Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Sewol Tragedy, One Year On

Today, one year ago, the Sewol ferry sank off the southwestern coast of Korea, claiming more than three hundred lives. TK's series discussing the accident is below:

Based on the information that was uncovered since TK has written the post, Parts I and II contain some revision. The biggest revelation was that the Coast Guard responded negligently. For nine minutes after arrival, the Coast Guard was unaware that hundreds of passengers were still inside the ship. Because the Coast Guard made no effort to rescue the passengers from inside the ship in that precious time period, dozens of lives that could have been saved were lost. Kim Gyeong-il, the captain of the responding Coast Guard, was sentenced to four years in prison due to the dereliction of duty

*                 *                  *

There is no good way to respond to a sudden, and completely avoidable, death of more than three hundred lives, most of which belonged to young children. Even with the best response, the lost lives are not regained. But the striking part of the past year has been just how poorly Korean government, and in particular the President Park Geun-hye's administration, responded to the tragedy.

Imagine the United States, a week after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Information started appearing that the George W. Bush administration was utterly incompetent in detecting the threat by Osama Bin Laden, to a point that the attack really should have never happened in the first place. Families of the victims, outraged by the avoidable loss of their loved ones, began blaming the government. 

Now imagine if the Bush administration responded by shutting out the families, and planting CIA agents to monitor any subversive activities. The Republican faithful, sensing that their president was under attack, begin clamoring that the families should just get over it; all the mourning was putting a damper on domestic spending, hurting the economy. For the next year, the government does its best trying to pretend the 9/11 attacks never happened.

This is essentially what happened for the last year in Korea. The Sewol tragedy was one version of the 9/11 attacks, in that the entire nation saw hundreds of lives perishing real time on television. The collective trauma that Korea suffered was no less than the same that the U.S. suffered in 2001. Yet, facing this once-a-generation national tragedy, the Park Geun-hye administration responded to the tragedy in the worst way possible. The Park administration saw the social unrest following the tragedy as a threat to its power, rather than the natural expression of collective grief. Instead of taking active leadership to heal the nation, the administration did everything it could to paint the victims' family as greedy money-grabbers who were trying to profit from the deaths of their loved ones.

Incredibly, this shit worked. Korea's right-wing, which looks back on the dictatorship period of President Park's father with fond nostalgia, was happy to buy into the ridiculous idea that the victims' family were only too happy to wield their newly found power. Since the accident, nearly three-quarters of the Internet comments left on the Sewol-related news had been blaming the victims' family for asking money and other favors (which, obviously, were not true.)

Perhaps the lowest point came in late August of last year, when families of the Sewol victims began a hunger-strike to demand an investigation by special prosecutor. In one of the lowest display of sheer malice I have ever seen, members of Korea's largest conservative website organized a "gorging strike," mocking the families by essentially engaging in an eating contest of pizza and fried chicken.

Conservative Koreans engaging in "gorging strike" in front of hunger-striking families of the Sewol victims.
In the yellow test in the background, the families who lost their children were engaged in a hunger strike.
Aside from disgusting way in which the victims' families were marginalized, the most disheartening consequence of the events that followed was that no lesson was learned from the senseless tragedy. As the Sewol issue was increasingly seen as a political issue, ordinary Koreans grew tired of following the aftermath. The president and the administration played their parts, doing everything they could to pretend that the accident never happened. In a stunning display of tin-earedness, President Park Geun-hye went on a tour of South American summit meetings, declining to attend the anniversary memorial ceremony of the disaster. None of the cabinet ministers is visiting the memorial ceremony either.

As such, the most obvious lesson that should have been learned from the Sewol tragedy--public safety--has been completely forgotten. The administration established a new Ministry of Public Safety and Security, but it could not even get enough staffing to function properly. The victims' families, blinded by the pain of their tremendous wound, are stuck with protesting the government and demanding the ship to be taken out of the water. In the meantime, safety accidents on school grounds increased by 11 percent since 2014. On October 17, 2014, only six months after the Sewol tragedy, the grate covering a massive air vent at an outdoor concert venue collapsed, killing 16 K-pop concert-goers.

As with many Koreans, my mood at this one year anniversary is grim. There does not seem to be an upward trajectory. I pray for the souls of those who were so senselessly lost. I am angered that I cannot do much more.

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Saturday, April 11, 2015

Taxonomy of Korean Drinking Places

Dear Korean,

I recently stayed in Seoul for a while and was looking for a place to have some wine. However, my Korean friend told me I should careful about where I step into, because there are many different kinds of 'clubs' - there's the normal dance clubs for young people, and then there's hostess clubs/ host clubs, there are dallan jujeom  for businessmen only, then there's all the "bangs," like noraebang, PC bang, DVD bang. Could you give me a glossary of the different kinds of 'clubs' or 'bars' that's available in Korea, so I don't wander in by mistake? I saw a shop named "Bacchus" and wanted to go in for wine till my friend told me that it was "errm... for guys.... to sleep....."

