Category: korea studies

Announcing the GyeongGi Province Experience!

To learn about GyeongGi Province, there are many great English-language resources on the web. 

A good place to start would be Wikipedia. Just going to Google and typing in "gyeonggi province" gets another long list of sites. Be sure to try alternate spellings too: kyunggi province, kyeonggi provincekyeongki province, kyonggi province, kyunggi-do, kyeonggi-do, kyungki-do, kyonggi-do. (Isn't it great that GyeongGi's got a pronunciation that's neither here nor there in English?) Finally, try variations on these search terms too: invest in gyeonggi, life in gyeonggi, gyeonggi companies, etc.

The government of GyeongGi has a great looking site. It also has another one about living in GyeongGi Province. Invest Korea offers its own page about investment opportunities in Gyeonggi Province

You might even try visiting Twitter for investment opportunities. I got something like 200 hits when I typed "Gyeonggi" into the search box at (You'll need to be a LinkedIn member to use this. Signing-up is free and if you do, be sure to add me to your network.)

 No study would be complete with out a map of GyeongGi Province. And while you're there, check out the Photos, Videos, additional Wikipedia sites, Webcams, Google Buzz and Terrain (The Real Estate option seems a little dead though; don't waste your time.)

If you've still got questions about GyeongGi Province, you can email me and I'll likely know the answer or know someone who can get it for us (sometimes free; sometimes for a price… depends on the question, of course). Or want some printed materials about investing in GyeongGi Province? Again, email me. Care to discuss with others? Then post a discussion at Korea Business Central and I almost guarantee, if it includes a reference to Gyeonggi Province, someone will answer.

OK, so don't say you can't find out more than you want to know. But what fun is any of this? And how deep is your understanding if you're just reading words?

See, hear, feel, smell, taste and feel GyeongGi Province through the GyeongGi Province Experience! 

Keep your eyes on this page as the program takes shape in the weeks and months to come. 

Can't wait? Then, again… just email me and I'll be glad to fill you in.

Nojeok Hill, My View from the Top – History of the Area Around Nojeok Hill

On the main intersection in Seongpo-Dong, across from Star Plaza and about a five minute walk from the base of Nojeok Hill is a historical marker:

4-24-2010 3-19-35 AM 

I've passed it many times but hadn't bothered to read what it said until recently. It's a fascinating story about the history of our neighborhood. Here are a couple photos of the marker, along with its translation:



Seong Meori [Meaning Castle Head

(Seongpo Landing, Seong-Doo [Also meaning Castle Head])

Situated between Tae Hill of Gojan-Dong and Dokju Valley of Seongpo-Dong, this village in Gunnae-Myeon, Ansan-Gu was called Seong-Got-Po-Chon-Ri in Choseon times and renamed Seongpo-Ri at the end of the Choseon period. Fishermen used the area as their forward landing point along the zone running about 300 meters to the southwest and 400 meters to the south of where Star Plaza is currently located. The feng shui (Korean: "poong su") of this spot saw it as the head of a castle, thus it was called Seong Meori (Meaning "Castle Head"] Landing. Later, a boat landing was set up in Sadong Gura after the Korean War. But this blocked the water and prevented boats from coming and going to Seong Meori so the fishermen left for places like Gura (Currently: Sa-Dong) and Baeot (Currently: Bono-Dong) to carry out their livelihoods. 

The Seong Meori area became more suitable for farming, and the farming village which sprung up was the home of the Lees of Yeoju, the Shins of Yeongweon and the Yeoms of Paju; it had 76 residences. After the old neighborhood system was abolished in 1976, the area was transformed into what it is today, starting with construction of Artist Apartments, and then [Housing Corporation] Apartment Complex #9 and [Housing Corporation] Complex #10. Right up until the neighbornood system abolition, every year around January 15 on the lunar calendar, a festival was held partway up the slope of Nojeok Hill to wish for the well-being of the village.

As mentioned above, this is Star Plaza:


Here's a map of the area. The red lines show the previous waterline around Seong Meori Landing:

4-26-2010 3-36-14 AM

My Associate Met Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and Explained to Him Why Dokdo Belongs to Korea

I met Professor Hosaka Yuji at the inaugural meeting of the World FTA Forum, which is the association run by Chairman Chang-Woo Lee, my former boss from LG International Corp. At that meeting, we became associates by virtue of our joint membership on the World FTA Forum operating committee. (Professor Hosaka and Chairman Lee are 4th and 5th from left, respectively, in the photo below.)

IMG_2415 Professor Hosaka is originally from Japan and currently teaches Japanese studies at Sejong University in Seoul. But what's extra remarkable about him is that he is a naturalized Korean citizen!

His decision to change nationalities came about as he studied the history of Dokdo (called "Takeshima" in Japanese), which are a couple islands in the East Sea (sometimes called the "Sea of Japan") and which are the subject of a long dispute between Korea and Japan. (A few Koreans are even taking this dispute to the billboards and newspapers of the US.)

