Thursday, April 02, 2015

Screening of "A Single Spark" with English subtitles and interview with director Park Kwang-su this Saturday

This Saturday, April 4, at 2pm, the Royal Asiatic Society Cinema Club and Seoul Film Society will have a free screening of the 1995 Park Kwang-su film "A Single Spark" (아름다운  청년  전태일) with English subtitles at Seoul Global Center's Haechi Hall, on the 5th Floor of M Plaza in Myeong-dong. The screening will be followed by an interview and question and answer period with director Park Kwang-su.

The film is based on the life of Jeon Tae-il, who tried to improve the conditions of workers in the garment factories of Pyeonghwa Sijang near Dongdaemun, where he worked in the late 1960s; I've written about him here. Though he was only able to attend school up to middle school, he eventually came to understand that the Labour Standards Act offered workers protections, but when media attention (by the Kyungyang Shinmun and Donga Ilbo) failed to make any difference he and his coworkers held a protest on November 13, 1970 in which Jeon suddenly set himself on fire. This led politicians to take up the cause of labour standards and inspired the rise of unions, particularly by female workers, throughout the 1970s. An anonymous biography of Jeon was pubished in 1983, written by law student Jo Yeong-rae, who spent six years on the run, wanted by the government for student activism. The film weaves the stories of Jeon and Jo's lives together, with Jeon's life filmed in black and white, and Jo's (set in 1975) filmed in colour. It won the Best Film Award at the 1995 Blue Dragon Film Awards.

After the screening, the film's director, Park Kwang-su will take part in a 90-minute Interview and Question and Answer session after the screening.

While the screening is free, the there will be an admission fee of 7,000 won (5000 won for students) for the interview with the director to cover the cost of the interpreter, etc.

1. 2pm to 2:10pm – My introduction
2. 2:10pm to 4pm – Film screening
3. 4pm to 4:10pm – Interval
4. 4:10pm to 5:40pm – Interview and Question and Answer with Director Park Kwang-su.

Directions to Seoul Global Center's Haechi Hall can be found here and here, and more information about the film is here , and the screening, here.

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Accidental Citizen-Soldier: An English teacher's worst nightmare?

In 2002, Young Chun - born and raised in the U.S. by parents who had emigrated from Korea - came to Korea to teach English and pay off university debts. When he applied for an F-4 visa at the immigration office, he was informed by a confused immigration officer that he couldn't get one because he was, in fact, a Korean citizen; someone had put his name on the family register when he was born. Through a string of bad luck, he eventually found himself with an immigration exit ban and orders to report for military service - even though he didn't speak Korean. Given no assistance by the country of his birth, and unable to evade this order without going to prison, he reported for basic training in January, 2004, and began a two-year experience which would even involve deployment to Afghanistan.

This story is told in Young Chun's recently-released memoir "The Accidental Citizen-Soldier: The Story of an American in the Korean Army." He was kind enough to send me a pdf to review, and within a few pages I was hooked. In addition to having fascinating subject matter, it's well-written, well-paced, and sprinkled with enough humour to lighten an otherwise somber story. Military service is an experience almost all Korean men have to suffer through, and "The Accidental Citizen-Soldier" provides a first-hand look at what it entails, detailing all of the humiliations, power struggles and occasional kindnesses. It's gratifying to see him proceed through what is often an inhumane system and come to understand it and use it to his benefit, even finding time to translate a Korean novel for a translation contest.

More about Young's story can be found in this interview he gave to a Seattle newspaper in 2004 (which didn't go over well when his superiors found out), as well as at his blog, where you can listen to a recent interview given for TBS radio.

The book is well worth reading and can be found at for what should be $2.99 for a Kindle edition (a way to get around a tacked-on $2.00 'international charge' is detailed on his blog). A softcover version is also available and there are currently a handful of copies at the Gwanghwamun branch of Kyobo Bookstore.

I asked Young a few questions about his experience, beginning with the differences between how the ROK and US militaries treat their soldiers:
I think the biggest difference is each army's attitude towards its soldiers. The US Army treats its soldiers as human beings with civil rights to be respected and needs to be fulfilled. At the time, I felt like the Korean Army saw its conscripts as nothing more than tools, no different than a shovel or a toilet. Prior to my induction, I had heard that the pay was atrocious; I hadn't heard that I would be worked almost constantly with very little sleep, sometimes having to skip meals because the officers wouldn't let me take a break from work (even though they made sure to go themselves). There was never a guarantee of free time, and there were no counseling services even though I was depressed and frustrated for most of my first year.

When I was in Afghanistan, I was amazed at all the welfare facilities available on base. They had almost everything I could think of and a lot I couldn't have even imagined. On the other hand, on my base in Daegu, the only real welfare facility for conscripts was the PX, which was dwarfed by the one in Afghanistan. The BX on Bagram Air Base was a Wal-mart. The PX on my base in Daegu was a 7-11. At least, that's how it felt. My company in Daegu had a small trailer with some gym equipment and a single basketball hoop. I've heard that other units had a noraebang and a computer for conscripts to use; my company had neither. I couldn't even check my e-mail on base.

