When going home means leaving a home behind (Cable from Korea #15)

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And so, the end is here. This will be the last ‘Cable from Korea’. Tomorrow I leave this country for the UK. Friday was my last day at work. I intend to live elsewhere for the foreseeable future.

I am sure that this is the right decision but that doesn’t make it an easy one. The very thing I feel the need to move beyond – the rather cloistered existence of an Anglophone expat in Korea – could easily be seen as a blessing I am mad to forsake. What’s so bad about a well-paid job, that takes care of my housing, gives me lots of holidays, plenty of free time, (usually) low stress days at work, an inbuilt community of fellow expats, and many of the world’s best sites a short-haul flight away?

More than that, however, Korea now has a special place in my heart. That’s partly due to the people I’ve met here – both locals and expats – of which more later. But beyond that, this country is a remarkable one. I obviously admire it at a macro level. It shook off colonialism, civil war, invasion and military rule to become a prosperous, culturally-dynamic democracy. But that’s not what has really kindled my affection for it. No, that’s things like being able to hike to temples in the mountains. Or visit its myriad cafes. And leave my laptop and wallet on the table in one of them for hours, knowing that Koreans are so law abiding, I can rely on it being there when I return. Oh and the plentiful public transport that’s basically never late. Or how about the numerous idiosyncratic festivals? And of course, the food. I’ve been spoilt by it. I’m no so accustomed to being able to have delicious barbeque, bulgogi, bibimbap, bingsu, mandu, ramen, jap chae bap, tempura or soup pretty much whenever I want, that I’m not sure how I’ll cope without them. In short, while Britain may be my home, Korea (and for that matter Vietnam) also feel like home. And being away from them feels like a wrench.

So, may I take this opportunity to ask you to pray or keep in your thoughts – whichever seems more right to you – a place that has become very dear to me. As you will be aware if you have seen any news lately, the peace and stability that South Koreans have worked so hard to build, is threatened by reckless manoeuvring in both Washington and Pyeongyang. More mundanely, now it has achieved its aspiration to be a wealthy exemplar of modernity and civility, it must decide what it aspires to be next. Oh and in the near future they have a show to put on: the Winter Olympics are coming to town. Please wish the Koreans well in all these endeavours.

As I already mentioned, the larger part of what makes any place special are individuals. And I would like to take the opportunity to publicly thank some people I met during my time in Korea. Under no circumstance, could I possibly thank everyone, I owe debts to. And I am writing this quickly, whilst in quite an emotional state, so am liable to have missed some people who really deserve a mention. Nonetheless, I thought it better to mention some people and risk missing others, than to not thank anyone. If your name should be here and is not, please rest assured I know what you did for me and that it is but a momentary lapse. With that said may I thank the following people:

  • My colleagues at Jeungsan elementary school, and Beomeo and Bogwang Middle Schools, as well as my co-teachers for the Interview English program. Thank you for the patience and tolerance you showed someone who doesn’t understand your language or how things are done in your country.
  • The students who took risks to improve their English. Especially those in my Interview English classes. Every time you did, you made teaching English seem worthwhile again.
  • The congregation at AIM, especially the Basic U fellowship group, and even more especially Kimberlie, Storm, Leanri, Chris and Dianna. I often had a rather semi-detached relationship with the church. But even as I put myself half-in and half-out, you made me feel 100% welcome.
  • Everyone at Socrates Café. Not only was debating and discussing philosophy with you, fun and informative, it was also just the mental workout I often needed after a week of (frequently) dry drilling simple phrases into students for hours on end. Stay reflective guys!
  • Wendy for providing a comfortable and welcoming space for foreigners like me. The paninis, shakes and dandelion tea were definitely a bonus too!
  • Aakansha, we didn’t get to spend anything like as much time together as I’d hoped, but I will forever be grateful for the time we did have. Stay yourself always.
  • Jenna Kang at KLIFF. Thank you for not only helping me with my Korean – which was definitely useful – but also convincing me that I could make progress with a language – even one as difficult as Korean – and that my putting effort into learning languages is not in vain.
  • Every non-Korean speaker in Korea must on a semi-regular basis turn to someone who does know the language for help. In my case that usually meant Hannah or Justyna. Thank you both for responding to my requests with such patience and being so generous with your time.
  • Everyone who went to Thursday Evening Bible Study. Your fellowship was invaluable, your very different perspectives were educational, and your friendship remains priceless.
  • Most of all, to my family during a time I was thousands of miles from my actual family: all my friends in and around Yangsan. Lauren, Ksenia, Tricia, Chris, Justyna, Bella, Jennifer, and, above everyone else on this list, the big sister I never had, Aaren. I miss you all already and can’t wait for the day I will see you again. I long for it be soon.