Both countries claim ownership, but Korea has managed to occupy the islands militarily and in the course of his studies on the subject, Professor Hosaka came to accept the Korean position. He is now Director of the Dokdo Research Institute and a leading Korean advocate for Korean sovereignty of the islands.

Last Thursday's edition of the Jungang Ilbo published an article by Professor Hosaka regarding his meeting with Prime Minister Hatoyama in 2006. It is a remarkable recount of the events and I have included the Korean article and its English translation below.


내가 만난 하토야마 총리

My Meeting with Prime Minister Hatoyama

4-18-2010 8-34-26 PM 나는 2006년 5월에 지인의 소개로 방한 중이던 하토야마 유키오 일본 민주당 간사장(당시)을 만났다. 독도에 대한 한국 측 논리를 일본어로 설명해 줄 사람을 찾았기 때문이다.

An acquaintance arranged for me to meet Yukio Hatoyoma when he visited Korea in May 2006. At the time, he was General Secretary of the Democratic Party of Japan and was looking for someone to explain to him in Japanese the logic of Korea's point of view regarding Dokdo.

당시의 민주당은 2005년 9월의 중의원 선거 참패로 국회의원 수가 격감한 상황이었다. 그러나 나는 일본 제1야당에도 한국 측 독도 인식을 전달하는 것이 큰 의미가 있다고 생각하고 요청에 응했다.

Having been crushed in the House of Representatives elections of September 2005, the Democratic Party of Japan had seen their numbers in the Diet fall sharply. But I agreed to the request because I saw it as a meaningful opportunity to share the perspective of Korea regarding Dokdo with the leading Japanese opposition party.

서울의 어느 호텔 음식점에서 만난 하토야마 간사장은 언론 매체를 통해서 본 것보다 훨씬 예리한 인상을 주는 인물이었다. 민주당 국회의원 2명과 비서실장, 그리고 나의 지인이 동석했다. 시간은 당초 30분을 예정했으나 그들은 내 설명을 1시간 반 정도 들었다. 그래도 시간이 충분치는 못했다. 그런데 내 설명을 듣고 나서 하토야마 간사장은 독도가 조선 땅임을 인정한 1877년의 ‘태정관 지령문’ 등을 가리키면서 역사적 사실로는 ‘일본 측 참패’, 즉 역사적으로는 독도는 한국 땅일 수 있다는 뉘앙스로 소감을 말했다. 그러나 샌프란시스코 조약에 의한 독도의 귀속 문제에 관해서는 독도를 ‘미국이 재검토하여 일본 것으로 결론을 냈을 것’이라고 강조했다. 당시는 2006년이었으므로 2008년 7월에 발견된 일본의 독도영유권을 부정하는 미 국무부 극비문서 등이 아직 알려지기 이전의 상황이었다.

I met General Secretary Hatoyama at a hotel restaurant in Seoul and he came across to me as someone much shrewder than the impression I'd gotten from seeing him in the media. He attended along with two national assemblymen from the Democratic Party, along with his office manager. I was also joined by my acquaintance. We had initially scheduled to meet for just thirty minutes but the visitors listened to my explanation for about an hour and a half. Even so, there wasn’t enough time. But after listening to my explanation, General Secretary Hatoyama pointed to, among other things, the “Tae-Jeong-Gwan Directive” of 1877 which recognized Dokdo as being Chosun [Korean] land and the historical fact of this “Japanese catastrophe”; this was a nuanced way of saying that, historically, Dokdo might be Korean land. But regarding the issue of Dokdo's jurisdiction based on the Treaty of Peace with Japan, he emphasized that “the US re-considered the matter and would have come to the conclusion that [Dokdo] belongs to Japan.” As it was 2006, the top secret documents of the US Department of State that denied Japanese sovereignty over Dokdo and which were discovered in July 2008, had not yet come to light.

4-18-2010 8-45-01 PM 하토야마 간사장은 독도의 역사적 사실에 대해서는 어느 정도 인정했지만 샌프란시스코 조약을 둘러싼 국제법적 해석에 있어서 한국 측 논리(당시), 즉 독도를 한국 땅으로 인정한 1946년의 연합국 문서가 51년에 조인된 샌프란시스코 조약에도 반영됐다는 논리를 ‘한국 측 논리일 뿐’이라고 일축했다. 이에 덧붙여 ‘나는 일본인이니까 역시 다케시마(독도의 일본명)는 일본 것이라고 생각한다’고 민족주의적 감정을 드러냈다. 그 모습에 나는 실망감을 느꼈다. 현재도 그 상황 그대로라면 하토야마 총리의 생각은 독도는 ‘역사적으로 한국 것이었을 가능성은 있지만 결과적으로 샌프란시스코 조약상 일본 것이 됐고 자신은 일본인이므로 그것을 믿는다’는 것일 수 있다.

