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

 

The meaning of Moon: 8 thoughts on the progressive victory in Korea (Cable from Korea #12)

Whilst much of the world moves to the right South Korea goes left. Here’s what I think that means.

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Apology 1: I wrote this in a hurry to ensure you could read it whilst it was still topical. As a result there will be more grammatical errors, and fewer references and hyperlinks than I would usually aspire to.

Apology 2: While I live in Korea, I do not speak Korean and good writing about Korean politics in English is sparse. So please treat this post as a collection of intuitions rather than anything more definitive.

A quick note of background

On Monday, South Korea held a presidential election. This was unexpectedly early because the previous holder, the conservative Park Gueyn Hee, was impeached as the result of a bizarre corruption scandal involving her soliciting bribes on behalf of her shamen. Against this backdrop, it is probably unsurprising that a liberal won. A former human rights lawyer and presidential chief of staff Moon Jae-in received more than 40% of the vote comfortably defeating his divided opposition.

Some observations and speculations

1. Everyone seems to be voting just at the moment

Last Thursday, there were local elections across most of the UK, on Sunday there was a presidential election in France, and then yesterday there was one in South Korea. That’s three consequential sets of elections in less than a week.

And it’s not stopping. A week on Thursday Iran will also vote for a president. Britain and France will follow up the votes they just had with parliamentary votes next month. Later in the year, Germany will have to decide whether to keep Angela Merkel or replace her with the SPD’s Martin Schulz, and even China will come as close to electing its leaders as it ever does, when the 19th Central Committee meets to select the members of the politburo.

2. The curious failure of anti-establishment politicians

The wave of populism that is supposedly destroying all before was only weakly discernible in last week’s trifecta of elections. Yes, Macron was running outside France’s traditional party structure, Theresa May’s platform centres on implementing Brexit, and Moon’s victory was powered by the massive anti-system outrage engendered by his predecessor’s scandals. However, none of them is that much of an outsider. Macron was the finance minister in the government he just deposed. May is the most small c-conservative of Conservative politicians and deeply wedded to the party as an institution. She seems to be using Brexit primarily as an opportunity to bolster it. South Koreans were given the chance to vote for some clearly anti-system candidates: a radical mayor who touted himself as the Korean Bernie Sanders, a businessman running for a new insurgent party, and a far-left labour activist who spent much of the eighties on the run from a military dictatorship. Instead they went for Moon-Jae In, who by more or less any definition is the ultimate machine politician.* He was the Democratic Party candidate in the last presidential election, when he narrowly lost to the now impeached Park Guen Hye. Before that he was chief of staff to a previous president. All of three of these politicians use populist energy, however, none of them really represents it.

3. Korean election graphics are amazing

4. Both the UK and South Korea are cursed with zombie parties

Jason Cowley, editor of Britain’s left-wing New Statesman magazine, as a zombie party because it ‘is too weak to win and too strong to die.’ It can neither win power but it won’t give way for another centre-left force that might. The local elections seemed to confirm that pattern as Labour lost seats but not enough to collapse, and make way for a less inert political force.

I wonder if the Korean right now has a similar problem. The impeachment of a conservative president owing to her abusing her office in order to get bribes for her shamen (no really that’s what happened. I’m not exaggerating I swear!), seemed to have broken South Korean conservatism. It split into three rival parties. Their supporters seemed to abandon them for Ahn Cheol-soo, a centrist representing a party mostly composed of former liberals, who nonetheless said hawkish things about North Korea. Polls showed that for a while this combination of borrowed conservative support and his own base put Ahn level with Moon. By contrast, the combined rating of all three of the conservative parties struggled to break 10%.

However, it didn’t last. Some combination of lacklustre debate performances, conservatives noticing he wasn’t all that conservative, and Trump saying stupid things that tarred South Korean hawks by association, dissipated this surge and Anh came third.

In second place was Hong Jun-Pyo, standing for the same conservative party that just lost the presidency. He managed to rally older voters in the conservative strongholds in the South-East of the country, with furious attacks on both Moon and Ahn’s supposed leftism and North Korean sympathies. It repulsed most of the country but attracted enough of it to kibosh the chances of centrists and more forward looking conservatives. Unless that pattern is broken, Korea may also have a zombie party on its hands.

