Thursday, August 07, 2014

What Makes a Good Korean Restaurant?

TK has been on a vacation for the last week, during which TK and TKWife made a giant circle driving around Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, and visited numerous national parks. Overall, it was an amazing experience. What was not amazing, however, was the one Korean restaurant that TKCouple visited, which inspired this Facebook update:
New blog concept: You tell me your favorite Korean restaurant in your town, and I will visit, eat, and tell you everything that's wrong with the food served there.
Inspired by a crappy Korean restaurant in middle America that I'm sitting in. Its walls are covered with awards from local papers, which makes me want to disband those papers.
As TK said in a comment to the update, he won't actually do this. He is a lover, not a fighter, and he certainly knows better than to mess with people's livelihood. However, there is still a teachable moment here. Many people--including many Koreans!--do not really know what separates good Korean restaurants from bad ones. These people simply do not have enough experience to form a frame of reference as to what elements good Korean restaurants have.

Don't just criticize; show the alternative. So TK will give the alternative. Here is a list of things that you should look for in a Korean restaurant in order to tell if it is a good one.

Geographic Location

In U.S.:  Let's be straight. Korean food is not yet at the place where, say, sushi is--that is to say, Korean food is not yet mainstream enough for one to expect a dependable taste for it, outside of the people who grew up eating it constantly. This necessarily means the ceiling for the quality of Korean food sold in areas sparsely populated by Koreans will be rather low. In the U.S., Koreans mostly live in Southern California, New York/North New Jersey and D.C./Maryland/Northern Virginia. (The next tier of Korean American population centers are Northern California, Atlanta, Chicago and Seattle, but the drop-off is significant after the top three.) The quality of Korean food tends to track that order.

In Korea:  Korea is surrounded by seas on three sides, with each side producing different types of fish. Korea's terrain also ranges from mountains to fertile and flat fields, each yielding different types of crops. In short, Korean food is highly diverse based on geography. Because everything in Korea tends to eventually flow to Seoul, the restaurants in Seoul tend to maintain a certain level of quality. But for the real deal, look for the restaurants that sell the food that is made from the local ingredients.

Freshly made soft tofu from Sokcho. This ended up in TK's stomach within minutes.

For example, tofu requires sea water to make. (Bet you did not know that.) Thus, the best tofu comes from Korea's eastern seaboard, in which soy beans grow and the sea water is readily available. Port cities, obviously, are the best places to have fish and seafood. Jeju Island is not only known for its seafood, but also for pork from its native black pigs. Since each locality in Korea loudly advertises its specialty food, it is hard to miss the local delicacy.

Two additional points: (1) in the City of Jeonju, every dish is good; (2) in Daegu, every dish is awful. Just trust me on this. Jeonju is the birthplace of bibimbap, one of the most iconic Korean dishes. In Daegu, locals say the best food available is McDonald's.

(More after the jump.)

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Friday, July 25, 2014

Eating on a Train

Dear Korean,

Why do Korean eat hard boiled eggs in trains? Every time I took a train with my Korean wife, she always says that we should eat hard boiled eggs. But why? What is it with trains and hard boiled eggs?

Damien G.

Boiled eggs on a train is a tradition of sorts. Korea operated its first train line in 1899, and train has been the dominant mode of long distance travel in Korea all the way until the late 1970s. Trains are extremely popular even today, as the high-speed KTX (traveling at 190 mph) covers Seoul-Busan under three hours. 

Riding a certain mode of transportation for a century would inevitably engender some associated habits. In case of a train, the habit is to have boiled eggs and a soda--either cola or lemon-lime (known in Korea as 사이다 [saida]). Why boiled eggs? Why not? Especially when one considers the early days of train travel, boiled eggs make perfect sense as a snack on a moving train. They are delicious, filling, portable and not overly odorous. Plus, eggs come in their own casing. They are a far sight better than those black protein blocks that certain other train passengers eat.

Re-enactment of a snack vendor on a steam engine train. Boiled eggs are wrapped in red mesh sacks.
Near Seomjin-gang River, a restored steam engine train running on old tracks,
with old school trappings, is now a tourist attraction.
To be sure, boiled eggs are hardly the only popular snacks on a train trip. Gimbab [김밥], a rice roll, is a perennial favorite picnic food and also very popular on a train.

There are other associations of travel and food. The rest stops on Korea's freeways tend to (but does not always) have a uniform look, and the menus tend to be standardized as well. The mainstays of freeway rest stops are udon noodles, "hot bar" (fried fish cake on a stick,) and the walnut cookies (a bite-sized, walnut shaped pastry with sweet red bean filling and bits of walnut.) The rest stops that travel eastward from Seoul to the mountainous Gangwon-do Province also tend to serve pan-fried fingerling potatoes, as Gangwon-do is known for its delicious, chewy potatoes.

When TK took his first long road trip in the U.S.--from Los Angeles to Grand Canyon--he was incredibly disappointed at the West Coast freeway rest stops, which are nothing more than a bathroom in the desert flanked by a few dingy vending machines. The East Coast rest stops are marginally better, but they don't serve udon noodles. Pity, because rest stop udon is fantastic.