It was without a shadow of a doubt, worth moving half way round the world to meet you guys!

Militarisation (Cable from Korean #13)

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The Joint Security Area in the demilitarised zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea. American and South Korean soldier in the forground, North Koreans in the background. (Photo credit: author)

In an article for Esquire, Robert Bateman, a former American army officer, makes an argument that the US should be more grateful for Japan and South Korea. He persuasively posits that these countries are

…much more prepared than many Americans know, and with good reason: They’re a lot closer to the danger [from China and North Korea].

One of the points he uses to illustrate this is the size of South Korea’s military:

…South Korea, with a population of 51 million, has an active-duty Army that is actually a little bigger than the active US Army (490,000, versus our current 483,000 at the end of last year). At the same time, their reserve forces dwarf the US National Guard and Reserve elements. We have a total of about 820,000 part-time or emergency forces, but South Korea maintains a force of more than three million. And this is no mere mass of untrained cannon-fodder. The South Korean Army has some 2,400 tanks, and another 2,600 armored vehicles of other types.

To put this another way, the US Army has a total of 10 active-duty divisions, plus the equivalent of two or three more in non-divisional units. We have several more divisions in the National Guard, but those units generally take several months to come up to speed as trained organizations, so they are not of much use in a sudden fight. In contrast, the Republic of Korea fields a total of 49 divisions, and the equivalent of another six in non-divisional units. In other words, nearly five times what the US can put into the field around the entire planet. They can draw on their entire nation for the support they need in any fight on their own territory, and they are not designed for “expeditionary” warfare. They have one acid test, and they already experienced what happens if they are seen as “weak” by the North Koreans.

In order to get such a large force, South Korea requires every adult male to do two years of military service. Refusal to complete this service is punishable by eighteen months in prison. There is no allowance for conscientious objection. By all accounts it is brutal. Young men dread it and basically no one I have spoken to has anything nice to say about their time in the military. Armies tend to be deeply hierarchical organisations and Korea is a hierachical society, a combination that results in a situation where – to quote one of my friends – officers treat conscripts and subordinates ‘like slaves’. That may sound like hyperbole but earlier this year a general resigned after the military’s human rights commission found that service men assigned to his residence:

“had to stay on duty 24/7, wearing electronic bracelets to be alerted whenever they are needed. One of them was coerced into attending church services, although he was Buddhist. In addition, the soldiers were ordered by [General] Park’s wife to pick up clipped toenails and dead skin cells from the sofa. They were forced to be on duty from 6 a.m., when the general went for his early morning prayers, to 10 p.m. when he went to bed, regardless of their official working hours[.]

Also that:

One soldier at Park’s house had to wear an electronic paging device on his wrist to respond swiftly to calls from [General Park’s] wife, who threatened him to send to (sic) a military prison when he failed to react in time because of a discharged battery,

And most dramatically:

The wife threw a pancake at one soldier when he forgot to bring it to her son, hitting him in the face.

The situation is predictably even worse for young people in North Korea. Women serve for seven years, whilst men are in the military for a decade. Low rations appear to take many soldiers close to starvation and desperate enough to steal food from civilians. A poor diet and hygiene may explain why a North Korean soldier who recently defected via the DMZ was found to have a 27cm parasitic worm in his stomach. The situation is even worse for female soldiers, who generally have a lower rank and appear to be frequent targets of sexual abuse.

