Monday, January 16, 2017

10 Year Reflections: On Blogging

This blog, Ask a Korean! was born October 21, 2006. (Here is my very first post, and my very first question answered.) The decade mark of the blog last year should have been a significant occasion. But because of the circumstances in my life (which I will share in due time,) I was not able to give this blog a proper celebration.

So here it is to open the new year: a belated 10 year celebration, through a series of reflections about different topics--on blogging, Korea, and myself. Yes, this is going to get a bit self-indulgent. If you have a problem with that, go read The Most Important Policy of this blog one more time.

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I began this blog as a way to kill time during the slowness of third year in law school. The direct inspiration for the blog, reflected in its name, is ¡Ask a Mexican! by Gustavo Arellano, who ran (and still runs) his syndicated column in OC Weekly. The blog was somewhat of a joke to myself--in fact, that is still the case in my head to this day. I gave myself a ridiculous pen name, The Korean, and wrote in a ridiculous style, referring to myself in third person. The joke was: you are really not supposed to take me very seriously. I'm just a random guy on the internet with a blog.

As many of my jokes go, this one failed. For reasons unknown to me, people kept reading the blog. Publications like the New York Times took me seriously enough to send a reporter to interview me. Although media appearances now have become a regular feature of the blog, I still don't really understand why they keep reading my stuff. In my mind, it means the journalists are not doing their jobs; if they knew what they were talking about, they wouldn't read this internet rando's blog.

I can't get over this point partially because I cannot get over what blogging was like ten years ago. Back then, having a blog was a mild embarrassment, like online dating was back in the day. Calling yourself a "blogger" meant you could not manage to get a job. Blogging was not real writing; it could never be serious. 

In the past ten years, I saw this change in different ways. First came the boom times. Starting around 2009, blogging became mainstream to a point that every company was essentially required to have a blog on its website, just as much as it needs to have a Facebook page and a Twitter account today. On the particular subjects I covered--Korea and Asian America--there was a thriving network of blogs like Marmot's Hole, Roboseyo, Brian in Jeollanam-do and Korea Beat. It helped that this period was also the peak of English speakers visiting Korea to teach English, which led to more bloggers and blog readers. 

Another turn came around 2013. Blogging became so successful that it turned into something else entirely. Big name blogs, written by serious people discussing serious stuff (like Marginal Revolution or Volokh Conspiracy,) were absorbed into the framework of mainstream media (in their cases, to the Washington Post) and simply became "media." For people who simply wanted to chronicle their daily lives (or minutely or secondly lives, as it turned out,) first came Tumblr, then Twitter, where they could vomit their thoughts in real time.

This larger trend was visible in Korea bloggers also. One by one, lights started going out. Some wrote much less frequently; some shuttered their blog entirely. The list titled "Korea" in my RSS feed became shorter and shorter. I could not help but notice that as bloggers got older and more involved with their family or career, their writing slowed down. After all, blogging was just a hobby. Time to move on from childish things.

The latest turn affected this blog also. I went from being a graduate student to an attorney who has been practicing law for nine years, and recently, father of a newborn girl. At its peak, AAK! used to have an update nearly every day. Now, my short impressions have migrated entirely to the blog's Facebook page and Twitter. The blog became the place for a more involved writing, requiring more research and reflection.

All of this leaves me in a bind. My blog never got big enough to be a money-making venture. Not that I would want it to be so--that would drain all the fun out of writing. But this does mean that my blog remains a hobby, a very time consuming, expensive one. (Remember, I am in a profession that charges by the hour.) What is more, the cost of engaging in this hobby is rising every day. Being a more senior attorney means more demand on your time. I have been a father for exactly 12 days, and I cannot see the task getting any easier in the next decade.

Ironically, the blog's success also constrains. I would have never, ever guessed that Ask a Korean! would become what it is today. I would have never, ever guessed that the blog would have more than 15 million pageviews, or one of my posts would get more than a million pageviews. I would have never, ever guessed that having a blog would allow me to connect with people who shape the world we live in. The attention the blog has received compelled me to become a better writer and more rigorous thinker--a happy result. 

But it also made me more cynical and calculating in the topics I choose to write about, especially because each post now requires so much work. I always enjoyed writing about random trivia about Korea. One of the big moments for this blog was when I translated Prince Fielder's neck tattoo, which made this blog the top Google search result when anyone searched for tattoo in Korean. Can I enjoy trivialities with the blog anymore, when the time I spend to write becomes more and more precious? Can I continue to afford this hobby? Really, who blogs any more, except those who are paid to do?