Wandering Female in Seoul

What better way to come back after two weeks than talking about drinking?! 

Let's get right into it. Koreans drink, and they drink in all kinds of places. Here is a taxonomy of places where you can enjoy adult beverage in Korea. Like every attempt to categorize human society, the categories below are not hard-and-fast but are generalized groups.

Tier 1:  Hangouts with Alcohol

There are places in Korea where one can drink, but alcohol is not the main attraction. For example:

- Restaurants:  Nearly every restaurant in Korea sells alcohol, although one would primarily visit a restaurant to have a meal. The selections are usually soju and beer, and sometimes makgeolli. This is a very broad category that is particularly susceptible to a sliding scale. That is--some restaurants are closer to eating places, while other restaurants are closer to drinking places. Where a restaurant falls on that scale depends largely on the types of food it serves. Seafood restaurants, for example, would fall closer to the "drinking place" end of the scale.

- Convenience Store:  Korea does not have the silly public drunkenness laws that most places in the U.S. has, which means it is possible to drink virtually anywhere in Korea. One of the popular hangouts is the plastic table/bench in front of a convenience store. You simply purchase your choice of alcohol and food from the store, and plop your butt down on them chairs. Most convenience stores, in fact, sell packaged foods that are popular with drinkers.

Just like this.
Certain parts of Korea (e.g. Jeolla-do, or southwestern Korea) takes this concept to an entirely new level. Not only can one drink in front of storefronts, one can even order relatively high-quality cooked food. 

- Outdoors:  Outdoors? Yes, outdoors. TK means it: you can really drink just about anywhere in Korea. At the beach? Yes. On the river bank? Yes. While hiking on a mountain? Hell yes. In fact, if the weather is warm enough, there will be mobile vendors selling drinks while walking around those places.

- Sports Venues:  Simple enough. Baseball, soccer, bowling, pool--none of these places would be as fun as they are without alcohol.

(More after the jump.)

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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Lee Kuan Yew versus Kim Dae-jung: the Battle for Asia's Soul

Lee Kuan Yew, the progenitor of Singapore, has passed away. Lee was a singular individual with many interesting ideas, and Singapore likewise is a singular place with many interesting features. Plenty of ink has been spilled about how special Lee was and Singapore is in the last few days, and TK does not have much more to add on Lee or Singapore, by themselves.

What this blog can add is a bit of perspective about Singapore and Korea, and the two countries' leaders, as ideological counterparts. In 1994, Lee Kuan Yew engaged in one of the most important debates in East Asian political science--against Kim Dae-jung, who was at the time an opposition leader in Korea, and later, Korea's president and Nobel Peace Prize winner. The debate came in the form of Lee giving an interview with the Foreign Affairs magazine, and Kim responding to Lee's points several months later on the same magazine. For anyone who is curious about East Asian politics and the spread of democracy, these two pieces are must-read classics.

Go now, and actually read them--because they contain big ideas, and any summary of them will not do full justice. But very roughly speaking, Lee Kuan Yew and Kim Dae-jung were debating the relationship between East Asian culture and democracy. Lee Kuan Yew considered East Asian culture to be distinct from the Western culture; accordingly, East Asia and Singapore would not accept democracy--at least, not the kind that was being practiced in the West. Lee, for example, said because East Asia focused greatly on family, "a better system" would be "if we gave every man over the age of 40 who has a family two votes because he is likely to be more careful, voting also for his children. He is more likely to vote in a serious way than a capricious young man under 30."


Kim Dae-jung, on the other hand, believed that democracy was a universal force. To Kim, culture was important, but cultural differences were overrated. Instead, the commonalities of world culture--arising from the common human experience--uniformly pointed to democracy. In a key passage, Kim Dae-jung wrote: "Asia has its own venerable traditions of democracy, the rule of law, and respect for the people[,]" pointing to traditional Confucianism under the which the king is held accountable to the people, the civil service system that was based on meritocracy rather than hereditary inheritance, and the independent bureaus that were free to criticize the king's deeds--all of which happened centuries before Europe even had a seedling of democracy. East Asia already had all the trappings of a democratic culture; it simply needed to transplant the democratic institutions that would give expression to this culture.

It has been a little more than 20 years since the Lee Kuan Yew-Kim Dae-jung debate began. Incredibly, both men made a real-life case for their arguments in their respective countries. Under Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore enjoyed brilliant economic growth under socially restrictive rules, topping the charts in positive indicators across the globe. Under Kim Dae-jung, Korea oversaw opposition parties peacefully exchanging power like mature democracies do, and at the same time raised a host of world-class corporations while becoming a major player in the global soft culture.