In Bagram, I was also amazed by how civilly American soldiers treated each other. In Daegu, it was only ridicule and bullying between soldiers. Aside from your donggi (soldiers who started the same month as you), everyone was someone to be feared or someone to order around. It is the ROK Army culture that forces people to act in such an unnatural way. While on deployment, there was no such protocol in the 2nd Construction Company, and it was much more bearable.

I have heard that the ROK Army has been working on treating conscripts marginally better. I've heard that privates now make something like 130,000 won a month and the general atmosphere among conscripts is better, but I don't know for certain. It's kind of a general understanding that it gets a little better and more comfortable every year, and people who did their service earlier are keen to point out that things were more difficult for them.
While the Korean soldiers in Afghanistan are depicted in the book as getting along well enough with the American soldiers there, some incidents - such as one which ends with an high-ranking American officer storming out after muttering, "God damn Koreans" - made me wonder if the ROK military presence there might have done more harm than good:
To be honest, I don't think the Korean Army's presence in Afghanistan made a difference one way or the other. Sure, we were a nuisance, but most of the truly outrageous things were suffered by those in command--the base command and the command of the 109th Engineers--rather than the average soldier. That being said, I don't think anyone thought we really contributed to the war efforts, and I don't think much was expected of us. The Dasan Engineering Unit poured concrete around the base and the Dongeui Medical Unit treated local nationals, and for the most part, the Korean soldiers kept to the Korean compounds when they weren't busy shopping.
I also asked him about the effect his experience had upon his attitude toward Korea in general.
I get asked this question often because people are surprised that I decided to stay in Korea and they usually expect me to be very bitter. Of course, I don't look back at the experience fondly, but the Korean Army is the Korean Army and Korean society is Korean society. There are things that I greatly enjoy about Korea and things that frustrate me to no end, but I don't let my experience in the service color my judgment of Korea.

With regard to the people, wherever you go in the world, there are good, kindly, decent people, and there are cruel, selfish, arrogant assholes. The US is no different, Korea is no different, the Korean Army is no different. Granted, the culture in the Army brought out the worst in people, which is one of the reasons why I prefer not to see people I met in the Army. I try to surround myself with the former.

I do deeply sympathize when I hear my friends talking about their experiences in corporate Korea because it often reminds me of my time in the Army, and I've determined never to put myself in such a hellish and poisonous environment again.
Lastly, I asked him about how he went about learning Korean:
For the first three or four weeks, I simply parroted whatever I was taught without knowing what the words meant. Once I got my Korean-English pocket dictionary, I was constantly looking up words that I heard throughout the day and tried to piece things together. When I was a private, I once got verbally abused for looking at my dictionary while I was walking. I had only wanted to look up a word before I forgot it. "Privates don't get to read and walk," the sergeant said, after he had given me a good shoulder to the back.

Once I was in Daegu, I had access to a small library in the squad room. I would choose a novel and go through it, looking up every word I didn't know until I could piece together what was being said. It was very slow-going; I remember spending a couple of days on a single paragraph. The book that I translated for The Korea Times Literature Awards was maybe the first Korean novel I was able to read from cover to cover. I also bought a book on Korean grammar when I was on furlough prior to pre-deployment training. I think I copied most of the entries in my journal. Needless to say, I wrote pages upon pages of vocabulary words and grammar points.

That was one aspect of my learning Korean. The other was the hostile environment. If I said something grammatically incorrect or even mispronounced any little word, I was ridiculed and shamed mercilessly. Some people would respond by working harder until their ability was recognized; I basically just shut my mouth and kept to myself. I never yelled at anyone when I was a sergeant, partially because I knew better than anyone how it felt but mostly because I couldn't yell in Korean. I still can't.

It's a little embarrassing, but I couldn't speak Korean decently until after I got discharged. Everything I had studied didn't get processed until I finally had the time to process it. Needless to say, I don't recommend going to the Korean Army if you're interested in learning Korean.

Thanks to Young for answering my questions.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Line 9 extension to Sports Complex on Line 2 opens today

Line 9's extension from Sinnonhyeon Station to Sports Complex Station on line 2 officially opens today (they seemed to be doing trial runs to the latter station in recent weeks; last week I got on at Gimpo Airport and the announcement and on-train information screens both said it was heading to Sports Complex). In late January they changed the schedule to prepare for this opening, going from one express train for every two all-stop trains to a one to one ratio. While this meant more express trains, it also resulted, as Kojects tells us, in there being 60 less train tripss per day, and intense overcrowding at rush hour, as this JTBC report on the 'hell train' - translated at Korea Bang - tells us.

This all looks rather familiar. While I was lucky enough to be able to take the express train towards the tail end of morning rush hour (catching it between 8:10 and 8:25), I used Line 9 to commute to work for five years, and it was still quite crowded at that time of day. The report notes that the most crowded stretch is between Yeomchang and Dangsan, and that doesn't surprise me; my commute ended at Yeomchang, and I was always amazed at how crowded it got, sometimes having to fight my way off the train (much more aggressively after once being pushed back onto the train and having my foot drop into the gap). Another memory that stands out is seeing people cram on at Gayang Station (the express stop between Yeomchang and Gimpo Airport) and seeing a man leaning at a 45 degree angle as he pushed the people ahead of him onto the train. The only way to ensure I could get off was to stand next to the door when I got on, otherwise it would likely have been impossible.