I sense that soon, I will have to make some type of decision about what to do with this blog. But I don't even know what that decision will be.

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

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Goodbye 2016


2016 has been a year of great changes in my life. All year long, I had hoped that I would be able to share with you exactly what changed. But the year kept running and running, and here we are. At the very last day of the year, I am still not in a position to tell you all the changes that are coming.

Long time readers know AAK! traditions: the worst emails of the year, followed by the list of most read articles for the year. Not this year, however. As my life changes, so will this blog. And there is no telling where this blog will be in the next several weeks, because I cannot tell where my life is heading. I can only wait.

Undoubtedly, I am missing a lot. This year was the 10 year anniversary of Ask a Korean!, and I do have plenty of things to say about that experience. There is still so much I can say about Korean politics, U.S. politics and what it means to live as an Asian American. There is still so much to be said about Korea, the most interesting country in the world. I regret that I have not been able to do all that in 2016.

So if you would indulge me, let's hold onto those things. Soon, I will be able to share with you all the things that have been happening with me and with this blog. Until then, be safe, healthy and well. See you next year.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Lessons of Choi Soon-sil Scandal


Mass protest demanding Park Geun-hye's resignation, Nov. 12, 2016. Crowd size is
estimated to be nearly a million. (source)

The Choi Soon-sil scandal, and the subsequent impeachment of Park Geun-hye, are seismic events that are sending shock waves throughout the world. The scandal’s magnitude and bizarre nature are tempting many observers to connect it to other seismic political events around the world, such as the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and the election of Donald Trump in the United States. Seizing upon the massive weekly protests, the observers claim that the South Korean “people” are tired of the “status quo” and are now revolting against the “establishment.” By making this connection, these observers are trying to forge some type of grand theory of global politics, trying to capture a planet-wide zeitgeist of some kind.

But this is all wrong—a lazy analysis that is totally ignorant of Korea’s recent political history. Korea’s reaction to the the Choi Soon-sil-gate does offer a real political lesson for the world, but not because it is the second coming of Brexit or another version of Trump.

Just matching up the basic facts of these events reveals how facile this comparison is. Both Brexit vote and Trump election were fairly close affairs. Brexit vote was around 52 percent “leave” to 48 percent “remain.” Despite his campaign manager’s deluded claim of a “landslide,” Trump won with one of the worst margins of electoral college in U.S. history, and trailed Hillary Clinton by nearly 3 million votes across the country. In contrast, Korea is totally unified in its rejection of its president. The support for Park Geun-hye is around 4 to 5 percent, essentially a statistical error.

The participants of Korea’s popular revolt are also completely different from those of either Brexit vote or Trump election. The victorious electorate in the Brexit vote and the Trump election is characterized as being rural as opposed to urban, less educated as opposed to highly educated, poorer as opposed to richer. Those differences do not exist in Korea’s rejection of Park Geun-hye—they cannot exist when 96 percent of the country disapproves the president. Further, the loudest voices in Korea that have been demanding Park Geun-hye’s resignation are not Korea’s equivalent of the “white working class.” They have been highly educated urban middle- and upper middle-class, who work in white collar occupations in the skyscrapers near the City Hall Square where there have been weekly protests of more than a million people.

The triggering event for Choi Soon-sil-gate—namely, the fishy admission of Choi’s daughter into Ewha Womans University—captures this essential difference. Ewha, established in 1886 as Korea’s first modern school for women, is an embodiment of Korea’s “establishment.” It is an institution that prides itself in producing Korea’s women leaders. Three out of the nine First Ladies in South Korean history attended Ewha. An overwhelming majority of the names that would fill in the blank of “first Korean woman to …” belong to Ewha graduates. And it was the fury of the Ewha students and graduates over the fact that Choi’s daughter Jeong Yoo-ra may have gotten into Ewha based on favoritism that finally broke the Choi scandal wide open. Some shaman’s daughter fraudulently took the Ewha name was the basis of this fury. If there is any class element to Choi Soon-sil scandal, it is the reverse of Brexit and Trump election: it is Korea’s urban middle class raining scorn upon a lowly impostor.

What, then, is the lesson that the Choi Soon-sil scandal offers? I suggest that Korean people’s reaction to the Choi-gate is not a reflection of the contemporary trend that gave us president-elect Donald Trump. Rather, what we are seeing in Korea now is the future of Trump. Korean politics already had its own Trump, and it is now showing the world what is going to happen next.

(More after the jump.)

