Saturday, July 18, 2015

Gay Marriage in Korea: Coming Sooner Than You Think

Dear Korean, 

Given that U.S. just legalized same-sex marriage for all states, how is gay marriage progressing in Korea?


It has been nearly eight years since TK last touched upon the issue of homosexuality in Korea in this blog. Considering the major step that the United States took in legalizing same sex marriage, it is high time to revisit this issue. This is not because TK thinks that whatever America does just matters more. He is fully aware that more than 17 countries around the world, including Canada, South Africa, much of Europe and much of South America, have legalized same sex marriage before the United States did. 

But if one focuses on the prospect of same sex marriage in Korea, the fact that U.S. legalized same sex marriage does matter more. Because of the historical peculiarities of South Korea--a country that was, in many ways, created by the United States--Koreans have always looked to U.S. as a model of modernity and democracy to emulate. When debating social policies in Korea, the argument that "This is how Americans do it" tends to carry a great deal of weight.

In fact, America's legalization of same sex marriage puts Korean opponents of same sex marriage in quite a pickle. Like most other democracies, Korea has conservatives and liberals, and Korea's conservatives tend to be more pro-U.S. Some Korean conservatives are so rabidly pro-U.S. that, when U.S. ambassador to Korea suffered a knife attack, they organized a show of music and dance wishing for his speedy recovery as if they were trying to appease an angry god. (To be sure, most Koreans and Korea's media, including even the pro-American ones, roundly mocked these people.)

Dance performance by a conservative group
following the knife attack against Ambassador Mark Lippert
The trouble, however, is that a sizable chunk of Korea's conservatives are also Protestants who strenuously oppose gay marriage, and homosexuality in general. The fact that their totemic guardian U.S. of A. has legalized same sex marriage has put them in a very awkward position. For example, because the U.S. Embassy in Korea has formally expressed its support for Korea's Pride Parade for the last several years, these conservatives groups were forced to (reluctantly) denounce America.

Christian group stages protest in front of the U.S. Embassy in Seoul.
The placard says: "We denounce U.S., spreading the bad culture that is homosexuality."

Indeed, the same "crazy group dance people" organized the same dance show to show their opposition against the most recent Pride Parade in Seoul, which fortuitously happened the day after the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the Obergefell v. Hodges decision. The irony was particularly delicious because Ambassador Mark Lippert, for whose health that these people prayed as if he were a demigod, was in attendance to support the Pride Parade.

Opponents of homosexuality puts on a protest performance.
Aside: apparently, the drum beats of the anti-homosexuality people were so vigorous that some of the Pride Parade attendees had a better time dancing to them instead of the official music showcase.

(More after the jump.)

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Sunday, July 12, 2015

Seoul Notes, 2015

Let's get back to blogging! TK visits Seoul nearly every year, and every year there is always something different and new, partly because Korea is a fast changing place, and partly because TK has never noticed them before. Some of the things he noticed in the last go around:

- Good beer is now completely mainstream. If anything, Korea's craft brew market is a little over-saturated at this point. Even the regular Korean beer has shown marked improvement.

- Things are expensive. Things in Seoul have been getting gradually more expensive over time, but now it is really beginning to hurt the wallet. To be sure, there are still plenty of cheap options if one decides to grunge it up. But the prices are high for items that are even slightly nice. For example, a casual lunch at a Chinese restaurant (not a hole-in-a-wall, but not a super fancy place either) located in the central business district, for three people, cost nearly US $100. This was not the case even a year ago.

- To make a broader point: income polarization is even more significant. Slightly nicer things are really expensive in Korea because Korea's upper middle class can afford them. On the other hand, cheap things are still very cheap because the rest of Korea relies on those products. It is as if there are two completely different economies within Korea. Not a great sign.

- When you ask for water in Korea, it is only a 50-50 proposition that you actually get water. In the other 50 percent, you would get some type of tea. If you don't like boricha, it's a tough place.

At the airport leaving Korea.
The sign below the attendant said: "Please take off your mask."
(source: TK's own)

- By the time TK got to Korea (end of June through early July,) there were no real public signs that people were truly concerned about MERS. There would be perhaps one mask-wearer in a given subway car. But there certainly was latent anxiety about it; people were talking about it.

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

Friday, June 12, 2015

Viral Like MERS

Dear Korean,

Me and a friend of mine have everything booked. Flights, hotells, and more. But due to MERS. How safe is it to enter the country?


TK does wish that there was a viral disease that selectively destroyed grammar errors and poor spelling.

But onto MERS. Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome is no laughing matter. Korea is now second in the world in the number of those who tested positive for MERS, clocking in at 138 patients, 14 of whom passed away. More than 3,600 people are under quarantine after having come into contact with MERS patients.

A wedding photo that will go down in history.