One problem leading to overcrowding is that there are only four cars in each train, while every subway platform has room for at least eight cars. At this point, the solution won't be more trains running, but more cars on each train. Unfortunately, as Kojects notes, 20 new cars won't be added until late next year, with more to follow the following year. Since the new schedule with more express trains was implemented in January, the number of people using line 9 has increased by an average of 2,700 daily, and the projected number of people using it after the extension opens will be 610,000 daily (compared to 250,000 in 2011, when more trains were added). For now, one rush-hour measure by Metro 9 has been to operate express buses, but I hardly see how useful they'll be in rush hour traffic.

Covered up schedule for trains to Sports Complex at Sinnonhyeon Station yesterday (hat-tip to Ami).

Friday, March 20, 2015

Elementary school native speaking teacher makes students taste dish soap

According to a Yonhap report from late last night:
Private elementary school native-speaking teacher's corporal punishment of students: "Eat dish soap."

Controversy has arisen after it became known that a native-speaking teacher at a private elementary school in Seoul made students taste dishwashing detergent as a punishment during class.

According to authorities such as the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education yesterday, on March 12 at a private elementary school in northern Seoul, 'A,' an English teacher from South Africa used corporal punishment on grade six students who broke the rule against using Korean in class.

'A' told the students to choose between tasting dishwashing detergent and bitter medicine as punishment, and some students chose the former, and some the latter.

Once parents found out about this, the school was inundated with complaints and the next day the school dismissed 'A'. On the 18th the school's homepage announced that the native speaking teacher had been changed and carried an apology by the principal.

An official from the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education said, "Because a private elementary school takes it upon itself to hire a native speaking teacher, the responsibility for the teacher's management is also the school's." "If a problem arises, at the level of Office of Education Support, schools are being guided in order to strengthen the management of native speaking teachers and prevent a recurrence."
The story was actually broken as an exclusive early yesterday evening by KBS, who initially reported that the school was trying to keep things quiet and fired the teacher so as to put an end to the problem. They followed up with a TV news report which included the facts that the bitter tasting medicine was a medicine meant to prevent the biting of fingernails (?), and that there were five students who were punished; three chose the soap, and two chose the medicine. It also included a cartoon illustrating what happened:

Since problem English teachers are almost invariably depicted to be male teachers, one assumes the teacher was indeed female. We're also shown a shot of her apology letter.

It would be interesting to read the entire thing; one wonders what was going through the teacher's head. It was certainly a bad decision (taste dish soap or fingernail-biting-prevention medicine?). I imagine "washing kids mouths out with soap" (which I assume was the intended effect?) would meet a similar reaction in North America. Perhaps - this being near the beginning of a new school year - the teacher was new to Korea. Anyone who has taught grade 6 students can understand how unruly they can be, though usually really bad behaviour would start later in the semester once the students have gotten to know each other.

As of last night, the two reports at KBS were the first and seventh-most viewed articles at KBS News' website.

As of noon today, the TV news report is the third-most-viewed news article and the most-viewed video at KBS, so the story is currently popular. KBS also followed up with a news article last night and a new TV news report this morning, so it's certainly running with the story - as are about two dozen other news outlets so far.

Update: The Chosun Ilbo posted an English language article about this titled "English Teacher Forced Students to Drink Detergent."

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Foreign graffiti artists deface Seoul's subway trains

The Joongang Daily reported the other day that... well, here's the title: "Graffiti punks from abroad target Seoul’s subway."
On Feb. 2, four Australians in baseball caps and hoodies appeared around Wangsimni Station, eastern Seoul, at three in the morning. They carefully scoped out the area and then stopped in front of a ventilation window behind a bus stop. They cut the bars of the window and swung down to a temporary garage where a car for the Line No. 5 subway was idle. Using spraypaint, they covered the car with graffiti art and then moved on.
They then tagged two more trains, one two days later at Anam Station, and another at Sinnonhyeon Station on Feb. 5. The Joongang Ilbo's Korean-language article includes this graphic (click to enlarge):

And yeah, judging by the noses, they do seem to have been foreigners:

I found this to be a bit spooky:
It was only after they flew back to their home country on Feb. 7 that the police identified the four Australians with security camera footage. They matched their faces on security footage from the airport and then checked immigration records.
We're then told that police are baffled by foreigners who "knew so expertly the subway stations' structures" and that "We believe most of them were painted by foreigners." In fact, they "discovered that most of them are from Australia or Canada based on the style of graffiti paintings." That's some impressive sleuthing. The Joongang Ilbo then goes on to interview a Korean graffiti artist, which begs the question why the police are saying it must have been done by foreigners.
Lim Hun-il, a pioneering Korean graffiti artist better known as Hudini, explained that “seeing a train running around the city with their graffiti art on it is like the biggest honor.”

