Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Lee Jung Hee Hoax

Dear Korean,

I am curious about your thought on the Lee Jung Hee scandal that happened earlier this year, since it is so bizarre and apparently trending in the various social media. Could you please share some words about the scandal?


TK really, really did not want to get into this one, but it was simply ridiculous how many of you asked this question. So let's go.

The Lee Jung Hee scandal began with a sensational allegation made on a website late June this year. The full version of of the allegations is available in English here. The short version of the allegation is this:  
A woman named Lee Jung Hee, who is in her 40s and has two teenage sons, claimed that she and her sons have been subject to decades of sexual abuse at the hand of her husband. Lee was forced to marry her husband, who was a pastor, in her 20s, after having been raped by him and got pregnant. Since then, Lee's husband forced her into prostitution for 20 years, during which she was forced to partake in orgies while being drugged. Her sons were also forced into the orgies after they became older. All told, Lee was raped by "around 1,000 people" for 20 years, and her sons "around 300 people." The orgies were filmed, and the participants of the orgies sold the videos and shared the profit.
Lee finally escaped in 2014 and called the police on her husband, but there was minimal investigation as the participants of the orgies were politically and socially powerful men. Instead, the police committed one of Lee's sons to a mental institution, where he developed psychosis.
This story started going around the Internet in Korea, because it had all the sensational elements--a twisted mixture of sex, power, religion, denial of justice. Lee and her sons made their case repeatedly made their case on the Internet, writing more testimonials and filming Youtube interviews. Eventually, the story was translated into various languages. The #helpleejunghee hashtag campaign began; there was (and is) a Facebook page also. A change.org petition garnered more than 37,000 signatures

Lee Jung Hee and her two sons, from their Youtube interview

As we know now, this was all a hoax. The monstrous former husband, who was supposedly blocking the police investigation because he was so well-connected with powerful people, was no more than an old pizza delivery man living in a crappy studio apartment. Lee led to the journalists to a rural village, claiming that her perpetrators lived there--not just one or two of the perpetrators, but according to Lee, the whole village was a sex colony that raped her and her sons. (But why would these allegedly rich and powerful men who assaulted her and her sons live in a crappy rural village?) The police did investigate the former husband when Lee initially claimed sexual assault to the police. After four months of investigation, the police did not find any nefarious orgy picture or video, nor did they find any sign of drug use from the former husband.

The real story was simpler and made much more sense. Lee and the former husband was indeed married, and was in the process of divorce. The former husband did beat Lee and the children, which resulted in a favorable divorce for Lee. It was when the husband appealed the decision by the divorce court that Lee began claiming sexual assault. Her story fell apart as soon as the more serious Korean media began their investigation. Earlier this month, Lee was arrested on the charges of malicious litigation and child abuse; Lee's children were separated from their mother and were placed in protective services.

TK stayed away from this story from the beginning for a simple reason: it smelled funny. The story did not make any sense internally. Who would pay to have sex with one woman and two young boys, along with a bunch of other men? Maybe that could happen once or twice, but over 20 years? Really? Who would even pay to watch the video of that happening? Have you even seen what kind of porn is available on the Internet nowadays? But because very unlikely things do happen in real life, TK was willing to let the story play out, and see what the more serious people would have to say about this topic. And as soon as the media scrutiny came in, the story crumbled entirely.

The lesson from the hoax is an enduring one: Internet justice campaign is for gullible idiots. Tens of thousands of people bought into this transparent bullshit because . . .  well, I don't know why. I don't know why people feel compelled to put their name down on something without knowing what is going on. I don't know why people put their name down on something while having no way to know what is going. (This applies especially to non-Korean people who cannot access regular Korean media.) I don't know why people think putting their name down on some corner of the Internet helps in any way.

The Lee Jung Hee scandal shows once more that this kind slacktivist campaign is no more than a cheap moral masturbation, a blind dog wandering aimlessly and biting anything that gets in the way. The only way to make your sense of justice meaningful is to think critically, and act. Do not just get indignant at bad things, but actually study them, so that you grow the ability to discern what is really a bad thing, and what is a caricature of a bad thing. When you are reasonably confident that bad things are happening, take action instead of talking. Invest your time, put in your money, give your expertise. Protest in the streets, serve the needy, sue the powerful. Much of the world's problems would be no more if people did these things as often as they signed another meaningless Internet petition.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Friday, November 20, 2015

The 2016 NK News Calendars are Here

As long time readers may know, this humble blog has shared long time friendship with NK News, the finest source in English to get the news about North Korea. One of the proudest moments of running this blog was inspiring NK News to begin Ask a North Korean!, an honest and revealing look into the country that is so opaque from the outside.