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Sunday, July 20, 2014

Things TK Noticed in Korea

As some of you may have noticed, TK has been in Korea for the last couple of weeks. One of the pleasures of visiting Korea is to observe the changes. Because Korea is such a fast-changing society, even one year in between the visits (as was the case with TK's) is enough to produce noticeable, interesting changes. Here are three things that TK noticed in his visit:

(1) Beer.   Good beer is mainstream. Good beer is mainstream! In Korea! In the land of horse piss beer! Yes, it is true, good beer is available in Korea to a degree that has never been seen before. As TK previously predicted, the microbrewery movement in Korea is finally taking off. Even the big boys--i.e. Hite and OB--improved their default beer and came out with more drinkable stuff. Microbreweries are now opening their own restaurants and pubs all over Seoul; it will be a matter of time before they spread to other large cities of Korea.

(2) Public Bathrooms.   Once upon a time--say, 10 years ago--using a public bathroom in Korea was a serious gamble. You had to avoid the dreaded "squat toilet" (and no, TK is not going to put up a picture here.) In about 90 percent of the times, there was no toilet paper. Cleanliness? Pfft, people tossed the dirty toilet paper into an open-faced trash can.

Not so any more. In no case was TK in any danger of not finding toilet paper in a public toilet. All of them were reasonably clean--even the ones in incredibly crowded subway stations. The bathrooms in the Gangnam station smelled less of urine than the elevator of the Penn Station subway stop in New York. This is true.

(3) Chinese people.   There are more Chinese folks in Korea than ever. Tourist districts of Seoul have huge banners in Chinese. Thanks to a new investment visa, Jeju Island has a massive increase in Chinese folks in the last few years, to the point that Koreans are joking about how they need to learn Chinese if they want to retire in the island.

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Sunday, July 13, 2014

Book giveaway winners!

First, the answers to the trivia:

1.  SM Entertainment is the management company of the pioneering female idol star, BoA.
2.  Shin Dae-cheol is the guitarist for the band Sinawi, whose bassist at one point was the legendary Seo Taiji.
3.  Kim Min-gi is the artist whose best known song is the Morning Dew.

Somehow, Question 2 tripped up a big number of entrants. The question asked for the name of the guitarist of the band, but many submitted "Sinawi" as the answer.

Many people still got all three questions correct, and sent terrific stories that made TK's heart all warm and fuzzy. TK picked the best three. Congratulations, Evan T., Michael L. and Larissa F.! You will receive an email from TK soon. For everyone, thank you so much for reading!

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

Friday, July 04, 2014

Book Giveaway Trivia Time!

Dear readers,

The good folks at Tuttle Publishing, one of the best publishers of books on Asia, have sponsored an exclusive book giveaway event for Ask a Korean! readers. The prize? K-Pop Now! by Mark James Russell, which the Korean previously reviewed here. For anyone who needs an introductory overview of the current K-pop phenomenon, it is a great introduction.

For the give away, TK has put together a trivia competition. The questions and answers are from this blog's series on 50 Most Influential K-Pop Artists, available here. TK will keep the competition upon until noon (Eastern Time) of Friday, July 11. Please submit the three correct answers, and a good story about how you came across the blog and why you keep reading it. The top three will receive the prize mailed, no matter where they live in the world.

Here are the questions. Please remember to add your own story in addition to the answers to the trivia. Buena suerte.

Trivia Questions!

1.  This pioneering idol singer debuted at age 14, after having learned Japanese by living in the house of an NHK news anchor as a child. What is the name of her management company?

2.  K-pop legend Seo Taiji began his career as the bassist for this heavy metal band. What was the name of the guitarist for the band?

3. This artist is likened to Bob Dylan, elegantly singing a theme of resistance against Korea's fascist regime during 1970. His best known song is called the Morning Dew. What is the name of this artist?

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Monday, June 30, 2014

Sweet, Delicious Eff You

Dear Korean,

Reading this article, I was wondering whether the statement "The popular pumpkin toffees have become a shorthand for an insult in South Korea, where 'Go eat toffee' means a ruder version of 'get lost'" is true. Is there even a "tradition" to throw toffee? In my culture we throw sweets and candies as a sign of good luck and happiness.

Curious Reader

A bit of background first. As this blog (unfortunately) predicted, Korean national soccer team returned from the Brazil World Cup with a disappointing result of two losses and one draw.

Upon their return, they were greeted with a toffee shower:

Note the toffees on the floor.

So yes, it's true: throwing toffee is an insult. But why? That question becomes fairly easy to understand when one sees what a traditional Korean toffee looks like. It looks like this:

Sweet and delicious.
This is called 엿 [yeot] in Korean. "Toffee" is a solid translation, because that's what yeot is--it is a candy created by solidifying thin strands of syrup. The insult is to say 엿 먹어라, or "eat yeot." Hm, put this long, sticky thing into your mouth? Wonder what that could possibly mean?

(For those lacking in imagination, it means: "Eat a dick.")

Interestingly, this insult is more often delivered with words rather than with the actual candy. In the right context, gifting the candy is not an insult at all. For example, someone who is preparing for an exam often receives yeot as a gift, as an encouragement to "stick" the exam (=pass the exam.) But of course, there is no mistaking the intent behind the toffee shower that the the national team received.

