Wednesday, August 31, 2005

North and South

This past weekend I had a chance to watch ‘A State of Mind’, a documentary which follows two young girls, aged 11 and 13, and looks at their lives at home, at school and as they go through intense gymnastics training. Sound pretty ho-hum? The fact the girls live in Pyongyang, and that they’re preparing to take part in the mass games North Korea is well known for tends to give it a bit of an edge over other documentaries of the genre.

When this documentary was filmed (by a British crew during the first 8 months of 2003) it was the first time foreigners had been allowed to see the home life of North Korean families, let alone film them. The result is a fascinating look at not just North Korea, but at South Korea as well, because such an intimate look at two North Korean families highlights the similarities and differences between Koreans on both sides of the DMZ.

Anyone with some awareness of Korea knows that the division of Korea has resulted in the Southern half being very much a part of the global economy, as well as inundated with western (read: American) popular culture, while the North has been, for the most part, cut off from the rest of the outside world (until very recently, with the influx of Chinese cell-phones and South Korean cultural products).

Therefore there are a number of things I noticed in the film, in the way the North Koreans acted, that must have come from the shared culture both Korean states arose from after 1945. In the end, these aren’t huge revelations, but they were, well, neat to see on the big screen. A lot of them were facial expressions, be they of exasperation, fatigue, or happiness, that I see in my students (many of whom are the same age as the girls in the movie), which I recognized as being very Korean traits. A lot of the interaction between the girls and their friends is no different than what I see among my students (playing ‘Rock Scissors Paper’ at one point, for example, though the words were different). There are a number of moments of home life shown, and we see typical scenes we’d see in apartments in any developed country, as many reviews have mentioned, like a mother scolding a daughter for not eating enough, or for watching TV when she should be doing her homework.

Seeing this kind of interaction would only have been possible in a documentary of this type. North Korean films (I’ve only seen one, and that was Bulgasari) are known for their overacting (and so are not so far removed from typical South Korean TV melodramas), and are not going to give us a very good look at how people actually act on a daily basis.

Now, one could argue that this film is not realy representative of North Korea, and that the people being filmed had to make sure they portrayed their country in the 'correct' way. Seeing as they were chosen by the government this is probably true; it’s quite likely that because the filmmakers were not censored by the North Korean authorities in any way, the onus was on the families to make sure there was nothing to censor. And yet, in comparison to another film (which I’ll get to in a moment) the people in ‘A State Of Mind’ seem quite relaxed and open. The reason for this, I would bet, is that they filmed these families for 8 months, which is more than enough time for someone, no matter how paranoid, to get used to your presence. (Of course, it goes without saying that a family in the central district of Pyongyang is not representative of the rest of North Korea.)

What struck me in watching some of the ‘quaint’ group dancing, or the family sing-alongs accompanied by accordian, guitar, or home karaoke machine, is that many of the styles of these sorts of things seem like they’re from the 1950s. One could argue that, being closed off in so many ways, the culture hasn’t ‘progressed’ the way other modern cultures have in the last 50 years, though this is basically just another way of saying that globalization has not really had much of an effect on the country as of yet. In the arena of popular culture, of course, the main exports American-led globalization has foisted upon the South has been computer games, pop music, movies, fast food and the internet itself, I suppose (as well as comics and animation, but in South Korea these arrived via Japan). Much of this is, if we take a second to notice, based on youth culture, something that first took off in the US (and Japan) 50 years ago, with the advent of rock and roll, which coincided with the US taking on the role of global superpower and allowing its corporations to become transnational and move around the world. This same globalized consumerist youth culture only began to really take off in South Korea around the time of the 1988 olympics, after the end of the dictatorships and organizing of unions drove up wages and created the internal, consumer-based economy (as opposed to the production-oriented export economy it had utilized to achieve its startling economic growth). This consumerist culture has changed the face of Korea (the massive increase in cars and freeways being one example) and Korean culture (and hell, even Korean faces and bodies, if you want to consider the popularity of plastic surgery and the effects of eating too many burgers, donuts and fries).

