Sunday, April 23, 2017

Korean Politics Viewer's Guide: III. The Candidates

Here we are, the grand conclusion of the viewer's guide for South Korean politics. Part III of this series will cover everyone's favorite event in politics--the horse-racing takes on the presidential election. 

This election features the total of 15 candidates, but we will only cover the five presidential candidates who are polling over 1 percent. In order of polling numbers, the candidates are: Moon Jae-in, Ahn Cheol-soo, Hong Joon-pyo, Shim Sang-jeong and Yoo Seung-min. These five candidates represent the presidential candidates for the five largest political parties in Korea. 

Under Korea's election regulations, each candidate is assigned a number in accordance with the number of National Assembly seats belonging to the candidate's party. This post will discuss the candidates in that order also, although Moon Jae-in (number 1) and Ahn Cheol-soo (number 3) are the two front runners. All the pictures of the candidates are the official campaign posters for this election, the very same posters are plastered all over Korea right now.

Full disclosure: although I am not eligible to vote in South Korea, I generally support Moon Jae-in. 

1.  MOON JAE-IN [문재인]

Slogan:  "Restoring the Country; the Dependable President"

Born:  January 24, 1953 (64 years old) in Geoje, a southeastern island near Busan, to North Korean parents who escaped the war.

Party Affiliation:  Democratic Party [더불어민주당]

Ideological Position:  Mainstream liberal / center-left

Current Polling:  Around 40-44 percent in a five-way race.

Before Politics:  Moon Jae-in was a law student and activist who fought against the Park Chung-hee dictatorship. He learned that he passed the bar while being in prison for protesting. As an attorney, Moon litigated against the dictatorship along with his law firm partner Roh Moo-hyun.

As a Politician:  When his former law firm partner Roh Moo-hyun became the president, Moon entered politics and became Roh's chief of staff. Because of this beginning, Moon Jae-in has been strongly associated with Roh Moo-hyun's legacy, for better or for worse. Although Moon returned to his law practice after the Roh administration ended in 2007, he came back to politics after Roh committed suicide in 2009 amid a bribery investigation. Since then, Moon served as a National Assembly Member and the Chair of the Democratic United Party, which later became New Politics Alliance for Democracy and then again became the Democratic Party.

Moon Jae-in is considered level-headed and cerebral. Although he is not exactly a charismatic speaker, he has a passionate following of liberal voters who are galvanized by memories of Roh Moo-hyun, whom they consider to be driven to suicide because of the witch hunt conducted by the conservative Lee Myung-bak administration. Moon is also a relentless inside baseball-type politician who either transformed the Democratic Party into a party of professional expertise and meritocracy while repudiating patronage and machine politics (if you take the kindly view,) or into a party of pro-Moon Jae-in loyalists who would faithfully execute his goals (if you take the cynical view.)

Major Campaign Promises:  810,000 new jobs in public sector, such as police, healthcare and other health and safety personnel; transparent presidency and government; chaebol reform for anti-corruption.

He Will Win If:  ... he hangs on. Moon Jae-in has always led the polls for the presidential race, sometimes by an overwhelming margin. He lost in a close race in the 2012 election, whose final margin was 51.6 percent to 48 percent. Moon still retains most of that 48 percent of the voters who are eager for a do-over. Meanwhile, his conservative/centrist opponents are divided, and pose no realistic threat unless they find a way to join forces. 

He Will Lose If:  ... he suffers a combination of self-inflicted wounds and conservative consolidation. In polls that ask for a head-to-head choice between Moon and Ahn Cheol-soo, the two candidates are essentially tied. Roh Moo-hyun administration, where Moon Jae-in began his political career, was highly polarizing. In a head-to-head situation where the opposing candidate attacks Moon based on the faults of Roh administration (and there really were many faults,) Moon Jae-in faces a real risk of defeat.

Trivia:  Moon Jae-in likes climbing high mountains. He has visited the Himalayas four times and climbed up the Everest and Annapurna.

(More after the jump.)

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Sunday, April 16, 2017

Korean Politics Viewer's Guide: II. The Parties

The viewer's guide for South Korean politics continues! Part II of this series will take a look at South Korea's political parties and what they stand for.

Now is a tricky time to write this post, because political parties in South Korea are going through a once-a-generation level of realignment. For the most part, the history of South Korean democracy had two major parties--conservative and liberal--with some minor parties appearing here and there. But the historic impeachment and removal of Park Geun-hye shook up the political picture in Korea like no other recent events.

Given this, the best way to understand where South Korea's political parties stand is to look at Korea's history of political parties, identify the major strands that flow through, and see how those strands match up with each party.

So here we go.

Super Basic Stuff

The National Assembly Hall in Seoul
South Korea's democracy began in 1987. South Korean president serves a single five-year term.

Korea's legislature is called the National Assembly. It is a unicameral body with 300 National Assembly Members. The entire National Assembly goes through an election every four years. For the National Assembly election, a South Korean voter casts two ballots: one vote for her geographical district, and one vote for the party she supports. This leads to two classes of Assembly Members: 253 "regional members," and 47 "national members." 

The "district" votes are counted up and produce the regional members, who are the winners of each geographical district. (The election for regional members is a single-winner, first-past-the-post.) The "party" votes are counted up, and each party receives a National Assembly seat based on the proportion of the party votes it received. (For example, if a Party X receives around 50% of the "party" votes, Party X takes either 23 or 24 seats allotted for national members.) 

In Korea, being a meaningful political party means having at least one seat in the National Assembly. (Thus, this post will not discuss Korean political parties that have no legislative representation, such as the Labor Party or the Green Party.) Being a major political party usually means having more than 20 seats, because the National Assembly Act sets the minimum of 20 Assembly Members to form a "negotiation group," which can receive greater budget assistance, have a say in committee assignments, etc.

By this standard, South Korea right now has four major parties and two minor parties. From the most conservative to the most liberal, the four major parties are:  Liberty Korea Party (93 seats in the Assembly); Bareun Party (33 seats); the People's Party (40 seats); the Democratic Party (119 seats.) Justice Party has six seats in the National Assembly, and Saenuri Party has one seat. There are seven independent Members.

