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!

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

Cable from Korea #7: The fall of the house of Park

The ‘shaman’ scandal that brought down President Park Geun-hye illustrates many of the weaknesses of Korean society but also the vitality of its democracy.

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Teddy Crosshttps://www.flickr.com/photos/tkazec/30021968224/

The competition for strangest political story of 2016 is a tough: Donald Trump is now leader of the free world, the Prime Minister of India decided to nullify the value of close to 90% of the Rupee notes in circulation and the leader of the famously Catholic Philippines is now a guy who called Pope Francis a ‘son of a whore’.  However, the ‘prize’ probably goes to South Korean president Park Geun-Hye being impeached for abusing her office to benefit her shaman.

Ms Park gave this shaman, a woman by the name of Choi Soon-Sil, access to classified briefing materials including, it appears, some relating to North Korea. In addition, Choi ran charitable foundations and leveraged her connection to the president to get donations from a succession of large Korean companies including Samsung and Hyundai. Choi then embezzled from these foundations. In response to the discovery of these improprieties, the Korean parliament impeached her and as of Friday the prime minister has taken over as acting president. The Constitutional Court could still reinstate her but that seems unlikely.

The best and most evocative account of this truly bizarre scandal comes from Ask a Korean. I’d seriously recommend you go away and read it. It’s one of the best pieces of political writing I’ve seen this year. It captures not only the strange details of the case – like Choi’s personal trainer being appointed as presidential aide – bust also why a Korean public rather inured to accusations of corruption by their politicians have turned on Park so decisively. In addition, it shows real empathy for Ms Park.

At the root of her present predicament is that she lost a parent to an assassin’s bullet not once but twice.

Her father is probably the most divisive figure in modern Korean history. He became leader of South Korea shortly after the horror of the invasion by the North. His rule lasted for almost two decades. At the beginning the country was devastated by war, vulnerable to another invasion and poorer than the average sub-Saharan country. By the end, its economy had pulled ahead of the North’s and it was well on the way to becoming the modern affluent country it is today. However, the elder Park was also a military strongman responsible for many human rights abuses. He was eventually killed by his own intelligence chief whilst contemplating an even more intense crackdown on democratic activity.

However, it is the slaying of Park’s mother five years prior to these events that is most directly relevant to her relationship with Choi Soon Sil. A North Korean sympathiser attempted to kill General Park whilst he gave a speech to commemorate Korea’s Independence Day but he botched the attack and having been wounded by the president’s security team, began shooting wildly. One of these shots struck and killed Park’s mother.  It is at this point that Choi’s family enters the story. Her father might (generously) be described as a ‘religious entrepreneur’. He approached the distraught Park telling her that he was able to communicate with her mother. This seems to have led to Park becoming emotionally dependent on him and then when he passed away on his daughter. Given this situation it is hard not to see Park as a victim as well as perpetrator, and the Chois as vultures feeding off Park’s pain for their personal gain.

However, notwithstanding her personal tragedy, she’s clearly done more than enough to justify her impeachment and has few defenders. I live in the region that is the bastion of her conservative Saenuri party. Despite this few of my Korean friends and acquaintances have been willing to speak in her defence and none has been prepared to do so with any enthusiasm. The far more common response has been a mixture of fury and, when forced to discuss it with a foreigner, acute embarrassment.

Which is no small matter in Korea. I am wary of pseudo-anthological generalisations about national cultures, but I do feel comfortable asserting that Korean society places a real premium on maintaining ‘face’ and a deep sense of shame generally results when this is not possible. This seems to apply not only to individuals but also to the nation as a whole, which apparently requires a large amount of validation by the rest of the world. The government spends large sums of money promoting its culture abroad. The global success of K-pop and K-drama is both a source of great pride and the product of deliberate marketing by both private and public sectors. Within the country itself, one of the pre-eminent measures of one’s social standing is your aptitude for English. For example, even businesses that have few, if any, non-Korean customers still plaster their store fronts with English signs to demonstrate their sophistication. One result of this is that billions of dollars are spent on English education, much of which goes on bringing foreigners like me over from the west to teach in the country to share our cultural capital with young Koreans.

In this climate, it is considered to Ms Park’s considerable discredit that she has exposed so many of the flaws of Korean society to global attention. For weeks now, the world’s media has been interrogating the high levels of political corruption, the prevalence of pseudo-Christian cults, and the overweening power of a few huge conglomerates and their intermeshing with the government. Even the national fixation on educational credentials has been noticed, because the roots of Ms Choi’s unmasking lay in her attempts to get her unqualified daughter into an elite university demonstrating, as Ask a Korean says that “If there is one thing that Koreans [care about] more than their lives, it is their (and their children’s) college degree.” This worldwide airing of their dirty linen has clearly been painful for Koreans. The disposition they frequently adopt when talking about the scandal is to stare down at the floor or table, put their hands to their temple as if trying to hide their face, and repeat the mantra: “shameful, so shameful”.

If the antics of Ms Park and Ms Choi have not exactly been a great advert for South Korea, the crisis they’ve begat has paradoxically demonstrated the durability and maturity of its democracy. A few months ago, even eminent and sensible western publications were publishing pieces with headlines like: Is South Korea Regressing Into a Dictatorship?and to note that “President Park Geun-hye is squelching protests, suing journalists, and jailing opposition politicians.” Events have obviously shown this to be a misplaced fear. But it is not simply that the scandal came along and stopped dead a shift to authoritarianism. Rather the response has shown such a shift was always high unlikely. The Korean public is clearly willing to fight for good government. The anti-Park protests that made her impeachment an inevitability were enormous, at their peak including over two million people or almost 5% of the Korean population. Not only were they peaceful but so well organised and disciplined that the protesters arranged to clean up their own litter.