Who will be proven correct? The implication of this debate is greater than ever. In the last 20 years, democracy in Asia has either stalled or regressed, depending on where you look. Most importantly, China is yet to democratize. If Lee Kuan Yew was right, the world's non-democratic superpower will never be a democracy. If Kim Dae-jung was right, a seismic change is afoot. Either way, the result of this debate will shape the next century of East Asia and the world.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

So How Do You Become a Doctor in Korea If You're Not Korean?

TK's rant in the post about being a doctor in Korea brought about some negative reactions in the comments. He could care less; the idea that a non-Korean could simply waltz in and become a doctor in Korea is delusional and deserves ridicule.

However, TK does believe in being helpful. Owing much to the excellent, detailed information sent by a reader who explored this path, here is how a non-Korean citizen may become a doctor in Korea. Technically, it is possible--it's just that, as TK stated previously, the process is so mind-blowingly difficult that it is practically impossible for most non-Koreans. Again, if you even have to ask this blog to figure out this process, you are not going to make it.

Can you make it like Dr. Nick and say, 여러분 안녕하세요?

But what the heck, let's go ahead and satisfy some curiosity. There are four potential points of entry into Korea's medical job market:

1.  High school student about to enter college
2.  Transferring into medical school as a third year, with a bachelor's degree completed
3.  As a holder of a medical degree (e.g. M.D., MBBS, etc.)
4.  As a board-certified, full-fledged doctor

We can look each one in turn:

1.  High school student

If you are in high school, you may attend college in Korea and major in medicine. There are 36 colleges in Korea with a medicine major. Medicine majors will attend college for six years, and graduate with a bachelor's degree. The first two years are strictly undergraduate education. Years 3 and 4 are pre-clinical basic science, and years 5 and 6 are all clinical.

There are two tracks of college admission in Korea: international and domestic. Relatively few colleges in Korea have a separate admission track for international students, but there are several schools that do. The international admissions requirements--including whether or not you qualify for the international track--are different for each school.

For example, Yonsei University (which runs one of the four best hospitals in Korea) defines the international applicant as a non-Korean citizen with neither parent being a Korean citizen, who has been educated outside of Korea continuously since junior high school. The admission requirements themselves are similar to that of Korean universities, but the CSAT is replaced with the SAT/ACT with the addition of the Korean Language Proficiency Exam. If you were not continuously educated in an English-speaking curriculum or school (as defined by Yonsei), you also have to take the TOEFL. Other colleges have similar, but slightly varying, requirements.

Most colleges in Korea do not have a separate track for international applicants. If the school does not have a separate pool for international students, you will have to take the CSAT like any other Korean high school student, and score extremely high to secure admission as a medicine major. This will be practically impossible for most non-Koreans.

(More after the jump)

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Monday, March 09, 2015

I am so Sorry. Legally.

Dear Korean,

As they face sentencing on blackmail charges that could land them in jail for three years, two young women are trying to save themselves with letter writing: "Model Lee Ji-yeon and GLAM's Dahee have submitted their next letters of apology for attempting to blackmail Lee Byeong-heon, making it the 10th for the model and the 17th for the idol." Are letters of apology standard operating procedure as felons face trials and/or sentencing? And do they really send ten or more? Do they go to the court or to the victim?

Frequent Flier

Short answer:  yes! Letters of apology are more or less a standard operating procedure for criminal defendants. It is not legally required, but a criminal defendant who is already convicted or whose conviction is all but certain would be foolish not to write one.

For nearly all crimes, Korean criminal law's sentencing guidelines provide that the sentencing court may consider "sincere self-reflection" as a factor to reduce the jail term, potentially down to a suspended sentence (i.e. no actual time spent in jail.) In addition, there is always a chance that the letter of apology would move the victim of the crime to ask the court for clemency, which also factors favorably in sentencing.

Lee Byeong-heon being sad about that whole blackmail thing.

This is exactly how it worked with Lee Ji-yeon and Dahee, who were convicted of blackmailing Lee Byeong-heon. For those who are not up to speed with the latest Korean entertainment gossip: Lee Ji-yeon and Dahee surreptitiously recorded Lee Byeong-heon making sexually explicit jokes while they were drinking together. Lee Byeong-heon did not help himself either, as he later flirted with Lee Ji-yeon through text messages in a manner that borderlined on harassment. The two ladies, in turn, used the recording and the text messages to blackmail Lee Byeong-heon for approximately US $5 million. Instead of paying up, Lee Byeong-heon decided to suffer the embarrassment and let the world know about the blackmail. The jig was up for the ladies.

Lee Ji-yeon and Dahee did receive prison terms--14 months and 12 months, respectively. But their letter-writing campaign apparently worked, to some degree. Lee Byeong-heon did ask the court for clemency, and the prosecutor's office appealed the case because it felt that the sentences were too low. The prosecutors specifically questioned the sincerity of the two perpetrators' apologies, claiming that the defendants are continuing to testify falsely.