Having six parties being represented in the National Assembly is highly unusual. For most of South Korea's history, the National Assembly only had two major parties: one conservative, one liberal. This was the case as recently as early 2016, as the Liberty Korea Party, Bareun Party and Saenuri Party formed the single major conservative party (called Saenuri Party,) while the Democratic Party and the People's Party were the single major liberal party (called New Politics Alliance for Democracy.)

So how did we get here?

(More after the jump.)

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Saturday, April 08, 2017

Korean Politics Viewer's Guide: I. The Lay of the Land

Dear Korean,

I know there is a conservative-liberal spectrum in Korean politics, but I have also read that conservativism/liberalism in Korea are not easily relatable to conservativism / liberalism in America. What are the major issues, and where do the different political parties in Korea come down on the major issues? I am soon-to-be a Korean citizen, but my Korean is terrible (I am only getting away with this because I am a Korean-American athlete that they want for their Pyeonchang team, so I am on the "special" citizenship track). I am very politically engaged in the US, but now that I am in Korea, I am trying to figure out WTF is going on here, and it isn't easy! 

Randi The Ringer

Ask a Korean! has received a lot of questions from a lot of cool people, but this is the first time that the blog received a question from an Olympic athlete! 

With the bizarre Choi Soon-sil scandal, people are suddenly more interested in Korean politics, as the presidential election is going to be held in a little more than a month. For those who are coming to see South Korean politics for the first time, TK prepared a three-part Viewer's Guide. Part I will discuss the basic lay of the political land in Korea; Part II is a brief history of South Korean politics that explains the status of different political parties today, and; Part III will be an overview of the major presidential candidates, their stance on issues and the electoral challenges they face.

So here we go with Part I - the basic political landscape in South Korea.

*                   *                    *

The questioner Randi correctly noted two important points about Korean politics: (1) it has a conservative-liberal spectrum, but; (2) the spectrum is not the same as the conservative-liberal spectrum in the U.S., or in any other country for that matter. Of course, this is to be expected, because obviously, different countries have different political concerns. It would be ignorant and self-centered to expect that Korea's ideological spectrum would run on the same axis as any other country's.

Many of political issues that form a dividing line in the U.S. do not in Korea, either because Koreans simply live in a different environment or because there is a broad social consensus over them already. Before we cover the issues that do form the fault lines in Korean politics, let's go over some of the issues that don't.

Issues that Don't Really Arise in Korea

These are the issues that rarely get raised in Korean politics, because not enough number of Koreans deal with these issues for them to become a political topic. Clearly, this list is not to say that these issues are not important; rather, it is only to say that these issues are not front and center in politics in Korea.

- Racism.   There are now more than a million non-ethnic Koreans living in Korea, and the number is increasing rapidly. But so far, racial discrimination (which is very real and very pernicious) against ethnic minorities in Korea is not a big topic, because few Koreans ever interact with a non-Korean on a regular basis.

- Immigration.  Same as above. South Korea has a fairly restrictive immigration policy, and few bother to opine whether Korea needs more or less immigrants than it currently has. Although there is some low-level grumblings about how, for example, the immigrants from China are committing crimes in certain parts of Seoul, immigration policy overall is not a part of national politics.

- Terrorism (except those from North Korea).  If you exclude the attacks by North Korea, and isolated incidents of South Korean citizens finding themselves in dangerous parts of the world, South Korea has never experienced a terrorist attack. So Koreans simply don't think about terrorism. 

- Federalism.  There is no equivalent to the European Union of which South Korea is a part, nor is South Korea organized by U.S.-style states that retain some measure of sovereignty. So there is no "Brexit" or "state's rights" type issue in Korea.

- Religious Strife (except "culture war" issues).  South Korea does have a variety of religions. About a quarter of the country is Christian. (Among them, about 2/3 are Protestants and 1/3 are Catholics.) About a quarter of the country is Buddhist. But nearly half of the country does not really subscribe to a particular religion--which means religion rarely becomes a political issue. To be sure, there are times when religion shows up a collateral issue. For example, former president Lee Myung-bak was criticized when his cabinet appointments included too many people who was attending his church. But even then, the gravamen of the complaint was more about something that looked like nepotism, rather than the president's religion itself.

By "religious strife," I am excluding the "culture war" issues where people might take their position based on their religious beliefs. Those issues are further discussed below.

(More after the jump.)

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Monday, March 27, 2017

The Bigotry Against Korean Democracy

Candlelight Protest, Nov. 12, 2016. Crowd estimated to be ~1 million.

The impeachment and removal of former president Park Geun-hye is a stunning triumph of democracy: an illiberal and anti-democratic president is taken down peacefully, in an orderly manner, pursuant to the rule of law. And for the most part, it has been received as such. Yet there have been a small group of critics who insist on spitting on this achievement. 

Now, I respect differences in opinion if the differing opinion derives from a solid understanding of facts on the ground. But no—not these people. They uniformly advance two bits of criticism: (1) the impeachment process ignored proper procedure, because; (2) the Korean public formed a mob that intimidated the politicians and overrode the democratic process. These two arguments only reveal their proponents’ ignorance of Korea’s constitutional structure, and the actual events on the ground during the 17 weeks of candlelight protests. 

The two most prominent examples of these critics are Michael Breen and Euny Hong, who make their case in a similar manner. Breen, on the Atlantic, opened by questioning the impeachment procedure:
Acting Chief Justice Lee Jung Mi said, her court building ringed by riot police behind a wall of police buses that held back supporters of the embattled president. “Her violations of the Constitution and the law are a betrayal of the people’s trust and cannot be tolerated.” 
If this seems a little vague, it gets more so. Hearings by the court, another series of proceedings by the National Assembly that impeached her, and a 70-day investigation by a special prosecutor, have determined that Choi Soon Sil was indeed sent presidential speeches to edit. But none of these bodies appears to have established what makes this an impeachable offense.