Is it safe to visit Korea? This is one of those questions that you should really ask your country's government rather than a random Internet stranger with a blog. In the case of the United States, Center for Disease Control issued a Level 1 advisory regarding MERS outbreak in Korea, essentially advising that it is ok to travel as long as one takes usual precautions like washing hands regularly.

This seems more or less correct. Although the number of the infected is high, Korean government has done a fairly decent job in actually tracing exactly how each patient came to be infected, for the most part. As can be seen from this kinda-awesome, kinda-terrifying infographic from KBS News, in nearly all cases the patients contracted MERS from a hospital. Vast majority of those who passed away were over 70 years old and in poor health

So it seems that as long as you are in good health and you have good hygienic habits, you would be more or less fine in Korea. Says a random Internet stranger who has absolutely no expertise in these matters. It might not be a bad idea to take a mask.

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

Friday, May 22, 2015

We Did Nothing Wrong, and They Destroyed Our Stores



If you don’t tell your own story, someone else will.

Your story, told through someone else, is stolen. The stolen story is no longer yours; it is theirs, twisted and disfigured to augment their story, like a piece of metal hammered into form a small piece of a suit of armor. Our story can only be ours if we tell it. Only then can we imbue our own experience with the sovereignty that it deserves.

So here is our story.



Last month, a black man named Freddie Gray died in Baltimore while being arrested by the police. Gray suffered multiple fractures in his spine in the course of the arrest. Gray’s death was a tragedy; he should not have died.

People got angry at this senseless death—the latest one of the many senseless deaths of black men at the hands of the police. The anger turned into protests. The protests turned violent. In the course of the protests, numerous Asian American businesses were destroyed:
What the rioters didn’t steal from Hyo Yol Choi, they destroyed, or tried to. When it was over, Beauty Fair, in a squat, unattached brick building that Choi leases, was ankle-deep in ruined inventory—in torn-down shelves, racks and counters; in stomped-open bottles, jars and tubes. The marauders took wigs, leaving dozens of bald mannequin heads scattered along the walls. Brushes and mirrors, ribbons and barretts, costume jewelry and women’s hosiery were strewn from front to back, and the floor was a swamp of bergamot grease, argan butter, tea tree oil and leave-in hair mayonnaise.
The story of West Baltimore can be told through life at one intersection [Washington Post]

At least 42 other Korean American businesses were destroyed. When the store owners tried to defend their business, they were beaten. Were Asian businesses targeted for being Asian-owned? There are some indications pointing that way. Witnesses say black-owned businesses were spared from looting. But that doesn’t matter. The fact that other businesses remain standing doesn’t magically pick up the destroyed merchandise from the floor and put it back on the shelves, fully restored.

Really, who cares about those other stores? For immigrants, your store is your universe. It is everything you own in the world, everything you experience about the world, rolled into a dingy strip mall storefront. You poured down all the money you had, plus a staggering amount of debt, just to own that shitty store. There, in that store, you spend your entire life—sixteen hours a day, seven days a week, for ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty years. You barely know what other stores exist around the block, much less around the city. You barely know the weather outside. The only people you see are the customers, who don’t give a shit about another chink, another dot head, another Ay-rab manning the cashier at yet another deli, liquor store, nail shop, beauty shop, bodega. The store, its inventory, the people who come in and out of it, are the only things the immigrant knows about the world.

The Baltimore rioters destroyed our universes. Forty-two of them, at least. That’s our story.



Please, if you can just shut the fuck up. Didn’t I just say we will tell our own story? Our story is not yours. It is certainly not for you to pick up as a rhetorical cudgel, used to beat up people who are justifiably indignant with all the shittiness around them.

Nor will we countenance the well-intended, but tone-deaf, counsel to shut our story down for some kind of greater good. We did nothing wrong, and our stores were destroyed. And we are mad as shit about it.

Yes, I know Asian Americans enjoy privileges that African Americans do not. I’m not stupid. We did not go through the same historical suffering; we don’t have the same disadvantages today. I also know that when it comes to racial discrimination, Asian Americans hardly have clean hands. I know all about the petty racism that Asian Americans engage in, against whites, blacks, Latinos—better than you will ever know. It's a stain on our people. I have invested my own time and money addressing that, while you lazily decry Asian racism in the cesspool that is the Internet comment section.

I am still waiting to hear why any of that justifies the fact that our stores were destroyed. 

Don’t bother telling us that the riots were some kind of “forest fire,” a natural reaction to the greater oppression, because this disaster was no fire. This disaster had human faces, human hands that smashed the bottles, human feet that kicked us into submission when we were desperately trying to protect our stores. Don't ask us to extend understanding to those humans while we are still nursing our burning injuries. Bearing the brunt of this disaster gives us a view of those humans that are not kind and understanding. Because when our stocks are spilled on the ground, when a punch to our gut knocks our wind out, when our world is disintegrating before our eyes, we cannot understand how, just how, we deserve any of this punishment that those humans are raining down upon us, because the police killed a black man. We cannot understand why we deserve to watch our lives burn, helpless.