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From NK News

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Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

IU and Zeze

Dear Korean,

This seems shallow but I couldn't help but to ask this question. What's up with IU and this whole Zeze controversies? Who's Zeze,anyway?


This blog is about to answer a question about K-pop. Could it be?

The second question first: Zeze is the main character from a Brazilian children's novel, My Sweet Orange Tree. The novel is popular worldwide and well known among Koreans through translation. In the novel, Zeze is a five year old boy whose family moves to a poor neighborhood because his father lost his job. In the new (and dilapidated) home, there are several trees in the backyard, and each of Zeze's siblings claim a tree for his or her own. Because Zeze was one of the youngest, he ends up with a small, sorry-looking sweet orange tree. Although Zeze does not like the tree at first, he finds out that he can talk with the tree. Zeze names the tree Minguinho, and the two become friends, partially because all of Zeze's family is busy working and trying to support the family. Left alone, Zeze causes all kinds of trouble, and frequently gets beaten by his parents and his older siblings.

Now, about the song. Zeze is one of the songs on IU's most recent album, Chat-Shire. Here is the translation of the first verse of the song:


흥미로운 듯 씩 올라가는 입꼬리 좀 봐
Look at the lips that curl up, as if something's interesting
그 웃음만 봐도 알아 분명히 너는 짓궂어
I can tell just from that smile; you must be mischievous
아아 이름이 아주 예쁘구나 계속 부르고 싶어
Ah you have a pretty name; I want to keep saying it
말하지 못하는 나쁜 상상이 사랑스러워
That unspeakable naughty imagination is lovable
조그만 손가락으로 소리를 만지네
With the little fingers, you touch the sound
간지러운 그 목소리로 색과 풍경을 노래 부르네
With that ticklish voice, you sing the colors and the scenery

제제 어서 나무에 올라와
Zeze, hurry and climb the tree
잎사귀에 입을 맞춰
Kiss the leaves
장난치면 못써 
Don't fool around
나무를 아프게 하면 못써 못써
Don't hurt the tree, bad bad
제제 어서 나무에 올라와
Zeze, hurry and climb the tree
여기서 제일 어린 잎을 가져가
Take the youngest leaf here
하나뿐인 꽃을 꺾어가
Pluck the only flower here 
Climb up me Climb up me
Climb up me Climb up me

If you can't tell why this song caused an uproar, congratulations--the ways of this world has not yet tainted your little heart. Please stop reading now.

For everyone else: the song obviously is barely disguised pedophilia. If there was any remaining doubt, IU's own interview about the song clinched it: "The song Zeze is from the point of view of Minguinho, from the novel My Sweet Orange Tree. Zeze is innocent, but in some ways he is cruel. As a character, he has a great deal of self-contradiction. That made me feel that he was attractive and sexy."

Is this a big deal? Objectively, and emphatically, no. But people rarely fail to overreact to a topic like pedophilia. The publishing house that introduced the novel to Korea expressed displeasure at the lyrics of the song on its Facebook page, noting that "Minguinho is Zeze's only friend who takes care of Zeze through the abuses from his family.  . . .  It is regrettable that the song makes a five-year-old, who holds the pain of abuse, as an object of sexual desire." After the media ruckus, IU issued an apology, saying she never intended to sexually objectify a five year old child, and Zeze in the song was another character based on the novel rather than the novel's Zeze.

What does TK think about this? The controversy itself is uninteresting; the more interesting part is the way in which IU decided to make this song. TK is convinced that, in today's K-pop scene, IU is the artist who possesses the most self-awareness about the way in which the K-pop market consumes her (or more precisely, her image,) and the interaction between her actions and the pattern of that consumption. In fact, she may be the most careful orchestrator of self-image in Korean pop music since Seo Taiji.