Another graffiti artist conjectured, “It is likely that foreigners who used to practice graffiti art are working as English teachers during the day and painting at night.”
Actually, though, that's not what the Korean-language article by the Joongang Ilbo reported. In it, after that comment by Lim Hun-il, the journalist adds that "The fact that Korea's subways are so clean may have inspired such 'graffiti expeditions.'" This is followed by a quote from "a graffiti artist" who says, "foreigners who used to practice graffiti art and worked as foreign language instructors after entering the country may have let their friends know about Seoul's subway." One assumes, in the context of talking about how foreigners could have known about the subways, that these "friends" they let know about Seoul's subway were overseas. The article notes that:
No foreigner has been caught by police for defacing the trains, possibly because they have left the country quickly like the Australian group. Property damage is not a serious enough crime to try to extradite them.
Apparently that's not the case in Singapore. The article also notes that incidents of graffiti on trains have been increasing, and lists the locations of each incident:

The Joongang Ilbo has been on a bit of a crusade here, translating another article today, as well as publishing a CBS radio interview with a Korean graffiti artist. I'm not sure that publishing the exact locations of the incidents was the best idea if they wanted to stop it from happening, but then I'm not an editor there.

Wet Casements also has a post about this here.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Interview with Colin Marshall for Notebook on Cities and Culture

Last summer, Colin Marshall, host of the podcast and website Notebook on Cities and Culture, made a lengthy visit to Korea, wrote several articles about Korea's cities for The Guardian (starting here, or scroll down halfway here), and interviewed all kinds of interesting people. He also interviewed me, and our conversation about topics including Isabella Bird Bishop and James Wade's views of Korea, the changing urban landscape, perceptions of foreigners (and foreign teachers), the collapse of the Sampoong Department Store, and old Korean movies can be found here. Many thanks to Colin for including me in his Korea Tour.

On a related note, I was also interviewed for Groove Magazine's 100th issue, and that's now online here.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Screening this Saturday of Jeong Jae-eun's 2001 film "Take Care of My Cat"

This Saturday, March 7, at 2pm, the Royal Asiatic Society Cinema Club and Seoul Film Society will have a free screening of the 2001 Jeong Jae-eun film "Take Care of My Cat" (고양이를 부탁해) with English subtitles at Seoul Global Center's Haechi Hall, on the 5th Floor of M Plaza in Myeong-dong.

When readers of were asked years ago which film they thought best captured the ‘feel’ of South Korea, the film that repeatedly came up was ‘Take Care of My Cat.’ Set in Incheon and Seoul, the film chronicles the lives of a group of friends — five young women from different economic backgrounds and family situations — a year after they graduate from high school, showing the changes and difficulties they face in both their friendships and the working world. Though the film did not do well at the box office and was soon pulled from screens, a letter-writing campaign by its fans managed to get it back into theaters, and the film won many awards.

After the screening, the film's director, Jeong Jae-eun, will take part in a 90-minute Interview and Question and Answer session after the screening. After directing two features and several shorts, director Jeong moved to directing documentaries, including "Talking Architect" (2012), about celebrated maverick Korean architect Chung Guyon (a trailer is here) and "City:Hall" (2013), which examined the creative and political pressures that affected the controversial design of Seoul's new City Hall (a review is here).

While the screening is free, the there will be an admission fee (of perhaps 7,000 won) for the interview with the director to cover the cost of the interpreter, etc.

1. 2pm to 2:10pm – My introduction
2. 2:10pm to 4pm – Film screening
3. 4pm to 4:10pm – Interval
4. 4:10pm to 5:40pm – Interview and Question and Answer with Director Jeong Jae-eun.

Directions to Seoul Global Center's Haechi Hall can be found here and here, and more information about the film is here , and the screening, here.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Lawmaker criticizes textbooks for correctly describing the violence of the Samil protests

An article in today's Joongang Daily declares in its headline that "Textbooks do disservice to March 1 movement."
Rep. Han Sun-kyo, a lawmaker of the ruling Saenuri Party, told the JoongAng Ilbo on Thursday that he analyzed Korean and Japanese history textbooks he received from the Seoul-based think tank Northeast Asian History Foundation and Korea’s Ministry of Education and found the results troubling.

He said a “considerable number of Japanese history textbooks are distorting the facts or minimizing the significance of the March 1 Independence Movement.”

March 1, 1919, remains a touchstone of Korean nationalism as the day when activists declared Korea’s independence and triggered large-scale peaceful demonstrations against Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945).

One Japanese middle school history textbook published by Jiyusa says the March 1 independence movement in Seoul “initially was planned as a non-violent rally but gradually became a large-scale movement,” and that “the army was mobilized and because of a clash on both sides, there were many casualties.” [...]

But Han added that Korean history textbooks also have inaccuracies, and there are many cases where they “describe the non-violent March 1 movement as violent” or do not mention key events or figures such as Yoo Gwan-soon’s martyrdom. [...]

According to Han’s study, half of the eight Korean high school history textbooks inaccurately described the independence movement as being “violent.” Three other textbooks failed to describe the movement adequately.