Does it make sense to consider "sincere self-reflection" as a part of the sentencing rubric? If you are the type who loves the idea of putting the bad guys in jail, the idea may sound ludicrous. You might also favor drawing and quartering a murderer and cutting off a thief's hand, but the modern criminal jurisprudence has moved away from that notion.

Is there some validity to the point that this requirement brings about the "apology inflation," of the kind shown with the case of Lee Ji-yeon and Dahee? (Even by Korean standards, 17 letters of apology is a big number.) Sure, there is some validity. But take it from a criminal defense lawyer: sentencing is always more art than science, because it is impossible to precisely measure the wage of one's guilt. Modern criminal law aspires for rehabilitation of criminals. To that end, it is meaningful to inquire whether the defendant is being remorseful, even if such inquiry at times may feel like mere formalities.

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Friday, February 27, 2015

You're Not Going to be a Doctor in Korea. Stop Fucking Asking.

Dear Korean,

I will soon be taking my IB’s and start to search for colleges and universities, but I was really hoping to work as a doctor in Korea. My plan was to go to King’s College or Imperial College in the UK, and then as I get my degrees and stuff, apply as a doctor in Korea. I am not really good in korean, but I am willing to try my best to learn it as soon as possible. Do you think my goal will succeed ? In Korean hospitals, do they accept foreigners as doctors? What if I will not be able to master my korean? That will be a problem right? 


TK cannot believe that he is writing a post about this question. But he must, because this question comes in with shocking frequency. Apparently, there is a sizable population of people around the world who really want to be a doctor in Korea. If only Korean hospitals accepted foreigners! Then these people can just pursue the dream, the dream! Of being a doctor in Korea!


Here is the simple answer: if you have to ask this question, you are not going to be a doctor in Korea. How does TK know this? Simple. In any given country, around 95 percent of the students will not be able to become doctors no matter how hard they try, because the material is too difficult, the requisite test scores are too high and the smarter students will crush them. Are you a top five percent student in your country? If you are, can you do the same in a completely different language? (And yes, if you want to be a doctor in Korea but can't master your Korean, it will be a fucking problem.)

A quick perspective on how hard it is to get into a medical school in Korea. Seoul National University is widely considered the best university in Korea. In 2014, to make it into most majors offered by SNU, the student had to score between 370 and 380 out of 400 in the College Scholastic Aptitude Test (CSAT). But to get into SNU as a medicine major? The student had to score 400 out of 400. Seriously. You could not get a single question wrong in an exam with nearly 200 questions that takes more than seven hours.

It gets better: getting admitted as a medicine major at colleges that are decidedly less prestigious than SNU requires a higher CSAT score than getting into most majors in SNU. Again, you only needed to score around 370-380 to get into most majors of Korea's best university. But to get into Chungbuk National University as a medicine major? Needed 390. Jeonnam National University medicine major? 387. Chosun University medicine? 386. Have you ever heard of those colleges? Don't lie, because you have not.

And this is even before getting into the fact that Korea's CSAT is probably a harder exam than anything that a typical non-Korean 17-year-old has ever seen in her life. Don't believe me? Here is a scale model of the 2010 CSAT that TK translated into English. Remember, if you want to be a doctor in Korea, you cannot get a single question wrong. And you would be taking this exam in Korean.

(A step back: in Korea, each major of a college administers the admission for itself. For medicine majors, each school uses a different proportion of CSAT--that is to say, in addition to CSAT scores, some colleges give their own exams and/or conduct an interview.)

Sure, there will always be special cases. Some of you guys will be hyper-geniuses who pick up foreign languages and medical school-level knowledge like we mortals eat a muffin. Some of you will have a family history that puts you close to Korea, such that you can compete on equal footing with other Korean students--like, for example, Dr. John Linton at the Yonsei Severance Hospital, who was born in Korea because his great grandfather Eugene Bell came to Korea as a missionary in 1895. (To be sure, Dr. Linton is a Korean citizen. But he was not one when he became a doctor, as he naturalized just three years ago.)

These folks can be a doctor in Korea although they are not Koreans. But they don't need to ask an anonymous Internet stranger to figure out how to become a doctor in Korea. You, on the other hand, sent TK an email with this question because you can't speak Korean well enough to figure out this information on your own. So I can say this with confidence: you're not going to be a doctor in Korea. Stop clogging my inbox with your stupidity.

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

Monday, February 23, 2015

What's Real in Korean Hip Hop? A Historical Perspective

Recently, Lizzie Parker addressed an important question in the Beyond Hallyu website:  what is "real" in Korean hip hop

The question of authenticity may pop up in any given genre of Korean pop music, because every genre of K-pop is an import. Yet the question of authenticity is particularly pressing in hip hop, because no other genre of pop music cares so much about "being real," to a point that authenticity is the genre's raison d'etre, as hip hop does. Indeed, even in the birthplace of hip hop, the quest for authenticity is elusive. (Is Jay-Z still real, even though he went corporate?) When hip hop is exported to a different cultural sphere, the hurdle of authenticity becomes ever higher.