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While neither of these systems is pretty, they do allow the two countries to field huge militaries. Counting both active and reserve forces, the two Koreas have the largest militaries in the world. Note, that’s not combined but individually. South Korea has the largest, the North the second largest. That’s not counting the American soldiers stationed in South Korea. The result is that in the event of a conflict there would be almost 14 million combatants involved, even before international allies began sending forces to assist South Korea.

This is worth bearing in mind whenever people talk about pre-emptive strikes on North Korea or take actions that might provoke the regime such as tweeting that their leader is ‘short and fat‘. If those actions lead to a war – even a conventional one in which China did not intervene – we’d likely be looking at a war that involved the kind of casulties the world has not seen for decades.

South Korea should totally compete in Eurovision (Cable from Korea #13)

This morning I woke up in Korea. That’s not altogether surprising: I live there. Then (also unsurprisingly) I opened up my phone, and saw that tonne of friends back home were posting and tweeting about Eurovision. Now, that is not surprising either: The contest was held last night. What was surprising is until Europeans took to social media, I’d not really heard anything about the contest. It isn’t something that registers in Korea: people don’t watch it, it isn’t discussed, and there are no viewing parties.

 

There’s an obvious explanation for why: Korea doesn’t compete. But that just begs another question: why doesn’t Korea compete?

Someone only vaguely familiar with the contest, might object that Korea can’t because it’s not in Europe. However, neither are Azerbaijan, Israel or Australia all of which enter. Indeed, Australia is further from Europe than Korea.Just to illustrate the point that being in East Asia is not a barrier to taking part, an entry from China has been considered a possibility. Despite this not yet happening, Eurovision is still shown live by a major Chinese broadcaster.

A better objection would be that Korea already takes part in a similar contest: the Own Asiavision Song Contest. But let’s be realistic, that’s a spin-off of a spin-off of Eurovision, hosted on Youtube rather than TV. Naturally, it has a way lower viewership than the real thing. That’s not where the nation that gave the world Gangam Style belongs. It should be in the premier league of cheesy music.

It is hard to think of a country that would more relish pursuing national glory through riotously over-the-top pop than Korea. It already produces plenty of the kind of music that would work as a Eurovision entry. K-Pop songs may not usually have a great deal of depth- though there are of course plenty of exceptions – but they do tend to be exhuberant, catchy and places a lot of emphasis on visual spectacle.

My impression is that the genre has not yet broken out in Europe in the way it has in Asia and North America. A Eurovision entry might be a good way for the Korean government – which very consciously works to promote cultural exports – to do that. It has a public broadcaster, so would be eligible to join. It should seriously consider the possibility.

 

Updated 21/05/2017 to be less glib in discussing K-Pop, which has more range than I gave it credit for

 

Why the best Korean food comes from the least exciting parts of Korea (Cable from Korea #11)

The Haeundae area of Busan boasts an appealing medley of attractive beaches, impressive skyscrapers and delightful mountains. These impressive assets draw in numerous tourists and make it one of the most desirable places to live in the whole of South Korea.

Ironically, it also has some of the worst food. I say that even though I eat there a fair bit. Like many western expats I go to Haeundae for half way decent burgers or pizza. But, by and large, that’s all you’ll find: fairly expensive meals that are less good than the average restaurant in any town in the US or UK. Look for the cheap and plentiful Korean food that you find in the rest of the country, and you’ll come up empty.

This becomes especially apparent whenever I meet people staying in hotels down there. When a friend from Vietnam visited Busan for an evening and heavy rain stopped us travelling very far, I found myself in the odd position of not being able to find somewhere that did barbeque, bibimbap or kimbap. As around 90% of restaurants in Korea do, this was a) odd and b) frustrating! Even with more clement weather it is still difficult. When my parents were in town, I wanted to take them for ramen but I – and their hotel concierge – simply couldn’t find anything. The nearest substitute they could suggest was massively expensive sushi! I wound up dragging them back out to my commuter, an hour and a half away by subway, to my favourite ramen place.