He found that only one publisher, Chunjae Education, explained the movement accurately and in detail. “As time passed, the protests grew more intense and military and police fired at people during the demonstrations, leading to deaths,” it said. The text emphasized, “The demonstrations were highly regarded internationally for holding to the principle of non-violence while trying to express resistance to Japanese imperialism.”
The problem is, the textbooks describing the independence movement as being "violent" are being accurate. While some of the Japanese dispatches during the Samil Uprising reported in the New York Times described violence on the part of demonstrators, I didn't realize just how violent the protests were until I read Frank Baldwin's "Participatory Anti-Imperalism:The 1919 Independence Movement" (Journal of Korean Studies, Volume 1, 1979, pp. 123-162). One assumes this contains some of the material in his dissertation, "The March First Movement: Korean Challenge, Japanese Response" (Columbia University, 1969). In his article, he notes that between March 1 and April 10, 1919, there were "approximately 667 peaceful demonstrations" as compared with "approximately 460 violent incidents." Here is his description of the nature of the protests:
Initially the demonstrations were nonviolent, partly to enhance the moral appeal of the protest and partly because of the vastly superior Japanese police and army forces. The usual pattern of demonstrations was that activists assembled a crowd and a local leader read the declaration of independence. The crowd roared its approval and then marched around the area shouting for Korean liberty.

As the independence movement spread and intensified, however, its character changed into often violent confrontation. This was a response to the severe, frequently brutal suppression of the protest by the Government General, which included firing on unarmed crowds and torture of prisoners. In many areas, a peaceful demonstration was suppressed by the authorities with force, and resulted in violent counterattacks on police and gendarmes. In other areas, frustrations, anger, and pent-up grievances turned peaceful demonstrations violent even without official provocation. In still other cases, tension from sustained demonstrations and confrontations, probably exacerbated by official violence, erupted into assaults on Government General personnel and facilities. In late March and early April, parts of Korea were in open, bloody rebellion. Governor General Hasegawa Yoshimichi requested troop reinforcements

During March and April the first stage of the 1919 movement occurred—the overt and violent period. Hundreds of thousands of Koreans engaged in open political actions ranging from lusty shouts for freedom to intrepid assaults on Government General outposts and vengeful mutilation of unlucky Kenpeitai, the Japanese gendarmerie. The second stage of the movement began in May and lasted until about April, 1920. During this stage, the independence activists changed their form of political activity from overt protest to covert planning and organizing, mostly in support of the Korean provisional government formed in Shanghai on April 10, 1919. The presence of additional troops from Japan, mass-arrest tactics, and stringent security measures made open protest activity unfeasible if not impossible.
Before those additional troops arrived, however, the Government General was hard pressed to maintain control and protect its staff, settlers, and infrastructure:
The Government General juggled the available troops, withdrawing some from North and South P'yöng'an and Hwanghae, now regarded as safe, and assigned them to southern Korea, where the violence was rapidly spreading. On March 25 eight infantry companies were spread thinly over five southern provinces—North and South Kyöngsang, North and South Cholla, and South Ch'ungch'öng. The assignment was made with the hope that they would only be needed until March 30. But the Koreans kept up their attacks. Crowds formed everywhere in Seoul, stoning police stations and trolley cars. In five villages near Seoul, myön chiefs were threatened and myön offices attacked. In many places Koreans armed themselves with clubs and stones and attacked the closest police station or my on office. March 27 and 28 were frantic, tragic days as Koreans attacked in many localities only to be beaten off by troops and suffer heavy casualties. Thirty nine Koreans were killed in a single incident in Kyönggi Province. The governor general authorized new troop assignments on the 28th but the attacks continued. On March 31 Koreans armed with clubs, sickles, and other improvised weapons stormed gendarmerie units and police stations at several places in Kyönggi Province. They attempted, sometimes successfully, to burn the local public buildings—myön offices, post offices, police stations—and cut telephone lines. In one place the crowd tried to burn the stores of Japanese merchants. Many Koreans were killed and wounded in the assaults. Despite heavy casualties and against seemingly hopeless Koreans continued the fight. [...] April 2 was perhaps the bloodiest single day of the independence movement as Koreans continued their attacks on gendarmerie units, police stations, myön offices and school buildings. Demonstration marches were a thing of the past: these crowds were prepared to fight.
Below is a list of casualties on the Japanese side:

In a lengthy recounting of a violent protest in Sacheon, Pyeongannam-do on March 4, which Baldwin describes as a "typical demonstration that began peacefully and ended in violence," three Korean police officers are reported as being killed in addition to a Japanese police officer, which makes clear that the numbers above do not include Korean Government General employees, suggesting that more people died than are listed. Most ironic in the assertion that the Samil Protests were peaceful is this statement by Baldwin:
Because of continued Korean violence, the Government General requested troops from Japan, which served to further discredit Japanese rule in the colony and provided additional incentive for the Hara administration in Tokyo to make reforms. Violent forms of participation appear to have been most important in changing Japanese policy.
Additionally, the Jeam-ri massacre (looked at here) is better explained as the culmination of escalating violence on both sides rather than an out-of-the-blue mass killing by the (evil) Japanese.