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Monday, December 12, 2016

Impeachment: Where does Korea Go from Here?

Jeong Se-gyun, chairman of the National Assembly, announcing the passage of the bill to impeach the president.

After a month of trudging through shitty political news, things are finally looking up in Korea. On Friday, the National Assembly passed the bill to impeach President Park Geun-hye, by the vote of 234 to 56. 

Although the many crimes of Park Geun-hye through her confidant have shocked the world, it was not a sure thing that the National Assembly would actually impeach the president. About a month ago when I wrote this post, I was not entirely optimistic about the chances for impeachment. The National Assembly has 300 elected legislators, and the impeachment bill required at least 200 votes to pass. In the National Assembly, Park Geun-hye's Saenuri Party has 129 seats--which means there had to be at least 29 defections from the president's own party for the impeachment to succeed. In the days leading up to the vote, tensions were high. As embattled as the president was, was there really going to be enough votes to bring her down? Failed impeachment vote was a real possibility--in which case, everyone would be at a loss.

Naturally, there was a huge sigh of relief when Jeong Se-gyun, chairman of the National Assembly, announced the vote tally: 234 votes in favor of impeachment, an overwhelming victory.* The margin of victory means at least 63 members of Park Geun-hye's own party--nearly half of its Assembly representatives--voted to impeach the president. That Korea's conservatives so completely turned on their own president is the most interesting part of this ongoing political saga. (I will expand on this point in the next upcoming post.)

But this is hardly a done deal. Americans who lived through the Bill Clinton era may find this phrase familiar: impeachment is a trial, not removal from the office. Same is true with Korea. Functionally speaking, impeachment only means that the National Assembly filed a lawsuit with the Constitutional Court of Korea. The court must try the case and find that the president seriously violated the constitution or statutes, before she is actually removed from the office.

Because my day job is being a lawyer, it is highly interesting for me to see the extent to which the impeachment trial proceeds just like any other litigation. After the impeachment bill passed, the case is docketed with the court and is assigned a case number. The president must be served with process--as if she needs the notice that the National Assembly decided to impeach her! Just imagine being the process server for this case. Yes, a process server personally makes the service, even in impeachment. What would go through your mind as you deliver the summons to the presidential residence? Would you require a security detail, just in case some deranged lunatic tried to intercept your delivery?

The responsive pleading by the president, which is guaranteed to be a riveting read, is due this coming Friday, December 16. The court is yet to schedule the dates for hearings, but there will almost certainly be several rounds of hearing. Last time when the Constitutional Court heard an impeachment case, involving then-President Roh Moo-hyun in 2004, the court held seven rounds of hearing before dismissing the case. If we are lucky, we may get the first round of hearing before the end of the year.** By law, the Constitutional Court must issue a decision within 180 days after the case was filed. The court took 62 days in Roh's impeachment, but it is almost certain that the court will take longer in Park Geun-hye's case as it is more complex than Roh's case.

A little bit about Korea's Constitutional Court, which is a unique institution even in the global context. Although it is called a "court," Constitutional Court is not a part of Korea's judiciary. It is a constitutional body that exists outside of the executive, legislative and judicial branches, deciding only the cases that directly implicate the constitution. This is reflected in the manner in which the court's justices are appointed. The Constitutional Court has a total of nine justices with staggering six-year terms. Each branch of the government--the president, the National Assembly and the Supreme Court--nominates three justices. They are appointed after undergoing a National Assembly hearing.

This leads to a procedural complication for the impeachment trial. Theoretically, because the case was filed on December 9, 2016, the Constitutional Court is allowed to deliberate until May 2017--which could be trouble, because the terms for two of the justices end before then. The term for Chief Justice Park Han-cheol (executive branch appointee) ends in January 2017, and the term for Justice Lee Jeong-mi  (judicial branch appointee) is up in March 2017. The two outgoing justices are considered centrists who likely would have voted in favor of removal.

The quorum for an impeachment case is seven justices, and it takes at least six votes (six actual votes, not two-thirds of the quorum or other ratio) to remove the president from office. If the court does take all the way until May 2017 to decide, the court would barely make the quorum. With just seven justices hearing the case, it would only take two justices to deny the removal of the president. (It is highly unlikely that a new justice would be appointed in the middle of the impeachment process.)

In short, if you want to see Park Geun-hye go--as overwhelming majority of Koreans do--the circumstances are less than ideal. So hang tight, folks. We are still in this for at least another several months, and the outcome is anything but guaranteed.