Similarly, Euny Hong wrote:
By US legal standards, Park's impeachment is peculiar in that she was ousted before even being fully investigated. Even the special prosecutors making the case against Park reportedly claimed they didn't have time to complete the inquiry and were denied an extension. (…) Though a Korean prosecutor alleged that Park had knowledge of this—and she may well have—what is significant is that the impeachment was pushed through before the conclusion of the investigation.

Both of these arguments are simply ignorant about what actually happened as a matter of law. Breen’s claim that the pronouncement by Acting Chief Justice Lee was “vague” is pure nonsense, when the quoted sentence comes at the end of a rigorously written court opinion. If one bothered to read the entire impeachment opinion—which I translated in this post, by the way—it is impossible for one to conclude that the Constitutional Court have not “established what makes this an impeachable offense.” The Constitutional Court considered four arguments in favor of removal, and found three—abuse of authority of appoint public official, infringement of freedom of press, and violation of the duty to exercise due diligence as a public official—were not enough to support removal. The court, however, found Park’s use of presidential power to assist Choi Soon-sil’s private profiteering does not only violate the constitution and the law, but also seriously enough such that removal from office is warranted. All of this is clearly spelled out in the opinion; none of this is vague.

(More after the jump.)

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Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Impeachment Opinion, Annotated

Acting Chief Justice Lee Jeong-mi reads the opinion

Koreans did it. They impeached their corrupt and incompetent president, and the Constitutional Court sustained the impeachment to remove her from the office. It is a stunning triumph for Korea's democracy. The crowning moment of the triumph, of course, is when the Constitutional Court announced that Park Geun-hye was removed from the office. The moment was capped by a 20-minute reading of the court's opinion from the bench by Acting Chief Justice Lee Jeong-mi.

The court's opinion will not simply go down in Korean history, but in the history of world democracy as an exemplar of how an illiberal and anti-democratic president is to be taken down peacefully, in an orderly manner, pursuant to the rule of law. In other words: it deserves to be shared with the world immediately. The Constitutional Court usually provides an official translated version of its most important opinions, but the translation process usually takes months. So--I prepared a translated version of the court's opinion, with annotations for those who are not familiar with Korea's constitutional structure. 

Several caveats apply. First, and obviously, I did the translation myself and this translation is absolutely not official. Second, because I am not an attorney trained in Korean law, I may have gotten certain legal terms of art wrong. (However, because I am a lawyer and encounter Korean law frequently, my translation should be better than ones done by non-lawyers.) Third, the opinion translated below is the version that was read from the bench on March 10, 2017. Often, the court uses an abbreviated version of the opinion to read from the bench, and produce the full opinion later on its website. Because the full opinion is not yet available, I translated the bench opinion.

The original bench opinion is available here. Off we go, after the jump.

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Sunday, March 05, 2017

Honorifics: Not as Complicated as You Think


Dear Korean,

How do you address your seonbae when you're not at work? I mean I know I will still refer to him/her as seonbae and at the beginning we will both use formal language, but what happens if he/she wants to drop the honorifcs? If we are, for example, out for a drink and we want to talk in a casual manner what happens if my seonbae is younger than me? Will they now call me unnie/nuna? And if so, aren't they supposed to use honorific language towards me?

Really Confused Polish Girl

Honorifics in Korean language confuse most non-Koreans. They are generally aware that honorifics exist in Korea, and there are certain rules as to how the honorifics are used. Because honorifics--at least, the kind that is as complicated as Korea's--don't really exist in most languages, it is difficult for non-Koreans to imagine how honorifics are supposed to be used in real life. They can try to learn the rules, but it only confuses them more because they can easily come up with a situation where two rules conflict with each other--like the questioner here.

In reality, honorifics is not that complicated. As a practical matter, there is only one default rule: between two adults, polite speech is used, especially if they are meeting for the first time. The age difference between the two adults does not matter. The social relationship between the two adults does not matter. Between two adults, polite speech is used. If you are visiting Korea and you are not entirely sure about your honorific rules, this is all you need to remember. In fact, it is not strange at all for an adult to use the polite speech to a child that he is meeting for the first time.

If you have room in your head for one more rule, here it is:  if two adults want to break away from the default, they can work it out between them. These are the only two rules that you really need to know about honorifics. 

Seeing how this plays out in real life situation makes it much easier to understand. Below are some real life situations that TK encountered recently.

Scenario 1.  TK teaches a graduate school class for non-U.S. attorneys. Some of TK's students are Koreans, and converse with TK in Korean. Can TK drop the honorifics to his Korean students, because he is the teacher and they are his students? No. Why? Because between adults, polite speech is used. 

Scenario 2.  At the same graduate school, TK sometimes works together with a research fellow, who is a Korean woman older than TK. TK refers to the research fellow as seonbaenim [upperclassman] and uses the polite speech, because she began working for the graduate school before TK did. Can the research fellow then drop the honorifics to TK, because TK is her hubae [lower-classman] and younger than she? No. Why? Because between adults, polite speech is used. 

Scenario 3.  TK has a close friend RB. RB is older than TK, so TK refers to him as hyeong [older brother], and RB drops the honorifics to TK. One day, RB introduces another one of his friend, JS, to TK. JS is the same age as RB. Can JS drop the honorifics to TK right away? No. Why? Because between adults, polite speech is used. JS is meeting TK for the first time. It does not matter that JS is older than TK, nor does it matter that JS is the same age as RB who has dropped the honorifics to TK.

Scenario 4.  TK, RB, and JS meet for the second time. After a few round of drinks, TK tells JS to drop the honorifics, because JS is RB's friend. JS agrees. Is this ok? Yes, because if two adults want to break away from the default, they can work it out between them

Get the picture? Now, there will be plenty of situations that seem to break the default rule, but that is only because of the second rule: two adults can always work out the level of honorifics they want for themselves. Sometimes the work-out process is explicitly verbal, as in Scenario 4; sometimes, it is a gradual transition where both parties decide over time that their arrangement is ok. What doesn't happen is some kind of complicated mathematics to figure out who deserves the honorifics, based on some kind of rigid and esoteric rules. Koreans have better things to do than that--like actually talking to each other.