We have to tell our own story. Because if you don’t tell your own story, someone else will. And this is our story: we did nothing wrong, and they destroyed our stores.

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

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Brand New Koreans!

Dear Korean,

What is the tradition for new babies? My son and daughter in law live in Seoul and are expecting their first child. When they married the bride’s mother bought items and set up their household for them. Does this carry over to babies as well or is there a different tradition. Do they have baby showers?

Vicki S.

A quick tangent first:  TK usually tries to put a relevant picture in the post right away. Then he went to Google and found that people keep Tumblr and Pinterest pages titled "Korean babies." Uh, no. Creepy people.

Koreans generally do not have baby showers. The hip Korean women have begun to take in the party, but it is not a general phenomenon yet. The same is true for "push presents"--although the idea is starting to trickle into Korea, it is not a widespread thing. (However, Korean euphemism for gifts for new mother is arguably more comical than the term "push present"--it's "diaper bag," as if the new mother is going to carry diapers in a shiny new Louis Vuitton bag.)

Koreans do have a strong tradition involving pre-natal care called 태교 [taegyo], i.e. education of an unborn child. Pregnant mothers are encouraged not only to eat healthy, but also look at beautiful things, listen to calming music, speak with the child, etc. But this stuff is not communal--it is between the parents and the child.

Probably the first communal baby tradition that kicks in is Geumjul [금줄]. Geumjul is a ritual twine rope that is hung on the front door when a child is born. Ordinarily, Korea's twine is created by twisting to the right, but the twine for Geumjul is twisted to the left. In the twine, white pieces of paper and charcoal is slotted in, as those items ward off evil spirit. If the baby is a boy, dried red pepper is also slotted in.

Geumjul hangs on the front door for three weeks, during which the visitors know not to enter the house. 

Today, few Koreans actually hang a Geumjul. But the mystical significance of the three week period after the baby is born (much of which does have scientific basis) tends to remain in Korea. In the first three weeks, no visitors are allowed other than the immediate family, nor would the new mother and child leave the house. The house is to be quiet--no hammering of a wall, for example. Family who just had a child would not attend a funeral. The new mother would wait four or five days to take a shower. And of course, the new mother would have tons and tons of seaweed soup. (Discussed in this post.) Today, many Korean new mothers check into a kind of postpartum spa-care, in which much of these things (and other essential lessons that new mothers should know) are taken care of for them.

After a child is born, there are two significant celebrations: 100 days, and the first birthday. Both days essentially celebrate the same thing: the child survived through those days--which, in the bad old days in Korea, was hardly a given. Previously, the two celebrations were equal in stature, but in modern Korea, the 100 days celebration is much smaller and usually among the immediate family only. But the first birthday, known as 돌 [dol], remains a significant event in which a huge party is thrown, with extended families and friends are invited. The friends and family usually pitch in to give gold rings to the birthday girl/boy.

Birthday boy going through doljabi [돌잡이]
The highlight of the first birthday is 돌잡이 [doljabi, literally "dol-grab"]. The child is set in front of a variety of objects, such as money, strings (representing long life,) bow and arrows, brush, and so on. The thing that s/he grabs is supposed to show the child's future.

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

Saturday, May 09, 2015

TK on Price of Nice Nails

Dear Korean, 

Could you please comment on the New York Times' article "The price of nice nails?" 

Brian N.

For those who have not read the article, here is the link. It is a great piece of journalism; TK highly recommends it.

As to TK's own impression: how is any of this a surprise? Seriously, have people never been to a nail salon? You are willfully blind if you ever stepped foot into a nail salon and did not detect the hints of rampant labor exploitation. Although the article is absolutely valuable in that it collected and curated what goes on in New York's nail salons, pretty much nothing in the article breaks new ground. Really, I'm surprised that you're surprised. 

The eternal truth of the consumer society is: if it seems cheap, someone is getting exploited for it. And that someone usually belongs to the lower rung of the social, economic, and racial ladder. In all likelihood, your shoes are made by young overworked children in a Cambodian sweatshop, and your iPhone is made by Chinese workers who work so long hours under such shitty conditions that some of them would rather kill themselves. Outsourced workers in the Philippines subject themselves to PTSD by reviewing thousands of beheading videos and pornography every day, so that you won't have to see them on your Facebook feed.

None of this is to say we should surrender our efforts to make our world better. It is definitely not to say that Korean Americans or Asian Americans are blameless because everyone does it. It is only to say that we should be clear-eyed about just how much is wrong with the things around us. 

