Archive for the 'Korea' Category

Day 1: By Land and Sea

I LOVE THE SOUND of trains passing. Our car rocks gently to the side and there is a thrumming like a sudden pulse of drums or the the roar of a factory; air moving in invisible and violent ripples.

We’re about an hour south of Seoul. The cities we pass are cold, industrial. Pale gray apartment clusters tower above the brown landscape while in the distance pillars of steam ascend into azure oblivion. The rural patches in between are dotted by low brick shanties with tiled roofs and rows of greenhouses made with wire and plastic. Rolling into Daejeon Station, an old man in a newsboy cap and protective face mask waits with his bicycle next to the tracks. Where he will go after we pass is only a flicker of a thought as my eyes soak in the rushing landscape; my mind is like heavy paper slowly and longingly being dipped in watercolor.


With the exception of a weekend jaunt out to the east coast in November, my wife and I had not left the capital since we arrived in July — two days after our wedding. Planning an overdue escape to Japan was thrilling in itself; the sense of relief I felt as we pulled away on the KTX was like finishing the last day of seventh grade. I pushed any notion of having to make a return trip as far out of my mind as I could muster.

We arrived in the port city of Busan and quickly hopped aboard a blue bus driven by a round-faced thirty-something sporting aviator sun glasses whom we soon learned had the most boring route in the city: shuttling tourists the two mile stretch between the station and the international ferry terminal. Traveler convenience, at the price of a young man’s sanity.

The boat was smaller than we both expected. The cabin was clean but its air was permeated by a distinct sourness indicative of past bouts of seasickness. I took notice of the presence of safety belts warily. An explanation saying that the Beetle Ferry sometimes has to take evasive maneuvers to avoid sea creatures (the Kraken?) did little to settle the force of our combined anxieties.

Continue reading ‘Day 1: By Land and Sea’

North Village

BUKCHON, Seoul — HAD I WOKEN UP on these uneven streets with a dose of amnesia, I could have easily guessed that I’d been dropped into some far off town or fallen through a seam in the fabric of time. This is a Seoul that I have never seen; it is calm, even reflective. Walking down its  alleyways puts me in touch with the human element of times now past, like opening an ancient book of poetry and seeing tea stains made by the master who penned it.

The patchwork of traditional hanok homes that form Seoul’s North Village (Bukchon) is iconographic of the city’s roots, but so too is the plaster that fills in its cracks and the newly finished timber of half of the neighborhood’s doorways. This place may feel ancient, but the destruction wrought by war and development means that many of these homes are replicas. Still, they exude a homey character that has been decimated by the ambitious wrecking ball in most other corners of the city.

I can’t help but wonder what the capital might have looked like if the iron-fisted general behind South Korea’s economic miracle had possessed a nostalgic streak, or been even mildly inspired by traditional aesthetics. Imagine if the now shamelessly gaudy South River neighborhoods had preserved some of their rice fields; if the dilapidated, communist-bloc inspired apartment buildings that define the skyline were instead low, wooden housing developments that would last.

I’ve written before about the destruction of Beijing’s hutong. The difference between here and there is that at least there’s a conversation about China erasing the physical remnants of its history. Here, it is a non-issue. This neighborhood will likely continue to be protected, but elsewhere in the city, progress continues.

A City Draped in Gray (Updated with Photos)

March on City Hall | Click to view entire set

March on City Hall | Click to view entire set

SEOUL — AS I WRITE THIS thousands of monks and laypeople are converging on city hall. They are unloading from buses that have carried them, along with their signs and banners of protest, from all the corners of the country. Great gray-robed masses make their way across crowded sidewalks, and hung high above the street are PA systems broadcasting dissent in waves of chanting and drums. There is a thrumming energy that emanates beyond the police lines, that sends ripples through the steel and glass.

These people are demanding an apology, they are demanding change. They see the government as isolated from the people, wrapped up in Christianity while a hefty chunk of the country’s faithful adhere to an indigenous brand of Buddhism. Whether their cries of foul are completely legitimate appears difficult to assess, but even some Protestants here admit that the president — a staunch Christian who earlier, as Seoul’s mayor, said he dedicated the city to God — might be throwing around his religious weight.

Dissent Blaster | Jogye Temple

Dissent Blaster | Jogye Temple

UPDATE September 1 — Dissent continued to foam over the weekend. A local paper reported that about 2,000 people joined in a gathering at Jogye Temple, the heart of the Buddhist order that organized last Wednesday’s rallies, which was titled “a service to condemn the Lee Myung-bak administration’s destruction of the Constitution and religious discrimination.” On Saturday, at the same temple, a high-ranking monk attempted to disembowel himself in protest. (He was rushed to the hospital, and his injures were not fatal.)