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Saturday, February 18, 2017

Kim Jong-nam Assassinated

Dear Korean,

I guess you've been following the news of Kim Jong-nam's assassination and I wanted to know your thoughts about it. Do you think the assassination was really plotted by his half brother Kim Jong-un? Given that Kim Jung-nam is in self exile and doesn't seem to pose a threat to Kim Jung-un's political power, why would his brother still want him on his death list? Also, the whole assassination seems rather amateurish, carried out in broad daylight in a public place with dozens of cameras around. Do you think the whole thing could have been plotted by someone else?


One thing that you can confidently say about following Korean news: there is never a dull moment. Real-life Game of Thrones-style international assassination carried out by two female assassins wielding poison darts on Valentine's Day. What other country can offer this kind of excitement?

Our dearly departed Kim Jong-nam (source)
Some basic facts first. Kim Jong-nam is the oldest son of Kim Jong-il, the previous dictator of North Korea, and half-brother of Kim Jong-un, the current dictator. Kim Jong-il had four wives: Kim Jong-nam was the son from the first wife, and Kim Jong-un was the son from the third wife. Kim Jong-nam has been living a life of exile, mostly based out of Macao and away from North Korea's power center. It is not entirely clear if Kim Jong-nam renounced the throne (so to speak,) or Kim Jong-un was more ruthless in seizing power. At any rate, Kim Jong-nam essentially lived as a wastrel. Until he was killed in Kuala Lumpur on February 14, he was most well known for the fact that he was caught while using a fake passport to visit Tokyo Disneyland.

But none of this means Kim Jong-nam was not a threat to Kim Jong-un. In fact, Kim Jong-nam simply being alive posed a threat to Kim Jong-un. Despite the pretensions of communism, North Korea has long been a hereditary monarchy as a practical matter, emphasizing the lineage to the first dictator Kim Il-sung as the source of legitimacy. In such a system, the first son born to the first wife always has a greater claim of legitimacy than the third son born to the third wife. This threat is so great that, in fact, a significant number of North Koreans do not even know Kim Jong-un has older brothers.

The threat that Kim Jong-nam posed to Kim Jong-un's power was not merely theoretical. Because there are now enough number of North Korean defectors who escaped the country, there are ex-North Korean political groups that are attempting to establish a North Korean government-in-exile. These groups claim that, because the current North Korean dictatorship is illegally occupying North Korea, there needs to be a government-in-exile that represents the country in the international stage and take a leadership role in assisting resistance within North Korea. At least one of these groups reached out to Kim Jong-nam, asking him to the head of state for the exile government. Kim Jong-nam reportedly declined, but consider the possibilities if he took the offer.

To me, particularly notable is the fact that Kim Jong-nam died within 48 hours of an explosive report from Kyunghyang Shinmun, a South Korean newspaper. According to Kyunghyang, Kim Jong-nam served as a messenger between his father Kim Jong-il and Park Geun-hye, before Park became the president of South Korea. Kim Jong-nam apparently kept in regular contact with Park Geun-hye, and would deliver Park's letter to Kim Jong-il. (To be clear: it is actually old news that Park Geun-hye had been sending letters to Kim Jong-il, asking Kim to allow her group based in Europe to operate in Pyongyang. The news is that Kim Jong-nam was involved in the communication between the two.) 

In addition, Kyunghyang's report said when Park Geun-hye was running for president, the outgoing Lee Myung-bak administration--which belonged to the same party as Park--attempted to get Kim Jong-nam to defect to South Korea. The election of Park Geun-hye (versus the liberal candidate Moon Jae-in) was a close affair, and the conservative Lee administration was pulling out all stops for Park Geun-hye. (Other efforts included using South Korean spy agency to plant fake news stories via internet comments and fake tweets.) Having the oldest son of Kim Jong-il defect to South Korea would have been a massive victory for the conservatives' North Korea policy. However, the plan fell through apparently because Kim Jong-nam preferred to defect to Europe or the United States, if he were to defect at all.

Here, the usual caveat: I am just a guy with a blog who reads a lot of news. I don't have any special insight or insider information about this issue. But it does seem like a hell of a coincidence that Kim Jong-nam died within 48 hours after the news broke that he was discussing a possible defection into South Korea.

Could it have been someone other than Kim Jong-un that killed Kim Jong-nam? If you are seriously thinking that, two words for you: Occam's Razor. There is no reason to overthink this. Why would anyone else bother to kill Kim Jong-nam? Because the killing seems amateurish? You try killing someone with poison in just five seconds.

One thing to know about North Korean spy infrastructure is that it is both extremely well trained and highly amateurish. The story of Kim Hyeon-hee is instructive. Kim Hyeon-hee was a North Korean spy who planted a bomb on Korean Air Flight 858 in 1987. Flight 858, which left from Baghdad to head to Seoul, exploded mid-air killing all 115 aboard. Kim was arrested, and the South Korean intelligence agency interrogated her for more than a month. 

For more than a month, Kim Hyeon-hee claimed that she was a Japanese woman named Mayumi, complete with a Japanese passport and an elaborate life story of growing up in Japan, told in flawless Japanese. North Korean spy agency had trained Kim Hyeon-hee for years to play this role. North Korea even kidnapped Japanese women and smuggled them into North Korea, so that the women could act as language tutors to North Korean spies who would in turn assume their identities. (This is probably the least reported outrageous stories about North Korea.)

South Korean intelligence, however, saw through the act. How? One of the clues was that Kim Hyeon-hee, the self-described Japanese woman named Mayumi, pretended not to know how to eat gim--the toasted seaweed that the Japanese call nori. (It's the black sheet that wraps a sushi roll.) Kim also referred to Prime Minister Nakasone, although at the time a new Prime Minister had already succeeded Nakasone--an event unmissable to any Japanese person from Japan. North Korean spy agency was well trained enough to turn a North Korean woman into a flawless Japanese speaker with a complete life story, but amateurish enough to not give the woman the small details of actually being a Japanese person--which is, when you think about it, exactly how a government would work.