The tale of "peaceful Samil demonstrations" serves the cause of depicting Koreans as a peaceful people beset upon by marauding outsiders; that is to say, victims with no responsibility for their actions. What better way to depict this fairy tale than a children's book about Yu Gwan-sun from the 한국 위인 전집 (Great people of Korea Collection) published by 노벨과 개미(looked at in more detail here):

Evil Japanese:

Peaceful, victimized Koreans:

Returning to the Joongang Daily article:
Han also found that only one publisher, Jihak Publishing, described the patriot [Yoo Gwan-sun] in its text. In contrast, four out of seven Japanese contemporary history textbooks included Yoo.
The omission of Yu Gwan-sun from Korean textbooks is rather interesting. She's become an icon of the independence movement, much as Sin Mi-seon and Sim Hyo-sun became icons for those protesting the presence of USFK in Korea. Here is a poster which was once on the wall of the Yu Gwan-sun Underground Cell building at Seodaemun Prison:

Can you imagine any of the male icons of the Korean independence movement being depicted in this way? Besides being the oddly cheerful face of the fight for independence, she's often depicted as the embodiment of victimization (and thus embodies Korea throughout its entire history, according to some nationalist takes on Korean history). Here she is in the 'Great people of Korea Collection' book about her:

She also helps sell chicken, apparently (from 2005):

"Eat Ddorae Orae Chicken and protect our land, Dokdo!"

The final paragraph of the Joongang Daily article offers this short biography of Yu:
Yoo (1902-1920) was a prominent independence movement activist who was one of the organizers of the March 1 movement. She eventually faced torture at the hands of Japanese officers and died in prison in September 1920. When her family asked for her body to be returned to them, Yoo’s body was returned cut into pieces.
In truth, most of the "organizers" of the movement offered themselves up for arrest after reading the declaration on March 1, essentially robbing the movement of its most respected leaders at its very inception. Yoo certainly organized protests in Cheonan after leaving the Ehwa school girl for girls, but is more likely remembered because she was a student at a prominent missionary school, and because she is the perfect symbol of innocence brutally snuffed out by the brutal Japanese. The main problem I have with the paragraph above, however, is that she was certainly not "cut into pieces." As is described by Jeannette Walter, an English teacher at Ehwa, in Donald Clark's "Living Dangerously in Korea (The Western Experience 1900-1950),"
Yu Kwansoon, a little sixteen-year-old girl, died in prison. We had her body brought back to the school, and the girls prepared cotton garments for her burial. [...] However, when I was in Korea in 1959, I was interviewed by a group from Kwansoon's school, and I assured them on tape that her body was not mutilated. I had dressed her for burial.
One wonders if it is Rep. Han Sun-kyo or the Joongang Daily that is responsible for that canard once again being trotted out. A disservice may be have been done to the memory of the Samil Movement, but I'm not convinced its the textbook makers who are responsible.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

'Ode to My Father' with English subtitles tomorrow

For those wanting to see 'Ode to my Father,' which I reviewed here (and looked at the history it depicts here), it will play with English subtitles at two CGV locations tomorrow (perhaps for the last time?):

Yeouido CGV, Feb 4, 7pm
Sinchon Artreon CGV, Feb 4, 7:55 pm

Friday, January 30, 2015

Stigma prevents hero's welcome for Ebola medics

A column in the Chosun Ilbo criticized the lack of hero's welcome given to the first group of nine Korean medical workers who returned from treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone for the last month. This is contrasted with America's response, where such workers were lauded as heroes by President Obama and selected as Person of the Year 2014 by Time Magazine. As is pointed out in the column, however,
Korea's medical workers were not just denied a hero's welcome -- they had to return home quietly due to fears that they and their family members would be treated as pariahs, shunned by a panic-stricken public, and asked for their identities not to be disclosed.
In fact, photos in articles about the doctors leaving for Africa in mid-December only show the doctors from behind. At first thought, this is very reminiscent of Korean attitudes towards people living with HIV/AIDS - see here, for example. But the more I think about it, I can think of other such examples, such as the way in which the children of people who were pro-North Korea were denied government jobs and other opportunities before the 1990s, or the way in which no student in school wants to associate with a child targeted as a "wangtta," fearing being tainted by the association, often leading to total isolation*, or - in a more humorous instance - the blogger Lost Nomad years ago wrote about how he could always get a great parking spot in his apartment building because no one wanted to park next to a particular, "dirty" car. Such stigma, and fear of "guilt by association," is troubling, to be sure.

* Years ago a student I got along well with one year became a wangtta the next year for several months, and though I talked to her previous and current home room teachers about the situation, and they knew who was responsible, they didn't seem to be able to do anything about it. It was heartbreaking to see the way in which she changed from a bubbly and outgoing to withdrawn and sullen.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Groove 100th issue fundraiser

Partly since I'm interviewed in this, I'm passing this on (though today is the last day of the gofundme campaign):
Groove Korea is celebrating its 100th issue in February! Thank you for 100 months of supporting Korea’s longest-running free expat community magazine.

Next month’s commemorative issue, our biggest ever, celebrates the expats who made a difference to their community and to Korea. Our volunteer writers and photographers have spent eight months hard at work on it. It is thick, shiny and expensive to print. To get this issue into the hands of the community, we need your help.

