, but the bete noire of foreign English teachers in Korea — Anti-English Spectrum’s Lee Eun-ung – got another media interview with nothing but softballs from a gullible reporter. Oh, and also, a few other foreign teachers got busted for having pot.

Interview with writer of scandalous new drama

May 4th, 2010 · Entertainment, Interviews · 0 comments

Ask a Korean! has translated an interview with Kim Su-hyeon, writer for a new SBS drama drawing plenty of criticism for its portrayal of a gay character. Give it a read.

Bong Joon-ho interviewed by AV Club

March 10th, 2010 · Entertainment, Interviews · 0 comments

My favorite pop culture site recently sat down with the famed director. Read the results here.

LA Times interviews Anti-English Spectrum head

February 2nd, 2010 · Education and ESL, Foreigners, Interviews · 0 comments

Lee Eun-ung, leader of the infamous Anti-English Spectrum outfit – or, as we are apparently now to say, Yie Eun-woong from citizens for Right English Education – was interviewed by the Los Angeles Times recently. Get all the dirt over at Brian’s blog.

Interview with the ‘sexy bar’ owner

January 30th, 2010 · Interviews · 0 comments

One Korean blogger recently wrote about how sexy bars choose their bartenders.

Some say “sexy bars” are the most lascivious and sensational form of public temptation. Though of course there is physical contact there is nothing illegal, all the advertising they need is the foreknowledge customers have that while there you can live the fantasy of drinking with sexy women in bikinis. Moreover, because the women there, called “bartend girls” (바텐걸), are more like “ordinary people” than prostitutes, you feel that you can have a more real conversation with them.

This reporter went into sexy bar S at 8 pm one day. Business hadn’t picked up yet, but the male customers who had sat down were completely lost in their conversations with the bartend girls. The owner Bae Yeong-min arrived a little past our arranged time, and I could tell from a glance she did not appear to be of many years.

I had grown curious about the “flower” of the sexy bar — the bartend girls. What were the most important things he thought about when choosing a bartend girl?

“Physically, the size of her chest. Because basically, that can make the customers happy. But actually a big chest can be an obstacle later. I once hired a girl with a ggantic rack but in the end she couldn’t come for a few days and then quit. She was too much the center of attention… Reallly, it was my first time to see such a big natural chest too.”

I looked around at the bartend girls working there, and in fact all of them had chests of at least average size. The manager in charge of all the bartend girls engaged in conversation whispered briefly in Mr. Bae’s ear. “I know we arranged to have an interview right now, but let me show you something..”

There was a meeting in an office in a corner of the sexy bar. This reporter suddenly abandoned the interview to attend an interview. The interviewee was a 23-year old woman who calld herself So-yeon (not her real name. She had arrived wearing a form-fitting, chest-hugging cotton tank top. After her “interview appearance” was her ability to work in a sexy bar and make conversation with the customers. After the interview the Mr. Bae said, “if you can do it then I’m going to call you soon,” and saw the woman out.

“Finding a woman like her is tough. A lot of them work for a month in a sexy bar and just can’t do it anymore.You have to listen to the customers and be cute and chrming.”

Dan Choi Interview

October 23rd, 2009 · Interviews · 0 comments

With a hat tip to Andrew Sullivan, Washington, DC’s Metro Weekly has a good interview with Dan Choi, the Korean-American soldier discharged for being gay:

My parents always brag about me in church, and it was difficult when I came out of the closet to them because my mom just didn’t know how to reconcile this issue. She would talk about me graduating from West Point and being a Harvard student and going to Iraq and coming back, being very involved in church, and bragging about all this stuff. They even got to the point where it was like, ”And he’s a tall Korean, too!” [Laughs.] Their validation of their existence is through living vicariously and bragging about all these things that I’ve accomplished and done. I realized that’s so important to them, but now they’re going to have to deal with, ”Okay, he’s gay and he has a great boyfriend that supports him.” And are they ever going to be able to understand that?