Here is the uncomfortable truth: underlying much of IU's fandom is the id of barely-legal pedophilic desire. To be sure, this is a general phenomenon in the K-pop market, in which "uncle fans" of girl groups--men in their 30s and up, ogling mostly-uncovered young women--make up a significant portion of the fan base. Writ large, it is the general phenomenon of the way in which most young female pop stars are consumed in the market. (The Catholic school girl uniform by Britney Spears was certainly not geared only toward young men of her age.)

But what sets IU apart from other youthful, girlish-looking K-pop idols is that, unlike the girl groups who are creations of a producing company, IU has invited the pedophilic gaze on her own terms. IU does not settle for the crude simulacra of pedophilia, like a school girl outfit. (Although she certainly does employ that too.) She employs much more sophisticated devices, like issuing a remake album containing hit songs from 1980s and 90s. (For an 80s song to be meaningful, you must be at least born in late 1970s. IU was born in 1993.) One of the most popular moments of IU is when she sings the songs of Kim Gwang-seok, whose soulful reflection on self made him the legend of early 90s Korean pop music. In this sense, IU is akin to an evolved Madonna; like the pioneering female American pop artist, IU flipped the script by taking over the agency of her own sexuality. In fact, IU does one better than Madonna, because she does this without any crass skin exposure. 

What makes IU's Zeze truly interesting is not the overblown controversy about whether or not the song is pedophilic. (Of course it is.) The truly interesting part is that, with Zeze, IU flipped the script once again. In Zeze, IU is no longer the young child that subtly invites the sexual attention of the grown-ups. (For those who are dense: IU is obviously not a young child in reality. That is her public image that she herself cultivated.) In the song, IU plays the role of the grown-up, detecting the nascent sexuality in a young child and gently encouraging the child to be even naughtier. That feels uncomfortable, because that's exactly how IU wants you to feel--because being that child is the reality that IU has experienced throughout her professional career.

IU will never stop playing you. The whole media circus is about getting played by IU. That's what's up.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

How to Make Gochujang (and Dwenjang and Soy Sauce)

Dear Korean,

If you were unable to get the gochujang in the ready-made container, would you be able to make it using some more common ingredients, say ones found at your average health food store? Do you think it could be approximated by mixing soy miso and hot harissa?


First of all, a huge, honking NO to the abominable recipe involving miso and harissa. You may as well be working on getting dogs to mate with cats. Good lord, have you no respect for the natural order of things?

The other question, however, deserves more attention. Can one make gochujang with common ingredients found at a regular health food store? This may surprise people, but the answer is yes--as long as you have several months to spare. In order words, obtaining the ingredients is not the hard part; it is the skill and patience it takes to create the finished product. 

Even if you only buy gochujang from the store (as vast majority of Koreans do,) it would be helpful to know just how that sauce is made. A lot of people, for example, do not know that gochujang and soy sauce are related. If you didn't know that either, read on; you might find this interesting.

Meju: the Daddy

Everyone who has had gochujang knows that it is a type of paste. But what is the paste made out of? Answer: beans--fermented soy beans, to be more precise. Thus, in order to make gochujang, you have to start by fermenting some beans. Through long historical experience, Koreans developed the best way of fermenting beans. This is done by creating meju [메주], a block of ground beans. Both dwenjang and gochujang are made from meju, which makes meju the daddy of them all.

To make a meju, start by soaking soybeans in water for 12 hours or more. After the soybeans are soaked, boil them in high heat until the water comes to boil, then in medium heat, for approximately two hours until the beans are soft. Drain the beans until they are dry. While the beans are still warm, bring the softened beans into a mortar, and mash them with a pestle.

Mashing the boiled soybeans into paste
With the mashed soybeans, form a solid block. This block is called meju. A meju can be as large as a big brick, but it can be smaller. Koreans would usually use a frame, in which the mashed soybeans are stuffed, to create a block. But it is fine to just use your hands. (Aside: meju is also an old timey slang term for an ugly face.)

Monks and visitors of Daeheung Temple, making meju. One can see the
frame for making meju out of the soybean paste, which is in the tub.
Once the blocks are made, they have to be dried. Place the meju at a sunny location with plenty of ventilation, and dry them for seven to ten days. Then comes the exciting part--the fermentation. Place the dried meju in a warm room (around 77 to 83 degrees) for around two weeks, which is usually enough time for the mold to grow on its surface. Ideally, you want to use straws made from rice stalks to place the meju, as the microbes that make the best meju tend to live in those straws. 