The westernization of South Korean popular culture (and of indeed, much of the world’s popular culture or their societies in general) makes the behaviour of North Koreans look rather bizarre; this film goes a long way towards making them seem like people, albeit people in a very bizarre set of circumstances. The differences caused by the South's adoption of western popular culture were very clear in a clip I saw awhile back of a South Korean boy 'band' performing in Pyongyang. They danced and sang their Backstreet Boys, uh, homage, the same as they always did in the South - except the North Korean audience just sat there, stone faced, not clapping. I was reminded of this when I read about Cho Yong-pil's performance in Pyongyang last week. At first the crowd gave him a similar response, but in the end he won them over, but not without having been gone through what he told the audience was one of the more nerve wracking performances of his life. Apparently, the newer songs did little for the audience; it was the classics which caused them to break into applause. Perhaps, to break into the Northern market in the future, Southern artists (I use that term loosely) may have to delve into past styles of music - which is not an impossible task when one considers that K-pop artists [>cough<] have always been good at mixing genres, often on a single cd. As the Minjung movement reclaimed (and rejuvenated) traditional art and musical forms to use in its battle against the dictatorship, perhaps reunification (one of the goals of the Minjung movement, after all) could be another opportunity to narrow the gap between the two populations by finding common ground in older, shared culture. Who knows if it could happen, and if it did, whether it would be motivated by social justice concerns, or by profit. In considering the gulf between the two populations, I can’t help wondering if it’s precisely because of the fact that the North hasn’t run headlong into an embrace with the west (like the South has), that it has perhaps preserved some of things that make Koreans, well, Korean, in a way the South hasn’t. There. I said it. Now, I realize what constituted their shared identity before the division had been very influenced by Japan for 40 years, (and China for centuries, and Mongolia for decades). I also realize that what could be termed North Korea's 'better preservation' of this identity has come at a cost that’s far too high, and that it has engendered ‘non-Korean’ behavior (like eating tree bark, corn cobs, and, refugees say, human corpses). I’m also fully aware that the reason western culture hasn’t made any inroads into North Korea is because of an information blockade designed to keep its people isolated from the rest of the world in order to make possible the belief that they are lucky to live in the country they do (and uphold the system their rulers exploit). B.R. Myers goes into some detail here about the xenophobia that has been the result of such a blockade policy, which is on display in the film. All I am really saying is that I hope when South meets North, the culture clash that reunification will bring about may cause some reflection amongst the Southerners – that they ask, “why are we so different?”

One reason they’re so different, anyone with a healthy antagonism towards the Northern leadership will tell you, is because of 60 years of propaganda, the effect of which is made clear in the film “North Korea: A Day In The Life,” which was filmed last year. The film traces the experiences of a family over the course of (ostensibly) a single day, and cross cuts between each of their experiences. A girl is taken to a kindergarten and told ‘as flowers need the sun, you need the love of the great leader’, before being shown an exemplary story of Kim Jong-Il’s childhood. Her mother goes to work in a textile factory that suffers through blackouts, (blamed on the US - like I needed to say that) and takes part in a self criticism session. The girl’s kindergarten teacher takes part in a criticism session, as she and other teachers discuss the meaning of the parable she was trying to teach the children that day. The girl’s uncle goes to an English class, which showcases, remarkably, the most humorous and light-hearted parts of the film. At the end everyone goes home and the girl’s grandfather shows his pleasure at his young granddaughter cursing the Americans, and explains how a US bombing raid killed his father and brother and destroyed his home. While those who suffered under American bombing raids in Germany, Japan, even Vietnam, have in general forgiven those who bombed them, in North Korea this intense hatred of the US is inculcated by the state.

Throughout the film we are inundated with propaganda, much of which is so woven into the fabric of the family members’ lives that it seems to escape their notice. Propaganda posters (like these), showing the life of Kim Il Sung in such a way as to remind one of illustrations of biblical scenes in childrens books, can be found everywhere in the film. The oppressive feeling the film creates is helped by the fact that the subjects of this film are nowhere near as comfortable with the camera’s presence as they were in “A State Of Mind”. Worth mentioning as well is the fact that the North Korean government actively took part in the making of this film, though as a commenter at IMDB put it “there is a jarring dissonance between what they must think is their "best face" and what international viewers will probably see as grim, claustrophobic, and stultifying”.

Still, while the scenes of kindergarten students sitting perfectly still for minutes at a time seem utterly alien and disturbing to someone who has taught South Korean kindergarten students before, the scenes of the uncle’s adult English class seem incredibly familiar. In fact, some of the students in the film remind me of some of my own adult students, making it clear that, whatever the differences, they are still people of a similar culture and the same language learning English, so the differences aren’t going to be vast. On the other hand, my experiences as a teacher here have made it clear that the culture shock South Korea alone is going to experience during the coming of age of a more selfish, consumerist generation raised on the internet during the backlash against past authoritarian governments is going to be startling. In the end, the generation gap in the North is likely quite small in comparison to that which will become apparent in the South as years go by. In ten years time, which gulf will be larger - that between that between the North and South, or that between the generations in the South?

Both of these films can be found by searching on emule. A State Of Mind is playing in Seoul for 2 more days (as well as across the US at the moment). It's well worth it to watch the trailer and music video on the State Of Mind website if you get the chance - the video has some of the dizzying footage of the mass games the girls perform in at the end of the film.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Pants Dropping Leads to Trail of Media Droppings

[Update - The outcome of the trial is here.]