5. The regional divides in Korean politics are amazingly stark

The major division in Korean politics is not class, ethnicity or religion but province. The east of the country votes conservative, the west liberal. And it is a stark split. In the liberal pastion of Jeolla, Hong got barely 2% of the vote. To put that in context, when Tony Blair demolished the Conservative Party in 1997, they still managed to get almost a fifth of the vote in Scotland and around a tenth in Liverpool.

[N.B. lest you think this just a political thing, I live in the east of the country and have heard westerners described as gangsters and peasants]

6. The North Korean situation may now be even trickier to handle

I’ve been astonished how little of the coverage of the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear program has mentioned that there were elections in South Korea, let alone considered how they might alter the dynamics of the situation.

To my mind that’s an especially grave error because it is on those subjects on which we should have the most reservations about Moon. He appears to wish to take a more conciliatory approach to inter-Korean relations and that involves risks.

During Moon’s tenure as presidential chief of staff, South Korea tried to buy off Pyongyang. Kim Jong-Il’s government took the money and the aid, whilst continuing to abuse human rights, develop nuclear weapons and threaten its neighbours. While a full scale resumption of this policy is unlikely, Moon has suggested re-opening a jointly operated industrial complex in the demilitarised zone between the two Koreas. That would likely breach UN sanctions on Pyongyang. That would make it almost impossible to criticise China for its lapses in sanctions enforcement.

Moon has also indicated an openness to withdrawing the ROK’s agreement to the placement of an American missile defence system in the country. That is doubly regrettable. Firstly, and most directly, that system would provide both the US and South Korea with a measure of protection from the North’s nascent ICMB program. Secondly, China has objected to the system on the grounds that its radar could potentially detect Chinese missile launches. It has responded in the manner of a petulant bully, and orchestrated an unofficial but very blatant campaign of economic intimidation: Chinese tourists have been discouraged from visiting Korea, K-Pop acts have been blocked from performing in China, and Korean shopping malls in China have suddenly been slapped with huge fines for supposed health and safety violations. This generated a backlash with Korean public opinion of Beijing suddenly turning very negative. If the system remains then this might teach China that it needs to treat its neighbours with more respect. If it goes then that will appear to vindicate its high-handed behaviour.

This would all be difficult to handle with an ordinary American president. With the current amateurish and unpredictable administration, that difficulty is magnified even further. I am not sure how well the current international system can handle friction between hawks in Washington and doves in Seoul.

7. Why has left/right politics in Korea not been replaced by a globalist/nativist battle?

Across much of the developed (and some of the developing) world, we’ve seen debates over the appropriate size of the state and extent of redistribution take a back seat to questions of how open countries should be to outsiders. Macron and Le Penn getting into the final round of the French presidential elections, whilst neither the socialist nor the conservative candidates did, provides a very clean example of this trend. It is, however, also visible in Trump’s election and the Brexit referendum.

This has not, as far as I can see, happened in South Korea. The presidential race centred on jobs, corruption, the role of huge family run conglomerates in the economy, and tensions with the North.

I am not really sure why this is but I might suggest the following as hypothesises:

a) There is relatively little immigration here (for the time being)

b) Korea is (for the time being) a substantial exporter of manufactured goods. That means globalisation is (for the time being) not associated with a loss of blue collar jobs, in fact quite the opposite.

c) That the main security concern is not terrorism but a nuclear armed and notionally communist rouge state, lends South Korean politics a decidedly cold war air. That might explain why it is still in a twentieth-century configuration.

d) The nativist/globalist split maps onto a graduate/non-graduate divide. In Korea, university education is as widespread as high school is in many western countries. That may mean the social underpinning for this ideological clash aren’t there.

8. Young people won!

Let us end on a positive not. Of late young people have seemed to be losing out economically and politically. And Korea is an especially hard place to be young. Kids here generally wind up on a brutal treadmill of exams and exam prep. That puts them under huge pressure, whilst leaving them little time for hobbies.

So, it is heartening to see their chosen candidate win despite South Korea being one of the oldest societies on earth.

Young people, not just students and graduates but also secondary schoolers, were central to the protests that brought about Park’s impeachment. When I teach high schoolers, it is striking quite how many of them will mention politics.

For more information on this I would recommend Korea Expose’s reporting on ‘the Sewol Generation’, a cohort whose formative political experience was a tragic ferry accident in which hundreds of teenagers drowned while adults on the ship’s crew, the coast guard and, ultimately, the conservative government did nothing to rescue them. It appears to have conditioned them to be less deferential to middle aged and elderly politicians. Moon’s victory marks their emergence as a political force and I am fascinated to see what they will achieve in the future.