Meju with fresh mold beginning to grow on the surface
It takes time for meju to fully ferment. Traditionally, Koreans would hang the meju with mold from the roof, and let it ferment for several months. Fresh soybeans are harvested in the fall, which means the meju hangs and ferments throughout the winter.

Hanging the meju to ferment.
Intimidated by this process? You should be. Like many other fermented foods like wine and cheese, this process requires delicate care. One misstep and the batch can be ruined. The process is so delicate that traditionally, Koreans had a series of elaborate rituals surrounding the sauce-making. A traditional Korean family would select a day of good fortune for making the sauce. For three days before the sauce-making day, the lady of the house would not leave the house, and refrain from having sex. For three weeks after the sauce-making day, the household members were not allowed to attend a funeral.

But if you live in Korea, you're in luck--all this can be skipped because there are many places that sell meju powder, i.e. powder made up of meju blocks that already finished fermenting. Although if you really didn't want to invite your date upstairs, you can always say: "Sorry, I am making gochujang tomorrow."

(More after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Them Fighting Koreans

Dear Korean,

How did the Korean expression "Fighting!" get so popular? I am curious to know whether or not it was first used by a very influential person, came from a popular Korean series or used for some sort of political propaganda to encourage Koreans to think positive.

Li San

That would have been a heck of a story, but it doesn't look that way.

Sample Korean usage of "Fighting"

First of all, the definition of the term first. "Fighting" is one of the most classic Konglish words: a borrowed word from English that barely makes sense. Koreans use the word to signify positive encouragement, like "Let's go!" or "Way to go!" 

To be sure, the use of the word "fight" in this context is not completely ridiculous, since there are some occasions when the English language use of the word is at least somewhat close. For example, the refrain for "Texas Fight," the official fight song for the University of Texas Longhorns, goes: "Yea Orange! Yea White! Yea Longhorns! Fight! Fight! Fight! Texas fight, Texas fight, yea Texas fight!" But of course, no Anglophone would yell "fighting," and it is not very clear how Koreans came to say "fighting." 

The popular theory is that the Japanese are fond of saying "huaito" (Japanese pronunciation of "fight",) and the term migrated to Korea in an even more ungrammatical manner. TK's own theory is slightly different: based on the historical usage of the term, "fighting" is more likely a contraction of "fighting spirit." For example, an article from Dong-A Ilbo from September 5, 1926 carried an interview with a baseball umpire who oversaw a baseball tournament. In the interview, the umpire lamented that some of the teams lacked the "fighting spirit" [파이팅 스피리트]. Throughout the early 20th century, Korean newspapers spoke of the "fighting spirit," usually in reference to sporting events. 

Then around 1960s, Korean newspapers could be seen dropping the latter part of the phrase (i.e. "spirit",) and began using "fighting" as a shorthand for "fighting spirit." For example, an article from Kyunghyang Shinmun from September 21, 1962 speaks of a Thai youth soccer team that visited Korea to play Korea's youth team. The article describes the match:
Both the visiting Thai team and the Korean team are youth teams. However, as they are made up of players who are younger than 20 years old, their intensity and skill level are comparable to adult players. Indeed, in terms of stamina and fighting, a match of vigor that cannot be seen in adult matches is expected. As both teams include three to four players who are of the national team caliber, soccer fans are taking note.
(TK's emphasis). It appears that the word "fighting," by early 1960s, came to mean something similar to "enthusiasm" in Korea. Around the same time, Korean people can be seen using "fighting" as a cheering slogan

Korean people are fully aware that "fighting" does not actually make sense in English. In 2004, the National Institute of Korean Language attempted to push people away from using the word that makes no sense, suggesting the exclamation "aja" as a replacement. That campaign failed completely, like many other ham-fisted efforts by the Korean government to change the national culture from the top down. Although "aja" is (and has always been) commonly used, "fighting" is very much alive in everyday Korean parlance, and it's not about to go away any time soon.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