Several of you also emailed to ask how the Korean felt about the way in which the players were received. His feeling is: they probably don't deserve it, but it is part of the job description. Certain players--Son Heung-min comes to mind--played their hearts out, and definitely did not deserve to be told to "fuck off." Ideally, one should be able to focus-fire the insult. If one threw the yeot only to those who deserved the most blame, striker Park Chu-young and goalie Jung Sung-ryong would be getting a cannonball of candies to their faces. 

(And Jung won't be able to catch a single one of them. Hey-oh!) 

But that's what sports stars are. They are not paid big money to put a ball through a goal or a hoop or into the end zone. They are paid to serve as the vessel into which we project our desire. In this instance, Korean people's desire was hardly unreasonable; it is not as if there was an expectation that the team would win the whole thing. The team was expected to play hard, and play competently. More than a few players on the team failed at this. And if all they receive in return is some candies thrown at their face, that is not a huge injustice.

-UPDATE: July 3, 2014-

1.  Renowned food blogger Joe McPherson, who blogs at Zenkimchi, lodged this objection:  "Yeot is more like a taffy than toffee." Truth be told, TK did not even realize there was a difference between taffy and toffee. Alrighty then.

2.  This post was featured on Deadspin, in which some of Deadspin's commenters questioned why the yeot showing in the photos taken at the airport does not look like the yeot photo in this post. The reason is actually pretty simple: in the era of commercialization, the traditional long yeot has been re-packaged into a bite-sized candy. The bite-size yeot is still quite enough to convey the insulting message, and has the bonus of being a better aerial projectile.

3.  Now, for the really fun part. Since this post went up, a number of Korean readers provided several alternate theories as to why "eat yeot" is an insult. The theory that TK presented in the post is the prevailing theory: that yeot looks like penis, and "eat yeot" means "eat a dick." But the alternate theories are plenty interesting in their own right, so here they are:

- Probably the most colorful theory is that "eat yeot" comes from a botched exam in 1969. In the middle school entrance exam of 1969 (yes, Korea used to have an entrance exam for middle schools,) there was a question about the appropriate coagulating agent in the yeot-making process. Because of a mistake, there were two possible answers, but the testing authorities only recognized one of the answers. The enraged parents of the students then mobbed the testing authorities, shoving a homemade yeot made with the alternate substance into the faces of the befuddled testing authorities, screaming: "Eat this yeot! Eat it!"

This event actually did happen, but it is almost certainly not the origin of the phrase "eat yeot" because there are examples of "eat yeot" usage that pre-dates 1969. But it's a fun story.

- One alternate theory says:  "eat yeot" means "shut up," because apparently there is a Western tradition in which the dead's mouth was filled with thick syrup to keep it closed. This is most likely a wild speculation.

- Another alternate theory says:  "eat yeot" is a bastardization of "eat yeom" [염 먹어라]. "Yeom" is a process by which Koreans prepare the dead body for the funeral. That is to say--the theory is that "eat yeot" really means "go die." TK does not think this is particularly compelling, because yeom is a process rather than a substance that actually goes into one's mouth.

- There is even a dispute as to whether "yeot" refers to a man's genitalia. One of the leading theories is that "eat yeot" is a slang term originating from Namsadangpae [남사당패], a famed circus/clown act in Korea that has survived for centuries. According to the Namsadangpae lingo, yeot actually refers to vagina rather than penis.

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Sunday, June 22, 2014

Korea was never a Part of China

Dear Korean,

I’m from Singapore and visited Korea for the first time last week. I went to the National and National Folk Museums in Seoul, and noticed that the Koreans talked mostly of their early relations with China as one of “international exchange” or “cultural exchange”, seemingly having forgotten that Korea was a vassal state of the Chinese empire and paid tribute to it in order to maintain autonomy. Will the Koreans never admit to having been part of China? 


Short answer: Koreans will never admit such a thing, because Korea has never been a part of China.

The confusion most comes from misunderstanding the term "vassal state." The concept of "vassal state" (alternately known as a "tributary state") does not really exist any more, nor has it truly existed in the history of the Western civilization. But it does vaguely sound like "colony" of the early 20th century vintage, which leads to the confusion that Korea was a part of China. That is simply not the case. "Vassal state" is a diplomatic concept that was unique to pre-modern Northeast Asia. The concept must be understood within that context, because it makes no sense outside of it.

(It must be noted that nationalistic Chinese and Japanese deliberately sow this confusion. By doing so, nationalistic Chinese exaggerate the reach of the Chinese Empire; nationalistic Japanese justifies Imperial Japan's invasion of Korea, by claiming that Korea was simply going from one colonial master to another.)

Depiction of Korean tributary envoys to China, by Kim Hong-do, circa late 18th century

Put yourself in pre-modern Northeast Asia for a moment. There is one nation in the center--China, or 中國 (literally, the "center country")--that has been clearly superior to all nations surrounding it in every aspect of civilization, including military, trade, arts, philosophy and science, for two thousand years

Stop there, and let two thousand years sink into your brain. Think hard about how long that time is. Think about how old your grandparents are, and think about how many more generations you have to travel upward to hit two thousand years. Think about how much of our current tradition we take for granted, and how old those traditions are. Americans love to talk about their democratic tradition, but the age of that tradition is barely more than ten percent of the Chinese empire's history. Americans look to Europe for a deeper tradition, but European tradition prior to the Renaissance--which began in the 14th century--was nothing to write home about. 