Media and prosecutors sometimes assumed to be supine and unwilling to challenge the country’s elites have swung into action. Many Saenuri law makers have acted in both the nation’s and their own interests by backing the impeachment. A major political convulsion appears to have passed without a major impact on the day to day running of government or lasting damage to financial markets. More broadly, the decline in support for democratic values seen amongst western electorates, appears to not to have affected their Korean counterparts.

So not only is Ms Park’s presidency over but so is the system of government her family name represents. Korea still faces real challenges, most obviously from North Korea, but also an aging population, a disaffected youth and economic model that has probably outlived its usefulness. South Korea will need to make tough decisions about its future. But I’m confident it will make them democratically.

‘Choigate’ may have been lurid, it may have been painful for Korea and it may have served as a showcase for many of its worse aspects, but the nation has dealt with this once in a generation crisis like a mature democracy should. Which leads me to believe that democracy is in better shape in South Korea than it is in the bulk of the West.

 

 

*I don’t know if former Korean presidents retain their titles like American ones do. Under the circumstances, I am disinclined to grant Ms Park an honorific unless I am sure she deserves it.

You will not believe quite how big the world’s largest church is

As part of our look at Pentecostalism, we examine how South Korean Pentecostals took the Yoido Full Gospel Church from a shed to the centre of life in their country. And along the way built up a congregation of almost a million.

Yesterday on Matter of Facts, we looked at the extraordinary rise of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements. Today we look at one of the most striking features of their rise: the tendency to create individual churches that are absolutely massive.

As the Economist reported back in 2007:

MENTION a “megachurch” and most people think of a gleaming building in the American suburbs. In fact, many of the biggest churches are outside the United States. In Guatemala, Pentecostals have built what may be the largest building in Central America: Mega Frater (Big Brother) packs a 12,000-seater church, a vast baptism pool and a heliport. One church in Lagos can supposedly bring 2m people out onto the streets. But five of the world’s ten biggest megachurches are in just one country: South Korea.

The largest of them all, Yoido Full Gospel Church, sits opposite the national assembly in Seoul, an astute piece of political positioning. It looks somewhat unprepossessing—a brownish blob surrounded by office buildings—but Yoido boasts 830,000 members, a number it says is rising by 3,000 a month. One in 20 people in greater Seoul is a member.

Each of the seven Sunday services at Yoido is a logistical challenge: apart from the 12,000 people in the main sanctuary, another 20,000 follow the service on television in overflow chapels scattered around neighbouring buildings. Some 38,000 children go to Sunday school during the day. As one service begins and the next ends, around 60,000 comers and goers are ushered by white-jacketed traffic directors. If you want to attend one of the two services starring the church’s founder, David Cho, you need to be an hour early or you won’t get in.

Not that you will lack entertainment whilst you wait. The massed choir (one of 12) is already belting out hymns, backed by a large orchestra (one of three). The audience sings along, with huge television screens supplying the words, karaoke style. Pictures of the service are beamed to hundreds of satellite churches around the world and to Prayer Mountain, a gruelling religious camp close to the border with the North. Translation is offered in English, Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, French, Indonesian, Malay and Arabic.

By the standards of American preachers, Mr Cho is a relatively unflashy figure. With his glasses, tie and tidy red cassock, he looks like one of the more bureaucratic kinds of Asian politician. His tone is logical and unrelenting. His theme today is “Deliver us from the Evil One”.

Sin and Satan are omnipresent, he argues, but if you ignore their enticements, “your grave is already empty.” As he cites scripture, the passages appear on the big television screens. Mr Cho urges the liberation of North Korea and quotes Edward Gibbon. He then invites people to touch the part of their body that most needs healing. There are shouts of success. After he sits down, a young opera singer performs while the money is collected—by the sackful in gold and scarlet bags—and piled up in front of the pulpit.

The megachurches of Korea are not an exclusively Pentecostal phenomenon. Nonetheless, Prof. Kim Sung-Gun of Seowon University points out that nine out of fifteen of the largest mega-churches in the country – including Yoido Full Gospel Church – are charismatic or Pentecostal. Prof. Kim suggests that Pentecostalism is a creed well suited to South Korea. Its emphasis on the reality of spirits in the world taps into a tradition of shamanism that persists in Korean society. And teaching the prosperity gospel makes it well suited to a country that experienced some of the fastest economic modernisation the world has ever seen.

Unsurprisingly, the accumulation of so much power and wealth in a single church has not been without problems. Mr Chohas been hit by corruption scandals and thrown his weight around politically:

Yoido Church’s founder is rarely out of the news in South Korea. In March he sparked a storm of criticism by claiming the earthquake and tsunami in Japan was “God’s warning” to a country that follows “idol worship, atheism, and materialism”.

He is also too political for some. When President Lee’s government drew up plans to legislate for Islamic sukuk bonds in South Korea, Mr Cho argued that this would aid “terrorists”, and that the president was forgetting the vital role the Protestant lobby had in electing him. Following concerted efforts by Mr Cho and other South Korean church leaders, the government blinked first, and the plan was dropped.

The Yoido church highlights the paradox of contemporary Pentecostalism. It is a movement that arose among the disposed and whose rise was powered by tiny congregations meeting in houses or shop front churches. Now across much of the world it has become a force to be reckoned with. How the religion of the spirit copes with such material success will shape not only its own future but also that of Christianity as a whole.

 

P.S. You can read the Church’s English language website here