50 Most Influential K-Pop Artists: 7. Han Dae-su

[Series Index]

7.  Han Dae-su [한대수]

Years of Activity: 1974-present (most recent album in 2006, most recent single in 2013)

Discography (Studio Albums Only)
The Long, Long Road [멀고 먼 길] (1974)
Rubber Shoes [고무신] (1975)
Infinity [무한대] (1989)
Amnesia [기억상실] (1990)
Conversation of Angels [천사들의 담화] (1992)
Age of Reason, Age of Treason [이성의 사대, 반역의 시대] (1999)
Eternal Sorrow (2000)
Agony [고민] (2002)
Hurt [상처] (2004)
Desire [욕망] (2006)

Representative Song:  Give Me Some Water [물 좀 주소], from The Long, Long Road (1974)

물 좀 주소
Give Me Some Water

물 좀 주소 물 좀 주소
Give me some water, give me some water
목마르요 물 좀 주소
I am thirsty, give me some water
물은 사랑이요 나의 목을 간질며
Water is love, tickling my throat
놀리면서 밖에 보내네
Teasing me, sending me out

아! 가겠소 난 가겠소
Oh I will go, I will go
저 언덕 위로 넘어가겠소
I will go over that hill
여행 도중에 처녀 만나본다면
In my travels, if I meet a girl
난 살겠소 같이 살겠소
I will live, I will live with her

물 좀 주소 물 좀 주소
Give me some water, give me some water
목마르요 물 좀 주소
I am thirsty, give me some water
그 비만 온다면 나는 다시 일어나리
If only that rain comes, I will get up again
아! 그러나 비는 안 오네
Ah, but the rain is not coming

Translation note:  Like his music, Han Dae-su's lyrics tend to be vague and abstract. All the words in the lyrics--water, hill, girl, coffee--are easy, but collectively they form a jumble from which many different meanings may be drawn. It is difficult to translate while doing justice to the deliberate indeterminacy of these words.

In 15 words or less:  K-pop's first hippie; a mad genius.

Maybe he should have been ranked higher because...  Is there any other artist in the history of Korean pop music who has a 40-year body of work that always stays at the cutting edge?

Maybe he should have been ranked lower because...   When was the last time his songs were popular? 20 years ago? 30 years ago?

Why is this artist important?
1968 was an important year in Korean pop music history, not the least because it was the year in which the 20-year-old Han Dae-su made his debut in Korea. Han was a young man, but with experience: growing up in New York, Han had already played in a garage band and obsessed over Elvis Presley. 

And young Han Dae-su would have his own Elvis moment: on a variety television show, Han Dae-su would play an acoustic guitar and a harmonica, swaying his long hair that would have done proud his hippie friends back in America. The collective head of the conservative Korean society exploded. Han's mother was so embarrassed of the way her son looked on TV that she broke down in tears. Letters flooded the TV station, demanding to know if Han Dae-su was a man or a woman. Some of the letters demanded that Han leave Korea immediately. 

That was the moment that Korea's counterculture began. Han Dae-su's music, while cutting-edge, was never extremely popular. It was avant-garde and subversive, thumbing its nose at the suffocating mainstream. The suffocation would come in many different forms. First it was the dictator Park Chung-hee, who decided that pop music was hurting Korea's national discipline, and began putting pop musicians in prison based on trumped-up drug charges. Then it was the stupid, cheap pop music that the mindless society always loves. And it was always his personal demons, the gnawing emptiness that led him to the bottles and his two broken marriages. 

His musical response was much like the opening of his signature song, Give Me Some Water--a jolting shock to the system, unexpectedly dropping his gravelly voice without any care for a conventional prelude. This attitude would continue to pervade his musical journey for the next four decades. Han's music searched both outwardly and inwardly: reaching far and wide for the new type of sound, while digging deep inside to give his music sensitivity and Korean-ness. 

Han Dae-su was never broadly popular, although some of his songs (most notably To the Land of Happiness [행복의 나라로]) did become iconic. Han's contribution, instead, was toward the underside of Korean pop music, the dark shade that allows forms to take shape in the light.