On July 30, two Korean punk rockers dropped their pants and jumped around naked for 4 or 5 seconds on live TV, causing a scandal in the Korean media and amongst the netizens. It's a tale that involves politicians, police, a broadcast commission, netizens, a musicians' PR group, a TV producer's PR group, an overzealous mayor,and a dozen or more media outlets (a few of them foreign) producing (at times) oodles of nonsensical editorial commentary tinged with moral outrage, as well as a great deal of bile directed at the indie music scene that produced the two guys who dropped their pants. This lengthy post will follow the media trail from roiling overreaction to eerie quiet.

While the Chosun Ilbo, for example, had already published 6 articles on the 30th in it's online Korean edition, the first article to appear in English in the Korean media was on the 31st, by the Chosun Ilbo, and was titled "Punk Rockers' Privates in Affront to Korea's 'Bourgeois'":

In an unprecedented affront to Korea’s conservative mores, two members of a punk rock band lived up to their music’s history of subversion when they exposed their private parts on live TV during family viewing time on Saturday.

The Joongang Ilbo's first article, from August 1, "Rockers drop trousers, raise public ire" began in a somewhat more subdued fashion:
In an apparent first for Korean television, two rock musicians exposed themselves during a live broadcast Saturday afternoon, leading to a public uproar and an apology from the MBC network.
The Donga Ilbo's article, "Naked Bodies Shown for Five Seconds on Live TV", also from August 1, had a similarly subdued opening:
During a live music program, two performers took off their clothes and exposed their genitalia for four to five seconds on national TV, an unprecedented accident in Korean broadcasting history.
The best opening line is likely to be found over at, in the article "Korean wardrobe malfunction":
For the first time in Korea's 5000 year history, two rock musicians exposed themselves during a live broadcast Saturday around 4:15 p.m.
This of course is not a mainstream news article, and is presumably taking the piss; of course, I might be wrong about that. Head over there to look at all the pictures of the incident.

The incident in question took place during the MBC show Music Camp,’’ a weekly music show broadcast live on Saturday afternoons, which, my students tell me, showcased a variety of up and coming bands (even 'reggae' bands, apparently). According to the Donga Ilbo article,
“Is this song good?” is a section that introduces an underground band every week, recommended by five music experts. A music critic, Park Joon-heum (43), who introduced RUX to the program, said, “The band members say that they performed in the way they normally did, but there is no indie bands that exposes their privates in clubs.”
Apparently, that may be wishful thinking on his part, but we'll get to that later. Right now, we need the Chosun Ilbo to describe what happened:
Punk rockers RUX were performing at about 4:15 when two members of another band named Couch including a 20-year-old man identified as Oh appeared on stage and took off their pants, one prancing all over the stage naked while the other had his trousers around his ankles. The cameras caught some four seconds of their display before panning away to the audience.

Yup, it looked something like that. Oh, if that's not enough for you, the uncensored video is here (right click and save as). The Donga Ilbo continues:
After the incident, the MBC website and other message boards were flooded with critical comments from netizens. Over 10,000 replies were posted on the message board for viewer’s opinions of Music Camp, shutting down the server temporarily. As the footage and captured photos of the scene are rapidly spreading on the Internet, website operators are busy deleting them.

