Don’t Believe the Hype

Created by friend and fellow expat,  Mike Stewart

Created by friend and fellow expat, Mike Stewart

There’s a chance these could be famous last words, but I don’t think so. As tensions between North Korea and South Korea escalate, the western media seems to be having a field day, creating a sense of fear and panic when none is legitimately warranted by blowing (pun intended) everything out of proportion.

While it’s true that I am somewhat jaded and inured to the conflict, having lived in this environment for several years and, at times, freaking out only for it to end in nothing, I still feel like it is more or less business as usual in the South Korean capital. My parents have called, slight panic in their voices, and even my great aunt cranked up her ‘machine’ to send me an email – quite a feat I’m sure. One or two of my co-workers, particularly the American ones, are allowing their panicked friends and family back home to spook them. Another co-worker, who has a Korean wife, said that it was the first time in their years together that she had expressed fear over the situation. There was some macabre talk in the office the other day about what the best way to die would be if something were to happen (it was generally agreed upon that it would be better to be quickly turned to ashes than to lose a leg and live). But, for the most part, everybody is going about their daily lives. Given the discrepancy between the reality of life here and the portrayal in the media, it is interesting to consider the impact, influence and power news outlets like CNN have in shaping our reality.

This is what my American friend who used to work for the American military here (and still lives here) had to say:

Just to let you know the real reason. As an ex-military hand it’s all financial. There is no real threat. Never will be. The news creates a panic and a rustle which works in the favor of the military complex of the USA (which has been coming under some expenditure scrutiny as of late). With a “nuclear threat”, a blank cheque and free license is given to the US military. Meaning more money for the military and its military contractors. They also tend to mark up their costs (sometimes as high as 200%) during the times of “military danger and incursions.”

The 2nd thing is that the military knows it needs more arms here in the Asian peninsula. Not because of North Korea but cuz of the threat of China (and their Russian ally). The USA would be over-run in 48 hrs by the Chinese military. EASY. So when they hype-up the BS of NK they can come send over more arms, men’n’muscle to beef up security in the region and fortify their presence.

3rd, Korea has been wanting to decommission the USFK (at least minimize its presence in Korea. That in itself is contrary to the USA’s long-term hegemony ideals. So what’s the best way to ensure you stay put. Get the media to egg on the noise of war and chaos in the region. It causes the S.K. nation to lose its investments and its economic stability and currency value. Send many USA troops in to the region and investors feel safe to invest again when the noise “suddenly” settles, and they return in force to invest and get stocks which had been sold for cheap during the crisis, boosting the economy. In the end the USFK dont go anywhere. the S.K. govt get ample investors. the region is secured for hegemony purposes. NK get concession. and we all live happily ever after.




P.P.S the most dangerous thing to the USA is a united Korea, cuz that may mean a bond formed with China, the region’s largest powerhouse and, by proxy, China’s ally, Russia. A new power block the USA cannot collectively defeat. Beware the red herrings ad see past the smoke and mirrors.

I’m not politically savvy enough to know if I agree with all of his points, but I get the gist of it. In the meantime, I will be careful with what media I expose my eyes and ears to, know the whereabouts of my passport and credit card and keep calm and carry on.

“The most interesting safe country” An Afternoon with The Economist’s Daniel Tudor

TudorToday I attended 10 Magazine’s Book Club which featured an afternoon of Q&A with The Economist’s Korea correspondent Daniel Tudor. He has just written a book called Korea: The Impossible Country. I admit to not having read the book, but I was interested in what he had to say about the country and his experience here. Listening to him, I was validated in many of my own insights, opinions and experiences. We both like being here because of the warmth of the Korean people, and also because it is a dynamic and fascinating country that is continually changing (in his words, “the most interesting safe country”). Here I will summarize some of his most astute observations and opinions.

The Korean Wave: It was inevitable as other developed Asian countries have had their time in the limelight, but now it’s time to move on…

Working in a Korean Company: They are very hierarchical, aged-based and working in one made him feel like a little boy. As a white foreigner with a degree from Oxford, he felt that people were either too nice to him or unnecessarily obnoxious. He talked about the resentment of the other workers who had to stay until 11pm with nothing much to do while he went home at 7pm because he didn’t see a future there for him.