Parker's article did a great job in identifying the elements of what is considered "real" in Korean hip hop. Consider this post a companion piece, about how the idea of authenticity evolved in Korean hip hop. This inquiry is necessarily a historical one. So let's jump right into history of Korean hip hop, and start with the pioneers.

I.  Pre-History:  Early 1990s

The very first piece of K-pop that may be considered "hip hop" appeared in 1989. Hong Seo-beom [홍서범], a moderately popular rock musician, recorded a song called Kim Satgat [김삿갓].

Even by today's standards, Kim Satgat's rapping, overlaid on funk beat, has held up surprisingly well. But Hong's attempt was clearly an experimental one. Hong never aspired to be a hip hop musician; Kim Satgat was a one-off, avant-garde take at the new form of music that was gaining ground in the U.S. at the time. In the popular recount of Korean hip hop's history, Hong name is rarely mentioned.

Instead, the K-pop artists who came after Hong, such as Seo Taiji [서태지], Hyeon Jin-yeong [현진영] and Lee Hyun-do [이현도] are usually considered the pioneers of Korean hip hop. But even with this corps of artists, the label "hip hop musicians" would be a stretch. Seo Taiji's first album in 1992 , for example, definitely caused a sensation with a historical rap number, I Know [난 알아요]. But hip hop was just one of the many musical styles that Seo Taiji played with; in his later albums, Seo drifted toward his original love, i.e. rock music. Lee Hyun-do and his group Deux showed more dedication to the genre, but Lee's creativity (at least for the music that he himself would perform) was cut short when Kim Seong-jae [김성재], Lee's partner in Deux and the animal spirit of the group, passed away under mysterious circumstances at the tender age of 23.

(More after the jump)

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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Bonus Fresh Off the Boat Post

TK lied--sort of. The best essay to read about Fresh Off the Boat is indeed the essay by Clarissa Wei. But the best piece to read overall is Constance Wu's interview with the Time magazine regarding the show.


TK made it his practice to share links and short thoughts on his Facebook. But the interview with Wu, who plays Jessica on the show, has such great insights that it deserves a post.

Below, for example, is pure gold:
I think the reason people have been quick to throw the stereotype criticism on us is because there will always be people who are laughing at the wrong thing. Some people are like, “Oh, stereotypical accent!” An accent is an accent. If there were jokes written about the accent, then that would certainly be harmful. But there aren’t jokes written about it. It’s not even talked about. It’s just a fact of life: immigrants have accents. Making the choice to have that is a way of not watering down the character and making it politically correct. It’s choosing authenticity over safety, and I think that’s bold.
This is such an incredible point. From the beginning of this blog, TK has been trying to figure out how to approach the distinctiveness of Asian Americans. (For example, this post. Reading this again after seven years, I have many regrets.) Plainly, Asian Americans are different. Then how should Asian Americans, and the mainstream society, talk about this difference? 

Some Asian Americans have carried on as if we should never talk about this difference. TK thinks this is a mistake, and Wu explains why: the difference is real, and pretending that the difference does not exist is to lie about ourselves. This is who we are, and we should not be embarrassed about it. 

Wu makes this point a bit more specific to her character Jessica, which makes her perhaps the most compelling character on the show:
She’s aware of her difference, yet she doesn’t think that’s any reason for her to not have a voice. It doesn’t elicit shame in her. She doesn’t become a shrinking violet. And instead of that being something that Asians should be embarrassed of, I think that’s something that we should be proud of—the types of characters who know they don’t speak perfect English, who know they have different customs, who don’t think that that’s any reason for them to not have a voice.
The difference does not elicit shame in Jessica. This is perhaps the most important lesson that Fresh Off the Boat could impart to young Asian Americans: our difference is what we are, and it should not be a source of shame. We are who we are; don't apologize.

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Monday, February 16, 2015

Fresh Off the Boat, and Being Your Own Self

We are four episodes in with the historic television show, Fresh Off the Boat. Among the many reviews and essays that revolved around the show, the best read in TK's mind was this piece by Clarissa Wei:
I grew up resenting my parents for all of the above because it was far different from the childhoods I saw and devoured on television. I thought my parents were crazy; that my mom was neurotic and my dad was overly obsessed with American symbolism. And while I had a vague sense that other Asian-American families had similar experiences, I had no idea just how similar the experiences were. There were no reference points.

. . .