Interesting trivia:  Han Dae-su initially moved to the United States shortly after he was born because his father, a nuclear physicist, went to Cornell University to study in 1948. Seven years into his U.S. life, Han's father suddenly disappeared for ten years. When Han Dae-su finally found his father at age 17, Han's father was living in Long Island under a different name, married to a white woman and running a printing company. Although he recognized his family, he completely lost ability to speak Korean, knew nothing about nuclear physics and said nothing about what had happened in those ten years while he disappeared. Han Dae-su suspects that CIA brainwashed his father because his father came to possess important secrets regarding nuclear weapons.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

I'm Still Here

In spirit, at least.

TK is very sorry that the last substantive post on the blog is nearly a month old. He is going through some significant changes in his day job, which is throwing everything out of the loop. Expect him to be back some time in mid-October. Thank you for reading, as always.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Daddy's Back

TK rises from the dead. You can't hold him down, Facebook!

TK's new Facebook page is here. If you were TK's Facebook friend or follower, please do me a favor--follow this page and let other people know. Thank you much.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Friday, September 04, 2015

Rut Roh

The good folks at Facebook finally caught up to the fact that TK has been using a pseudonym for his Facebook page. Looks like TK's Facebook page cannot even be accessed. Until he can figure out what's going on, TK will not be on Facebook. Sorry, all.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Monday, August 24, 2015

More Cowbells Loudspeakers!

South Korean soldiers set up loudspeakers along the DMZ.

Dear Korean,

I was reading about the loudspeaker broadcasts being used by South Korea directed at North Korea and wondered if you had any thoughts regarding their effectiveness. Do these broadcasts really work to either encourage people to defect or allow the spread of news/information/propaganda to the north? I imagine that the soldiers who patrol the border are the most loyal the north have and less likely to spread the information. Are there regular citizens living within hearing range or do people sneak down to listen to the broadcasts and report back?

Or, is this all really an effort to simply antagonize the other side?


Tensions have been running fairly high in Korean Peninsula for the last few weeks. For those who had been missing out, here is the background:

Some people are surprised to find out that both South Korea and North Korea regularly send armed patrols through the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), But that is true--DMZ does not mean there is nobody inside the zone. Both South Korean and North Korean military patrol inside the DMZ to detect any hint of invasion, although they usually keep close to their own sides for obvious reasons.

On August 4, two South Korean soldiers lost their legs after having stepped on land mines, which were buried right around the gate through which South Korean patrols would enter the DMZ.

Site of the land mine explosion. The mines were buried inside the red circles.
Lower portion of the picture is South Korea; across the fence is the DMZ.
On August 10, South Korean military announced that North Korea was behind the landmine attack, and began the loudspeaker broadcast as retaliation. This measure of retaliation caused some snickers. Really? Two South Korean soldiers lost their legs, and they retaliate by . . . shouting through the loudspeakers?

But here is the thing: North Korea really hates those loudspeakers. How much do they hate them? On August 20, North Korea fired several artillery shells toward South Korea. (Three in the southern end of the DMZ, and one past the DMZ.) The shelling was followed by an announcement that unless South Korea silenced the loudspeakers, North Korea would begin military action in 48 hours. (Military heads of South and North Korea met afterward and came to an agreement five days later, and South Korea did stop with the loudspeakers.)

(More after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Sorting Through Shinzo Abe's Dog Whistles

August 15, 2015 is the 70 year anniversary of the end of World War II. With it, a fresh round of tension builds in East Asia over Japan's recognition of its past. Every year around this time, the Japanese Prime Minister would issue a statement, China and Korea would react in anger, each side would engage in a war of words, only to repeat the next year. This tends to bewilder the observers outside of East Asia. To the people who only occasionally pay attention to East Asia, Japan's annual statements sure look like an apology, and Korea/China appear petty for questioning the sincerity of the apologies.

This outlook comes partially from the fact that the occasional observer lacks the historical context of the rhetoric being used in the apology. As George Orwell eloquently noted, it is common in politics to use coded language to disguise the true meaning of a statement that is deeply offensive. In the U.S., these code words are known as "dog whistle"--ordinary people cannot hear them, but those who are familiar with the context react to those words.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe
Shinzo Abe, Japan's right-wing prime minister, is a master of dog whistles. His statement yesterday, commemorating the 70 year anniversary of the end of World War II, was rife with coded language. For those who are not familiar with those codes, TK will reproduce the entire statement below, and point out exactly where the dog whistles are.