Prime Minister Hatoyama recognized the historical facts of Dokdo to a certain degree but, regarding it as just the Korean opinion, rejected the Korean logic of the time regarding the interpretation of international law surrounding the Treaty of Peace with Japan [signed between the US and Japan] – which is that the documented position of the Allied countries of 1946 which recognized Dokdo as Korean land would have been reflected in the Treaty of Peace with Japan, which was signed in 1951. In addition, he showed ethnocentric emotion by saying, “Since I am Japanese, I think that Takeshima (the Japanese name for Dokdo) belongs to Japan.” I felt disappointed by that expression. Even if our meeting took place now, Prime Minister Hatoyama might still think, “There is a possibility that Dokdo was Korean historically but as it ended up to be Japanese in the Treaty of Peace with Japan, this is what I believe because I am Japanese.”

그런데 그 후 새로운 자료가 발견됐고 한국 측 논리는 크게 발전됐다. 하토야마 총리가 현재의 샌프란시스코 조약에 관한 한국 측 해석을 들으면 개인적으로 생각을 좀 더 수정할 가능성이 있다고 본다. 그는 지난해 12월에는 고등학교 사회과 교재 해설서에서 ‘다케시마(독도)는 일본 땅’이라는 직접적 표현을 삭제하는 데 결정적 역할을 했다. 그러나 최근 기자들의 질문 공세에 밀려 독도에 대한 ‘일본 정부의 방침을 바꿀 생각이 전혀 없다’는 견해를 밝혔다. 그러나 그 자리에서도 그는 ‘독도는 일본 땅’이라는 표현만은 피했고, 외상도 “한국이 (독도를) 불법점거하고 있다는 표현은 쓰고 싶지 않다”고 말했다. 지지율이 계속 하락하고 있는 현 상황에서 7월의 참의원선거를 앞에 두고 민주당에 불리한 발언은 피해야 하는 입장에서 불가피한 선택이었을지 모르나 내 고교와 대학교선배이기도 한 그가 민족주의적 감정을 극복하고 아시아를 크게 품었으면 하는 마음이 간절하다.

But since then, new materials have been discovered and the Korean position has advanced greatly. If Prime Minister Hatoyama were to listen to the current Korean interpretation regarding the Treaty of Peace with Japan, I think he might revise his personal thoughts on it a bit more. Last December in a position paper regarding the social studies curriculum in Japanese high schools, he took a decisive role in having the direct expression deleted which said, “Takeshima (Dokdo) is Japanese land.” Recently, having been pressured under questioning by journalists, he expressed this position: “There is no consideration being made to change the Japanese government’s guidelines” regarding Dokdo. But even as he said that, he still avoided using the expression “Dokdo is Japanese land” and the foreign minister has also said, “[We] don’t want to use the expression that Korea is illegally occupying [Dokdo]”. Currently, as Prime Minister Hatoyama's support is continuing to fall and with the House of Councillors elections coming up in July, it may be an inevitable choice to avoid expressions which are disadvantageous to the Democratic Party of Japan. But he is also my senior alumni from both high school and university and I have a strong hope that he will overcome his ethnocentric bias and embrace the Asian perspective.

The New Chinese Province of Chosun

The Lost Tribe of China

There's a lot of talk in Korea about the way Korean history is being taught in Japan. The two countries don't usually see eye-to-eye about Japanese colonial rule of Korea between 1910 and 1945. Lately, the debate around whether or not Japan had an official presence on the Korean peninsula centuries ago has been in the news. And of course, there's the never-ending dispute about the island of Dokdo, which both countries claim as their own. Fortunately, Korea and Japan are both modern societies that operate under the rule of law. It's hard to imagine these disputes evolving into shooting wars; they'll probably just continue to fester for a long time.

P1000863 But another historical debate has the potential to blow up into something bigger. I first learned about it while translating in 2006 for Dahn World, a Korean organization with a center right outside my office window here in Ansan (see photo) and whose motto is "Health, Smile and Peace". (Note: Dahn World has been in the US news lately for some less pleasant allegations, too (click here for details), though my purpose today is not to jump into that debate.) 

Dahn World's affiliate, Gukhakwon (literal meaning: "Institute for the Study of the Country"), promotes Korean history from a Korean perspective and I translated a number of articles about their work to stop the Chinese distortion of Korean history in regard to the ancient Korean kingdom of Goguryeo. Apparently Chinese "scholars" are asserting that Gogureo was a Chinese clan, not Korean. And since the Gogyuryeo occupied areas of what is today North Korea, the implication is that today's North Koreans are a sort of "Lost Tribe of China".

At the time, I didn't really think much of it. Seemed like interesting reading, but what does it matter from a practical standpoint?