Yes, every Asian-American childhood is different, and Fresh Off the Boat is only based off of one Asian-American family. But I relate to it far more than any other television show I have ever seen in my life. For once I have something to identity with. 
Asian-American kids desperately need shows like Fresh Off the Boat as reference points. The small details matter. Watching Jessica eat an apple off of her knife, seeing Louis hire white actors for a commercial, seeing Eddie being taunted for eating noodles in school, and watching the Huang family encounter casually racist remarks by folks in the community — all this was like watching a montage of my own childhood.
"Fresh Off The Boat" Made Me Realize My Parents Aren’t Crazy [XO Jane]

This observation dovetails into a topic that TK has been mulling over for some time: growing up as an Asian American. This topic is interesting partly because it is an experience that TK has never fully had, because he immigrated to the U.S. as a 16 year old. Yet sooner or later, TK and TKWife will have their very own TKDaughter or TKSon, which adds urgency to this topic.

Having spent a lot of time studying and listening to stories of many different Asian Americans, one conclusion I made is: it is critical for an Asian American child to grow up feeling normal. Children may not be able to verbalize everything they sense, but they nonetheless keenly sense whether they are different from other children, and whether their family is different from other family. If everyone a child sees is different from her, she ends up defining herself through the difference rather than through who she is.

Of course, this is not always the case. Even under adverse situations, certain people with extra special mental strength manage to imbue their own agency in their identity. (One such example could be Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank. Growing up in rural Iowa where he belonged to one of  two Asian families in the town, Kim graduated his high school as the valedictorian, class president and the quarterback for the football team.) But with most children, being surrounded completely by people who are different from them is a difficult challenge in the course of identity formation. It is hard not to let the difference define you. You become the shadow, rather than the thing itself.

Although TK cannot exactly prove this empirically, he is certain that this is the ultimate cause of the subtle difference in attitude between the Asian Americans in/from the West Coast versus Asian Americans elsewhere. There is no good way to characterize a large group of people in a very fine-tuned manner, so I will state it crudely:  West Coast Asians, on the whole, exhibit significantly less angst about their Asian-ness. Having been surrounded by enough Asians throughout their lives, they never had the need to justify their Asian-ness. Not so with Asian Americans from elsewhere, like young Eddie Huang from Orlando. There is a reason why Huang so loudly proclaims his ethnic identity, while Roy Choi--a chef like Huang, but from Los Angeles--quietly, but confidently, mixes Korean and Mexican.

West Coast Asian Americans certainly live as racial minority in America. But in their day-to-day lives, they do not constantly experience that minority-ness. The minority experience is an unending, tiresome struggle to justify one's being. And there is only one way to prevent this struggle from being the essence of your identity: around a child, there needs to be a critical mass of Asian American families that serve as a reliable sample of the humanity, such that the child's family is not the only example of what being an Asian means. Without the critical mass that demonstrates Asian Americans' essential humanity, the Asian American identity will always be a kind of an add-on that is grafted onto what is "normal," i.e. white. 

As Wei's essay ably shows, it is difficult for a child not to be shamed by the difference. Some children respond to this by pretending that the add-on does not exist; some respond by feeling excess shame or excess pride on this add-on. (Thus creating the three archetypes: "twinkie," "self-loather" and "AZN Pride".) But as long as the Asian American identity is considered an add-on rather than an integrated part of normalcy, an Asian American child is never at ease.

(I cannot even begin the grasp the experience of Asian American adoptees, most of whom experience the difference within the family, as they are growing up. I have quite a distance to cover, and I am not far enough along my journey to talk about that topic just yet.)

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Saturday, February 07, 2015

Leap Month is Bad for Business

Dear Korean,

I recently read an article that stated the S. Korean economy only expanded 0.4 percent in 4th quarter 2014. This was the slowest growth in more than two years. The article attributed this slow down to leap month and Korean superstition. What exactly is leap month? And what are the Korean superstitions surrounding it?


Traditionally, Korea has used a luni-solar calendar. In a lunar calendar, one moon cycle equals a month. Because each moon cycle is between 29 and 30 days, one lunar year is 354 days rather than 365 days in a solar calendar. Islamic calendar, for example, uses what might be considered a "pure" lunar calendar--that is, there is no adjustment made with the lunar calendar to make it fit with the seasons. Thus, in the Islamic calendar, over time, each month does not strictly correspond with the seasons.   

Not so with Korea's traditional calendar, which is luni-solar. Traditional Korean calendar also uses the moon cycle to measure a month--but it also makes adjustments such that the calendar does not drift away from the seasons. Compared to the solar calendar, lunar calendar is short by 11 days every year. To make up for the difference, a "leap month" (called 윤달 in Korea) is inserted every so often. (There are seven leap months in every 19 years.) That is to say: in traditional Korean calendar, a year with a leap month has 13 months, not 12 months.