Before we jump in, it would be helpful to know how the Japanese right wing, including Prime Minister Abe, recalls the history of Japan in the first half of 20th century. Below is the summarized version:
In the late 19th century, Western nations began the trend of imperialism, in which they invaded and subjugated the rest of the world based on the idea of white race's superiority. To defend itself against these forces, Japan modernized quickly and formed the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, made up of neighboring Asian nations in the spirit of racial solidarity. Other empires attempt to suppress the rise of the Japanese empire by choking Japan off of the vital natural resources that it required. Japan tried to break the deadlock by attacking Pearl Harbor, which led to World War II. In the end, Japan was defeated.
Note how in this alternative telling of history, Japan is not the aggressor but a victim. Japan did not colonize its neighbors and murdered their resisting people; it organized them into a larger unit to fight against the onslaught of Europeans and Americans. World War II did not begin with Imperial Japan's cowardly attack on Pearl Harbor, but with other empires trying to put down the ascendant Japan. Japan did nothing wrong, other than to lose the war.

This vile revisionist history is what the Japanese right wing, including Shinzo Abe, firmly believes in. And the view of history is obviously displayed in Abe's statement yesterday, if one only knew where to look.

Full analysis of Shinzo Abe's statement,after the jump.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Blurred Knives, Do You Want Them?

Dear Korean,

I've started watching K-Dramas recently and now I have a question. What's the deal with blurry knives? (Imagine I said it in my best Seinfeld voice) When characters use knives as weapons they always mosaic the knife, but not when they are uses a tool (say in a kitchen). More curiously other hand held weapons (like say a gun) are not blurred. Even other bladed weapons (like swords) are never blurred. Why only knives? Why only when they are used as weapons? Have I just not watched enough shows to find the ones where this is not the case?

Brennan "Confused About Knives" Jordan

Short answer: the TV stations are following the regulations set by Korea Communications Standards Commission, which decides what may show up on television, and what may not. Rule 81, Art. 37 of KCSC Rules states: 
The following items, which may convey excessive shock, anxiety or disgust to viewers, may not be broadcast. There may be limited exceptions if such depiction is unavoidable in discussing the content; even in such cases, expression of these items must be approached cautiously.

1.  Graphic depiction of beheading, strangulation or dismemberment.
2. Direct depiction of the moment of suicide, or depiction that implies the method of suicide
3. Graphic depiction of killing or maiming with firearms, knives or other tools
4. Depiction of mangled corpse or body parts
5. Graphic depiction of killing of an animal
6. Other depictions that are similar to the above
The spirit of the rule is intuitive enough. Obviously, there has to be some decency rules as to what may or may not appear on television. But of course, application of any rules in the real world tends to be messy--especially when the rules are about expressions. In the American context, George Carlin described the absurdity in his infamous "Seven Dirty Words" bit. In Korea, blurring knives is part of the effort to comply with Article 37. There is plenty of inconsistency if one looks for it, but the same can be said about pretty much any application of the law. (Just think about how routinely people violate the speed limit without getting punished.)

But it is fair to say that the blurring can get a bit too patronizing. Such hyperactive blurring, in some cases, does limit the fuller depiction of reality. For example, the critically acclaimed 2009 drama Friend tracked the lives of Busan-area gangsters who grew up together as childhood friends. In order to create realistic fight scenes without getting caught in the blur machine, the showrunners studiously avoided having their characters wield actual weapons like a knife or a lead pipe. Instead, the show depicts them using household items, such as a wooden club that Koreans in the 1960s for laundry. But no matter--the censors still blurred the oh-so-harmless wooden club, causing annoyance with the viewers. 

Example of a cigarette being blurred. This tends to happen when a TV station shows a movie.
Blurring on Korean television can get hyperactive in other areas. Depending on how the censors are feeling, cigarettes are sometimes blurred. Product labels are usually blurred, unless they were specifically authorized to appear pursuant to an agreement for product placement advertisement. This can also get pretty annoying, as the types of products that the characters use can indicate their personality and their surroundings. But thems are the rules.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

    Saturday, July 18, 2015

    Gay Marriage in Korea: Coming Sooner Than You Think

    Dear Korean, 

    Given that U.S. just legalized same-sex marriage for all states, how is gay marriage progressing in Korea?