The Fate of Ceausescu?

According to conventional wisdom, the North Korean government faces two apparently bad options: 1) maintain a totalitarian grip and try to avoid social chaos while the economy crumbles or 2) open up to the outside and… unleash social chaos as the people see what a lie they've lived under for so long. 

Perhaps Kim Jong-Il and his cronies are running out of time even on the first option. When I saw how the North Korean regime executed one of its own former lead bureaucrats last month, blaming him for the recent currency reform fiasco, it made me wonder just how long the very top of the command structure can avoid the wrath of the people. Apparently there are already riots in North Korea about the worsening economy. How close is the regime to losing control, which would lead to its overthrow and maybe even a bullet to the head of Kim Jong-Il?…. Are we looking at another Romania in 1989?

Surely the end is coming, but how this will happen is a more open-ended question than many people realize.

Marcus Noland's Interview on Korea Business Central Got Me Thinking

South Koreans generally expect that the North Korean economy will fall eventually and that when it does, the North and South will become a unified country again. This assumes that the North doesn't have any other options and that the South simply needs to wait. But what if there is another option?

4-6-2010 12-05-48 AM The recent interview on Korea Business Central with Marcus Noland (author of Avoiding the Apocalypse and pictured at left) made me aware of yet another possibility (even likelihood, perhaps!?), which is that North Korea may not "collapse"; it might become a vassal state of China. 

If this is what China is working toward, it would explain why China continues to be relatively uncooperative in finding a solution to the North Korean nuclear issue. Further, there is a very large Korean-Chinese community in northern China and China is the closest thing North Korea has to a friend. Even as I write this, Kim Jong-Il is preparing to take the train (he's afraid to fly) to China with outstretched hands to see what goodies the Chinese will give him. 

Apparently Noland isn't the only one with this opinion, nor is this opinion limited to outsiders. At lunch yesterday with my advisor at Hanyang University, Professor Seo explained that a lot of Chinese behavior should be interpreted in this context. Further, he asserted that what comes after North Korea goes under Chinese "protection" could lead to war as South Korea seeks to expel the Chinese.

Reunification Achieved… but of China, not Korea

Here's how China might take over North Korea:

As the North Korean economy crumbles and the government loses control, the North asks for help from "big brother" China, who comes in to restore order. If the Chinese just don't bother to leave after that, who's to tell them to get out? After all, the North Koreans can't run the country on their own and besides, they are really Chinese, descended from Goguryeo of old (but today called "Chosun"). With this outcome, China grabs a little more territory and the former North Korean leaders get to live out the rest of their days under Chinese protection without being held accountable for the atrocities they committed.

In some ways, this would bring the situation full circle… Throughout much of Korean history, Korea paid tribute to China. During the 20th century, the country went under Japanese domination. After 1945, North Korea passed into the Soviet sphere. So, if things turn out as described here, North Korea could find itself under Chinese control as a new "province of Chosun", nominally independent but in many ways like it had been in centuries past.

On the Death of a Fellow Student’s Mother and Figuring Out How Much Condolence Money to Give Him

In Korea, the exchange of money takes place in situations Westerners often find strange (to say the least!) and this has been part of the culture for a very long time.

On the negative side, the little white envelopes with cash symbolize the graft in Korean government and business. In fact, a top story in the news these days is whether US$50,000 cash left on the table in an envelope for a cabinet member of the previous government was actually received by that cabinet member or whether someone else picked it up and it disappeared.

3-17-2010 9-44-17 PM But the exchange of money goes beyond such black-and-white corruption and it is to unfair to stereotype the process as bad without understanding the meaning behind it. In many cases, the exchange of money and gifts is simply a mechanism Koreans use to communicate to others about the value they place on their relationships.

Just yesterday, I had an interesting discussion with my wife which was helpful to me in further internalizing the factors involved. 

It all started with a text message I received to my phone from a fellow student in the graduate program at Hanyang Unversity telling me that another student's mother had died. The time and location for the funeral was mentioned too, though it's several hours' drive out of town and I'm not close enough to the student to really be obligated to show up. However, the next text message I got contained a bank account number for sending condolence money and that's what prompted the following conversation with my wife.

Me: The mother of a fellow student died and I need to send some condolence money. How much do you suggest? W100,000?

Myunghee: No, that's way too much. The standard amount is W30,000 these days; I mean, you don't know him that well.

Me: W30,000? How could I send so little? This student is someone I know relatively well; certainly better than the average. I've even driven him to the bus stop after class sometimes.

Myunghee: Fine, then give him W50,000. 

Extra commentary: W40,000 is a taboo number since "4" in Chinese characters sounds like the word for "death". Thus, no cash gift will ever have the number "4" in it. After W30,000 was determined to be too low, our next choice up was W50,000.