Because the 13th month is considered an extra, superstitions developed around it. Koreans traditionally believed that good and evil spirits were present all around the world, helping or hampering the people's affairs. In a leap month, however, Koreans believed that the spirits could not affect the real world--because it is an extra month that the spirits were not aware of. And the presence of spirits was a big deal when it comes to the big events of the family, like weddings and funerals. The superstition goes that in a leap month, it is best not to get married, because there are no good spirits in the world to look after the newlywed. On the other hand, leap year is a good time to have either a funeral, or a moving of a tomb, because the evil spirits were not around to harm the dead as s/he was passing to the netherworld.

(One might ask: couldn't it be the other way around also? Wouldn't it be good to marry in a leap month because there are no evil spirits, and bad to have a funeral because there are no good spirits? If you are thinking this, you are thinking too hard. There is a reason why this is called a superstition.)

Did the leap year superstition hurt Korea's economy in Q4 2014? Maybe a little. In 2014, the leap month fell in September in the solar calendar--a prime wedding month. There is enough data to indicate that not-insignificant number of people consciously avoided getting married in September, such that all the related industries--wedding halls, jewelry, honeymoon travel, etc.-- suffered from reduced demand.

But make no mistake: it is not as if the wedding industry is one of the major drivers of Korean economy. The leap month superstition may have played a role, but not a big one in the context of the overall economy. Korea is in fact suffering from a long-term decline of domestic consumer demand--which is a much more serious problem that deserves more attention than the silly idea that superstition caused the slowdown in economic growth.

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Tuesday, February 03, 2015

50 Most Influential K-Pop Artists: 8. Deulgukhwa

[Series Index]

8.  Deulgukhwa [들국화]

Years of Activity: 1985-present (most recent album in 2013)

Members (Current):
Jeon In-kwon [전인권]:  Vocal, guitar
Choi Seong-won [최성원]:  Vocal, bass, synthesizer

Members (Former):
Heo Seong-uk [허성욱]:  Keyboard
Jo Deok-hwan [조덕환]:  Guitar
Ju Chan-kwon [주찬권]:  Drum
Kwon In-ha [권인하]:  Vocal

Deulgukhwa (1985)
Deulgukhwa II (1986)
Deulgukhwa 3 (1995)
Deulgukhwa (2013)

Representative Song:  Only That is My World [그것만이 내 세상] from Deulgukhwa (1985)

그것만이 내 세상
Only That is My World

세상을 너무나 모른다고
You know so little of the world
나보고 그대는 얘기하지
That's what you tell me
조금은 걱정된 눈빛으로
With eyes shrouded a bit with concern
조금은 미안한 웃음으로
With a smile shaded a bit with apologies
그래 아마 난 세상을 모르나봐
Yes, perhaps I don't know the world
혼자 이렇게 먼 길을 떠났나봐
Perhaps I started this long journey all by myself

하지만 후횐 없지
But I have no regrets
울며 웃던 모든 꿈
All the dreams through which I cried and laughed
그것만이 내 세상
Only that is my world
하지만 후횐 없어
But I have no regrets
찾아 헤맨 모든 꿈
All the dreams that I have searched for
그것만이 내 세상
Only that is my world
그것만이 내 세상
Only that is my world

세상을 너무나 모른다고
I know so little of the world
나 또한 너에게 얘기하지
That's what I tell you, too
조금은 걱정된 눈빛으로
With eyes shrouded a bit with concern
조금은 미안한 웃음으로
With a smile shaded a bit with apologies
그래 아마 난 세상을 모르나봐
Yes, perhaps I don't know the world
혼자 그렇게 그 길에 남았나봐
Perhaps I stayed on that road all by myself

하지만 후횐 없지
But I have no regrets
울며 웃던 모든 꿈
All the dreams through which I cried and laughed
그것만이 내 세상
Only that is my world
하지만 후횐 없어
But I have no regrets
가꿔왔던 모든 꿈
All the dreams that I have grown
그것만이 내 세상
Only that is my world
그것만이 내 세상
Only that is my world

Translation note:  The switch in subject between the first line of the first verse and the first line of the second verse is my own interpretation. In the actual song, the subject is not clear, because the sentence does not contain a subject--as is common with Korean language construction. 

Maybe they should have been ranked higher because...  Deulgukhwa's first album is widely considered the greatest album in K-pop history.

Maybe they should have been ranked lower because...  They can't go lower. But they probably can't go higher either. Only the best artists of the genre are above them at this point.

Why is this band important?
In the late 1970s, Korean pop music suffered through a catastrophic dark age. The Park Chung-hee dictatorship, growing ever more authoritarian, decided that pop culture was harming the national discipline. Many pop musicians found themselves in jail for trumped-up drug charges. All albums required governmental approval before they were released. Park was later assassinated, but his replacement--General Chun Doo-hwan--was hardly any better. K-pop, which was at the forefront of world pop music trend in the early 1970s, regressed for nearly a decade.