There are already all kinds of stories swirling about Kim Jong-nam's assassination, about how the women who killed Kim Jong-nam thought they were participating in a game show, etc. All of this makes me wonder how the media would have told the story if the Korean Air Line bombing happened in the internet age. (A breathless headline might read: "Is the KAL bomber a false flag operation by the Japanese?") The best thing to do in this situation--really, in any situation--is to resist the urge to jump on the latest bizarre news, give the law enforcement the time to do their jobs, and process the story when it gets clearer.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

Saturday, February 11, 2017

10 Year Reflections: On Writing


Now, time to talk about what's been happening with my life.

I have said many times over that this blog began as a way to kill boredom during graduate school. But in the ten years of writing this blog, I stumbled into a career that I never envisioned for myself: being a public intellectual. Obviously, I am not a big name public voice like Andrew Sullivan or Tyler Cowen or Eugene Volokh. But over the last ten years, people began paying attention to what I had to say when it comes to Korea. The blog began to appear more frequently on mainstream media. I even parlayed the blog into writing about Korea on major publications under my real name. (No, I'm still not telling you what it is.) Journalists who cover East Asia reached out to me with increasing frequency.

At the same time, my day job as a lawyer was increasingly demanding more of my time. Here is a shocker: being a big law firm lawyer is a tiresome job, and it only gets more tiresome the longer you are at it. I stared down the future of my career, and--at least at the time--saw only bleakness. So, dear readers: I carefully plotted my escape. About a year and a half ago, I finally crafted a cautious middle ground where I can continue to work at my firm while studying at a graduate school, with an eye toward becoming a law professor. I did this for the last year and a half, living a life of balancing a number of spinning plates. I wrote law review articles, worked on my cases at the law firm, studied law more deeply. And I committed myself to writing more on this blog.

That was the plan, at least. As regular readers of this blog know, that commitment did not come through. I did not write more on this blog in the last year and a half; in fact, I wrote less. In the process, I ended up learning a few lessons about my relationship with writing.

First lesson was that I only had a limited reserve of writing in me. I have always been a fast writer who can bang out many pages in short order. (To be sure, those initial drafts are awful and require multiple rounds of editing for them to make sense.) For the first time in my life, I was in a situation in which I had more time in a day than the amount of writing in me--which made me realize more time did not lead to more writing. My desire to put thoughts into print may be greater than most people's, but its amount is not infinite.

I also learned when writing becomes work, the character of my writing changes in several ways. The more obvious change is the "fun" element. Part of the reason why I wrote less on the blog was because I had so much writing to do for law reviews. To be sure, writing a law review article is fun in its own way. But it is a lumbering process of reading background materials, navigating through terms of art, citing sources and crafting an argument--all part of a good writing, to be sure, but done to a point that can get tiresome. TKWife, a professional musician, enjoys playing music, but not like the way a hobbyist enjoys playing music. She might even mess around with music from time to time, but her messing around has a different quality from an amateur messing around with a guitar after a long day from work. Same became of my writing: when writing becomes a job, it can no longer remain as a hobby--or at least, not the kind of hobby you used to have.

The less obvious change, but equally as important, was what I might call the element of "groundedness" in writing. Academic writing is paradoxical: on one hand, it requires rigorous research and sourcing of facts than ordinary writing. On the other hand, there is no limit on how outlandish or fanciful the actual content of the article can be. Of course, we want big imagination and grand vision from academics. But often--to put it crudely--the process of academic writing ends up meaning that you can say any stupid shit you want, as long as there are enough citations for your stupid shit. In this sense, my continued work at the law firm was exceedingly important; I found that on days I came to the office, my writing was a lot more "grounded." I cannot reach that groundedness by reading more academic literature; it can only be achieved by living a regular life, and absorbing the intuitions of ordinary life that are rarely verbalized and memorialized in a research paper.

These changes led to a more fundamental question: is there any point to writing? When writing was merely a hobby, this question was not necessary. Of course there was no point to my writing. That's what hobbies are; they don't seek to achieve anything other than personal diversion. But the question became suddenly more urgent when writing became a job. You write, you explain, you argue, you accumulate knowledge--for what?

A common answer is: for influence and change. Many people--journalists, professors and regular ol' writers--write in order to become a leading voice, gain influence and change the world closer to their vision. But precious few people actually get to see the change they advocate. Most--really, nearly all--writing is just hot gas, making a puff when exposed to the world and dissipating immediately. To have a shot at avoiding that fate, one needs to put on a performance. One needs to pick the more salacious topic and present it with more alarm, more outrage, more cuteness, more warm and fuzzies. And one needs to do it over and over again, telling and retelling the same story. It is not a bad thing to be engaged in this type of writing. But do I want it for myself? If I am taking up writing as a job to keep blogging for fun, am I not destroying the thing I have been working to preserve?

Ten years in, this is where I am with Ask a Korean!. I am still spinning plates, juggling law firm life and academic life. At some point all the spinning will stop, and we will all fall down to our places. I might write more on the blog, I might write less, or not at all. More than once, I told my wife and friends I am shutting this down. That day may yet come--but for now, the plates are spinning, so we carry on. Who knows? We may be celebrating the 20 year anniversary before we know it.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at 

p.s. I am sticking this all the way at the bottom because I am hoping that not too many people notice.

Because of all the concerns listed above about not turning this blog into work, I made sure I made no money from the blog in the last ten years. My thought on it evolved slightly--for example, now I charge websites and medias to reprint a post from this blog, to protect the integrity of my original post. But I have never set up a paywall on the blog, nor have I put up any ad on the blog, despite the fact that this blog has gotten tens of millions of hits. In the last decade, I am running a net negative on the blog finance. (Remember, the domain name costs money to keep!)

However, I have been seeing an uptick of reader emails asking me ways to make a donation to the blog, because the readers found my blog interesting and helpful. With the rise of crowdfunding, this became a culture of the internet in some ways--you show your appreciation by sending in a tip. I still am not comfortable with this, because I am very firm in not wanting to turn this blog into a source of income. But I figured that a ten year anniversary celebration might be a decent occasion to relax a little.