During the rest of the show, the show hosts repeatedly apologized for the accident, and apologizing subtitles also appeared. The MBC network announced an official apology on its website and on News Desk, its daily news program, saying, “We offer a heartfelt apology to viewers for the indecent accident that occurred during a live show.
The Chosun Ilbo tells us that
Incensed viewers said an apology was not enough and the broadcaster should be punished. Some asked how MBC proposed to compensate teenagers, the largest age group watching the show, for the emotional shock [or "trauma"] they sustained. The two Couch members were arrested, as was the RUX lead singer for inviting them on stage, and are being investigated for violating public decency.
The Joongang Ilbo continues:
The musicians are being tested for drugs.... Police ordered them to provide urine samples, which tested negative for evidence of drug use. Police sent samples of their hair to the National Institute of Scientific Investigation for further drug testing.
The Korea Times' August 1 article, "Music Show Canceled After Indecent Exposure" brought us this news:
MBC television network decided on Sunday to shut down its live music program after members of a local underground band were arrested for indecent exposure after a telecast Saturday.Music Camp,’’ a weekly music show broadcast live on Saturday afternoons, will be taken off the air, the network decided during an emergency meeting in Seoul.
The article goes on to quote Korea Broadcasting Commission official Kim Chang-keun as saying, The unthinkable has happened. We are reviewing the appropriate action to be taken against the station,’’ a review planned for that day; the KBC would meet ahead of schedule. Another Korea Times article that day, "Sanctions on MBC Music Show Delayed", described the outcome of this review of MBC and the now cancelled "Music Camp":
The Korea Broadcasting Commission (KBC) said that [t]he level of disciplinary action for the incident of indecent exposure will be announced on Aug. 11. The commission also mentioned that it will soon enact stronger measures such as the levying of heavy fines to prevent such incidents which invade socially acceptable boundaries.
We can't have one of these popular gusts blow across the media and cyberspace without the government, in this case a regulatory body, getting involved, now can we? Not everyone agrees with this of course:
Monday morning, prior to the announcement by KBC, broadcasting producers from the Broadcasting Producer Association of Korea made an official statement arguing that disciplinary actions shouldn’t be used as another form of measures to censor programs.
And from the cultural side:
Of course, there is no doubt that their wrongdoings should be criticized and punished,’’ said Kim Heoun-sic, a pop culture critic. But it would be wrong that all independent bands may suffer blame for this, and it is even more ridiculous’’ to cancel a music program because of an unexpected incident without considering its original purpose, which is to share a diversity of culture with viewers by inviting these independent bands, Kim added. The effort of the producers of the program to introduce underground music every week should be considered.’’
Of course, not everyone appreciates the efforts of these 'vulgar' TV producers, as an August 1 Korea Times editorial titled "Public Insult on Air: Rockers' Indecent Acts Should Be Sternly Dealt With" makes clear. I've quoted at length from it, as it's such a hoot:
Nothing can defend two male dancers’ exposure of genitals during the MBC’s live music show on Saturday afternoon. The incident, unprecedented not only in Korea but probably abroad as well, should never have happened in the first place. Now that it has, however, law enforcement authorities should harshly punish both the performers and broadcasters so that it never happens again. And this should serve as an occasion to look into broadcasting practices and popular culture in Korea overall.

That's right, nothing like this has ever happened in the world. I take the writer doesn't watch much American football. While the mention of targeting popular culture might worry the aforementioned critic, it's pretty clear who the writer is gunning for:

Right after the incident, the MBC took a series of damage-control steps, filing charges against performers, disciplining its own production staff and suspending the show. The network broadcaster then suggested the happening was a premeditated move. The dancers in question, however, said they were just overwhelmed with fun, and did not know it was a live program. Watching them pass the buck, and not take responsibility, is as egregious as their lewd behavior was a public insult on air.

The independent rock bands’ behavior is inexcusable by any standard, as it was nothing but a kind of sexual harassment of national proportions. Live or filmed, they performed in front an audience of hundreds, composed mostly of teenage girls. But who are MBC producers and directors to let these sickening scenes be aired for 12 seconds? The broadcaster cites difficulties of live music shows, but the main PD was not even aware of the performers’ faces, nor the fact that their costumes praised Japan’s militarist past.

"Public insult on air","Sexual harrassment of national proportions", "sickening scenes"; oh what fun! I'm reminded of H.L. Mencken's definition of puritanism: "The haunting feeling that someone, somewhere, may be happy." Granted, someone made a point that if you were at home watching this with your children, you'd be angry, and sure, if I thought there were more than 10 Korean families watching punk rock on TV together, I might be inclined to agree. The point is that it's teenagers (and teenage girls at that) that this writer seems so worried about. An August 4 Canadian Press article played up the "nation in shock" angle with quotes like "It was shocking," said [a 23 year old female student] "I felt disgusted." or "It's as if they've committed sexual violence against all viewers," (a knee slapper attributed to a Joongang Ilbo editorial). I've found that many of these teenage girls they're so worried about (amongst my students) found the whole incident to be more funny than shocking. Perhaps the nation's "vulgar broadcasting culture" is to blame for this.

The Korea Times' editorial misrepresents the amount of time that they were naked onscreen for (from 4-5 seconds to 12 seconds) and exaggerates when it says that "their costumes praised Japan’s militarist past", as only one member wore the Clash shirt in question (a controversy the Marmot examined briefly here) . The editorial ends with the suggestion that "KBC should hasten to devise effective regulation."

By the end of the day, the story had made Reuters, which ran with the headline "S.Korean rockers perform naked on live TV show." The next day, August 2, saw a rather remarkable Korea Times article (at least for Korean media in English) titled "Newspapers Divided Over MBC Live Show":
The recent incident of indecent exposure on a live music program on MBC has brought different reactions from newspapers, with conservative dailies heavily criticizing the broadcaster and moderate media remaining cautious on the issue.

The Chosun Ilbo, the biggest conservative daily, made the story one of its top headlines Monday and questioned MBC’s responsibility for the incident. Yesterday, it again criticized terrestrial broadcasters on its front page and all of page 3 with the headline, "Uncontrolled Broadcasting, Nobody Responsible for It."