If you are concerned about what you read, please consider donating to the Urban Justice Center. When TK was living in New York, he handled several pro bono litigation along with the UJC, suing to make sure Asian restaurants were paying their workers minimum wage. TK is proud to say that he was part of the effort that led to the shutdown of several Asian restaurants in New York. If this New York Times article leads to a wave of bankrupt Korean nail salons across New York, so much for the better.

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

Friday, May 01, 2015

AAK! PSA: Support Ask a North Korean!

Among the many "Ask" blogs that AAK! inspired, TK feels the proudest of Ask a North Korean by NK News. Within the English language Internet, it is absolutely the closest to hearing the perspective of ordinary North Koreans on a regular basis. 

So TK is happy to announce the new Kickstarter campaign by NK News, which will be used for hiring two new Ask a North Korean writers. There is a number of swag available for your donation, including eBooks about North Korea, coffee mugs and custom t-shirts bearing Unha-3 rocket or Taedonggang Beer logo.

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

Blogging About Blogging

(Back from vacation! Thank you all for waiting.)


TK recently had an occasion to speak with a close friend, who was thinking about starting a blog for his start-up company that would mix the business and the personal. AAK! is not much, but it's not nothing either--and in the near-decade that TK has been running this blog, he has gleaned a few pointers that might help one's voice be noted a little more. 

Below is some of the pointers. Please note that these are aspirational, and should not be taken to mean that TK actually has followed or is currently following all these pointers.

- You have to be a good writer.  This is a prerequisite; without good writing, you cannot hope to have an impactful blog. You don't have to be a good writer right now, but you must at least grow into one. There is so much writing on the Internet for people to read, and people will not spend their time deciphering a confused piece of article. Your writing should be well-organized and clear, with carefully selected diction and examples.

- You have to write a lot, regularly.  Keep writing, and write regularly, even when you don't want to do it. Writing regularly makes you a better writer. More writing means more content, which means more opportunity to be noticed through search engines, Facebook shares, retweets, and so on. Regular writing also means regular readers, who expect and anticipate what you have to say next.

- Nothing beats clickbaiting.  If all you ever wanted was to have a website with a lot of traffic, sell your soul and get into clickbaiting. There is a reason why so many of Buzzfeed, Upworthy, Distractify, and other garbage sites of their ilk exist--it is because when they publish a million pieces of trash, people click them a million times every time. Write fishing headlines, put out "listicles," put up cat pictures and set up search engine optimization. Write only about bullshit evergreen stories, like weight loss, interracial dating, and crap that what people should do in their teens to prepare for their deathbed.

If you prefer not to sell your soul, don't get discouraged just because a clickbait gets more traffic than your site. McDonald's will always sell more hamburgers than you, but it does not mean your burger tastes worse than McDonald's.

(More after the jump.)

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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Sewol Tragedy, One Year On

Today, one year ago, the Sewol ferry sank off the southwestern coast of Korea, claiming more than three hundred lives. TK's series discussing the accident is below:

Based on the information that was uncovered since TK has written the post, Parts I and II contain some revision. The biggest revelation was that the Coast Guard responded negligently. For nine minutes after arrival, the Coast Guard was unaware that hundreds of passengers were still inside the ship. Because the Coast Guard made no effort to rescue the passengers from inside the ship in that precious time period, dozens of lives that could have been saved were lost. Kim Gyeong-il, the captain of the responding Coast Guard, was sentenced to four years in prison due to the dereliction of duty

*                 *                  *

There is no good way to respond to a sudden, and completely avoidable, death of more than three hundred lives, most of which belonged to young children. Even with the best response, the lost lives are not regained. But the striking part of the past year has been just how poorly Korean government, and in particular the President Park Geun-hye's administration, responded to the tragedy.

Imagine the United States, a week after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Information started appearing that the George W. Bush administration was utterly incompetent in detecting the threat by Osama Bin Laden, to a point that the attack really should have never happened in the first place. Families of the victims, outraged by the avoidable loss of their loved ones, began blaming the government. 

Now imagine if the Bush administration responded by shutting out the families, and planting CIA agents to monitor any subversive activities. The Republican faithful, sensing that their president was under attack, begin clamoring that the families should just get over it; all the mourning was putting a damper on domestic spending, hurting the economy. For the next year, the government does its best trying to pretend the 9/11 attacks never happened.

This is essentially what happened for the last year in Korea. The Sewol tragedy was one version of the 9/11 attacks, in that the entire nation saw hundreds of lives perishing real time on television. The collective trauma that Korea suffered was no less than the same that the U.S. suffered in 2001. Yet, facing this once-a-generation national tragedy, the Park Geun-hye administration responded to the tragedy in the worst way possible. The Park administration saw the social unrest following the tragedy as a threat to its power, rather than the natural expression of collective grief. Instead of taking active leadership to heal the nation, the administration did everything it could to paint the victims' family as greedy money-grabbers who were trying to profit from the deaths of their loved ones.