My mom, when I told her, was like, ”Gay doesn’t exist. I love you but gay doesn’t exist, it’s not true.” She was in such denial. My dad was very irrational at times. I lived with them for six months [after coming out to them], because I knew it was going to be difficult and I didn’t want them to think that I’m psychologically deranged or something. I went to church with them during this time. My mom wanted me to go to demonic exorcisms, and she said we all have to have a group prayer for you. I was like, well, let’s go pray in the church then. And she was like, ”No, no, no, no, you can’t tell anybody in the church.” She was trying to apply what she knew were the traditional ways of dealing with whatever she thought was a sin or a weakness or an illness or a disease.

“Escaping North Korea” Author on Daily Show

July 3rd, 2009 · Interviews, North Korea · 0 comments

Mike Kim, founder of Crossing Borders and author of the new book “Escaping North Korea”, was recently interviewed on The Daily Show. It’s an excellent interview, and Jon keeps the jokes to a minimum so that Mr. Kim can talk about the amazing work he does. Give it a watch/listen.

Update: See also Mr. Kim’s speech at the Royal Asiatic Society via The Marmot’s.

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Voice Phisher Interviewed in Joongang Ilbo

May 29th, 2009 · Accidents, Crimes and Scandals, Interviews · 0 comments

The crime of voice phishing has gotten regular play in the Korean media the past few years, with blame usually falling on Chinese-Koreans. But the Joongang Ilbo recently interviewed one person purporting to be a voice phisher who tells a different story.

Voice phishing has been mainly the province of Chinese-Koreans in China, but recently it has spread to Uzbekistan and elsewhere in Central Asia.

With great difficulty, on the 13th the Joongang Ilbo was able to conduct a telephone interview with a person who conducts voice phishing against Koreans from an office in Uzbekistan.

“Now in Uzbekistan there are two or three Korean people operating voice phishing businesses along with about 10 local gypos at each one.” The person said that over 20 people each day fall prey to voice phishing.

Over the past year there have been 266,000 cases of voice phishing targeting businesses, an average of 740 per day. With fake post office phone numbers, fluent Korean, and even the real names of postal employees, the scope of the problem is gradually increasing.

There are two kinds. In the first, the caller gains the person’s information and then calls them claiming, in a tearful voice, that their child has been kidnapped and demands money. In the second, through various tricks the targets are led to withdraw cash from their bank accounts.

The greatest weapon against the increasingly sophisticated voice phishers is awareness of their schemes.

[Interviewee] “A post office in Junggye-dong, in Nowon-gu.”

[Reporter] “What is the phone number?”

[Interviewee] “The phone number is 1588-1900.” (This is actually the phone number of the postal service’s finance arm.)

[Reporter] “Not in China?”

[Interviewee] “No. A post office in Junggye-dong, Nowon-gu.”

[Reporter] “I thought voice phishing happens in China…”

The interviewee said the location of the call was Uzbekistan.

It has been understood that Chinese-Koreans use Chinese call centers, but recently more phishing has been taking place in Uzbekistan and Central Asia.

[Interviewee] “It’s not Nowon-gu. I’m in Tashkent in Uzbekistan.”

[Reporter] “There are people there to be fooled?”

[Interviewee] “Of course. A lot of people like you fall for it.”

[Reporter] “How many people per day?”

[Interviewee] (Not understanding) “You mean how many people participate in voice phishing?”

[Reporter] “How many people fall for it per day?”

[Interviewee] “About 10  idiots like you every day… up to 20 idiots.”

[Reporter] “How much money do you get from that?”

[Interviewee] “That’s secret. If you want to know come to the post office.”

The interviewee said there are two or three Koreans and over 10 gyopos in the voice phishing business he/she was operating.

[Reporter] “Are there a lot of businesses in Uzbekistan?”

[Interviewee] “The people who do voice phishing are Koreans. It’s their regular job.”

Those Koreans come and catch gyopos looking for work. Uzbekistan is a foreign country so Koreans must go there.

[Reporter] “How many people in one business?”

[Interviewee] “Two to three Koreans, 10 gyopos each… they come by internet. The Koreans catch us and get us into voice phishing.”

The interviewee even gave advice to this reporter on how not to fall victim to telephone scams.

[Interviewee] “I call you by getting your personal information. This is a foreign country, right. It’s hard to get your money by getting your card or bankbook so I get it by voice phishing. Be careful.”

When asked his contact information the interviewee grew alarmed and hung up.

[Interviewee] “Contact info in Uzbekistan? No. The Korean will kill me.”