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It’s not just my opinion that it’s great. No fewer than four people had independently and insistently recommended it to me before I eventually visited. It has featured on Korean TV and people travel down from Seoul to try it.

However, the less remarked on restaurants around it will also do you a stonkingly good meal for the same price as a Starbuck’s coffee.

Tyler Cowen, an unlikely combination of economist and food writer, has explained that there are good reasons for this:

If a restaurant cannot cover its rent, it is not long for this world. According to a 2005 study, more than half of all restaurants close in the first three years of operation, so this is not a small problem. You can lay off kitchen staff when times get tough, or substitute the cheaper tilapia for the fancier and scarcer Chilean sea bass. But rent is a fixed cost, meaning that you have to pay it every month no matter how many customers walk through the door and no matter what ingredients you are serving.

Low-rent restaurants can experiment at relatively low risk. If a food idea does not work out, the proprietor is not left with an expensive lease. As a result, a strip-mall restaurant is more likely to try daring ideas than is a restaurant in, say, a large shopping mall. The people with the best, most creative, most innovative cooking ideas are not always the people with the most money. Many of them end up in dumpier locales, where they gradually improve real-estate values.

In a recent episode of the Ezra Klein show Cowen went further and singled out Korean suburbs as the place where the most interesting affordable food in the whole world is found. Given that Cowen seems to travel the world in large part to eat stuff that is quite a recommendation!

When politics happens all at once (Cable from Korea #10)

So, what on earth is happening in Korea at the moment?

Rather a lot! Indeed, developments in Korean politics seem to have conspired to happen all at once!

There are three major strands to recent events.

  • Kim Jong-Nam, the half-brother of North Korea’s Supreme Leader, was assassinated in Kuala Lumpur airport. The Malaysian authorities have indicated that he was killed with VX nerve gas and North Korean agents appear to have been responsible. Malaysian nationals in North Korea have been barrred from leaving until Pyongyang is sure that everyone accused by of the murder by the Malaysians is returned ‘safely’.
  • North Korea’s nuclear program continues to agitate its neighbours. Last week it test fired four ballistic missiles. Its capabilities are developing such that, within the near future it will likely be able to target the continental US. Predictably, Washington does not like this. Just a few hours after the latest test, it announced it was accelerating its deployment to South Korea of an anti-missile system known as THAAD. That in turn has upset China, which fears that THAAD’s radar will allow the US to peer into its territory. Beijing has responded by going after Chinese companies doing business in China, and squeezing the number of Chinese tourists going to South Korea.
  • South Korea’s Supreme Court removed the country’s President, Park Geun-hye, from office for “acts that violated the Constitution and laws”, namely encouraging Samsung to pay money into charities controlled by her friend, and purported shaman, in exchange for instructing a government pension fund to vote in favour of allowing two parts of the conglomerate to merge. The news of her final downfall was met by protests both in support and opposition, the latter of which turned violent and resulted in protestors dying.

What connects all this?

I’m hesitant to say anything does. They are distinct phenomenon.

It is tempting for outsiders, to see all South Korean politics through the lense of relations with the North. But domestic factors are at least as important, and Park’s downfall was basically a South Korean affair: her corruption was exposed by other South Koreans, and produced an outcry not only because it was intrinsically objectionable, but also because Koreans had grown frustrated with declining economic opportunities.

Even though it happened thousands of miles away, Kim’s assassination was also basically about domestic politics. It was an act of dynastic housekeeping, that removed a potential rival to Kim Jong-Un, who by the law of primogeniture should have been Supreme Leader.

That said, these developments will feed into each other.

Malaysia is one of the few countries with which the North enjoyed something approaching a normal relationship. Then it used a WMD to kill someone on its territory, and is now holding its citizens hostage to escape the blowback of that decision. Which is the kind of behaviour that leaves you so isolated that you become convinced that you need to build nuclear weapons to survive.