The force with which these demonstrations have arisen begs the question: Why? Is there good reason for the anger? Speaking in real terms, President Lee has filled his administration with people who attend his own right-leaning church — the now-famous Somang Presbyterian. Major Buddhist sites have been left off of new government maps, while the smallest of churches are given mention. The chief of the National Police Agency, Eo Cheong-soo, appeared on a poster promoting police personnel’s “fasting prayers for the evangelization of all the police.” A presidential secretary reportedly called demonstrators opposed to U.S. beef imports “a host of Satans.”

In terms of the more nebular realm of history, the current uprising is perhaps afforded added momentum due to an anxiety of repeating the past. As blogger Korea Dispatch points out, many of the monks who are participating in the rallies now remember the early 1980s, when then President Chun Doo-hwan mobilized a massive police force to arrest over 150 monks labeled as dissidents. Chun forced the head of the Jogye order to step down, accusing him of “corrupt activities.” Buddhists were beaten and tortured — as many political dissidents were then.

The difference now is that Lee’s brand of religious bias apparently has more to do with a fervent belief in evangelism, rather than a simple greed for power. In this way, the current situation is perhaps even more dangerous. Indeed, we need not look far back for vivid examples of what brutal kinds of things humans can do to each other in the name of God.

Police Plan to Prosecute Seoul Protest Organizers

FOLLOWING MASSIVE CANDLELIGHT VIGILS protesting the resumption of US beef imports, police in the South Korean capital say they are planning to crack down on demonstration organizers. Critics are calling the move an “arbitrary application of the law,” an argument further bolstered by the fact that protests so-far appear to have been entirely peaceful.

The Hankyoreh quoted a police official today who defended plans to prosecute organizers by saying : “The event was registered as a cultural event but it was in fact a political gathering overflowing with agitation and agitating slogans.” That’s some shifty legal ground for the government to be walking on — just a few steps away from the blunt politics of the 80s, when demonstrators who voiced their opposition were harshly silenced.

Meanwhile, South Korean officials are detailing new guidelines for beef imports, which will allow bone-in cuts and intestines; both were previously barred. The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry says it plans to send four special investigation teams to inspect meat processing facilities in the US, and is promising strict screening in an attempt to cool public health concerns.

But despite taking careful measures to prevent instances of mad cow disease, what appears to be left unaddressed is how the government will control prices to protect South Korean farmers — an increased supply of cheap meat from the US is sure to put them in a pinch. If president Lee Myung-bak is truly interested in reviving the local economy, his policies should take a holistic and sustainable approach, instead of solely weighing the interests of his conservative counterparts in Washington.

Studying & Sleep-walking: Life in South Korea’s Prep Schools

the school from the inside. mokpo, south korea. by 摩根.

TWENTY-HOUR DAYS AND ENDLESS pressure for better test performance; it sounds closer to a description of a robot’s regimented existence than to a definition of quality education. Yet this is the grueling reality for students inside South Korea’s top notch prep schools. And while this rigorous instruction may be helping young Koreans achieve their Ivy League dreams, it raises some serious red flags about quality of life.

So you have to wonder: why did the New York Times leave that angle out?

In a recent story, the Times’ Sam Dillon featured two of South Korea’s premier preps, and seemed to praise Daewon Foreign Language High School and the Minjok Leadership Academy for their ability to churn out roof-shattering SAT scores and undergrads at Harvard, Yale, et al. Never mind the fact that the students hardly have time to sleep, let alone engage in a little frivolous young romance.

But as he was collecting quotes from teachers applauding their students’ superhuman concentration abilities, what Dillon forgot to do was take a step back and evaluate what all this rigor might mean for the development of young minds. To that idea, he dedicates hardly more than a sentence:

Both schools seem to be rethinking their grueling regimen, at least a bit. Minjok, a boarding school, has turned off dormitory surveillance cameras previously used to ensure that students did not doze in late-night study sessions. Daewon is ending its school day earlier for freshmen. Its founder, Lee Won-hee, worried in an interview that while Daewon was turning out high-scoring students, it might be falling short in educating them as responsible citizens.

“American schools may do a better job at that,” Dr. Lee said.

And then it’s straight back to the “Many American educators would kill to have such disciplined pupils” line that Dillon adheres to throughout most of the piece.

A better critique is over at the Metropolitician, aka Michael Hurt, who used to teach at Daewon and quit in the middle of his contract because he was so upset by what he experienced. Hurt faults these schools for over-valuing standardized tests, leaving students academically one-dimensional and “woefully ill-prepared”.

Basically, your life sucks at these schools for 3 years, but the kids and parents swallow their pride and ire, since it is the fast-track to America’s best schools. Period. That’s the exchange. But it absolutely brings out the worst of the Korean school system in a soul-crushing nightmare of pain that many students realize only gets them to the door of the institution they wanted, but has woefully under-prepared them to make it through.

Beyond arguments of educational policy there’s also a simple question of time. If these teens are locked up in their rooms with a stack of books until 2 a.m. every day, when do they get to meet friends? When do they go to concerts? When do they play outside? When do they get to simply act their age? Passing all of these things off as trivia that won’t matter ten years down the road is missing the point. We all need time to grow up.

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November 2020