Me: What about W70,000?

Extra commentary: For some reason, W70,000 is next after W50,000. With W60,000, the recipient would think to himself, "Huh? Where did W60,000 come from? If not W50,000, then he should have done better than W60,000!". Giving W90,000 would get this reaction, "Gee, he should have just rounded up to W100,000… What's he saying with W90,000? How strange!". It's hard to explain, but even W80,000 seems a bit wrong to me, too. In my mind (and perhaps a Korean reader can comment further for me here), my choices were: W30,000, W50,000, W70,000 or W100,000.

Myunghee: W70,000? You'd be giving too much! If everyone else is giving W50,000, and you give W70,000, it'll look funny. The money is just a way of acknowledging his mother's passing (Korean word my wife used: "인사차").

Me: OK, fine. I'll wire him W50,000 tomorrow.

If this seems like a rather calculating way to come up with the amount, then that's because it is. My process with my wife was not different than the thought process every Korean goes through when deciding on these matters. 

Everything about the process is deliberate and communicates meaning. Understanding this meaning can be illuminating, both in personal relationships and in business.

Korean Cultural Nationalism: “Generation High Speed”, the Vancouver Olympics, Japanese Imperialism and the March 1 Movement

There's a new term being tossed around in Korea lately: "쾌속세대". It can be roughly translated "Generation High Speed" and is being used most directly to describe the Korean athletes who competed (and often won!) in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. But, at least in the Jungang Daily, which I read, the term has quickly come to refer to the whole generation of Koreans born around the time of the 1988 Olympics in Seoul and who are now perceived as being the future driving force behind Korea's emergence as a world beater.

What Korea-phile wouldn't be heartened at this Korean pride in the newest generation to come of age? It's great stuff… But lately, having read the book Ethnic Nationalism in Korea by Gi-Wook Shin (I reviewed it recently here.), I have also become more sensitive to the nationalism in Korean popular culture and an article on the front page of today's Korean version of the Jungang Daily caught my eye. 

The article is entitled "아우내 장터의 망국세대, 밴쿠버의 쾌속세데, 대한분국 100년의 드라마" ("The Republic of Korea's 100-Year Drama: From the Generation of Aunae Market that Lost the Country to Generation High Speed in Vancouver"). To understand the full meaning here will require some additional historical background.

140px-Yu_Gwan-sun Today, March 1, is Korean Independence Movement Day (or, a more direct translation of the Korean: "March 1 Holiday"), which commemorates the failed declaration of independence by Korean patriots against the Japanese in 1919. The year 2010 marks the 100th anniversary of Japan's formal colonization of Korea, an event of national humiliation which Koreans refer to as having "lost the country". Aunae Market is a place near the city of Cheonan where an 18-year old rebel named Yu Gwan-sun led a demonstration in 1919, was arrested by the Japanese and died the next year in prison.

Eo-Ryeong Lee, a top editorial advisor at the Jungang Daily, writes today's cover article in the form of a message addressed directly to the Generation High Speed athletes who competed in the Vancouver Olympics. He waxes glorious about how the Koreans of Generation High Speed have brought pride to the country by winning so many events which had previously been dominated by Western athletes. He even says that if Yu Gwan-sun has been born in 1988, she'd have been Yun-ah Kim, the Korean figure-skater who earned gold in women's figureskating. And if Yun-ah Kim had been born in 1901, she'd be remembered as leading the demonstration at Aunae Market. Mr. Lee refers to all of them as national heroes. The implication here, of course, is that the Olympics are vicarious war and that winning gold medals brings a fitting conclusion to the process of restoring national pride which was lost 100 years ago. 

220px-KimMedal Westerners reading this may think I'm going too far, but the truth of of the observation can really only be grasped by those who've stood amongst Koreans as they watch their athletes compete. From the World Cup to the Olympics, every Korean victory brings a little more healing to the national humiliation of 1910.

And it's not just in sports. How many Americans get warm fuzzies thinking about how many McDonald's restaurants have been opened around the world? Do we want to sing the national anthem when Starbucks, Dell and Intel dominate foreign markets? On the other hand, every time Korean companies succeed overseas, Koreans are filled with happiness and pride. 

Understanding this reality goes a long way toward making sense of Korean nationalism. As you see Koreans studying in universities, working in companies and competing in sports around the world, remember that they are "Generation High Speed", sent by the nation to reclaim the national honor.


I might also point out one more interesting aspect. The Jungang Daily generally translates the main stories from the Korean paper to the English online version. But this one wasn't translated, even though it's on the front page! What could be the reason? Is it that Koreans don't want to reveal this side of themselves? I don't think so… I bet it's that they don't think non-Koreans would really find this interesting. 

But it's in understanding such aspects of Korean culture and history that we gain insights into what motivates Koreans and to find ways to work with Koreans in business and life effectively.