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*There were 56 votes against. Assembly Member Choi Gyeong-hwan, a close ally of Park Geun-hye, refused to vote. There were two votes for "abstain," and seven invalid votes that did not count. Most of the Assembly Members who cast the invalid votes apparently voted "for," but made other marks on the ballot to make their votes invalid--apparently in order to plausibly claim either way that they voted either "for" or "against," depending on the result. Because the vote was done anonymously, we cannot tell who these cowards were.

**One of the best things about Korea's judicial system is that cases move really, really fast. An American lawyer would have a heart attack if she had to prepare a responsive pleading in one week and prepare for a hearing within two weeks afterward for a case as big as this one.

Friday, December 09, 2016

Readers, I Need Your Help with Facebook (Resolved Now!)


[EDIT 2016/12/09:  Looks like Facebook unblocked me. That was pretty quick--thanks everyone!]

Ok folks, TK needs your help here. For some reason, Facebook blocked this blog. Many of you told me you can't share or send messages containing the hyperlink to AAK!. Facebook is also blocking me from sharing my blog posts on the blog's Facebook page through an automated feed.

Facebook blocked my site apparently because it failed to meet "community standards." You all know that is not true. I have done what I can with Facebook, but please help me out by doing the following: try and share something from my blog on Facebook. When Facebook stops you from doing so, there will be a link that lets you tell Facebook why the blocking is a mistake. In that box, you can copy and paste the message below:
"Ask a Korean! is a blog that explains Korean culture and current events. The blog has existed for a decade, and has had tens of millions of visitors so far. It contains no material that is inappropriate or objectionable."
Thank you everyone. Hopefully with enough people sending this message, we can resolve this issue quickly.

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Wednesday, December 07, 2016

2017 NK News Calendars are Here

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

Here is one way you can support NK News: buy their gorgeous North Korea calendar. I have bought this calendar for the last several years, and always come away impressed with the pictures.

From NK News
For AAK! readers, NK News prepared a special web page with a $10 discount code here. Also check out NK News's online store for unique t-shirts and other North Korea-inspired items.

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Tuesday, December 06, 2016

The Ultimate Choi Soon-sil-gate Explainer (Part 2)

As promised, here is Part 2 of the Ultimate Choi Soon-sil-gate Explainer.


Because the amount of Choi Soon-sil’s corruption is completely overwhelming, it is a good idea to approach this huge list with a sense of direction. 

Choi Soon-sil
The general modus operandi of Choi Soon-sil has been as follows: Choi would receive the president’s plan for governance, and ran her own “shadow cabinet” that would give comment on the presidential policy plans. In doing so, Choi placed her cronies and her cronies’ cronies in significant policy-planning positions (usually those in pop culture and sports promotion sectors,) and dismissed those who would not go along with her plans. With the cronies in place, Choi and her cronies steered a significant portion of Korea’s national budget to their companies, most of which were shell corporations that did not actually perform the work for which they were contracted or did so in a shoddy manner. Choi and her cronies also peddled influence with Korea’s largest corporations, sometimes stealing outright and sometimes granting certain favors. Choi’s pattern of corruption was the most brazen when it came to her daughter, who fraudulently gained admission into the prestigious Ewha Womans University based on a dicey equestrian scholarship.

The net result is astonishing. It is not an exaggeration to say that Choi Soon-sil was involved in virtually every major policy initiative from the Park Geun-hye administration. Choi received national security briefings and gave comments on Park’s Dresden speech, the most significant pronouncement of South Korea’s policy on North Korea. Choi and her cronies steered the budget allocated for upcoming Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. Korea’s largest corporations—including most notably Samsung—lined up to curry favor with Choi, and their bribery changed the fate of the companies in a very real sense. Through the privatization of governmental power, Choi Soon-sil was on her way to creating a vast network that would be ostensibly engaged in promoting culture and sports, but in fact would pay her and her cronies.


Because there is so much ground to cover, I divided the currently outstanding allegations into following categories:

A. Interfering in State Affairs
B. Hiring and Firing
C. Stealing National Budget
D. Stealing from Corporations
E. Horseplay
F. Drug Use and Sewol Ferry Disaster

To make this list useful, I gave a number to each allegation, which is grouped with other similar claims.

I made this list by reading the Korean news coverage of this scandal for the past month. Each allegation has a hyperlink to Korea’s newspaper or TV station that reported the story. Obviously, everything below is no more than an allegation, as there has been no trial that actually assessed the veracity of these claims. I do have a solid BS detector when it comes to Korea, so I only included the allegations that rose beyond the speculative level. If you don’t like this list, you can ask for a full refund of the money you paid me to read my blog.