Deulgukhwa was the ray of sunlight that broke through the dark ages. The band's first album is widely considered the greatest rock album in K-pop history, and with good reason. The album is a historical breakthrough that rebooted the progress of Korean pop music. In fact, Deukgukhwa kickstarted the golden age of Korean rock. It may seem unthinkable today, but in the mid- to late 1980s, Korean TV's pop music ranking shows would be routinely topped with rock bands, with Deulgukhwa being a routine presence. Although it is once again driven underground today, Korean rock music owes a great deal of its current sophistication to Deulgukhwa and the rock band of the 80s.

Interesting trivia:  Choi Seong-won also had a successful career as a producer. His most famous product is Panic, ranked 25th in this list.

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Thursday, January 29, 2015

On Political Correctness

[What does this have to do with Korea? Nothing! As TK have said time and again: this blog is his, and he will write about whatever the hell he damn well pleases in this space.]

(Source. H/T to Rob.)

Criticism of political correctness has one valid point, which is: insistence of political correctness often degenerates into what may be called "Magic Word Racism." Because you used the Word X, you are a terrible person who must be disqualified from public interaction. In this space, I have repeatedly noted the danger of Magic Word Racism. It is simply no way to fight racism. Love, generosity and willingness to forgive are the correct foundations to combat racism, not more recrimination and bitterness.

One way to view the intra-liberal divide regarding political correctness is: whether liberalism is to be considered procedural or substantive. That is to say: one may consider liberalism to be (1) a set of procedural rules and be agnostic about the results of following such rules, or (2) a set of desired outcomes, and the procedure designed to arrive at those outcomes. These two points, of course, are archetypes that stand as poles. Our real-world attitude will usually fall somewhere in between.

I personally stand closer to (2), because I simply cannot bring myself to be agnostic about the result. Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said: "If my fellow citizens want to go to Hell I will help them. It’s my job." There is some merit to this saying if it is specifically limited to the role of judges, in certain circumstances. But applied generally, I find this attitude--which is a re-statement of position (1)--to be unserious. It smacks of the juvenile desire to feel principled and smart by claiming to the world, "consequences be damned!" Such proclamation is juvenile because it comes the type of people who rarely suffer the consequences--like, say, a white male editor of an elite New York magazine. 

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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

That Horizontal Mambo Before the First Dance

Dear Korean,

Is it acceptable for Korean people that a girl has sexual activities before she gets married?

Karina Z.

Short answer: yes.


In a 2012 survey with young single Koreans, 82.9 percent of men and 66.3 percent of women considered virginity before marriage unnecessary. This represents a massive sea change: in a 1982 survey, 78 percent of women college students said one must keep virginity before marrying. 

The 1982 survey, with the sample consisting of students from Seoul National, Yonsei, Korea and Ewha Universities, is a story in itself. Only 3 percent of women college students had any sexual experience. Only 20 percent of the young women ever kissed. (The same number for male students is 33 percent and 60 percent, respectively.) Only 50 percent of the men said they would marry a woman who had sex previous to marriage; only 10 percent of the women said they would marry a man who had sex previous to marriage. Only 28.9 percent of all respondents said it would be ok to have sex after being engaged to be married--which is somehow a huge jump from only a year previous. In 1981, only 7.4 percent of the respondents said it would be acceptable to have sex after having been engaged.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Let's Play Criminals

Dear Korean,

In the movie Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, there was a scene where the main character had to reenact her crimes while cuffed and masked, with a slew of photographers around her. I was wondering if there is any real reason behind this. Is it simply for dramatic effect or does it serve a real purpose?

Curious White Girl

If you don't know what Curious White Girl is talking about, it looks like this:
Serial murder Kang Ho-soon, reenacting the disfigurement and burial of his victims. c. 2009

It is not necessarily typical, although not unusual, for Korean police to have the alleged criminal re-enact his crime at the site of the crime. Reenactment is a part of the police's field investigation, and the police can technically order any criminal defendant to participate in the reenactment. But since reenactment costs time and police budget, the police tends to save reenactments for significant cases, like murder. 

As a result, crime reenactment does resemble a media circus, with a legion of cameras trying to capture the most sensational moment. The picture above is the criminal reenactment of Kang Ho-soon, a serial killer who murdered at least 10 women between 2005 and 2008. At the time, Kang's crime caused such a sensation that many Koreans who shared the same name filed a court petition for name change. The picture above captures a chilling moment: Kang reenacting how he severed the digits of his victims before burying them, to make identification more difficult. For his crimes, Kang was sentenced to death.

Yet despite the sensationalism, crime reenactments do serve real purposes in criminal justice. The most important purpose, counter-intuitively, is the protection of the defendant who made a confession. By reenacting the crime, the police can prove to the court (through the prosecutor) that the defendant's confession is not falsely obtained, because the confession is consistent with the reenactment which gives a plausible account as to how the crime actually, physically happened. Reenactments can also reveal additional evidence, which may serve as a basis for additional crimes and/or crimes of a higher degree.

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