    It has been nearly eight years since TK last touched upon the issue of homosexuality in Korea in this blog. Considering the major step that the United States took in legalizing same sex marriage, it is high time to revisit this issue. This is not because TK thinks that whatever America does just matters more. He is fully aware that more than 17 countries around the world, including Canada, South Africa, much of Europe and much of South America, have legalized same sex marriage before the United States did. 

    But if one focuses on the prospect of same sex marriage in Korea, the fact that U.S. legalized same sex marriage does matter more. Because of the historical peculiarities of South Korea--a country that was, in many ways, created by the United States--Koreans have always looked to U.S. as a model of modernity and democracy to emulate. When debating social policies in Korea, the argument that "This is how Americans do it" tends to carry a great deal of weight.

    In fact, America's legalization of same sex marriage puts Korean opponents of same sex marriage in quite a pickle. Like most other democracies, Korea has conservatives and liberals, and Korea's conservatives tend to be more pro-U.S. Some Korean conservatives are so rabidly pro-U.S. that, when U.S. ambassador to Korea suffered a knife attack, they organized a show of music and dance wishing for his speedy recovery as if they were trying to appease an angry god. (To be sure, most Koreans and Korea's media, including even the pro-American ones, roundly mocked these people.)

    Dance performance by a conservative group
    following the knife attack against Ambassador Mark Lippert
    The trouble, however, is that a sizable chunk of Korea's conservatives are also Protestants who strenuously oppose gay marriage, and homosexuality in general. The fact that their totemic guardian U.S. of A. has legalized same sex marriage has put them in a very awkward position. For example, because the U.S. Embassy in Korea has formally expressed its support for Korea's Pride Parade for the last several years, these conservatives groups were forced to (reluctantly) denounce America.

    Christian group stages protest in front of the U.S. Embassy in Seoul.
    The placard says: "We denounce U.S., spreading the bad culture that is homosexuality."

    Indeed, the same "crazy group dance people" organized the same dance show to show their opposition against the most recent Pride Parade in Seoul, which fortuitously happened the day after the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the Obergefell v. Hodges decision. The irony was particularly delicious because Ambassador Mark Lippert, for whose health that these people prayed as if he were a demigod, was in attendance to support the Pride Parade.

    Opponents of homosexuality puts on a protest performance.
    Aside: apparently, the drum beats of the anti-homosexuality people were so vigorous that some of the Pride Parade attendees had a better time dancing to them instead of the official music showcase.

    (More after the jump.)

    Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

    Sunday, July 12, 2015

    Seoul Notes, 2015

    Let's get back to blogging! TK visits Seoul nearly every year, and every year there is always something different and new, partly because Korea is a fast changing place, and partly because TK has never noticed them before. Some of the things he noticed in the last go around:

    - Good beer is now completely mainstream. If anything, Korea's craft brew market is a little over-saturated at this point. Even the regular Korean beer has shown marked improvement.

    - Things are expensive. Things in Seoul have been getting gradually more expensive over time, but now it is really beginning to hurt the wallet. To be sure, there are still plenty of cheap options if one decides to grunge it up. But the prices are high for items that are even slightly nice. For example, a casual lunch at a Chinese restaurant (not a hole-in-a-wall, but not a super fancy place either) located in the central business district, for three people, cost nearly US $100. This was not the case even a year ago.

    - To make a broader point: income polarization is even more significant. Slightly nicer things are really expensive in Korea because Korea's upper middle class can afford them. On the other hand, cheap things are still very cheap because the rest of Korea relies on those products. It is as if there are two completely different economies within Korea. Not a great sign.

    - When you ask for water in Korea, it is only a 50-50 proposition that you actually get water. In the other 50 percent, you would get some type of tea. If you don't like boricha, it's a tough place.

    At the airport leaving Korea.
    The sign below the attendant said: "Please take off your mask."
    (source: TK's own)

    - By the time TK got to Korea (end of June through early July,) there were no real public signs that people were truly concerned about MERS. There would be perhaps one mask-wearer in a given subway car. But there certainly was latent anxiety about it; people were talking about it.

    Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.
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