Book Review: Ethnic Nationalism in Korea, by Gi-Wook Shin

For some reason, I never really took much notice of the nationalism that pervades Korean society. I mean, Koreans are patriotic. But who isn't? Where I come from, the US (well, Texas, actually) is the center of the world, so why should I be surprised by Koreans who think their country is where everything important happens? Koreans fly their flag, sing the national anthem and talk about their long history. Back home, we do the flag and singing things (not me, but most everybody else), though the history's a bit shorter. The Korean sense of nation is just like everywhere, isn't it?

Apparently not. And apparently this sense of nationalism is still as strong as ever so I can't reconcile my ignorance of the obvious by just contrasting the "old Korea" with the "new Korea" and saying I missed out on the old version like I did recently in my review of The Koreans. As a result, Ethnic Nationalism in Korea was enlightening to me in many ways.

2-4-2010 5-08-43 PM First of all, the Korean version of nationalism is based on ethnicity. In other words, Koreans define the greater Korean nation in terms of a shared bloodline. In today's world, the fact that Koreans are of a single ethnicity is almost too obvious to need pointing out. But the basic premise of this book is that Korean nationalism that defines the nation based on this ethnicity is a product of factors in the modern era. Shin repeats often that the Korean ethnic nationalism of today was not a foregone conclusion but rather emerged out of the Korean experience. 

Korean ethnic nationalism started as one approach to dealing with encroaching Western influences at the turn of the 20th century. With Japan's annexation of Korea in 1910, pan-Asianism gave way to ethnic nationalism as a means of resisting Japanese cultural domination. Through the 1920s and 1930s, the ethnic nationalistic approach competed against international socialism — which divided society based on class, rather than ethnicity — as well as agrarianism.

After the colonial period, Korean nationalism had to deal with a divided nation and Shin describes the dynamics of this in fascinating detail. Since 1945, no Korean government on either side of the ideological divide has questioned the ethnic nationalistic premise. Thus, in spite of the radically different economic systems in North and South Korea, the underlying social justifications are remarkably similar. As Shin explains (p. 24):

"…the kind of nationalism developed in the South was quite similar to what appeared in the North. Both sides recognized ethnic unity of the Korean nation, accepted the premise of the primacy of nation over other cleavages, and competed over the legitimacy of their own system as representing the whole nation. Nationalism became a key resource in the politics of postwar Korea, both North and South, despite contrasting political ideologies and incorporation into competing world systems (communist and capitalist)."

Today, South Korea, as a nation, is justifiably proud of its achievements and this sense of "one race-one-nation" is as strong as ever. The book cover incorporates a photo of one of the most memorable demonstrations of Korean national pride: mass gatherings during the 2002 World Cup in Korea. We were there too and for a fortnight, I was an "honorary" part of this unforgettable Korean experience:



The author appears to wish Koreans had a more nuanced view of the nation; that they didn't just assume history was what they think it is and that an ethnic approach to defining the nation is the only way. He does seem resigned to how things are though and acknowledges the constructive role nationalism has played and continues to play in Korean society. 

Shin writes as a scholar and the reader should not expect to finish quickly. There's even some statistical analysis of survey data and many references to literature by others in the field. I didn't get lost in the concepts but came pretty close a few times. This book isn't written for a newbie to the field and it assumes the reader has a background in cultural studies in general and in Korea specifically. 

For the reader willing to make the effort, this book is packed with new information and insights about Korea and Koreans. I thank my associate, D. Bannon, for kindly recommending this book for my winter reading this year.

Book Review: The Koreans by Michael Breen

I came to Korea too late. It's just that simple. I came as soon as I could, of course, which was straight after university graduation in the US, but I missed out on seeing the "old Korea". It was the Korea of anti-Americanism, the Korea of poverty, the Korea of militant student demonstrations and of government oppression. I missed all that.

41GDTA19NFL._SL160_ When I arrived in Korea on December 28, 1993, this was gone. Life in Korea has had it's challenges for me but through it all, I've been treated well at least as often as I would have back home, have never gotten into an argument about how evil my country is, witnessed true democracy from day one and don't know what a starving Korean would look like. As best I can reckon, I arrived in Korea right when the positive political, social and economic trends were coming together for the country.

I have non-Korean friends and associates who lived in Korea in the 1980s. Some of them were gone from or leaving Korea by the time I arrived. So we have very different views about the country; in many ways, irreconcilable. The fact that one country can have changed this much in such a short period of time is astounding and I think a lot of foreigners who first understood the old Korea are unable to make proper sense of or describe the Korea of today. Or perhaps they just had too much fun obsessing about the bad things they saw: typical "expatriate-itis"

Michael Breen got to Korea in 1982; he wrote this book in 1998 (and updated it in 2004). He should have written it ten years earlier because his descriptions of "old Korea" don't ring true to me when I look at Korea today. But more than that, the book's fatal flaw is not that Breen is still trying to describe the Korean of old, it's that he just hasn't looked hard enough to figure Korea out properly for any time.