This exercise is necessary because we the modern people often get myopic, and think that beliefs of the past are dumb or absurd. Not so: if Chinese hegemony has been true for two thousand years, it is simply true to anyone living within those two thousand years in China or near China. It is like living next to the Roman Empire that never went away until the 20th century. In such a situation, it would actually be irrational to think anything other than that the world revolves around China.

In those two thousand years, Northeast Asia was a "sinosphere"--a vast region in which China acted as a center of gravity of every aspect of human civilization. Of course, other nations in the region, including Japan, Vietnam and Korea, developed their own civilization which was quite glorious in its own right. But every nation in the sinosphere shared roughly the same governing philosophy, religion, social structure and writing system, all of which ultimately originated from China.

In this sinosphere, the emperor of China naturally considered himself to be the ruler of the entire civilized world. To the Chinese empire, the entire world consisted of: (1) China, (2) civilized nations that are vassal states to China (i.e. having a diplomatic relation with China,) (3) civilized nations that are not yet vassal states to China ( i.e. having no diplomatic relation with China,) and (4) uncivilized barbarians. During the Qing Dynasty in the early 19th century, China even considered the Netherlands, Portugal, Italy and England to be China's vassal states.

Informed by Confucianism (the shared ideology in sinosphere,) there was a mutual obligation between China and its vassal states. China provided vassal states with governing legitimacy, military security and (relatively) free trade. Vassal states, in return, provided a pledge of loyalty, acceptance of the Chinese emperor as the ultimate governing authority and regular tributes.

(More after the jump.)

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Monday, June 16, 2014

World Cup Thoughts

Yes, the Korean realizes that he is far overdue for a post. In his defense, how can one write a lengthy post when there are so many excellent games to watch?!

I mean, just look at this amazing Van Persie goal. I could watch this all day.

Actually, forget that. I could watch THIS all day.

Every flying man deserves a cape.

Which brings us to Team Korea, which takes the pitch tomorrow against Russia. Unlike the Korean's other homeland--the United States, conquerer of the Black Stars--Team Korea belongs to the soft, soft "Group of Life." Other than Belgium (the "sudden juggernaut,") all three teams in the group--Korea, Russia and Algeria--seem to have a legitimate chance of advancing. On paper.

But don't be fooled by the paper. Haven't you learned anything from the papers like the New York Post? Or the papers that constituted credit default swaps which suddenly became a value-destroying black hole? Papers lie, and they lie about Team Korea's chances. This Korean team is one of the worst Team Koreas in recent memory. Everything about them is terrible. The defense is a never-ending horror show, the offense too young and too green. The team treats scoring chances like a nerdy teenager running into a supermodel. Instead of confidently approaching the object of desire, they blubber, kick about wildly and then explosively self-destruct.

You think the Korean is joking, but he emphatically is not. Just look at this chart of least favorite teams compiled by the New York Times. Obviously, Korea's least favorite team is Japan because obligatory. But Korea's second least favorite team? Team Korea. Our nationalism is not so great that we root for crap. When we see crap, we hate it, even if it ends up being self-hate.

So, that's Team Korea's World Cup chances in a nutshell. It would be lucky to salvage two losses and a draw, while giving up no more than two goals in either losses. (There is a real chance that Korea could lose 5-0 to Belgium. Mark my words.) Team Korea is that sick puppy that you picked up from the side of the road, that mangy one which would surely die in a couple of days. Like your parents said, don't get too attached. Just sit back, quietly mutter "Well, at least we made the Cup," and thank your lucky stars if you have another country that you may legitimately root for. In that spirit:  USA! USA! USA!

(Seriously though, I really want Korea to win. Just one game. Is that too much to ask?)

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Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Sewol Tragedy: Part III - The Fallout

The capsized Sewol

One cannot get away from events in this age; the 24-hour news coverage and the Internet would not allow it. The Sewol disaster unfolded in real time in front of a horrified nation. When more than 300 lives--vast majority of them children--senselessly perish in an entirely preventable accident, it cannot help but affect the public. Similar reaction occurred in the United States, following the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, in which dozens of young children died at the hands of a deranged shooter. 

But as horrific as it was, the Newtown shooting was over within an hour. Not so with the Sewol sinking. The ship sank for more an hour. The rescue effort subsequently unfolded for days, on live television. In the aftermath of the disaster, every last bit of incompetence from every corner of Korean society was magnified, amplified. It drove Koreans toward self-loathing, cynicism, and finally anger toward the political system.

What do You do When Everything Falls Apart?

The saying goes:  failure is an orphan, but success has a million parents. But in the Sewol disaster, the devastating failure had a million parents:  the captain who abandoned the ship, the ferry company that dangerously overstocked the ship, government that let deregulation run wild. Unfortunately, the failures did not stop when the ship sank. The hits continued to come from all directions: from the media, the government and the society as a whole.

*               *               *

First, the media. Purely from the perspective of mental impact, perhaps the most devastating error was the media's early reports that everyone aboard the Sewol was rescued. The cause of this error is under investigation, but it appears fairly clear that the media reported an unconfirmed rumor in the race to break the news first. This misfire significantly impacted the manner in which Korean public processed the news. When Koreans first learned the news about the Sewol sinking on the morning of April 16--around 11 a.m., 30 minutes after the ship completely capsized--they took it as a mildly scary event with no true harm done. The complacency set by the encouraging news made the full scale of the true horror much more destructive. Instead of no casualty, there were more than 300 missing, most of them high school students.