Another conservative daily, the Donga-A Ilbo Daily, was more adamant in lashing out at the broadcaster. With the headline "Wanting to Turn off Terrestrial Channels" on Monday, the daily insisted that the gate-keeping ability of broadcasters KBS and MBC have virtually collapsed. It devoted almost half of the day’s second page to covering the incident of exhibitionism. It also reported a related story the same day on its third page.

The conservative papers’ all-out criticism shows a stark contrast with that of progressives such as The Hankyoreh, which reported the incident on its ninth page in a single article on Monday only. Its title was "Incident Feared to Distort Image of Independent Music Culture."

Meanwhile, the JoongAng Ilbo, one of the three major conservative papers, remained cautious. It reported the incident only on the 10th page on Monday.

Other relatively neutral dailies, the Hankook Ilbo and the Kyunghyang Daily News, raised the issue of sensationalism on televised entertainment programs, but did not target the broadcasters’ gate-keeping processes.

A civic group called Citizens’ Coalition for Democratic Media on Monday issued a statement and suggested that the broadcasters overhaul the reviewing system to prevent recurrence of the undesirable incident. It also warned that a few newspapers should not exaggerate the fault of the broadcaster, calling the papers’ criticism "mere mudslinging."
It's interesting to view this event in terms of how much different media outlets are criticizing MBC, (something prevalent in the Korean language media) as opposed to the moral outrage that seems to dominate in the English language media. (The article neglects to mention anything about the Korea Time's own point of view, though it does mention the Hankook Ilbo, it's sister publication, describing it as 'neutral' (is it now?)) Also worth noting is that far more Korean language articles were published online than English ones (for example, the first Korean language article to be published by the Chosun Ilbo about the scandal has a list at the bottom of all the related articles it published online - over 30 of them, which appeared over 6 days, 20 of which on the first two days alone!)

Of course, while media outlets were displaying their moral outrage, attacking MBC and calling for more regulation, the police were investigating the men who had dangled their penises in front of the nation. According to the first Korea Times article:

The two musicians, whose full names were withheld, were arrested almost immediately after the show. Although Won Chong-hi, the lead vocalist of RUX, did not expose himself, he was also arrested for having invited the members of Couch, aged 20 and 27, on the show.

"I knew the program was a live show, but I don’t think the others did,’’ Won said in an interview with a news program on MBC. "But I am really sorry. I didn’t know the incident would create so much controversy.’’

Won added that although the bands are well known for being free and experimental during their club shows, they have never done such a thing during any of their performances.

Regarding them never having done such a thing before, an August 2 Korea Herald article, "Police to probe funk band; Was TV flashing planned?" had a slightly different take:

While admitting the scene was not fit for public broadcast, Won Jong-hee, the leader of Rux, said that the kind of performance seen during the MBC broadcast is common at clubs in Hongdae region, a hot clubbing district. "We are free to perform there. Sometimes we break a guitar or bottles of beer," Won said.

Of course, seeing as the Herald can't even get the genre of music right (a funk band?), there may be confusion over what was meant by that "kind of performance" which was said to be common - the direct quote from Won Jong-hee says nothing about nudity. Still, his perhaps off-the-cuff comment (not translated in its entirety by any paper) could have consequences for the music scene in Hongdae.

At any rate, while the previously quoted Korea Times article ended by saying "They are still being questioned about whether or not they knew it was a live broadcast when they exposed themselves", this Herald article made clear that MBC thought the 'exposure' was planned:

Kim Young-hee, director of the MBC's entertainment bureau, cited four reasons; 1) the two wore clothing which can be easily pulled down with a zipper and they did not wear underwear. 2) they exchanged eye signs before taking off their clothes 3) they wore heavy make-up 4) they did not identify themselves as a separate act, Couch, while performing on the show with Rux.

While police investigated further, the Seoul city government apparently felt left out and decided to get involved:

Seoul Mayor, Lee Myung-bak, weighed in on the issue, saying each ward should supervise obscene performances and make a blacklist of the acts who do them.

"Given that the accused said that indecent performances happen every night at clubs in the Hongdae area, the performance, which is not generally accepted, has not been regulated by the authorities," Lee said in a meeting with executive members of the Seoul metropolitan government.

This is also elaborated on in this article:

Lee, a member of the conservative GNP, ordered officials of the Seoul City government Monday to draw up a “blacklist’’ of bands whose performances are “decadent and not socially acceptable.’’ Those bands will not be invited to events organized by Seoul City or affiliated institutions, Lee said. The mayor also demanded that each district office strengthen control over possible decadent public performances.

Of course, this got a pretty quick response:

“Lee’s instruction is an irresponsible attempt to jump on the bandwagon of public opinion which is formed without concrete knowledge about the local scene and club culture,’’ said Cultural Action, a civic group, in a statement. “That kind of order violates human rights in an attempt to regulate citizens’ diverse cultural tastes by means of administrative power,’’ the statement said.