Breen apparently never got very far out of the international community in Seoul. He let the views of other expatriates color his outlook on Korea too much. And perhaps it's his journalist background showing through, but this cliche-filled book of stereotypes is a bit too sensationalized. To get things off to an exciting start for his non-Korean readers, he begins by running Koreans down every way he can, presumably so he can pick them back up later in the book. (병주고 약주고…)

In the interest of "fair reporting" (I guess!), the author goes to some effort to mix his condescending views with a smattering of compliments. His basic message to Koreans is: "I don't care what everyone else is saying about Korea and Koreans, I still think you're pretty cool." This, in a nutshell is Breen's double-message throughout the book.

One of Breen's main themes is that Korea hasn't yet grown up; they went to hell and back during the first two-thirds of the 20th century and so they are still working through the after-effects of that. Well, yes, there's some undeniable truth in that, but does it warrant quotes like this? "…Koreans came out of a half-century of Japanese domination with such a profound sense of worthlessness that they seemed to have lost any notion of who they were or where they came from." (pp. 4-5) This is a strong statement that overlooks far too many nuances and counter-currents of thought to be useful in understanding Korea correctly.

In fact, the book is full of similar insights (i.e. "nonsense") which are clearly the product of Breen's discussions at dinner parties with ignorant expatriates. Here are some examples just from the preface and first chapter:

  • p.4 – "You need a high-level bullshit indicator to figure out what's going on."
  • p. 31 – "Koreans are more gregarious than we are. They're so into other people that they don't read books much and they tend to fall asleep when they're by themselves." (Huh?)
  • p. 35 – "Korean is not a good language to argue in because there are so many shades of meaning. It is so easy to be misunderstood. English is a language for clarity and logic."
  • p. 36 – "Korean men who are angry… bellow from the pit of their stomach… You can see why men rule in Korean society."

As I read this book, I found myself constantly writing question marks and asterisks in the margin because of all the dubious assertions. Are disputes in Korean society usually solved by force? Really? (p. 142) Are Koreans reluctant to work as hard as they used to? Is it because their companies give them cheap apartments to live in? (p. 63) Can "an astute observer… summarise the main features of a country's political culture after spending a little time on the roads"? (p. 189) Indeed!

Breen spent awhile in Korea and according to the book jacket, is still a frequent visitor (at least as recently as 2004). His wife is Korean. Apparently he did a lot of reporting about Korea for various international newspapers. Good for him. This book shows clearly that he did some time, met many Koreans and has opinions about Korea. A reader wishing to find out what the politically correct opinions of Korea are in the expatriate community could learn a thing or two through this book. 

But readers looking for a thoughtful understanding of Korea and Koreans reached through diligent research and contemplation will not find that this book breaks new ground. The subtitle of "The Koreans" is "Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies". Just the fact that Breen summarizes all Koreans into this "they" and "their" indicates the stereotypical way this book seeks to explain Korea and Koreans.

“Long Live Korea!” – The Legend of Hong Soo-hwan’s Comeback Win

I discussed and translated an article from the Jungang Daily newspaper last week in this post of Nojeok Hill: My View from the Top. Here is the (almost) full Korean source followed by the translation. It was nice to work on a translation project where I was the client since it gave me the freedom to translate a little less literally than usual. 

Note that the following Korean text taken from the Jungang Daily website is not complete and I wasn't able to find my printed copy again. So the English translation does contain a paragraph or so of content not in the Korean here.

“대한국민 만세”… 홍수환의 4전5기 챔피언 신화

1977년 11월 27일 파나마에서 홍수환 선수가 신설 체급인 주니어 페더급 챔피언에 올랐다. 74년 남아프리카공화국에서 첫 번째 챔피언에 올랐을 때 “엄마 나 챔피언 먹었어”, 그리고 “그래 내 아들아, 대한국민 만세다”라는 대화로 새로운 유행을 창조했던 홍수환이 파나마에서 또 드라마를 만들어냈던 것이다. 2회에 네 차례나 다운됐던 홍수환은 3회가 시작되자마자 역전 KO승을 이끌어냈다.

한국 근현대사에서 수많은 스포츠 사건이 있었음에도 77년 홍수환의 승리가 머릿속에 뚜렷하게 각인돼 있는 이유는 무엇일까? 무엇보다도 ‘역전’이라는 단어가 우리에게 주는 매력 때문일 것이다. 20세기에 들어서자마자 나라를 잃었고, 식민지에서 해방되자마자 분단과 전쟁을 겪었던 우리 민족에게 ‘역전’보다도 더 뚜렷한 목표는 없었다. 1936년 손기정, 76년 양정모의 올림픽 금메달이 있었지만, 70년대 레슬링의 김일, 권투의 홍수환, 그리고 야구의 군산상고에 환호했던 것은 바로 역전의 드라마 때문이었다. 이들은 우리 민족뿐만 아니라 우리 스스로를 대신해 역전 드라마를 써 주었던 것이다. 홍수환의 드라마는 77년 수출 100억 달러, 1인당 국민소득 1000달러, 그리고 쌀 자급을 통한 쌀 막걸리의 재등장과 점철되었다.