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Thursday, May 08, 2014

Culturalism and Understanding of Culture

[Series Index]

Propagandist poster symbolizing the Lusitania.
A sinking ship has been a subject of romanticized tragedy for at least a century, going back to the Lusitania and the Titanic. In a large part, this treatment of maritime disasters happens because a sinking ship is such a perfect vehicle for a narrative. A ship is a self-contained civilization, constantly exposed to the apocalyptic possibility for any number of reasons. Those reasons, eventually, become the story of each sinking. The Lusitania is remembered as a story about German aggression; the Titanic, a story about human hubris. If the story's devices include the death of hundreds of young school children, it can only be more compelling.

So, inevitably, the tragic sinking of the Sewol became another story. Initially, much of the story revolved around the captain's criminal dereliction of duty, as he was seen--as the world was watching--abandoning the ship without any concern for the passengers. But in a matter of days, the story turned into the one about Korean culture--how its Confucianism made its children too unthinking and obedient to save themselves when the ship's PA system instructed them to stay in their cabins as the ship was sinking. 

In the wake of the Asiana plane crash last year, I discussed the concept of culturalism, which I defined as "unwarranted impulse to explain people's behavior with a 'cultural difference,' whether real or imagined." I tried to show that the fountainhead of cultural explanation for airplane crashes, i.e. one chapter in Malcolm Gladwell's Outlier, was based on shoddy reasoning founded upon cherry-picked evidence. Then I explained the danger of culturalism: it obfuscates the truth, distracts from the real issue, and wipes away the individuality of the people who are "explained" through culture.

This time, before I could comment, several writers produced excellent pieces of writing that persuasively argued against the reductionist claims about Korean culture and the Sewol disaster. The best ones came from John Bocskay and Jakob Dorof--you should read them. Because Bocskay and Dorof did such an excellent job refuting the reductionist, "Korean culture sinks ships" claim, I feel that I should not belabor the point.

Instead, I will address a different angle. As to my Asiana article and the Sewol-related articles by Bocskay and Dorof, the objections were the same: culture is real, and it exerts real force on human decisions. When I presented my critique of culturalism in the context of the Asiana flight crash, most of the objections, in so many words, said there really was a cultural difference in communication patterns, which may well affect airline safety. Likewise, to articles by Bocskay and Dorof, many objected by claiming that culture clearly impacted the way in which the Sewol disaster unfolded, and it is not only incorrect, but also willfully blind, to say otherwise.

But such objections miss the point completely, since neither I nor Bocskay and Dorof argued that there was no such thing as culture or cultural differences. Recall that the definition of culturalism is "unwarranted impulse to explain people's behavior with a 'cultural difference.'" In my original piece about culturalism as well as in my subsequent discussion, I stressed repeatedly that cultural explanations have their place. I have little doubt that Bocskay and Dorof would agree with me in saying that culture is real, and it impacts human actions.

This leads to a natural question:  if culture is real, then what separates a cultural explanation from a culturalist one? 

(More after the jump.)

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Friday, May 02, 2014

The Sewol Tragedy: Part II - Causes and Contributing Factors

[Series Index]

[NOTE:  I finished writing the first draft of this post on April 30, 2014. Since then, additional facts have been uncovered. I will periodically update this post as I learn new, relevant facts.]

The Sewol. The ferry company's logo ("Chonghaejin") is also visible.

The sinking of the Sewol is a terrible disaster that was entirely preventable. Instead, a confluence of numerous circumstances, people and their decisions resulted in the senseless destruction of more than 300 lives, overwhelming majority of whom were young high school students, about to enter the prime of their lives.

What caused the sinking of Sewol? What contributed to those deaths? The best way to answer these questions is to sort out the actions of the important parties involved at important junctures.

In this accident, there are three significant actors:
  • The captain and the crew, who was immediately responsible for the ship and the passengers;
  • Cheonghaejin Marine Co., the ferry company in charge of maintaining and operating the ship, and; 
  • The government, which played a dual role of the regulator and the rescuer. 
There are four significant segments of time:
  1. Before the accident; 
  2. Between when the Sewol set sail and when it began to list; 
  3. Approximately 40 minutes between when the ship began to list, and 
  4. After the rescue efforts began. 
When we examine how these three actors behaved in the four segments of time, we begin to have an understanding of what could have prevented this tragedy.


The Crew

There were 33 crew members on the Sewol. Out of the 33, 15 were the senior crew members who were in charge of steering and operating the ship (as opposed to, say, manning the snack bar or providing customer service.) The 15 include: 69-year-old Captain Lee Jun-seok [이준석], two First Mates, one Second Mate, one Third Mate, three Helmsmen, three Engineers and four Assistant Engineers. The other 18 were junior crew members, which included stewards, an event planner and custodians. All 15 senior crew members were in the bridge when the ship began sinking; all 15 survived. Out of the 29, 20 crew members survived--a rate vastly superior to the survival rate of the entire ship (174 out of 476) or that of the Danwon High School students (75 out of 325). Currently, seven out of the 15 senior crew members are under arrest pending investigation.

Because the 15 senior crew members bore the responsibility for the steering and operation of the ship, this post will only focus on them. When I refer to "the Crew" from this point on, I am referring to the 15 senior crew members.