Incredibly, this shit worked. Korea's right-wing, which looks back on the dictatorship period of President Park's father with fond nostalgia, was happy to buy into the ridiculous idea that the victims' family were only too happy to wield their newly found power. Since the accident, nearly three-quarters of the Internet comments left on the Sewol-related news had been blaming the victims' family for asking money and other favors (which, obviously, were not true.)

Perhaps the lowest point came in late August of last year, when families of the Sewol victims began a hunger-strike to demand an investigation by special prosecutor. In one of the lowest display of sheer malice I have ever seen, members of Korea's largest conservative website organized a "gorging strike," mocking the families by essentially engaging in an eating contest of pizza and fried chicken.

Conservative Koreans engaging in "gorging strike" in front of hunger-striking families of the Sewol victims.
In the yellow test in the background, the families who lost their children were engaged in a hunger strike.
Aside from disgusting way in which the victims' families were marginalized, the most disheartening consequence of the events that followed was that no lesson was learned from the senseless tragedy. As the Sewol issue was increasingly seen as a political issue, ordinary Koreans grew tired of following the aftermath. The president and the administration played their parts, doing everything they could to pretend that the accident never happened. In a stunning display of tin-earedness, President Park Geun-hye went on a tour of South American summit meetings, declining to attend the anniversary memorial ceremony of the disaster. None of the cabinet ministers is visiting the memorial ceremony either.

As such, the most obvious lesson that should have been learned from the Sewol tragedy--public safety--has been completely forgotten. The administration established a new Ministry of Public Safety and Security, but it could not even get enough staffing to function properly. The victims' families, blinded by the pain of their tremendous wound, are stuck with protesting the government and demanding the ship to be taken out of the water. In the meantime, safety accidents on school grounds increased by 11 percent since 2014. On October 17, 2014, only six months after the Sewol tragedy, the grate covering a massive air vent at an outdoor concert venue collapsed, killing 16 K-pop concert-goers.

As with many Koreans, my mood at this one year anniversary is grim. There does not seem to be an upward trajectory. I pray for the souls of those who were so senselessly lost. I am angered that I cannot do much more.

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

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Taxonomy of Korean Drinking Places

Dear Korean,

I recently stayed in Seoul for a while and was looking for a place to have some wine. However, my Korean friend told me I should careful about where I step into, because there are many different kinds of 'clubs' - there's the normal dance clubs for young people, and then there's hostess clubs/ host clubs, there are dallan jujeom  for businessmen only, then there's all the "bangs," like noraebang, PC bang, DVD bang. Could you give me a glossary of the different kinds of 'clubs' or 'bars' that's available in Korea, so I don't wander in by mistake? I saw a shop named "Bacchus" and wanted to go in for wine till my friend told me that it was "errm... for guys.... to sleep....."

Wandering Female in Seoul

What better way to come back after two weeks than talking about drinking?! 

Let's get right into it. Koreans drink, and they drink in all kinds of places. Here is a taxonomy of places where you can enjoy adult beverage in Korea. Like every attempt to categorize human society, the categories below are not hard-and-fast but are generalized groups.

Tier 1:  Hangouts with Alcohol

There are places in Korea where one can drink, but alcohol is not the main attraction. For example:

- Restaurants:  Nearly every restaurant in Korea sells alcohol, although one would primarily visit a restaurant to have a meal. The selections are usually soju and beer, and sometimes makgeolli. This is a very broad category that is particularly susceptible to a sliding scale. That is--some restaurants are closer to eating places, while other restaurants are closer to drinking places. Where a restaurant falls on that scale depends largely on the types of food it serves. Seafood restaurants, for example, would fall closer to the "drinking place" end of the scale.

- Convenience Store:  Korea does not have the silly public drunkenness laws that most places in the U.S. has, which means it is possible to drink virtually anywhere in Korea. One of the popular hangouts is the plastic table/bench in front of a convenience store. You simply purchase your choice of alcohol and food from the store, and plop your butt down on them chairs. Most convenience stores, in fact, sell packaged foods that are popular with drinkers.

Just like this.
Certain parts of Korea (e.g. Jeolla-do, or southwestern Korea) takes this concept to an entirely new level. Not only can one drink in front of storefronts, one can even order relatively high-quality cooked food. 

- Outdoors:  Outdoors? Yes, outdoors. TK means it: you can really drink just about anywhere in Korea. At the beach? Yes. On the river bank? Yes. While hiking on a mountain? Hell yes. In fact, if the weather is warm enough, there will be mobile vendors selling drinks while walking around those places.

- Sports Venues:  Simple enough. Baseball, soccer, bowling, pool--none of these places would be as fun as they are without alcohol.

(More after the jump.)