Korea's president Park Geun-hye lives in Cheongwadae, also known as the Blue House because of its blue tile roof. Blue House is itself a large bureaucracy, in which presidential aides work. The aides are organized into ten departments, whose heads are called "chiefs" [수석]. This is a separate thing from the cabinet, which is made up of several ministries headed by ministers, much like the U.S. cabinet is made up of departments headed by secretaries. When you envision Korea’s executive branch, you should visualize the Blue House giving orders to various ministries. The President and the Blue House aides would set the policy direction, and the ministers would receive the directives to execute them.

Choi Soon-sil had a close group of cronies who executed her corrupt plans. The most important cronies were Blue House chief Woo Beyong-u and other Blue House aides who served Choi’s eyes and ears within the presidency. Other important cronies include Kim Jong, who is the Vice Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism, and Cha Eun-taek, a K-pop music video director who actually implemented the Choi’s plan to swindle the government and extort corporations. Choi also actively used her family, including (now divorced) husband Jeong Yoon-hoi, daughter Jeong Yoo-ra and niece Jang Si-ho.

If you are ready, after the jump is the comprehensive list of all allegations of corruption against Choi Soon-sil.

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Thursday, November 24, 2016

Happy Thanksgiving!


The Korean wishes happy Thanksgiving to everyone who celebrates it. This year, I am thankful for all of you who patiently waited through the long, quiet stretches of this blog, only to reward it with the record-breaking million pageview post toward the end of the year. Many changes in my life prevented me from posting more frequently; soon, I will have the chance to explain what happened to me this year in more detail.

In this time and age, it is ever more important to remember the spirit of Thanksgiving, the holiday for immigrants. The Pilgrim's dinner with the Native Americans symbolize our ideals as a nation of immigrants: newcomers and the natives, on the same table, sharing a meal.

Beauty of history lies in that the patterns in its fabric repeat endlessly. On the Thanksgiving Day of 1997--some 380 years after the Pilgrims--the Korean Family arrived at the port of Los Angeles International Airport, full of anticipation for the Land of Opportunity. The Korean Family was greeted by natives, the distant family friends who have lived in the U.S. for decades as Korean Americans. And like a beautiful fugue, the pattern repeated once again; the natives helped the immigrants to get settled in, and begin their lives in the new world.

Thus, Thanksgiving Day is doubly special for the Korean Family. We never miss celebrating it. We are thankful for all the great things in our lives, but most of all, we are thankful to be in America, as imperfect as it may seem from time to time. Like the Pilgrims who were grateful for their new lives and new opportunities, the Korean Family is grateful, each and every year, for our own new lives and opportunities.

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Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Ultimate Choi Soon-sil-gate Explainer (Part 1)

It has been a few weeks since the incredible scandal involving Korea's president Park Geun-hye and her shaman-daughter confidant Choi Soon-sil has been revealed. Streets of Seoul and other major cities in Korea are now hosting nightly protests, some as large as a million people.

In two parts, here is everything you need to know, and even a few things that you don't, about this sordid scandal.

Some Super Basic Things You Should Know

Korea's executive is made up of the President, who is the head of state, and the Prime Minister, who is the head of government. Prime Minister is mostly a ceremonial position, nominated by the president and confirmed through the National Assembly. But as you will see below, the prime minister's role becomes very important in times of national emergency, as he may be asked to step into the role of the head of state if the president is incapacitated. The current prime minister is Hwang Gyo-an, the third prime minister of the Park administration. 

Korea's president lives in Cheongwadae, also known as the Blue House because of its blue tile roof. Blue House is itself a large bureaucracy, in which presidential aides work. The aides are organized into several departments, whose heads are called "chiefs" [수석]. This is a separate thing from the cabinet, which is made up of several ministries headed by ministers. Korea's presidents serve a single, five-year term. The next regularly scheduled presidential election is December 2017.

There are three major political parties in Korea: Saenuri Party, Democratic Party, and the People's Party. Park Geun-hye belongs to Saenuri, which is the conservative party. Democratic Party is the main progressive party, and the People's Party is ideologically in between Saenuri and Democratic Party. Within Saenuri, there are two major factions: those loyal to the current president, and those loyal to the former president Lee Myung-bak. Although in the same party, those two factions barely get along. That, however, is the better result than the relationship between Democratic Party and the People's Party. People's Party used to be a faction within the Democratic Party, but split off earlier this year.