The Company

Cheonghaejin [청해진] Marine Co. (alternately romanized as "Chonghaejin") is the largest coastline ferry company in Korea. Cheonghaejin was established in 1999; its name is for the famous historical seaside fortress in the southwestern part of Korea. Cheonghaejin operates three lines with four ships, and operates the water taxi on the Han River in Seoul.

The distinction of being the largest coastline ferry company in Korea is less impressive than it sounds. In terms of efficiency, passenger ferry is no match for high speed rails and low cost airlines. Thus, Korea's coastline ferry companies tend to be small, and the profit margin thin. Cheonghaejin was a small-ish mid-size company that has been losing money for the last several years.

The Incheon-Jeju line, however, was a moneymaker for Cheonghaejin. Cheonghaejin has a monopoly on the Incheon-Jeju line, for which it operated two ships: the Omahana and the Sewol. Cheonghaejin made significant investment to create the monopoly. Even as Cheonghaejin was losing money, it had spent more than $14 million in purchasing and modifying the Sewol in 2012. With two ships, Cheonghaejin was able to set sail five times a week, absorbing all demand for the line and freezing out other ferry companies.

The line was particularly lucrative because Jeju, a large island, consistently required supplies from the mainland. Although both the Omahana and the Sewol were passenger ships, they were also able to carry trucks and container cargoes. Doing so came with an additional price advantage: because the two ships were technically passenger ferries, they were exempt from the fees that the Jeju seaport charged on cargo ships. Essentially, Cheonghaejin was making up the decreased demand in passenger ferry by doubling as a bootleg cargo carrier.

Cheonghaejin's revenue from 2008 to 2013.
Unit = KRW 1M (~US$1,000).
Blue line represents income from passengers; red line represents same from freight.

Cheonghaejin is ultimately owned by 73-year-old Yoo Byeong-eon. In addition to overseeing a small corporate empire, Yoo's day job included being a pastor for a Christianity-derivative cult called the Saviorists [구원파]. (I previously covered the Saviorist cult in this blog. For those living in New York: they are the creepy Asian people in orange t-shirts talking about "Bible Crusade.") Currently, Yoo and his cronies are under investigation for embezzlement and bribery.

The Government

President Park Geun-hye's administration is entering its second full year. The previous administration was led by President Lee Myeong-bak, who was also a conservative like his successor. In the area of economic policies, President Lee was the most neoliberal president that Korea has ever had. Like America's Republican presidents after which he modeled himself, President Lee pushed for lower taxes, privitization and deregulation. The Park administration was content to keep the trend going.

Outgoing President Lee Myeong-bak,
congratulating the newly elected Park Geun-hye after the 2012 election.

During her presidential campaign, one of Park's signature themes was public safety. After Park took office, one of her first notable moves was to change the name of the Ministry of Public Administration and Security to the Ministry of Security and Public Administration--so as to convey the message that public safety takes priority in the Ministry's mission.

After the jump, how these three actors before, during and after the sinking of the Sewol.

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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Sewol Tragedy: Part I - The Accident

[Series Index]

To be completely honest, I really did not want to write this post. I do not want to re-live this awful tragedy, seeing again what I saw, hearing again what I heard. Writing this post was greatly upsetting. Many times, I had to stop, take a deep breath, scream in anger, or clench my teeth before I could continue writing.

But I cannot possibly write another post about Korea without addressing this terrible accident. More than 300 lives, most of them young students, perished in an entirely preventable accident. This story needs to be told, and not in the manner of the disgusting disaster porno put on by cable television news.

So here it is: a summary of the most relevant information regarding the sinking of Sewol. This summary will be in three parts:  (1) description of the accident and the rescue efforts; (2) causes and contributing factors of the accident, and; (3) political and social reactions from Korea.


Who and what were involved in the accident?

The Sewol was a cruise/ferry ship that traveled between Incheon, a port city near Seoul, and Jeju-do, a tropical resort island. The ship was carrying 476 passengers, as well as several trucks and container cargoes. Vast majority of the passengers--325 to be exact--were second grade students from Danwon High School, a high school in Ansan, a suburb of Seoul. 

Inside of the Sewol. Photo was taken the day before the accident.
Because Korean high schools have three grades, the second grade students are equivalent of juniors in American high schools, i.e. between 16 and 17 years old. Korean high schools usually go on one long school trip per year involving all students in the same grade. As Ansan is a working class neighborhood, the students tended to be from blue collar families. 

How did the ship begin to sink?

The travel by ferry between Incheon and Jeju is approximately 13.5 hours. The ship had traveled overnight, and entered the western shore of Jindo island, nearly at the southwestern tip of Korean Peninsula.

At 8:49 a.m. of April 16, 2014, the ship made a sharp turn, turning more than 10 degrees within one second, according to the ship's Blackbox. Immediately, the ship began to list due to the sharp turn. There are reasons to believe that the ship had an imbalanced construction, and the cargo was not properly secured. It appears likely that the cargo shifted to one side, causing the ship to list and sink. More on this in the next part of the summary.

When did the authorities first learn the accident?

At 8:52 a.m., the first report of emergency came out of the Sewol--not from the ship's crew, but from a student on board calling 119 (equivalent to 911 in the U.S.) In a couple of minutes, the student was connected to the Coast Guard. (The student, named Choi Deok-ha [최덕하], was found dead.) In response, at 8:58 a.m., the Coast Guard station in the nearby port city of Mokpo dispatched the first rescue team.