또 다른 이유는 암울한 시대 상황 속에서 피어난 환희의 순간이었다는 점이다. 77년은 유신의 어두움이 사회를 짓누르고 있었던 시기였다. 75년 베트남 패망뿐만 아니라 74년의 오일쇼크에 따른 경제적 어려움으로 짙은 그림자가 드리워져 있었다. 홍수환의 승리 한 달여 전부터 본격화된 학생시위로 인해 긴급조치 9호 이후 처음으로 20여 일간의 휴교가 있었지만, 언제쯤 봄이 올 것인지 누구도 예측할 수 없었던 시대였다. 여기에 더하여 동년 11월 11일에 있었던 이리역 다이너마이트 폭발 사건은 사회를 더 음울하게 했다. 이러한 어둠 속에서 터진 홍수환의 승리는 잠시나마 전 국민의 마음을 환하게 해 주었다.

스포츠는 이렇게 사회적으로 다양한 효과를 만들어 내며, 특히 국가대항전을 통해 국민을 통합하는 수단으로 작동했다. 대부분의 독재자가 스포츠 육성을 강조했던 것도 모두 이 때문이었다. 여기에 더하여 스포츠는 갈수록 순수성과 다양성을 잃고 상업화되고 있으며, 이제는 잔인함까지 더해가고 있다. 비록 그것이 ‘국가’를 위해 이용됐다고 하더라도 ‘그때 지금’의 아름다운 스포츠 정신이 그리워진다.

"Long Live Korea!" – The Legend of Hong Soo-hwan's Comeback Win

In Panama on November 27, 1977, Hong Soo-hwan was crowned champion in the newly established junior featherweight division. When he first won a championship in 1974 in South Africa, Hong had called his mother to tell her about it and is reported to have said, "Mom, I beat the champion", to which his mother replied, "Yes, my son. Long live Korea!". In fact, this short conversion even entered the Korean vernacular of the time. Hong's fight in Panama also resulted in a well-known story. In the second round of that fight, he was knocked down four times but came out right at the beginning of the third round to win with a dramatic KO.

Even though many events have transpired throughout the modern history of Korean sports, Hong Soo-hwan's win in 1977 stands out as one of the most memorable. What could be the reason for that? More than anything, the answer to this question is found in the fact that we Koreans are drawn to the idea of a come-from-behind win. Having lost our country's independence to the Japanese at the very beginning of the 20th century, Korea then emerged from the Japanese colonial period only to be split in two and then suffer through the Korean War. During those long years, could we have wanted anything more ardently than a "come from behind win"?

Of course, athletes such as Sohn Gi-jeong and Yang Jeong-mo earned gold medals in the Olympics in 1936 and 1976, respectively. But it is the comeback wins in wrestling by Kim Il, in boxing by Hong Soo-hwan and in baseball by the Kunsan Commercial High School in the 1970s that Koreans remember with the most pride. These winners gave victories not just to the nation as a whole, but also to each of us individually. Hong Soo-hwan's win took place alongside the national achievements in 1977 of reaching $100 million in exports and per capita income of $1,000, and coincided with the re-emergence of "makkoli" made with natively grown rice.

Another reason Hong Hwan-soo's win stands out so clearly today is that it represented a happy moment in what was otherwise a very difficult time in the country. In 1977, the darkness of the Yushin Constitution was pressing down on society. Furthermore, not only had Korea been on the losing side in the Vietnam War but the oil shock of 1974 caused enduring economic shadows. As a result of the severe emergency measures taken by the government in response to the outbreak of student demonstrations about a month before, there was a 20-day suspension of university classes and no one at the time could predict when things would get better. In addition, the fresh memory of the Iri Station dynamite explosion incident that occurred on November 11 of the same year led to a generally gloomy feeling throughout Korean society. It was within this context that the victory of Hong Soo-hwan provided such an inspiration to the entire nation.

Sports generate various effects like this in society. In particular, they serve as a means of bringing a nation together through the shared experience of sporting events that take place at the national level. This is one reason most autocrats have pressed for the development of national sports programs. But in addition, the more sporting develops, the more the genuineness and variety are lost as commercialization creeps in. Here, we might even mention the cruelty that sports often involves. Thus, even if we say that such achievements are sought for the sake of the "country", we still miss the naive beauty of the sports of that bygone era.