Korea's legislature is called the National Assembly, which has 300 elected legislators. Currently, Saenuri has 129, Democratic has 121, and People's has 38 members. Justice Party, a minor party that is more leftist than the Democratic Party, has six seats. There are six independents. This means that the opposition--made up of Democratic and People's--has the clear majority in the legislature, as long as they are able to work together.

Media landscape in Korea--at least in the print and broadcast media--is solidly conservative. The top three circulation papers, Chosun, JoongAng and Dong-A, are all conservative, although with slightly different flavors. (Chosun and Dong-A tend to be more ideologically conservative, and JoongAng tends to be more economically conservative.) These three newspapers also own cable TV networks--TV Chosun, JTBC and Channel A, respectively--that further broadcast along their agenda. South Korea has three major network TV channels: KBS, MBC and SBS. Because two of them--KBS and MBC--are owned by the government, their news coverage tends to be limited to being the government's mouthpiece. For several years, SBS has been the lone bastion of investigative journalism on television. Progressives of Korea find their refuge in smaller newspapers--Kyunghyang and Hankyoreh--and rely much on the internet for news.

(More after the jump.)

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Wednesday, November 09, 2016

The Days Ahead

Protest in Seoul for Park Geun-hye's resignation, Nov. 5, 2016. Estimated 100,000 participated in the protest.

I have been very wrong on so many things about the 2016 U.S. presidential election. But one of the few things I was right about was: Korean politics tend to foreshadow U.S. politics.

Korean politics has been making worldwide headline in the last few days because of the insane scandal that a psychic has been practically controlling its president. (I did my part to contribute to those headlines.) But Korean politics was not always this way. Just nine years ago—or two presidents ago, Korea’s president was a progressive Roh Moo-hyun, an articulate, charismatic president who rose from modest background based on legal education, not unlike our current president. And just like Republicans did against Barack Obama, Korea’s conservatives seized on the fact that Roh was from modest background to delegitimize him nearly as soon as he took office. After Roh, Koreans elected two conservative presidents who might as well be Donald Trump Part I and Donald Trump Part II. First it was Lee Myung-bak, whose main qualification was that he was a former CEO of Hyundai. Then it was Park Geun-hye, whose main qualification was that she was the daughter of the former dictator Park Chung-hee. There was no question that nostalgia played a huge role in electing both presidents. By electing two symbols of Korea’s fast-growing economy of the 1960s and 70s, Korea’s conservatives were trying to make Korea great again.

I have seen the future, where the population was so beholden to nostalgia that they not only set aside democratic norms, but also overlooked the obvious incompetence of the candidates who would become the president. This was true of Lee Myung-bak, who ruthlessly controlled the media and harassed the journalists that were critical to him. But this was—and is—even truer of Park Geun-hye, who inherited all the flaws of her father and none of his strengths. As a presidential candidate, Park roundly lost all three of her televised debate against her opponent Moon Jae-in, a National Assemblyman and former chief of staff for Roh Moo-hyun. She could hardly articulate her own thoughts in words and obsessively relied on her pocket notebook for rehearsed talking points prepared by her father’s former cronies. No matter—she was elected anyway. Same with Trump, following Obama. The flaws were obvious, but he was elected anyway. So here we are.

I have seen the future. So allow me to share what lies in the days ahead.

(More after the jump.)

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Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Irrational Downfall of Park Geun-hye

President Park Geun-hye issues a public apology on October 25, 2016.

President Park Geun-hye is in deep trouble. The stories have been out for a few days now, and even the English-language papers have caught on. Park's confidant has been running a massive slush fund, as she extorted more than $70 million from Korea's largest corporations. The confidant was receiving confidential policy briefings and draft presidential speeches--all on a totally unencrypted computer. The confidant rigged the college admission process so that her daughter, not known to be sharpest tool in the shed, would be admitted into the prestigious Ewha Womans University. That last bit turned out to be the first step toward the president's ruin, as Ewha students' protest over that preferential treatment developed into the larger investigation about the relationship between Park and her confidant, Choi Soon-sil.

But the English language coverage of this scandal is missing something. The newspapers do have most of the facts, which they recount diligently. But they fail to fully account for the Korean public's stunned disbelief. Although the scale of the corruption here is significant, Koreans have seen much, much worse. Not long ago, Korean people have seen Chun Doo-hwan, the former president/dictator, made off with nearly $1 billion, and this was back in the mid-1980s when the money was worth more than $4 billion in today's dollars. Even the democratically elected presidents of Korea--every single one of them--suffered from corruption charges. Lee Myung-bak, the immediate predecessor to Park, saw his older brother (himself a National Assemblyman) go to prison over bribery. Lee's controversial Four Rivers Project, which cost nearly $20 billion, was widely seen as a massive graft project to push government funding to his cronies who were operating construction companies.