At 8:55 a.m., the Sewol's captain Lee Jun-seok [이준석] communicated to the Vessel Transportation Service (VTS) station in Jeju that the ship was listing and sinking. (Note, however, that the nearest VTS station was at Jindo, not Jeju. More on this later.) At 9:10 a.m., the Coast Guard headquarters formed a rescue central. At 9:31 a.m., President Park Geun-hye was notified.

How did the ship's crew respond to the accident? How did the passengers respond?

The ship's crew, particularly the captain, responded with grievous, deadly incompetence. It is probably fair to say that the incompetence by the captain and the senior crew members bears the majority of the blame in letting this incident escalate from an expensive accident to a horrific, full-scale disaster.

As soon as the Jindo VTS station established contact with the Sewol, the VTS repeatedly asked the captain whether the passengers were able to escape. In a reply that is almost certainly a lie, the captain replied they could not. At 9:25 a.m., approximately 30 minutes after the ship began to sink, Jindo VTS station ordered the captain in unequivocal terms: have the passengers put on life jackets, and evacuate the ship. Inexplicably, the captain did nothing, telling the Jindo VTS that the ship's PA system did not work. This was a lie, as the PA system was completely functional at the time. Jindo VTS again told the captain to do what he could to evacuate the ship. The captain, again, does nothing. At 9:33 a.m., Jindo VTS station orders the captain to release all emergency floats from the ship. The captain, again, does nothing other than to keep telling the VTS station to send rescue boats as quickly as possible.

Meanwhile, manning the PA system in the lower deck were junior crew members, who continuously asked the bridge if they should evacuate the ship. The bridge, where the captain was, did not respond. Without information, the crew followed the manual and repeatedly told the passengers to stay in their rooms.

Park Ji-yeong, one of the Sewol's heroes
When the first responders arrived at 9:30 a.m., 22-year-old Park Ji-yeong [박지영], 28-year-old Jeong Hyeon-seon [정현선] and 45-year old Yang Dae-hong [양대홍], all of whom are crew members, directed all passengers they saw to get out of the ship. Realizing that there was no PA announcement, Park rushed to the PA system and ordered the passengers to jump into the water--at 10:15 a.m. Unfortunately, this was far too late, as the port side (left side) of the ship was already fully under water by 9:54 a.m. Once submerged, the passengers in the port side cabins were doomed.

Park and Jeong were later found dead; Yang is still missing. Surviving students recall that Park saved many students by putting on life jackets on them and pushing them upstairs. When the students asked if Park wasn't leaving, she replied: "The crew has to stay until the end." Before returning to rescue, Yang telephoned his wife and said:  "the ship listed a lot. Use the money in the bank account for the children's tuition. I have to go save the students."

According to survivors, many students gave their lives trying to save each other, or to save little children. A six year old boy put a life jacket on his five year old sister, and told her that he was going to find his parents. The five-year-old was rescued; the boy, and his parents, are missing. Danwon high school student Jeong Cha-ung [정차웅], a blackbelt holder in kendo and the first confirmed casualty from the Sewol, perished after giving up his life jacket to a friend and trying to save more. According to surviving students, two of Danwon high school teachers, 36-year-old Nam Yoon-cheol and 24-year-old Choi Hye-jeong, each saved at least 10 students before succumbing to the rising water.

(More after the jump)

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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

#NotYourMascot, and Why You Should Care

Normally, I make it my practice to silently observe the discussion involving other social groups of America. The reason for this is simple: it is important for each social group to speak with its own voice. Even if I wanted to help, it is the better habit to refrain. I have seen too many cases in which good intentions were translated into stumbling, inartful words, setting back the agenda rather than advancing it. That was not going to be me.

Despite those reservations, I feel compelled to speak out in solidarity for the movement against having a racial slur, i.e. "Redskins," as the name of an NFL franchise. I feel the compulsion for two reasons. First, I am a sports fan and a resident of the Washington D.C. area, which makes the name of the local franchise more relevant than those living outside of the region who don't care about sports. Second, I am an Asian American, and I have been mired in the ill-advised hashtag campaign from a few weeks ago that distracted the national attention away from this important issue. Though I have been speaking out on the stupidity of the hashtag campaign, it is undeniable that I, too, contributed to the distraction.

How shall I express my solidarity with the campaign against "Redskins," without running afoul of my personal rule that I should not speak on behalf of others? Answer: I can speak about my own experience, which points toward the same result. Here is my attempt at doing so.

*               *               *

I am a first generation immigrant, having emigrated from Korea to Los Angeles area in 1997. I will not bore you with the sob stories about my adjustment into American life at age 16, since I have already done that in this space already. It would enough to say that, the first year of my American life was defined largely by loneliness. In Seoul, I lived in the same neighborhood throughout my childhood. I had a close group of friends who attended the same elementary school, same middle school and same high school. The move to U.S. was the first major move I remember--and it had to be across the Pacific, in a new land where no one wanted to talk to the new kid who spoke broken English.