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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Lee Kuan Yew versus Kim Dae-jung: the Battle for Asia's Soul

Lee Kuan Yew, the progenitor of Singapore, has passed away. Lee was a singular individual with many interesting ideas, and Singapore likewise is a singular place with many interesting features. Plenty of ink has been spilled about how special Lee was and Singapore is in the last few days, and TK does not have much more to add on Lee or Singapore, by themselves.

What this blog can add is a bit of perspective about Singapore and Korea, and the two countries' leaders, as ideological counterparts. In 1994, Lee Kuan Yew engaged in one of the most important debates in East Asian political science--against Kim Dae-jung, who was at the time an opposition leader in Korea, and later, Korea's president and Nobel Peace Prize winner. The debate came in the form of Lee giving an interview with the Foreign Affairs magazine, and Kim responding to Lee's points several months later on the same magazine. For anyone who is curious about East Asian politics and the spread of democracy, these two pieces are must-read classics.

Go now, and actually read them--because they contain big ideas, and any summary of them will not do full justice. But very roughly speaking, Lee Kuan Yew and Kim Dae-jung were debating the relationship between East Asian culture and democracy. Lee Kuan Yew considered East Asian culture to be distinct from the Western culture; accordingly, East Asia and Singapore would not accept democracy--at least, not the kind that was being practiced in the West. Lee, for example, said because East Asia focused greatly on family, "a better system" would be "if we gave every man over the age of 40 who has a family two votes because he is likely to be more careful, voting also for his children. He is more likely to vote in a serious way than a capricious young man under 30."


Kim Dae-jung, on the other hand, believed that democracy was a universal force. To Kim, culture was important, but cultural differences were overrated. Instead, the commonalities of world culture--arising from the common human experience--uniformly pointed to democracy. In a key passage, Kim Dae-jung wrote: "Asia has its own venerable traditions of democracy, the rule of law, and respect for the people[,]" pointing to traditional Confucianism under the which the king is held accountable to the people, the civil service system that was based on meritocracy rather than hereditary inheritance, and the independent bureaus that were free to criticize the king's deeds--all of which happened centuries before Europe even had a seedling of democracy. East Asia already had all the trappings of a democratic culture; it simply needed to transplant the democratic institutions that would give expression to this culture.

It has been a little more than 20 years since the Lee Kuan Yew-Kim Dae-jung debate began. Incredibly, both men made a real-life case for their arguments in their respective countries. Under Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore enjoyed brilliant economic growth under socially restrictive rules, topping the charts in positive indicators across the globe. Under Kim Dae-jung, Korea oversaw opposition parties peacefully exchanging power like mature democracies do, and at the same time raised a host of world-class corporations while becoming a major player in the global soft culture.

Who will be proven correct? The implication of this debate is greater than ever. In the last 20 years, democracy in Asia has either stalled or regressed, depending on where you look. Most importantly, China is yet to democratize. If Lee Kuan Yew was right, the world's non-democratic superpower will never be a democracy. If Kim Dae-jung was right, a seismic change is afoot. Either way, the result of this debate will shape the next century of East Asia and the world.

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

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

So How Do You Become a Doctor in Korea If You're Not Korean?

TK's rant in the post about being a doctor in Korea brought about some negative reactions in the comments. He could care less; the idea that a non-Korean could simply waltz in and become a doctor in Korea is delusional and deserves ridicule.

However, TK does believe in being helpful. Owing much to the excellent, detailed information sent by a reader who explored this path, here is how a non-Korean citizen may become a doctor in Korea. Technically, it is possible--it's just that, as TK stated previously, the process is so mind-blowingly difficult that it is practically impossible for most non-Koreans. Again, if you even have to ask this blog to figure out this process, you are not going to make it.

Can you make it like Dr. Nick and say, 여러분 안녕하세요?

But what the heck, let's go ahead and satisfy some curiosity. There are four potential points of entry into Korea's medical job market:

1.  High school student about to enter college
2.  Transferring into medical school as a third year, with a bachelor's degree completed
3.  As a holder of a medical degree (e.g. M.D., MBBS, etc.)
4.  As a board-certified, full-fledged doctor

We can look each one in turn:

1.  High school student

If you are in high school, you may attend college in Korea and major in medicine. There are 36 colleges in Korea with a medicine major. Medicine majors will attend college for six years, and graduate with a bachelor's degree. The first two years are strictly undergraduate education. Years 3 and 4 are pre-clinical basic science, and years 5 and 6 are all clinical.

There are two tracks of college admission in Korea: international and domestic. Relatively few colleges in Korea have a separate admission track for international students, but there are several schools that do. The international admissions requirements--including whether or not you qualify for the international track--are different for each school.