If you donate just $5, we will send one issue to your mailbox. If we meet our $5,000 (5 million won) target, we will match the cost and print 5,000 extra copies for the public, to be available at our regular locations in Seoul. (We’ll publish a list of our locations on

Plus, we’ll thank you for supporting us with higher donations with a commemorative poster and admission to our Groove 100th issue party @ DGBD in Hongdae on Feb. 7, featuring Part Time Cooks, HarryBigButton, Magna Fall, JoshRoy and Ssighborggggestra! (Party info here)

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The history depicted in "Ode To My Father"

In my previous post, I reviewed and offered an interpretation of the recent film "Ode To My Father (국제시장)." Along the way to writing the post I did quite a bit of reading about the events portrayed in the film, so below I will look at how the film followed (or didn't) the historical facts.

While the scene of a Korean begging the American general to save the refugees at Hungnam is not really what happened, it accords with the basic facts. Several accounts point to Dr. Hyun Bong-hak as being in great part responsible for the evacuation of almost 100,000 refugees from Hungnam. As this brief biographical entry about him describes it, he was from Hamheung and studied medicine at Severance Medical School before studying in the U.S. in the late 1940s. When the Korean War broke out, he headed south, treated wounded civilians, and volunteered his services as a translator for the U.S. Military, who asked him to work for the commander of the US X Army Corps in Hamheung. As his children described him in a recent Korea Herald article:
During the Korean War, our father served as a civil affairs Adviser to Maj. Gen. Edward M. Almond to help rebuild Hamheung, North Korea. Christianity had a strong foothold in Hamheung, so when the Americans liberated Hamheung from the communists, they were embraced by the locals.

Shortly thereafter, the U.N. forces began to retreat. This was disastrous for the Christians, local government leaders and anyone working for the U.N. Forces, as all would be tortured and massacred by the communists. Our father advocated for a civilian evacuation, stating, “It didn’t seem fair to me that those who had risked communist retaliation by cooperating with the Americans should be abandoned so readily.”

He received constant encouragement from Col. Edward R. Forney, the foremost amphibious expert at the time who masterfully plotted out how the evacuation would be implemented; and together, they met with Gen. Almond several times. Gen. Almond approved of the mission with a planned evacuation of 4,000-5,000 civilians from Hamheung to Heungnam by train.

The Hamheung railroad station was flooded with more than 50,000 people. Over 100,000 arrived at Heungnam Port circumventing the roads, which were reserved for military personnel and closely monitored by MPs. Blankets and rice were given to the refugees who remained at the port in minus 10 degrees Celsius weather.

The Meredith Victory was the last ship to leave the Heungnam Harbor, which was rife with mines. Designed to carry 12 passengers with a 47-person crew, it brought 14,000 refugees to safety and ultimately made it into the Guinness World Records as “the largest evacuation from land by a single ship.” The port was blown up to render it useless to the communist forces. Many civilians who should have been evacuated were left behind.
It's interesting that this account refers to many being left behind, while American accounts I've read describe getting all of the refugees out. For statistics, as this article notes,
At the finish a total of 105,000 US and ROK military personnel had been embarked and 91,000 civilian refugees. The statistics of supplies and equipment were equally impressive—17,500 vehicles and 350,000 measurement tons of cargo loaded out of Hungnam on 6 APA, 6 AKA, 12 TAP, 76 time-charter ships, 81 LST, and 11 LSD loads.
As for the aforementioned Meredith Victory, it appears in the movie as the ship they escape on. As it turns out, there is not only a book about this voyage - during which 5 babies were born - there is also a documentary that can be watched here, and a monument to the Hungnam evacuation which features a model of the Meredith Victory was unveiled in 2005 on Geoje-do, where the ship unloaded the refugees. This article also points to Maryknoll Father Patrick H. Cleary, a missionary in Korea who joined X Corps as a chaplain, as someone who contributed to the refugee rescue effort. What should be clear is that yes, there was a Korean who asked an American general to evacuate the refugees, but it certainly didn't happen at the last minute once the Americans were aboard and ready to leave, which makes them appear more callous than they were. This contributes to a social Darwinist view of the world as a harsh place in which Korea was the 'shrimp among [Chinese and American] whales' and had to beg the (initially cold and unwilling) Americans for help in order to survive.

Years after the war, once Deok-su had grown into a young man who worked as a labourer to support his family, he is convinced by his friend Dal-gu to apply to work in West Germany as miners, where they could make lots of money. These "workers sent to Germany" (padok nodongja) are examined in an article by Kim Won titled "Memories of Migrant Labor : Stories of Two Korean Nurses Dispatched to West Germany" [The Review of Korean Studies, 12(4), 2009.12, 111-151]. As the article notes,
In the case of mine workers, padok started in 1963 and continued until 1978. Until 1980, the Deutchemarks that a total of 7,936 padok miners and 10,032 padok nurses remitted to Korea were an important means of “foreign exchange earnings” (oehwa beori) and for solving the domestic labor surplus problem before the advent of a loan economy (cha-gwan gyeongje). At present [2009], about 5,000 out of the over 20,000 padok workers continue to live in Germany, and some 5,000 padok workers eventually chose to immigrate to the Americas. Among Korean residents in Germany, the number of nurses is said to be about 500 today. The last Korean miner retired in 2003.
The article also adds that in 1967, "padok workers’ remittances to Korea represented 36 percent of the total foreign exchange holdings of the country." It wasn't only men working as coal miners who worked in West Germany, however. Deok-su soon meets and falls in love with Yeong-ja, who is working as a nurse there. As the above article notes, Korean women were initially, in 1959, sent to Germany to study nursing for three years and then could work as nurses there. Then in 1966 a new phase began with the sending of nurses already trained in Korea to Germany, which was initially organized by a medical organization and coordinated by the Korean Foreign Development Corporation. These were all organized through civilian, medical, or Christian organizations, however and it wasn't until August 1969 that an agreement between South Korea and West Germany on the hiring of nurses was signed, and a quota was set. Prior to this agreement, 2,080 nurses had worked in Germany, and numbers increased a great deal in the ensuing years, as per the article:

In the end, some 18,000 Koreans worked as coal miners or nurses in West Germany and their earnings in foreign currency contributed a great deal to the growth of the Korean economy.

Another very large contribution to the Korean economy's growth was the Vietnam war, and Deok-su is depicted going to Vietnam with his friend Dal-gu to work as contractors and make lots of money. Over 300,000 Korean soldiers fought in the war, leaving behind a legacy, literally, of Korean-Vietnamese children abandoned by their fathers, as well as a reputation for brutality. In addition to these soldiers being paid in U,S. dollars, South Korea also benefited in many other ways from the Vietnam War (much as Japan did from the Korean War), as pointed out in "America's rented troops: South Koreans in Vietnam," by Frank Baldwin, which was published in the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars Volume 7 Number 4, and is available as a pdf here (pages 33-40):
The major forms of U.S. commercial assistance were procurement of war supplies in South Korea and construction/service contracts for R.O.K. firms in Vietnam. Among the major South Korean exports to Vietnam were military uniforms, jungle boots, corrugated metal roofing and cement. In the construction and service field, at one point more than eighty South Korean companies held contracts with the U.S. government in Vietnam. Their activities included construction and engineering, transportation of goods, and operating service facilities such as laundry shops and entertainment clubs. South Korean civilian workers in Vietnam were especially well rewarded. According to U.S. government estimates, there were sixteen thousand South Korean foreign contract workers in Vietnam (of a total of twenty-five thousand). Their annual earnings were $8,400-compared to an average of about $200 in South Korea.

ROK troops pulled out in March 1973, though the Korean military did send a ship to rescue South Koreans from Vietnam in 1975 as Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese. As described in "The Pursuit of State Status and the Shift toward International Norms: South Korea’s Evolution as a Host Country for Refugees," by Hans Schattle and Jennifer McCann, published in Journal of Refugee Studies (2014) 27 (3) (pgs 317-337):
The influx of Indochinese asylum seekers into South Korea began with the April 30, 1975 evacuation from Vietnam of a group of South Korean nationals, their non-South Korean family members, and a number of primarily Indochinese refugees by a South Korean military vessel (Korean Red Cross Busan Chapter 1993). In the absence of appropriate domestic legislation, the government treated arrivals on an ad hoc basis, setting up a temporary shelter in the port city of Busan. By the end of 1975, officials had managed to settle the 1,562 Indochinese refugees by encouraging female Indochinese refugees married to or in a common-law relationship with a South Korean national at the time of their arrival, to become naturalized citizens or by granting them a continuous permission of sojourn as a stateless person (South Korea did not officially recognize Vietnam at this time) (I. Chung 2009). By contrast, the 977 refugees without such ties to Korean nationals were quickly resettled in third countries (Korean Red Cross Busan Chapter 1993). Then in 1977 a new wave of Indochinese refugees poured into the South China Sea. However, unlike the refugees evacuated in 1975, the government perceived arrivals less as victims of political persecution than as so-called economic migrants (I. Chung 2009), and therefore responded by securitizing arrivals.
It goes on to explain that the ROK went out of its way to stop its ships from picking up Indochinese "boat people," firing a captain who did so and confining those boat people who did arrive to a newly built 'Vietnamese people’s relief center'. "Although criticized for such an approach (Koh 2011), officials pressed hard for third-country resettlement, and as a result, not a single Indochinese refugee who arrived between 1977 and 1989 was permitted to settle in South Korea."

I first became aware of the presence of Vietnamese refugees a few years ago when reading through Korea Herald articles from late 1975 and early 1976. Here is one from December 17, 1975:

Here is another from January 31, 1976:

As mentioned in the previous post, in 1983 KBS broadcast the TV show, "Reuniting Separated Families," planning only to do a single broadcast, but when it proved successful it continued for over four months and led to the reunion of over 10,000 separated families (episodes can be watched here).
The Korea Bang post linked to above says that the reason it took so long for such a reunion show to happen was that the government was too busy developing the country to care much about divided families, and that it was only by the 1980s that enough people had televisions for such a show to be effective. This misses an important factor, I think. Under the anti-communist governments of Syngman Rhee and Park Chung-hee, admitting that you had relatives that might be in North Korea was likely enough to make the authorities suspect your loyalty.

Hopefully the above information proves helpful for those who have seen "Ode To My Father" and wanted to learn more about the history it depicts.