[See also: Setting of a large bomb at one of your ally’s most important monuments]

The South Korean response to that program will probably change along with its president. Park and her conservative party not only agreed to the deployment of THAAD but also tougher sanctions and the closure of a South Korean run industrial park in North Korea. It seems highly likely that her successor will come from a left-wing party and progressive Koreans have traditionally been more sceptical of the American alliance and more willing to gamble on outreach to the North. For example, the front runner in the presidential election, Democratic Party leader Moon Jae-in, has indicated that he would ask the American’s to remove THAAD from Korea.

What should I watch for now?

Principally, who becomes the next South Korean president. New elections need to happen within two months. As former UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, has ruled himself out as a candidate, it seems doubtful that the conservatives have anyone who can stop Moon. Plus, it appears that the right will be divided between pro- and anti-Park parties. It is therefore quite likely that the main obstacle to Moon’s ascension will come in his own party’s primary. If Ahn Hee-jung, a centrist governor who is more equivocal on THAAD, bests him then expect relief in Washington and disappointment in Beijing.

Pyongyang would probably also favour a liberal government in Seoul. So, it will be interesting to see if they act to avoid undermining Moon’s chances. For example, there are indications that the North is preparing for another nuclear test. If it carries it out before the election, then that would indicate that the North either isn’t interested in the party politics of the South, sees its interests differently from how we do, or that the timings of tests are driven by technical rather than strategic considerations.

If Moon or another left-winger wins then relations with Washington are potentially tricky. Trump has previously indicated that he has doubts about the value of the US-ROK alliance. He’s since rode back from that position and its clear that people like his Defence Secretary, James Mattiss, do think that working with Seoul is to America’s benefit. However, I fear that a new left-wing South Korean president might appear ‘insolent’ to Trump, which might bring his petulance to the fore, and could trigger an anti-US backlash in South Korea.

A victory for Moon or another progressive candidate would go against what appears to be the global trend for left leaning parties to struggle. Indeed, combine a Moon victory with Hilary Clinton winning the popular vote in the US, Macron becoming French president, Geert Wilders struggling in the Dutch elections and the Democratic Party retaining power in Italy – all of which seem plausible – then the very existence of the trend would look dubious.

That said the anti-Park movement has been a very populist one, drawing on opposition to the political power of large corporations, so the observation that we are in an age of populism seems vindicated by these events.

Indeed, the often voiced populist demand for politicians and corporate execs to be locked up for their misdemeanours may well come to pass in Korea. Park no longer enjoys presidential immunity, so I would expect charges to be brought against her. Many of her associates have already been indicted. Perhaps more importantly will be the trial of Jay Y. Lee, the head of Samsung. The conglomerate is the third largest company in the world by revenue, which is a huge deal in a medium-sized economy like South Korea’s, but given the global reach of Samsung’s activities would matter well beyond the Korean peninsula.

 

6 words my students consider Christmas words and what that tells you about Christmas in Korea (Cable from Korea #9)

Cables from Korea #4: my brush with North Korea

 

2016-02-26 11.27.02.jpgGenerally, the end of the Cold War has made many international borders considerably less dramatic. There was a time when going between East and West Berlin, or Mainland China and Hong Kong meant facing the risk you’d be shot. I’ve done both journeys on the metro without any special paperwork. The Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) that divides the Korean peninsula is an exception.

It is generally a mistake to see the frozen conflict between the Koreas as an extension of the Cold War. Rather than being the Stalinist holdover North Korea is often assumed to be, it makes sense to see it as a replica of Imperial Japan: a totalitarian state obsessed with racial purity and built around a hereditary figurehead who is treated as divine. Nonetheless, when you go the border who really do feel like you’ve stumbled into the Bridge of Spies. There are guard towers, razor wire fences and even a Checkpoint Charlie.

As you might imagine the experience of visiting the nascent battlefields of a potential third world war can be both disturbing and surreal. The most obvious and brutal irony is that the 250 km long Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) that splits the Korean peninsula is enveloped by three of the largest armies in the world. A fact you are aware of throughout the trip. Our coach was regularly sandwiched between trucks packed with gun wielding soldiers. Our passports were probably checked half a dozen times. Where you can take photos is severely restricted, apparently for fear North Korean spies get hold of them. Many of the roads were lined with heavy blocks and ‘Czech hedgehogs’ that make them impassable for tanks. On a similar theme, the American soldier who accompanied us for part of the trip told us that some of the bridges we were driving over were rigged with C4, so they could be destroyed if that proved necessary to prevent the North Koreans crossing them.