As an August 2 Chosun Ilbo article "Seoul Mayor Blasted for Authoritarian Mindset" tells us, it was more than just civic groups who were angered by the (GNP) mayor's actions:

Uri Party lawmaker Kim Hyun-mee said Tuesday Lee's order to draw up a blacklist of artists that will be excluded from Seoul City events was a concept befitting a "disciple of Yushin." "I'm not sure if deciding who can and cannot be invited to performances under Seoul City is up to the mayor, but it's really an anachronistic and absurd order,” Kim said. “So I say Mayor Lee is an antiquated and dangerous figure." "To cry for a blacklist, label 'indie' culture subversive and try to restrict it is something the ghosts of the Yushin era would do."

The indie community based in Hongdae responded quickly to this challenge (and the negative publicity from the incident itself), as the article continues:

Meanwhile, indie musicians active in the clubs around Hongik University and club managers held a press conference Tuesday to apologize for Saturday's incident but warn it should not be used as a rope to hang all of indie culture with.

As the Korea Times tells us in an article titled "Hongdae Community Distances Itself From `Music Camp' Incident",

Hongik University is an institution especially well known for its fine arts department, but the mushrooming of underground venues across the college front set off an explosion of musical energy that later evolved to become the launching pad for many talented acts.

(For more information about the history of the Hongdae club scene, do read this Korea Times article from a few months ago) The previous Chosun Ilbo article continues it's description of the indie community's press conference:

“There are about 30 clubs around Hongik University and about 500 active bands, and they have diverse music, genres and styles of expression."

They said the show “Music Camp”, cancelled after the two musicians exposed themselves on the program, "newly attempted to focus attention on the cultural diversity and musical healthiness of indie music... We propose a signature campaign to the culture and art and pop music worlds to have the program restarted."

An August 3 Korea Herald article, "Hongdae musicians apologize for flashing", adds that "The musicians supported the claim that Rux and Couch did not plan the flashing incident beforehand, but that it was a spontaneous broadcasting accident." A Joongang Ilbo op-ed titled "A little obscenity can boost a career" makes it clear whether it thought the incident was an accident:

Last weekend, there was a major incident on a broadcast network when two young men performing in a rock concert exposed themselves on live television. It was obscenity, of course, but were these performers merely showing symptoms of exhibitionism, or did they have another goal in mind?
Since when is it necessary to treat audiences this recklessly in the pursuit of money and fame? It is said that there aren't even specific laws that can be applied to punish this kind of broadcasting "accident."

Well, the title said it was about obscenity, but it seems to be gunning for a certain 'broadcast network'. As the title of the (completely unsurprising) August 3 Korea Times article "Parties to Toughen Broadcasting Rule" tells us, it would appear these media exhortations for more regulation had paid off:

The ruling Uri Party plans to revise the Broadcast Act to dispense stronger punishment to broadcasting stations that disobey regulations, a party lawmaker said Wednesday.

“First we will ask broadcasting stations to intensify activities on their own for reviewing content,’’ said Rep. Kim Jae-yun, a Uri Party member and a member of the National Assembly’s Culture and Tourism Committee. “But we’re also considering revisions of the Act that will levy heavier fines on regulatory violations as in the United States,’’ Kim said.

The largest opposition Grand National Party (GNP) also came up with a similar idea. Rep. Shim Jae-chul of the GNP, also a member of the Culture and Tourism Committee, said that he will propose a revision to the Broadcast Act soon.

Scandals like these tend to provoke some sort of quick action or proposals by the government or politicians. English Spectrum Gate led to more crackdowns on foreign teachers, Dogshit Girl led to the proposal of the 'real name' system, and now some naked dancing on TV has lead to proposals to toughen broadcast laws.

While politicians devised plans to make sure this never happened again, the police had an announcement to make on August 4. In aJoongang Ilbo article titled 'Police say musicians planned TV incident' it was stated that

If the musicians are determined to have planned the incident in advance, they could be charged not just with breaking laws pertaining to public performance, but with interfering with a business, which could mean a maximum jail term of five years instead of one. MBC yesterday filed a complaint with police accusing the musicians of interfering with its business.

The Chosun Ilbo article, 'Indie Flashers Planned Exposure in Advance', tells us that

Police said Shin and Oh hatched the plan at a billiards hall near Hongik University on July 27, three days before an MBC daytime program beamed their private parts across the nation. The day before the show, Shin met the 25-year-old lead singer of the group RUX, identified as Won, at a swimming pool at Hangang Citizens Park and let him in on the scheme.