Compulsory Military Service: It is a kind of socialisation and prepares young men for the hierarchicalism that they will experience in company life and gets them used to being ordered around. It is also a very important bonding experience for the men who often stay in touch throughout their lives.

Freedom of Press: As a member of the foreign press, he has a lot of freedom but laments that national newspapers cannot overtly criticize large companies because 10-20% of the papers’ advertising budget comes from them. However, because the mainstream press is muzzled, people can go to the outskirts and express their views in smaller, online forums.

The Issue of North Korea: He believes that the country is essentially capitalist at its roots and also at the top, but the latter is riddled with corruption. He would like to see more foreign businesses operating in North Korea and raising the standard of living for its citizens. He is concerned that North Korea is being seen as increasingly foreign by the younger generation and that there is an apathy among many Koreans towards reunification.

Women’s Roles: He stated that it would be good for the economy for women to go back into the workforce after raising children and also that if they had a job outside of raising children, they wouldn’t be obsessed with ‘keeping up with the Kims’ in terms of pressuring their children to succeed and compete. They could break out of the Tiger Mum role.

The Economy: There won’t be another Asian Tiger phenomenon. Korea can’t compete with China and so should focus on competing with Switzerland and Germany. He predicts that unless some very savvy investing occurs, the national pension office will be empty by 2040.

Society: Korea has a certain open-mindedness and the ability to self-correct as it evolves, unlike Japan which, although aware of its social and economic problems, remains in denial, stagnant and doesn’t strive to change. Korea should now focus on fostering a wider definition of success and celebrate those interested in creative pursuits as well as entrepreneurs.





North Korea Blues

I was hustling through town the other day, looking for a new screen cover for my iPad. I was all in a tizz because I have an iPad 2, and since the iPad 3 has been released, all of the accessories for the former have become obsolete and disappeared from the shelves. It was cold and raining and I was getting fed-up, but I was adamant that I would find what I was looking for. Eventually, I found a store that still had some. I bought one and the shop assistant kindly put it on for me. End of drama.

It’s funny how we can get so wound up and frustrated over small things like this – the daily annoyances that piss us off and put us in a bad mood, like not being able to find a parking space, having to wait 15 minutes for your friend to show up or finding that the washing machine has eaten one of your favorite socks.

Shin Dong-hyuk talks about his book, Escape from Camp 14

The way we lose perspective of some things has been on my mind lately after reading my friend Barry Welsh’s interview with North Korean defector Shin Dong-hyuk.

Born into a prison camp, Shin witnessed the execution of his mother and brother (brought about by his own actions), was treated as a slave and tortured. He managed the almost-impossible act of escaping and defecting to the South where he currently lives and works as an activist.

In recent years, there have been an increasing number of books written and published by defectors who, through having their accounts translated into English, bring their experience and message to an international audience. It is one way to raise awareness of the abhorrent plight of those on the wrong side of the border, but it is not enough.

Often, it is incomprehensible to me that just a two-hour drive away from where I live is a country in which 24 million people suffer under a totalitarian regime that denies their freedom and independence. Over 100,000 citizens languish in prison camps while others are denied basic necessities such as food and electricity.

The best and most heart-breaking book I have read on the lives of North Koreans is

Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy

Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy. She closely follows a range of North Koreans over several years, both in North Korea and in the South after their defection. Each experiences a level of pain, humiliation, deprivation and loss that most of us will never encounter. Their emotional and mental resourcefulness, as well as their resilience and determination allows them to endure starvation, poverty, unemployment and stigmatization. It is a stark reminder that life is really fucking unfair.

In my own experience, I once volunteered to tutor a woman from North Korea through an NGO that supports defectors as they set up their lives in Seoul. We met once and I was struck by her small, lollipop-like frame – a result of childhood malnutrition. Despite the language barrier, she managed to communicate something of her story which involved making it to China, eventually to Shanghai where she taught herself Mandarin, worked for several years in “Import/Export” and finally to Seoul. I didn’t dare probe too much into her past as it is commonly known that females from the North have an easier time getting out as they have something to sell: themselves.

Unfortunately, she became ill with kidney disease and we never met again. Although, I sometimes think of her, especially when I’m having a bad day and remind myself to keep things in perspective and be grateful for what I do have. As Christmas nears, and I am surrounded by festive lights and hyper-consumerism, I wonder about those less fortunate and how we can help them?