So if you want to send me a tip, buy me a beer, celebrate 10 years of Ask a Korean!--call it whatever you want, I don't care--I opened a PayPal account under the blog's email: And as always, thank you for reading. 

Thursday, January 26, 2017

10 Year Reflections: Korea in the World

Seoul at night.

How did Korea change since 2006, when Ask a Korean! began? There is plenty to talk about, large changes and small. Some of the big changes: Korean economy grew to new heights, even as the world was going to the tanks following the 2008 financial crisis. But the wealth gap between the rich and the poor has been growing, the life at the bottom of the economic ladder has become more tenuous, and youth unemployment has been rising. Smaller changes? Coffee in Korea became a lot better, and so did beer. E-sports became a global thing. Gangnam Style happened.

But in my view, the most significant change for Korea is the international baseline of expectations for Korea. 

The concept of "international baseline of expectations" needs a bit of explanation. (It's a concept that I made up for this post. I'm sure there is a more sophisticated version of the concept in the academia somewhere.) One major lesson I learned from running this blog is knowing just how shallow the thought process is when people think of other countries. It is not simply that the people who send questions to this blog know little about Korea; it is that they do not think much about the fact that Korea is an actual place populated with actual people. 

People who are afflicted with a particularly stupid version of this think of Korea as some kind of fantasy land, filled with K-pop stars living in the sets of Korean dramas. As such, they are the endless wellsprings of stupid questions. Like this one: 
"How can someone in Korea like foreign girls, when Korean girls are so pretty? Would dating a blind Korean help?"
That's a real question that I received from a real person. Imagine getting this kind of questions every day.

I found, over time, that even the sharpest people rely on a version of this. Of course, the sharper people don't think Korea is filled entirely with beautiful men and women like it is on television. But even the smartest people fail to remind themselves of this basic fact: Korea is an actual place populated by actual people.

This leads to culturalism. In one of the most popular posts in this blog's 10-year history, I argued against Malcolm Gladwell who claimed that Korean culture's deference for hierarchy caused the Korean Air flight 801 to crash in 1997. Obviously, Gladwell is not stupid. But his claim, distilled to its essence, was incredibly stupid--that Koreans are willing to kill themselves and hundreds of others because Korean culture emphasizes manners. This is not so much a failure of intelligence, but a failure of empathetic imagination.

"International baseline of expectations," as I conceive of it, is what fills the gap left by this failure. Stated simply, the "baseline" is the vague, hazy image that comes to one's mind when one thinks of another country. What image comes to mind first when you think of Korea? Whatever that image is, it is the image serves as a heuristic for everything about Korea. Regardless of how smart you are, that image always lingers in the background of your mind. and colors every further interaction you have with the country.

My sense is that ten years ago, most people around the world had no baseline of expectations for Korea. If they had to, they threw in an image of a generic Asian country and went from there. Today, the baseline image is still hazy--by definition, it never becomes all that clear. But compared to a decade ago, Korea has a dramatically improved baseline of expectations. The default images now involve some combination of skyscrapers, electronics, e-sports and pop culture.

This, I think, has been the greatest change that Korea has experienced in the last 10 years. People around the world have some measure of positive expectations for Korea, no matter how hazy that expectations may be. Going forward, that may end up becoming Korea's greatest asset.

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Monday, January 16, 2017

10 Year Reflections: On Blogging

This blog, Ask a Korean! was born October 21, 2006. (Here is my very first post, and my very first question answered.) The decade mark of the blog last year should have been a significant occasion. But because of the circumstances in my life (which I will share in due time,) I was not able to give this blog a proper celebration.

So here it is to open the new year: a belated 10 year celebration, through a series of reflections about different topics--on blogging, Korea, and myself. Yes, this is going to get a bit self-indulgent. If you have a problem with that, go read The Most Important Policy of this blog one more time.

*                           *                           *

I began this blog as a way to kill time during the slowness of third year in law school. The direct inspiration for the blog, reflected in its name, is ¡Ask a Mexican! by Gustavo Arellano, who ran (and still runs) his syndicated column in OC Weekly. The blog was somewhat of a joke to myself--in fact, that is still the case in my head to this day. I gave myself a ridiculous pen name, The Korean, and wrote in a ridiculous style, referring to myself in third person. The joke was: you are really not supposed to take me very seriously. I'm just a random guy on the internet with a blog.

As many of my jokes go, this one failed. For reasons unknown to me, people kept reading the blog. Publications like the New York Times took me seriously enough to send a reporter to interview me. Although media appearances now have become a regular feature of the blog, I still don't really understand why they keep reading my stuff. In my mind, it means the journalists are not doing their jobs; if they knew what they were talking about, they wouldn't read this internet rando's blog.

I can't get over this point partially because I cannot get over what blogging was like ten years ago. Back then, having a blog was a mild embarrassment, like online dating was back in the day. Calling yourself a "blogger" meant you could not manage to get a job. Blogging was not real writing; it could never be serious. 

In the past ten years, I saw this change in different ways. First came the boom times. Starting around 2009, blogging became mainstream to a point that every company was essentially required to have a blog on its website, just as much as it needs to have a Facebook page and a Twitter account today. On the particular subjects I covered--Korea and Asian America--there was a thriving network of blogs like Marmot's Hole, Roboseyo, Brian in Jeollanam-do and Korea Beat. It helped that this period was also the peak of English speakers visiting Korea to teach English, which led to more bloggers and blog readers. 

Another turn came around 2013. Blogging became so successful that it turned into something else entirely. Big name blogs, written by serious people discussing serious stuff (like Marginal Revolution or Volokh Conspiracy,) were absorbed into the framework of mainstream media (in their cases, to the Washington Post) and simply became "media." For people who simply wanted to chronicle their daily lives (or minutely or secondly lives, as it turned out,) first came Tumblr, then Twitter, where they could vomit their thoughts in real time.

This larger trend was visible in Korea bloggers also. One by one, lights started going out. Some wrote much less frequently; some shuttered their blog entirely. The list titled "Korea" in my RSS feed became shorter and shorter. I could not help but notice that as bloggers got older and more involved with their family or career, their writing slowed down. After all, blogging was just a hobby. Time to move on from childish things.