For better or worse (mostly worse,) Korean people have come to expect corruption from their presidents. So why is this one by Park Geun-hye causing such a strong reaction? It is not because Korean people discovered that Park was corrupt; it is because they discovered Park was irrationally corrupt. Koreans are not being dismayed at the scale of the corruption; they are shocked to see what the scale of the corruption signifies.

(More after the jump.)

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Friday, October 28, 2016

Holy Crap, It's Been Four Months?!!

Hi guys. I'm still here. If you follow my Facebook and Twitter, you would know that I have been paying attention to all the same things that I usually pay attention to. It's simply that my life has been going through at great deal of change recently, and it has been difficult to write an involved post.

I was hoping that pretty soon, I would have the chance to tell you guys what I have been doing for the past several months. That post is still coming. But holy crap, the events in Korea. The events! TK just has to write about that, right? How could I call myself "the Korean" otherwise?

So the post about the recent events is coming soon. I just didn't want to abruptly show up after four months as if nothing interesting happened in the interim. I look forward to seeing everyone again; I never forgot you guys.

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Monday, June 27, 2016

Appropriate Appropriation

Dear Korean,

I am an art student and I am currently interested in Asian art. I am really intrigued by traditional Asian art, including Indian, Chinese, Japanese and Korean but I am worried that because I’m white people may believe I am appropriating Asian culture, I truly just wish to explore this style of art, i.e. prints, ink works and make artworks that are relevant to my culture in an Asian style. I know that you do not speak for every Asian country and I also know about the many differences in culture and art but I would just like an insight to if what I am doing is in anyway offensive because the last thing I would want is to offend anyone or lead anyone to believe I am racist or ignorant.


Here, we have the biggest conversation among Asian Americans. "Cultural appropriation" is a fairly recently crafted set of ethical rules, and its boundaries are still very fuzzy. But the boundaries do become a lot more visible once we understand the core principle behind cultural appropriation.


What is cultural appropriation? Cultural appropriation is a use of cultural artifacts as a prop. People generally tend to know this much. But they are often unclear on exactly why cultural appropriation is bad. Expressed as simply as possible, here is why: cultural appropriation is bad because using cultural artifacts as a prop leads to treating the people of that culture as a prop, rather than whole persons. This is the core principle behind cultural appropriation.

Understanding this core principle alone answers many tricky questions that are emerging cultural appropriation. For example: take this infamous instance of Katy Perry's kimono get-up. Asian Americans were nearly unanimous in their denunciation, but the Japanese in Japan seemed not to care. This disconnect is easier to understand once we understand the core principle: what matters is objectification, humans being turned into a prop. Asian Americans are constantly surrounded by non-Asian Americans who always stand ready to objectify them. Japanese in Japan belong to the nation of 127 million of the same ethnicity, and are almost never in danger of being objectified by the person next to them. Of course there will be a difference in reaction between the two groups.

But the mainstream society is hardly the only one that is ignorant of the core principle; Asian American themselves likewise often are unaware of it. This leads to a variation of "magic word racism." Previously, I explained that "magic word racism" is an attempt to detect racism by the presence or absence of certain words or phrases. Utter the forbidden "Word X," and you must be considered a racist. The same dumb logic can be found in at least some charges of cultural appropriation. Using any cultural artifact in any way must be cultural appropriation, regardless of the particular context and manner of the particular usage. This is wrong, just as much as magic word racism is wrong.

What, then, is an art student like Cait to do? The first thing is: study. Context-sensitive exploration of Asian arts cannot happen if you don't know the context. The ultimate challenge is to develop an internal view of the culture that you're exploring. Through whose eyes are you viewing the culture? Are you seeing it from the perspective of the people who created that culture, or are you seeing it from the eyes of the outsider? Do you understand the sense of aesthetics that led the people to create a cultural artifact, or does your mind stop at the outside shell of the artifact? Do you see the flow of history that led to the creation of this culture, or do you only see the here and now as if the culture fell on your lap from another dimension? Are you actively exploring what the people are saying about themselves, among themselves, in their own language, or are you merely hearing what other white people are saying about the exotic colored people?

These questions naturally lead to self-reflection. What is it about Asian culture and art that attracts you, the non-Asian artist? Lesser people would simply say they "just want it"--a bad answer, because in most cases, they are simply filtering the mainstream society that stands ready to use Asian culture as a prop. Stop the unthinking, and ask this essential question for understanding yourself: why do you want what you want?