For example, Yonsei University (which runs one of the four best hospitals in Korea) defines the international applicant as a non-Korean citizen with neither parent being a Korean citizen, who has been educated outside of Korea continuously since junior high school. The admission requirements themselves are similar to that of Korean universities, but the CSAT is replaced with the SAT/ACT with the addition of the Korean Language Proficiency Exam. If you were not continuously educated in an English-speaking curriculum or school (as defined by Yonsei), you also have to take the TOEFL. Other colleges have similar, but slightly varying, requirements.

Most colleges in Korea do not have a separate track for international applicants. If the school does not have a separate pool for international students, you will have to take the CSAT like any other Korean high school student, and score extremely high to secure admission as a medicine major. This will be practically impossible for most non-Koreans.

(More after the jump)

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Monday, March 09, 2015

I am so Sorry. Legally.

Dear Korean,

As they face sentencing on blackmail charges that could land them in jail for three years, two young women are trying to save themselves with letter writing: "Model Lee Ji-yeon and GLAM's Dahee have submitted their next letters of apology for attempting to blackmail Lee Byeong-heon, making it the 10th for the model and the 17th for the idol." Are letters of apology standard operating procedure as felons face trials and/or sentencing? And do they really send ten or more? Do they go to the court or to the victim?

Frequent Flier

Short answer:  yes! Letters of apology are more or less a standard operating procedure for criminal defendants. It is not legally required, but a criminal defendant who is already convicted or whose conviction is all but certain would be foolish not to write one.

For nearly all crimes, Korean criminal law's sentencing guidelines provide that the sentencing court may consider "sincere self-reflection" as a factor to reduce the jail term, potentially down to a suspended sentence (i.e. no actual time spent in jail.) In addition, there is always a chance that the letter of apology would move the victim of the crime to ask the court for clemency, which also factors favorably in sentencing.

Lee Byeong-heon being sad about that whole blackmail thing.

This is exactly how it worked with Lee Ji-yeon and Dahee, who were convicted of blackmailing Lee Byeong-heon. For those who are not up to speed with the latest Korean entertainment gossip: Lee Ji-yeon and Dahee surreptitiously recorded Lee Byeong-heon making sexually explicit jokes while they were drinking together. Lee Byeong-heon did not help himself either, as he later flirted with Lee Ji-yeon through text messages in a manner that borderlined on harassment. The two ladies, in turn, used the recording and the text messages to blackmail Lee Byeong-heon for approximately US $5 million. Instead of paying up, Lee Byeong-heon decided to suffer the embarrassment and let the world know about the blackmail. The jig was up for the ladies.

Lee Ji-yeon and Dahee did receive prison terms--14 months and 12 months, respectively. But their letter-writing campaign apparently worked, to some degree. Lee Byeong-heon did ask the court for clemency, and the prosecutor's office appealed the case because it felt that the sentences were too low. The prosecutors specifically questioned the sincerity of the two perpetrators' apologies, claiming that the defendants are continuing to testify falsely.

Does it make sense to consider "sincere self-reflection" as a part of the sentencing rubric? If you are the type who loves the idea of putting the bad guys in jail, the idea may sound ludicrous. You might also favor drawing and quartering a murderer and cutting off a thief's hand, but the modern criminal jurisprudence has moved away from that notion.

Is there some validity to the point that this requirement brings about the "apology inflation," of the kind shown with the case of Lee Ji-yeon and Dahee? (Even by Korean standards, 17 letters of apology is a big number.) Sure, there is some validity. But take it from a criminal defense lawyer: sentencing is always more art than science, because it is impossible to precisely measure the wage of one's guilt. Modern criminal law aspires for rehabilitation of criminals. To that end, it is meaningful to inquire whether the defendant is being remorseful, even if such inquiry at times may feel like mere formalities.

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Friday, February 27, 2015

You're Not Going to be a Doctor in Korea. Stop Fucking Asking.

Dear Korean,

I will soon be taking my IB’s and start to search for colleges and universities, but I was really hoping to work as a doctor in Korea. My plan was to go to King’s College or Imperial College in the UK, and then as I get my degrees and stuff, apply as a doctor in Korea. I am not really good in korean, but I am willing to try my best to learn it as soon as possible. Do you think my goal will succeed ? In Korean hospitals, do they accept foreigners as doctors? What if I will not be able to master my korean? That will be a problem right? 


TK cannot believe that he is writing a post about this question. But he must, because this question comes in with shocking frequency. Apparently, there is a sizable population of people around the world who really want to be a doctor in Korea. If only Korean hospitals accepted foreigners! Then these people can just pursue the dream, the dream! Of being a doctor in Korea!


Here is the simple answer: if you have to ask this question, you are not going to be a doctor in Korea. How does TK know this? Simple. In any given country, around 95 percent of the students will not be able to become doctors no matter how hard they try, because the material is too difficult, the requisite test scores are too high and the smarter students will crush them. Are you a top five percent student in your country? If you are, can you do the same in a completely different language? (And yes, if you want to be a doctor in Korea but can't master your Korean, it will be a fucking problem.)