 

 

*Most people would consider that an insult, so let me clarify that I don’t.

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)

The best things I’ve read recently (01/05/2015)

A Spell Deferred (the New Republic) by David Hajdu

“[Nina Simone’s] voice, in pointed contrast to her piano playing, was untutored, informal—blistered and gray. She sounded oldish at twenty-five, and her quivery vibrato gave her music the quality of a haunting. Simone was mocked sometimes for sounding masculine, and the tinge of the transgressive likely contributes, too, to her enduring appeal to the pop audience. There is no cheesy chanteuse continentalism or cutesy pin-up sass in her singing. Her tone, always acrid, grew more stinging over time. She tended to sing a couple of microtones sharp—not quite out of key, but on the top end of the notes, an effect that gave her voice some of its spikiness. To hear one of Simone’s recordings on a playlist today, popping up between tracks by singers such as Björk or Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Simone sounds among sisters. She pioneered the caustic severity that pop singers, male and female, have learned to adopt to show their seriousness.”

Two men dancing in their underwear – Boris and Ken (the Guardian) by Mariana Hyde

“One of the greatest acts of comic sabotage in the entire Tony Blair premiership came during prime minister’s questions, when a Labour backbencher, Tony McWalter, stood up and inquired solicitously: “My right honourable friend is sometimes subject to rather unflattering or even malevolent descriptions of his motivation. Will he provide the house with a brief characterisation of the political philosophy that he espouses and which underlies his policies?”

Despite four days’ notice of the question, Blair was more than momentarily silenced. Yet compared to Boris, Tone was John Locke. You’d have more luck finding Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction than you would a sincerely held view not predicated on Boris’s personal ambition. I shrieked when he attempted to map himself on to the space occupied by Winston Churchill by publishing a book about the man who frequently polls as Britain’s greatest ever leader. It called to mind a great line in Working Girl: “Sometimes I sing and dance around the house in my underwear. Doesn’t make me Madonna. Never will.””

Why I’m too selfish to have children (Vox) by Sung J. Woo

“As a child of war, the Korean Conflict forced my mother and her family to literally run for their lives. She was 5 when the tanks started rolling and 8 by the time it was over, and during those years she learned what it meant to lose her home, to have all her essential belongings in a burlap bag, to have not enough to eat €— which is why Costco is now her favorite place in the world. When she walks into that warehouse stacked full of everything, her shoulders relax.  She smiles as she hugs the enormous rolls of paper towels and loads it into the cart. As she gazes at the giant bin of bananas, I’m certain she’d like to swim in them, like the way Scrooge McDuck wades in his pool of gold coins. Her closet in her condo is like a survivalist’s dream, triples and quadruples of toilet paper, kitchen gloves, Ziploc bags, because in her uncertain upbringing, nothing was permanent. Nothing could be counted on.”

Leave Root Causes Aside—Destroy the ISIS ‘State’ (the Atlantic) by James Jeffrey

“Defeating ISIS-as-state is not dependent upon solving Syria as a social, historical, cultural, religious, and governance project, let alone doing the same with Iraq. ISIS feeds on the conflicts in both countries and makes the situation in both worse. But it is possible to defeat ISIS as a “state” and as a military-economic “power”—that is, deal with the truly threatening part— without having to solve the Syrian and Iraqi crises or eliminate ISIS as a set of terrorist cells or source of ideological inspiration. Of course, even if ISIS is destroyed as a state, we would still have the Syrian Civil War and Iraqi disunity, but we have all that now, along with ISIS, which presents its own challenges to the region and the West.”

Cable from Korea #6: electioneering

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K-campaigns

If you read this blog you probably know I have a frankly unhealthy interest in elections. So I’ve been curious to see some of the campaigning for Korea’s upcoming parliamentary elections.

Before I make any observations, I should note that I am basing them on a what I have happened to see in one place. There may be other kinds of campaigning going on in other places. But what I did see was a lot of people standing on the street. It’s rather different from what I’m used to in the UK. British political parties do occasionally campaign to passing pedestrians. For example, when I was in Oxford the Greens would do street stalls most weekends. But the aim of these efforts was primarily to engage voters in conversations or give them literature. By contrast, the Korean activists I saw seemed mainly to be there to be seen, almost like human poster sites. A few did give out leaflets, an example of which you can see in the photos above, but they were in a decided minority.