The latest turn affected this blog also. I went from being a graduate student to an attorney who has been practicing law for nine years, and recently, father of a newborn girl. At its peak, AAK! used to have an update nearly every day. Now, my short impressions have migrated entirely to the blog's Facebook page and Twitter. The blog became the place for a more involved writing, requiring more research and reflection.

All of this leaves me in a bind. My blog never got big enough to be a money-making venture. Not that I would want it to be so--that would drain all the fun out of writing. But this does mean that my blog remains a hobby, a very time consuming, expensive one. (Remember, I am in a profession that charges by the hour.) What is more, the cost of engaging in this hobby is rising every day. Being a more senior attorney means more demand on your time. I have been a father for exactly 12 days, and I cannot see the task getting any easier in the next decade.

Ironically, the blog's success also constrains. I would have never, ever guessed that Ask a Korean! would become what it is today. I would have never, ever guessed that the blog would have more than 15 million pageviews, or one of my posts would get more than a million pageviews. I would have never, ever guessed that having a blog would allow me to connect with people who shape the world we live in. The attention the blog has received compelled me to become a better writer and more rigorous thinker--a happy result. 

But it also made me more cynical and calculating in the topics I choose to write about, especially because each post now requires so much work. I always enjoyed writing about random trivia about Korea. One of the big moments for this blog was when I translated Prince Fielder's neck tattoo, which made this blog the top Google search result when anyone searched for tattoo in Korean. Can I enjoy trivialities with the blog anymore, when the time I spend to write becomes more and more precious? Can I continue to afford this hobby? Really, who blogs any more, except those who are paid to do?

I sense that soon, I will have to make some type of decision about what to do with this blog. But I don't even know what that decision will be.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Goodbye 2016


2016 has been a year of great changes in my life. All year long, I had hoped that I would be able to share with you exactly what changed. But the year kept running and running, and here we are. At the very last day of the year, I am still not in a position to tell you all the changes that are coming.

Long time readers know AAK! traditions: the worst emails of the year, followed by the list of most read articles for the year. Not this year, however. As my life changes, so will this blog. And there is no telling where this blog will be in the next several weeks, because I cannot tell where my life is heading. I can only wait.

Undoubtedly, I am missing a lot. This year was the 10 year anniversary of Ask a Korean!, and I do have plenty of things to say about that experience. There is still so much I can say about Korean politics, U.S. politics and what it means to live as an Asian American. There is still so much to be said about Korea, the most interesting country in the world. I regret that I have not been able to do all that in 2016.

So if you would indulge me, let's hold onto those things. Soon, I will be able to share with you all the things that have been happening with me and with this blog. Until then, be safe, healthy and well. See you next year.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Lessons of Choi Soon-sil Scandal


Mass protest demanding Park Geun-hye's resignation, Nov. 12, 2016. Crowd size is
estimated to be nearly a million. (source)

The Choi Soon-sil scandal, and the subsequent impeachment of Park Geun-hye, are seismic events that are sending shock waves throughout the world. The scandal’s magnitude and bizarre nature are tempting many observers to connect it to other seismic political events around the world, such as the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and the election of Donald Trump in the United States. Seizing upon the massive weekly protests, the observers claim that the South Korean “people” are tired of the “status quo” and are now revolting against the “establishment.” By making this connection, these observers are trying to forge some type of grand theory of global politics, trying to capture a planet-wide zeitgeist of some kind.

But this is all wrong—a lazy analysis that is totally ignorant of Korea’s recent political history. Korea’s reaction to the the Choi Soon-sil-gate does offer a real political lesson for the world, but not because it is the second coming of Brexit or another version of Trump.

Just matching up the basic facts of these events reveals how facile this comparison is. Both Brexit vote and Trump election were fairly close affairs. Brexit vote was around 52 percent “leave” to 48 percent “remain.” Despite his campaign manager’s deluded claim of a “landslide,” Trump won with one of the worst margins of electoral college in U.S. history, and trailed Hillary Clinton by nearly 3 million votes across the country. In contrast, Korea is totally unified in its rejection of its president. The support for Park Geun-hye is around 4 to 5 percent, essentially a statistical error.

The participants of Korea’s popular revolt are also completely different from those of either Brexit vote or Trump election. The victorious electorate in the Brexit vote and the Trump election is characterized as being rural as opposed to urban, less educated as opposed to highly educated, poorer as opposed to richer. Those differences do not exist in Korea’s rejection of Park Geun-hye—they cannot exist when 96 percent of the country disapproves the president. Further, the loudest voices in Korea that have been demanding Park Geun-hye’s resignation are not Korea’s equivalent of the “white working class.” They have been highly educated urban middle- and upper middle-class, who work in white collar occupations in the skyscrapers near the City Hall Square where there have been weekly protests of more than a million people.

The triggering event for Choi Soon-sil-gate—namely, the fishy admission of Choi’s daughter into Ewha Womans University—captures this essential difference. Ewha, established in 1886 as Korea’s first modern school for women, is an embodiment of Korea’s “establishment.” It is an institution that prides itself in producing Korea’s women leaders. Three out of the nine First Ladies in South Korean history attended Ewha. An overwhelming majority of the names that would fill in the blank of “first Korean woman to …” belong to Ewha graduates. And it was the fury of the Ewha students and graduates over the fact that Choi’s daughter Jeong Yoo-ra may have gotten into Ewha based on favoritism that finally broke the Choi scandal wide open. Some shaman’s daughter fraudulently took the Ewha name was the basis of this fury. If there is any class element to Choi Soon-sil scandal, it is the reverse of Brexit and Trump election: it is Korea’s urban middle class raining scorn upon a lowly impostor.

What, then, is the lesson that the Choi Soon-sil scandal offers? I suggest that Korean people’s reaction to the Choi-gate is not a reflection of the contemporary trend that gave us president-elect Donald Trump. Rather, what we are seeing in Korea now is the future of Trump. Korean politics already had its own Trump, and it is now showing the world what is going to happen next.

(More after the jump.)