A quick perspective on how hard it is to get into a medical school in Korea. Seoul National University is widely considered the best university in Korea. In 2014, to make it into most majors offered by SNU, the student had to score between 370 and 380 out of 400 in the College Scholastic Aptitude Test (CSAT). But to get into SNU as a medicine major? The student had to score 400 out of 400. Seriously. You could not get a single question wrong in an exam with nearly 200 questions that takes more than seven hours.

It gets better: getting admitted as a medicine major at colleges that are decidedly less prestigious than SNU requires a higher CSAT score than getting into most majors in SNU. Again, you only needed to score around 370-380 to get into most majors of Korea's best university. But to get into Chungbuk National University as a medicine major? Needed 390. Jeonnam National University medicine major? 387. Chosun University medicine? 386. Have you ever heard of those colleges? Don't lie, because you have not.

And this is even before getting into the fact that Korea's CSAT is probably a harder exam than anything that a typical non-Korean 17-year-old has ever seen in her life. Don't believe me? Here is a scale model of the 2010 CSAT that TK translated into English. Remember, if you want to be a doctor in Korea, you cannot get a single question wrong. And you would be taking this exam in Korean.

(A step back: in Korea, each major of a college administers the admission for itself. For medicine majors, each school uses a different proportion of CSAT--that is to say, in addition to CSAT scores, some colleges give their own exams and/or conduct an interview.)

Sure, there will always be special cases. Some of you guys will be hyper-geniuses who pick up foreign languages and medical school-level knowledge like we mortals eat a muffin. Some of you will have a family history that puts you close to Korea, such that you can compete on equal footing with other Korean students--like, for example, Dr. John Linton at the Yonsei Severance Hospital, who was born in Korea because his great grandfather Eugene Bell came to Korea as a missionary in 1895. (To be sure, Dr. Linton is a Korean citizen. But he was not one when he became a doctor, as he naturalized just three years ago.)

These folks can be a doctor in Korea although they are not Koreans. But they don't need to ask an anonymous Internet stranger to figure out how to become a doctor in Korea. You, on the other hand, sent TK an email with this question because you can't speak Korean well enough to figure out this information on your own. So I can say this with confidence: you're not going to be a doctor in Korea. Stop clogging my inbox with your stupidity.

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

Monday, February 23, 2015

What's Real in Korean Hip Hop? A Historical Perspective

Recently, Lizzie Parker addressed an important question in the Beyond Hallyu website:  what is "real" in Korean hip hop

The question of authenticity may pop up in any given genre of Korean pop music, because every genre of K-pop is an import. Yet the question of authenticity is particularly pressing in hip hop, because no other genre of pop music cares so much about "being real," to a point that authenticity is the genre's raison d'etre, as hip hop does. Indeed, even in the birthplace of hip hop, the quest for authenticity is elusive. (Is Jay-Z still real, even though he went corporate?) When hip hop is exported to a different cultural sphere, the hurdle of authenticity becomes ever higher.

Parker's article did a great job in identifying the elements of what is considered "real" in Korean hip hop. Consider this post a companion piece, about how the idea of authenticity evolved in Korean hip hop. This inquiry is necessarily a historical one. So let's jump right into history of Korean hip hop, and start with the pioneers.

I.  Pre-History:  Early 1990s

The very first piece of K-pop that may be considered "hip hop" appeared in 1989. Hong Seo-beom [홍서범], a moderately popular rock musician, recorded a song called Kim Satgat [김삿갓].

Even by today's standards, Kim Satgat's rapping, overlaid on funk beat, has held up surprisingly well. But Hong's attempt was clearly an experimental one. Hong never aspired to be a hip hop musician; Kim Satgat was a one-off, avant-garde take at the new form of music that was gaining ground in the U.S. at the time. In the popular recount of Korean hip hop's history, Hong name is rarely mentioned.

Instead, the K-pop artists who came after Hong, such as Seo Taiji [서태지], Hyeon Jin-yeong [현진영] and Lee Hyun-do [이현도] are usually considered the pioneers of Korean hip hop. But even with this corps of artists, the label "hip hop musicians" would be a stretch. Seo Taiji's first album in 1992 , for example, definitely caused a sensation with a historical rap number, I Know [난 알아요]. But hip hop was just one of the many musical styles that Seo Taiji played with; in his later albums, Seo drifted toward his original love, i.e. rock music. Lee Hyun-do and his group Deux showed more dedication to the genre, but Lee's creativity (at least for the music that he himself would perform) was cut short when Kim Seong-jae [김성재], Lee's partner in Deux and the animal spirit of the group, passed away under mysterious circumstances at the tender age of 23.

(More after the jump)

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