This study need not be in isolation. You will keep talking and keep creating, and learn more from the reactions. And in the process, you will offend some people--usually those who are in the hunt for magic word racism, ready to pounce on their made-up rules. Don't get discouraged; keep plugging away. Because more often than not, a sincere willingness to learn overcomes any mistakes along the way.

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Monday, May 16, 2016

TK's Korea Travel Itinerary

(This is for you, T.)

TK received a request from a friend who is traveling to Korea: where should she go and see?

This is a deceptively tough question. There are already plenty of excellent travel books of Korea out there. (TK's favorites are the two books from Seoul Selection, Seoul and Korea, both by Robert Koehler.) The New York Times--the New York Times!--seemingly runs a feature about traveling Korea every other month, and not just to big cities like Seoul. What could I possibly add to this, at this point?

In the end, what TK settled on is this: if I wrote a short exposition about Korea, what scenery would serve as the key illustration to highlight the points that I was making? What could one see to understand where Korea was, what it went through, and what it is now?

On this basis, a lot of the famous tourist attractions would be missing--partly because I felt that there are other places that tell the same story, partly because I do not know enough about a certain locale. The biggest omission perhaps is Busan, one of the most significant places in Korea that somehow is a big black hole of knowledge for me. Also, this itinerary includes Jeju simply because my friend asked me to include it. The whole thing is set for 10-11 days, but you will see that it involves fairly rigorous traveling. If you want to slot in a few "break" days in the middle, it could stretch into 14-15 days.

Long story short: this is just one guy's suggestion. Not the "best of"s, not the "must-see"s, just the places I would take you if we were friends. If that sounds good, off we go.


Seoul metro area is home for nearly half of the population of the entire South Korea--the fifth most populous metro area in the world. It has centuries of history, and far too much to see. By my standard, seeing the city in a meaningful way would take around seven to ten days. But we will try to do the best parts in three days.

To do this itinerary, it is best to stay in the north of the river. Look on Google Maps to see if the hotel you are thinking of is near the palaces and a subway stop. If you like traditional Korean houses, Bukchon area has many guesthouses run out of traditional homes.

Day 1

Gyeongbokgung Palace [경복궁] , Samcheong-dong [삼청동] and Insa-dong [인사동]:  Walking tour of the Joseon Dynasty, phasing into early 20th century.

Start your day from:  Gyeongbokgung [경복궁] Station at Line 3 (Orange) or Gwanghwamun [광화문] Station from Line 5 (Purple)

Visit Gyeongbokgung Palace, the grandest of the Joseon Dynasty palace. So grand, in fact, that the re-construction of the palace in the late 19th century contributed to the fall of the dynasty. Built in 1395, the palace burned down in 1592 during the Japanese invasion (i.e. the Imjin War) and was reconstructed in 1865, in the twilight of the Joseon Dynasty (which ceased to exist in 1910.) This should take at least several hours. Tip: in this area, there are little stores that rent traditional dresses (hanbok 한복) that you may wear to stroll the palace grounds, to really get into the mood.

Advantage of hanbok rentals: the pictures are awesome.
Leave the palace and walk east along Sajik-ro, and turn north (left) onto Samcheong-ro, which puts you on the eastern edge of the palace. Turn right on Bukchon 5-ro, pass the Jeongdok city library on the right, until you hit Bukchon-ro. Turn left--you are now in Bukchon [북촌] / Samcheong-dong [삼청동] area, the Seoul neighborhood with the most well-preserved traditional houses (hanok [한옥]). Because of its proximity to royal palaces, Bukchon was the place where the noblemen lived, and the houses there reflect the history. Today, it is a hip neighborhood with many adorable cafes and restaurants nestled into the traditional houses. Pick a place for lunch here.

Walk south from Bukchon, tracing back toward the palace. Insadong-gil would appear on the left; turn left. Insa-dong [인사동] is where you can get your fix for all the little traditional trinkets--and unlike most other tourist traps in Korea, these trinkets are in good taste. Tong-In [통인], a renowned antique store at 30-1 Insadong-gil, is particularly worth visiting even if your wallet cannot handle their exorbitant price for some of their genuine articles.

Insa-dong is also a home for many tea houses and traditional restaurants. For the highest quality of makkeolli [막걸리, rice beer], visit Nuruknamu [누룩나무], 13 Insadong 16-gil.

(More after the jump.)

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