However, officers said, "Considering the gravity of the act, which as a preplanned incident not only had an ill influence on minors but also harmed a healthy performance culture, we have decided to punish [the offenders] strictly."

The force said it could not rule out copy-cat acts with a detrimental effect on minors and vowed to “expand our investigation into unhealthy and corrupt performance venues and related businesses near Hongik University.

Interesting that they cited the harm caused to a 'healthy performance culture' as a reason to punish them, when in the same breath they mention 'unhealthy and corrupt performance venues'. Perhaps one reason why they plan to investigate in the Hondae area further may be due to what the Korea Times article 'Band Members Planned Indecent Exposure' confirms:

The police also found that the two members of Couch previously dropped their pants during their own club performances in July and August.

I guess the statement Rux's lead singer made about this kind of thing happening often did refer to 'exposure'. Though Rux's singer didn't drop his pants himself, he too will be charged:

The police will formally charge the two musicians of Couch for putting on an obscene performance and for obstructing the work of a television network. Won, who did not drop his pants, will also be charged for the obstruction.

The obstruction charges, again, raise the possiblity of a maximum 5 year jail sentence. Another Joongang Ilbo article reviews the same information here, while a picture can be found here. The same day saw a Korea times article about the upcoming Seoul Fringe Festival called 'Celebrating Independent Spirit' which referred to the scandal before discussing the Hongdae-based festival:

Ever since members of punk band Couch flashed their private parts to television viewers across the country, the alternative culture community in the Hongdae area in Seoul has come under the microscope.

It goes on to say that the festival "should be the perfect opportunity to show the nation a better side of the independent art spirit." A Joongang Ilbo article on the same topic also begins by mentioning "the media bashing of indie bands", without mentioning the role it played in that bashing.

One of the most bizarre articles to invoke the scandal was an August 8 Donga Ilbo article titled 'The “Let’s-Get-Naked” Culture', which, after presenting a history of nudism, tells us:

If the right to get naked should be respected, what also needs to be respected is one’s right to choose not to see others naked in time and places he or she does not want. For “Couch,” the indie band who stirred a huge controversy by exposing their naked bodies on television, their bodies might be a means of expressing art. For others, however, their expression of art can be an attack or pollution.

Uhhhh. Ok. I don't think anyone ever suggested that pulling your pants down and dancing naked on live TV was art. Methinks the Donga Ilbo staff had a lot of time on their hands, or perhaps a writer who had always wanted to write an article about the history of nudism finally saw their chance and took it. Speaking of half-baked writing, someone should have told AFP that using the Korea Herald as a news source isn't really the best idea. In an August 4 article titled 'Dancers charged for going naked on TV' we are told that "Police said they had asked for court approval to arrest the two members of funk group RUX on charges of obscenity." Ah yes, that funk group RUX. They sound a bit like that reggae band, Coldplay.

Good news, though. As the title of a Joongang Ilbo article from Friday August 5 tells us, "Free-spirited Hongdae still clubbers' mecca":

Earlier this week, the police vowed to crack down on Hongdae clubs, following an incident of indecent exposure last Saturday by The Couch, an underground rock band from the Hongdae area, live on MBC-TV.
However, the Hongik University neighborhood, largely known for its rowdy clubs, remained vibrant and wild-spirited on Thursday night, while patrons say the area is still their haven for free expression and stress relief.
While no band members exposed themselves on Thursday night, outrageous acts were still in store. Various bands screamed into the microphone, jumping up and down in front of sweaty audiences, while one performer wound the wire from his microphone around his neck and bit down on his guitar.
"Here I can enjoy fresh performances by underground bands that I cannot see on TV," said a 31-year-old office worker who requested anonymity.
"All my stress is gone while I am screaming and jumping in the club," he added.

Moving from sweaty punk clubs to the 'psychedelic lights' of dance clubs, the article describes the scene: "In one dance club, a man and woman in their 20s danced together in moves that one clubgoer, who has been a patron of Hongdae for five years, described only as sexual." The articles ends by telling us just how decadent these clubgoers are: "many of those out on Thursday headed home at 5 a.m. the next day." The horror.

While this article was quite harmless, an August 5 Korean-language article by the Herald Business News titled "Hongdae - A one night stand area for foreigners", which was translated by the Marmot here, has the kind of xenophobic (if not racist) commentary reminiscent of English Spectrum Gate. Here are a few examples:

[Referring to 2002, after the Anti-US hate-a-thon saw many foreigners banned from Hongdae's clubs] Local residents openly complained that the Hongik area had been ruined “because of the U.S. soldiers and foreigners,” and club officials thoroughly put an end to the improper foreign club culture.

Hongdae is now an area hot with youthful passion that has degenerated from being mixed up with foreigners. As the recent act of indecent exposure by a punk band on live TV showed, the diversity and individuality of the area in front of Hongik University is nowhere to be found.