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Monday, December 12, 2016

Impeachment: Where does Korea Go from Here?

Jeong Se-gyun, chairman of the National Assembly, announcing the passage of the bill to impeach the president.

After a month of trudging through shitty political news, things are finally looking up in Korea. On Friday, the National Assembly passed the bill to impeach President Park Geun-hye, by the vote of 234 to 56. 

Although the many crimes of Park Geun-hye through her confidant have shocked the world, it was not a sure thing that the National Assembly would actually impeach the president. About a month ago when I wrote this post, I was not entirely optimistic about the chances for impeachment. The National Assembly has 300 elected legislators, and the impeachment bill required at least 200 votes to pass. In the National Assembly, Park Geun-hye's Saenuri Party has 129 seats--which means there had to be at least 29 defections from the president's own party for the impeachment to succeed. In the days leading up to the vote, tensions were high. As embattled as the president was, was there really going to be enough votes to bring her down? Failed impeachment vote was a real possibility--in which case, everyone would be at a loss.

Naturally, there was a huge sigh of relief when Jeong Se-gyun, chairman of the National Assembly, announced the vote tally: 234 votes in favor of impeachment, an overwhelming victory.* The margin of victory means at least 63 members of Park Geun-hye's own party--nearly half of its Assembly representatives--voted to impeach the president. That Korea's conservatives so completely turned on their own president is the most interesting part of this ongoing political saga. (I will expand on this point in the next upcoming post.)

But this is hardly a done deal. Americans who lived through the Bill Clinton era may find this phrase familiar: impeachment is a trial, not removal from the office. Same is true with Korea. Functionally speaking, impeachment only means that the National Assembly filed a lawsuit with the Constitutional Court of Korea. The court must try the case and find that the president seriously violated the constitution or statutes, before she is actually removed from the office.

Because my day job is being a lawyer, it is highly interesting for me to see the extent to which the impeachment trial proceeds just like any other litigation. After the impeachment bill passed, the case is docketed with the court and is assigned a case number. The president must be served with process--as if she needs the notice that the National Assembly decided to impeach her! Just imagine being the process server for this case. Yes, a process server personally makes the service, even in impeachment. What would go through your mind as you deliver the summons to the presidential residence? Would you require a security detail, just in case some deranged lunatic tried to intercept your delivery?

The responsive pleading by the president, which is guaranteed to be a riveting read, is due this coming Friday, December 16. The court is yet to schedule the dates for hearings, but there will almost certainly be several rounds of hearing. Last time when the Constitutional Court heard an impeachment case, involving then-President Roh Moo-hyun in 2004, the court held seven rounds of hearing before dismissing the case. If we are lucky, we may get the first round of hearing before the end of the year.** By law, the Constitutional Court must issue a decision within 180 days after the case was filed. The court took 62 days in Roh's impeachment, but it is almost certain that the court will take longer in Park Geun-hye's case as it is more complex than Roh's case.

A little bit about Korea's Constitutional Court, which is a unique institution even in the global context. Although it is called a "court," Constitutional Court is not a part of Korea's judiciary. It is a constitutional body that exists outside of the executive, legislative and judicial branches, deciding only the cases that directly implicate the constitution. This is reflected in the manner in which the court's justices are appointed. The Constitutional Court has a total of nine justices with staggering six-year terms. Each branch of the government--the president, the National Assembly and the Supreme Court--nominates three justices. They are appointed after undergoing a National Assembly hearing.

This leads to a procedural complication for the impeachment trial. Theoretically, because the case was filed on December 9, 2016, the Constitutional Court is allowed to deliberate until May 2017--which could be trouble, because the terms for two of the justices end before then. The term for Chief Justice Park Han-cheol (executive branch appointee) ends in January 2017, and the term for Justice Lee Jeong-mi  (judicial branch appointee) is up in March 2017. The two outgoing justices are considered centrists who likely would have voted in favor of removal.

The quorum for an impeachment case is seven justices, and it takes at least six votes (six actual votes, not two-thirds of the quorum or other ratio) to remove the president from office. If the court does take all the way until May 2017 to decide, the court would barely make the quorum. With just seven justices hearing the case, it would only take two justices to deny the removal of the president. (It is highly unlikely that a new justice would be appointed in the middle of the impeachment process.)

In short, if you want to see Park Geun-hye go--as overwhelming majority of Koreans do--the circumstances are less than ideal. So hang tight, folks. We are still in this for at least another several months, and the outcome is anything but guaranteed.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

*There were 56 votes against. Assembly Member Choi Gyeong-hwan, a close ally of Park Geun-hye, refused to vote. There were two votes for "abstain," and seven invalid votes that did not count. Most of the Assembly Members who cast the invalid votes apparently voted "for," but made other marks on the ballot to make their votes invalid--apparently in order to plausibly claim either way that they voted either "for" or "against," depending on the result. Because the vote was done anonymously, we cannot tell who these cowards were.

**One of the best things about Korea's judicial system is that cases move really, really fast. An American lawyer would have a heart attack if she had to prepare a responsive pleading in one week and prepare for a hearing within two weeks afterward for a case as big as this one.

Friday, December 09, 2016

Readers, I Need Your Help with Facebook (Resolved Now!)


[EDIT 2016/12/09:  Looks like Facebook unblocked me. That was pretty quick--thanks everyone!]

Ok folks, TK needs your help here. For some reason, Facebook blocked this blog. Many of you told me you can't share or send messages containing the hyperlink to AAK!. Facebook is also blocking me from sharing my blog posts on the blog's Facebook page through an automated feed.

Facebook blocked my site apparently because it failed to meet "community standards." You all know that is not true. I have done what I can with Facebook, but please help me out by doing the following: try and share something from my blog on Facebook. When Facebook stops you from doing so, there will be a link that lets you tell Facebook why the blocking is a mistake. In that box, you can copy and paste the message below:
"Ask a Korean! is a blog that explains Korean culture and current events. The blog has existed for a decade, and has had tens of millions of visitors so far. It contains no material that is inappropriate or objectionable."
Thank you everyone. Hopefully with enough people sending this message, we can resolve this issue quickly.

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