The efforts of these campaigners to get noticed could become rather elaborate. One evening the progressive party had its campaigners standing on an illuminated platform complete with large posters and a campaign anthem audible in my flat a couple of blocks away. Then this evening I saw the conservatives doing the same but with dancing:

I don’t really know why campaigning styles are so different from the UK. Some of it may well be that because most Koreans live in flats that are hard to canvass and don’t have gardens to put stakeboards up in. That said I’ve not seen any window posters anywhere or literature in my neighbours mail boxes either. Alternatively, it could be that the long hours Koreans work makes trying to reach them at home less productive than it would be in other countries.

But I’m just speculating. If anyone is familiar with South Korean politics and can explain I’d be interested to hear.

Cable from Korea #5: the march of the Catholics

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Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul

Since 1980, the growth of Korean Christianity has been driven by Catholics rather than Protestants. Why?

The growth of Korean Christianity is one of those facts that is used to give succour to members of declining western church. Like many churches in Asia its expansion has been explosive. In 1900 1% of Koreans were Christian, today 29% are. And we all know who these new Christians are right? Evangelical protestants often worshiping in megachurches. When foreign journalists – and indeed foreign bloggers – want to write about Korean Christianity they usually go to Yoido Free Gospel Church in Seoul, which purportedly has the world’s largest congregation.

This protestant-centric story is not inaccurate but it is out of date. Pew Research notes that:

Since the 1980s, however, the share of South Korea’s population belonging to Protestant denominations and churches has remained relatively unchanged at slightly less than 1-in-5. Catholics have grown as a share of the population, from 5% in 1985 to 11% as of 2005, according to the South Korean census. The growth of Catholics has occurred across all age groups, among men and women and across all education levels.

So if you look at a snapshot of Korean Christianity in the present, it’s fair to note that Protestants comfortably outnumber Catholics. If, however, you are interested in its expansion, it is Catholics you need to consider because for thirty years now they are the ones who’ve been doing the growing.

Part of the reasons may be political. Andrei Lankov, a Russian professor based in Seoul, wrote that:

…in the 1960s when Catholicism came to be associated with the ideas of progressive change and the introduction of modern political ideologies. In the 1960s, South Korea’s Catholic church hierarchy began to drift leftward. This was a time when South Korea was run by a military dictatorship – remarkably efficient at managing the economy but also quite ruthless and brutal in dealing with political dissent and the country’s labour movement. The Catholic Church firmly positioned itself on the side of the pro-democracy resistance. A special role was played by Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan, who in 1968 became the archbishop of Seoul.

Under the leadership of Cardinal Kim, the Catholic church took a remarkably active leadership role, always ready to criticise the government and its perceived brutal use of force against government opponents. Outraged, the KCIA, the South Korean political police, arrested Bishop Daniel Chi Hak-sun, one of Cardinal Kim’s lieutenants and an outspoken critic of the military rule, but had to release him soon, bowing to pressure from local Catholics groups and from overseas.

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When military rule finally came to an end in 1987 and Korea at long last became a democracy, the Catholic church was widely credited for its role in this seismic change. Needless to say, such perceptions significantly boosted its popularity: Church leaders were seen as relevant, dedicated and ready to risk their life and freedom for a great cause. Indeed, while Catholic churches across the globe face increasing difficulties and dwindling numbers of believers, the Korean church is thriving. In the mid-1990s the Catholics constituted merely 6 percent of the total population, but in twenty years the number nearly doubled, reaching 10 percent.

On the other hand a New York Times report on Pope Francis visiting Korea, suggested culture and the travails of the protestant churches also play a role:

While the Catholic Church has been flexible in embracing Koreans’ centuries-old Confucian-based rituals of worshiping ancestors, a widely cited survey by the Christian Ethics Movement of Korea last year found Koreans complaining about Protestant churches’ “exclusive attitude toward other faiths.” A leading Protestant preacher in recent years outraged people by declaring from the pulpit: “Buddhist monks are wasting their time. They should convert to Jesus.”

People have also watched some of South Korea’s Protestant megachurches — among the largest in the world — degenerating into internal squabbling as pastors attempted to bequeath their churches to their sons, triggering factional strife.

I don’t yet know enough to say whether some all, some or none of these explanations are right. But I’m curious to investigate. There can be few other major denominations in rich countries that have doubled in size recently.