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Offsetting all of this is the strange fact that the DMZ is in effect the world’s largest bird sanctuary. Humans stay out, so wildlife gets the chance to thrive. I’m no birdwatcher but I nonetheless managed to spot some impressive eagle and cranes.

The most disturbing fact about it all is that it’s less than hour’s drive from Seoul. Indeed the anti-fence that keeps out North Korean infiltrators begins before the city ends. That one of the largest, richest and most cosmopolitan cities in the world is 30km from a totalitarian nightmare is not only a brutal irony but makes you fear for what would happen if there ever is a war.

During the day my group saw a number of things:

  • One of the tunnels the North Koreans dug to try and get under the DMZ;
  • The Bridge of No Return over which the prisoner exchanges at the end of the war were conducted;
  • The Dora observatory from which you can – using binoculars – see into North Korea and the Kaesong industrial complex that was mothballed followed the recent nuclear tests; and
  • And final South Korean stop on the dormant Seoul-Pyongyang rail line.
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Note the contradiction between the two boards.

However, the most evocative place was the Joint Security Area (JSA). As its name implies the rival militaries generally have to stay out of the DMZ. But in the JSA they come face-to-face. Literally so; the American and South Korean soldiers based there have to wear sunglasses because this stops them making eye contact with their North Korean counterparts and thereby reduces the number of fights that break out.

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The conference rooms at the JSA. The building in the background is North Korean. If you look closely you can see a North Korean soldier in the doorway.

From a tourist’s point of view, this is your opportunity to actually see North Koreans. While you are kept a fair distance away, you can nonetheless spot North Korean soldiers standing sentry in front of their base. According to the GI showing us around, while American and South Korean soldiers are rotated every few hours, the North Koreans have to stand guard for 24 hours at a time without a break; a small but telling example of the disregard with which the system treats the individuals within it.

At the JSA there are a couple of conference lines which span the border line. They exist to allow the two sides to hold meetings. But they also give tourists a chance to go ‘into’ North Korea. That’s of course true in only the most technical sense. A South Korean soldier enters the room before you do and locks the door from the inside. They then stand guard to prevent you from trying to get through into North Korea properly. Nonetheless, for a moment you are north of the border line and therefore in territory that is in some sense North Korean.

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North of the border line

As artificial experience as this clearly is, it’s nonetheless humbling. Talking about ‘the line between freedom and tyranny’ seems uncomfortably George W. Bush like to me. But in Korea such a line is very real and in the JSA you can not only see it but actually cross it.

Cable from Korea #3: decidedly fishy

Visiting Jagalchi fish market

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When I was eight or so, I insisted on my parents decorating my bedroom with fish wallpaper. They agreed to this, presumably in part because they loved me but I suspect mainly because it was an easier request to comply with than getting me a pet shark – which I was also constantly asking for. Suffice to say my younger self was really – and randomly – into marine biology. I wish I could have taken him to Jagalchi fish market.

Strangely given that I live in the mountains, it is a little odd that I can get there on the metro. But while Busan may reach up into the mountains, it’s the sea that defines it. For example, the roads are packed with lorries carrying shipping containers bound for places like Barbados. It even has a Maritime Museum. So it’s fitting that one of the main tourist attractions is somewhere selling fish.

 

Like an enormous amount of fish. There are dozens of stalls on two floors (plus the streets outside) each with shelves, tanks and boxes jammed with all kinds of aquatic life. As well as the kind of things that come to mind when someone says fish, I also saw octopuses, lobsters, crabs the size of coffee tables, plaice, eel and some rather gross looking sea worm things. There’s also a floor of seafood restaurants and a whole other market devoted to dried fish. But that’s less interesting because by the time fish are dried they don’t squirm, gulp or in the case of one enormous crab appear to be climbing out of their tank.