(More after the jump)

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Monday, April 14, 2014

How to Make it in America with Music

Dear Korean,

I'd love to hear your opinion on what it would take for a Korean or Korean-American act to "make it" in the US music industry. You could answer that from a macro (shifts in music business corporate strategies, national news outlet coverage) or micro (would the act have to have certain characteristics, would the songs have to be in a certain genre) perspective. I think it is without question there is original, vibrant talent originating or having origins from South Korea. Talent that if all other things were equal, would easily go toe-to-toe with American pop talent and be equally represented. 

Jason J.

This is a question that the Korean intended to answer as a final wrap-up for SXSW, until the #CancelColbert hashtag war occupied the attention of everyone on the Internet. Better late than never, so here it is. By the way, did the Korean mention that SXSW was freakin' awesome, and everyone should go? Just in case people missed it: SXSW is incredible, and everyone should go. It's absolutely amazing.

Jambinai's performance at Spider House.
TK's favorite picture from SXSW.
Truth is, TK answered this question in previous posts, albeit somewhat obliquely. (Here and here.) To make the point more directly, the Korean believes that the "mainstream-ization" of Korean pop music in the United States will take place in several stages:

First, there needs to be a dedicated group of Korean pop music fanatics, who would serve as the log-rollers of a larger trend. Every band needs that snotty group of fans that says: "I was into them before they became big." The Korean jests, but the role of the enthusiastic early adopters is critical. They act as the constantly-burning pilot light, ready to ignite the trend as soon as the atmosphere is correct. 

It took a better part of a decade for K-pop to build this infrastructure in the United States. But from his experience at SXSW, the Korean is convinced that this infrastructure is now firmly in place. K-Pop Night Out was one of the most successful showcases at SXSW, and the people came out not just for Jay Park and HyunA, but for Crying Nut and Idiotape. Seoulsonic showcase had so many non-Koreans speaking fluent Korean, chatting excitedly about Glen Check. The only other place where I saw that many non-Koreans speaking fluent Korean was at a high-brow diplomatic function Washington D.C. Even in San Antonio, a smaller city that one would not readily associate with Korean pop music fandom, drew a solid crowd for a Sunday night show. Separately from SXSW, Dynamic Duo's recent showcase at the Kennedy Center drew at least 500 spectators, half of whom were not Korean but screaming as loudly as any other. The early adopters are already here.

Second, there needs to be a baseline of respect for Korean pop music among the movers and shakers of America's music industry. This, in fact, was a crucial component for Gangnam Style's success. Many consider Gangnam Style to have come out of nowhere, like a strike of lightning out of a clear blue sky. Not so. This graph is worth revisiting:

This graph, from a study that YG Entertainment commissioned, shows the interplay between the log rollers and the power brokers of American pop music. Numerous log rollers, chief among them Allkpop, promoted Gangnam Style's music video through its Twitter. Rapper T-Pain had enough baseline respect for Korean pop music to pay attention when enough log rollers became excited about Gangnam Style. T-Pain took the time to look at PSY's music video, and promoted to other industry insiders. The rest, as they say, is history.

In the Korean's estimation, this stage is partially constructed for Korean pop music. Korea's idol groups are the farthest along. Lady Gaga's recent pick of Crayon Pop to open her shows this summer is but one piece of evidence. Among the powers that be of American pop music, Korean idol groups are taken seriously. 

Korean rock and hip hop acts are trailing behind. Korean rock suffers from fighting in a crowded field; as delightful as listening to, say, Deli Spice is, there is simply no shortage of U2-inspired modern rock bands in the U.S. market. Even so, certain Korean rock bands manage to find an angle that is not sufficiently explored in the U.S. rock scene--for example, Jambinai with Korean traditional instruments or Glen Check's sophisticated synth-rock. Hip hop will probably have the toughest time, as the audience for hip hop tends to care a great deal about (perceived) authenticity. Unfortunately, to many U.S. hip hop fans, an Asian face does not scream "THUG LIFE." 

Third, the interplay between the first and the second stages results in a sizable corps of fan base. This group would be much, much larger than the log rollers in the first stage. Their interest in Korean pop music would not be as rabid as the log rollers', but they care enough to continuously purchase albums and attend concerts once in a while, to the extent Korean acts tour in the United States. Ideally, this group will be large enough for Korean bands to continue directing at least some effort toward the U.S., in the form of making their music available in the U.S. (via, for example, YouTube and iTunes) and putting on regular tours. Likewise ideally, this group will be large enough that, when an American person says "I listen to Korean pop music," it would be received as if she said "I like listening to classical music" rather than "I listen to radio static to find signs of life from outer space."

If Korean pop music gets to this point, the Korean would consider Korean pop music to have "made it" in the U.S. market. One has to be reasonable: Korean pop music is not of the U.S., and it is highly unlikely that Korean pop music will be a perennial presence in Billboard top 5. Much more attainable is the level at which the quality of Korean pop music is widely known, such that it is accepted as a legitimate preference of pop music among many. Korea's idol pop is at the cusp of getting to this place; other genres of K-pop have a longer way to go.

Then there is the fourth and final stage:  a viral, mainstream-ized hit a la Gangnam Style, seemingly appearing out of nowhere as if by magic. But of course, nothing cultural comes out of nowhere--each viral hit is a sudden unleashing of pent-up cultural accumulation. As the base of K-pop appreciation becomes wider and deeper, the interval between new viral hits will become shorter and shorter.

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