Ah, so this makes sense. Those crazy guys who dropped their pants - they did it under the influence of foreign culture! Blame the foreigners! And I like that non sequitor of a last sentence. A quick question - isn't a lot of the diversity of Hongdae precisely because it's a place where different cultures collide? Many of Korea's best bands have cut their teeth performing in the Hongdae area, and have been influenced by foreign music (punk, indie rock, electronic, post rock), and if not for these bands, the state of Korean music would be woeful indeed. Of course, most of the more interesting bands out there can only be found by doing some searching - the independent scene, as far as the number of fans is concerned, is very small. Most people you talk to will tell you they like pop or ballads (arrgh), not rock or electronic music, and every time I hear that I think, 'ah, so you're one of the reasons few good bands ever come to Korea to perform' (whereas everybody makes their way to Japan at some point, as Japan has had a thriving underground scene for a long time - one of the advantages of not having had decades of authoritarian governments and curfews, I guess). Ok, ok, the rant is over. (If you want a first hand account of how the 'improper foreign club culture' (as far as electronic music clubs are concerned) got its kickstart, Bug 5 has an interview with the founder of Sickboy Productions (a small tidbit of which can be found here.)

The final chapter of this tale (at least in the English language media (and until the trial of the 3 musicians who have been arrested)) is found in a Korea Times article from August 12 titled "Broadcasting Commission Punishes Controversial Programs":

The commission ruled Thursday that the producers of MBC’s live music show, ``Music Camp,’’ and KBS’s sitcom, ``Old Miss Diary,’’ should be disciplined by their respective networks, which were also ordered to make official apologies to viewers. In addition, the offending episodes have been banned from rebroadcast and retransmission.

``By telecasting live the indecent exposure of musicians, the program failed to carry out its responsibilities operating under a major TV network, provided a negative influence on societal values, and violated rules regarding sexual expression,’’ said an official from KBC in regard to ``Music Camp.’’

As ``Music Camp’’ has been cancelled, its official apology will be shown before the airing of its replacement program, ``MBC Special.’’ The networks are also required to report to the commission on the punishments they will hand down to the employees at fault within a week.
And so we come to the end of a tale (for now). I'm sure when the three punk kids come to trial we'll hear more, but for now I hope we won't be hearing any more about the mayor's plan to have the city monitor shows in Hongdae. Of course, these incidents, while featuring a lot of heated commentary that gets tossed off due to the centrifugal force of the scandal, do tend to have one or two longer term consequences - I just hope that this time the strengthening of broadcast rules is where it ends.


The Joongang Ilbo has a rather good article titled Society’s ambivalence about nudity emerges in reactions to art which makes mention of the Couch scandal. And this Chosun Ilbo article talks about nudity in clubs in Seoul (not in Hongdae, though).

Sunday, August 21, 2005


The word 'Sonagi' is sometimes translated as 'shower' (perhaps that's why the brand name on my shower head is 'sonaki'?) but a better translation would be 'cloudburst'. The weather in Seoul this August has featured a good many of these sudden downpours; sometimes there have been 4 or 5 in a single day, making it necessary to carry an umbrella with you at all times.

What prompted this post, however, was not the rain, or my showerhead, but that fact that, after complaining here that I couldn't find it, I finally found a translation of Hwang Sun-won's short story Sonagi online.

Sonagi has been a staple in Korean middle school textbooks for a long time, so most people in Korea would know it. Kim Jong-hoi writes that
"It is such a profound presentation of a subtle emotional connection between a boy and a girl, an exchange so tender and frail that one does not dare call it love."
Cha Tae-hyun's character in the movie My Sassy Girl (엽기적인그녀) makes a comment about Sonagi saying that since everyone has read it, it has influenced the Korean affinity for melodrama (this is followed by a scene in which the story is parodied in a pretty twisted (and hilarious) manner). It should be said, though, that Sonagi is not melodramatic; excessive melodrama is so common in Korean film and TV that I can think of few Korean films that have love and death that aren't overly melodramatic. The only one I can name off the top of my head would be Hur Jin-ho's Christmas in August (8월의크리스마스

At any rate, the story can be found here (scroll down to the very bottom; the aforementioned essay by Kim Jong-hoi about Hwang Sun-won's writing may be worth a read as well). If you look through other issues of the magazine, there are also other stories translated.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Gaming to Death II

What's scary about this is that it's not at all surprising. It's certainly not the first time someone has died after played computer games at a PC room nonstop for days. The earlier death came after 86 hours, while the latest guy died after only 50 hours of play. The fact that he "reportedly slept on a makeshift bed in the Internet cafe's administrative office" is rather disturbing, though it's not at all surprising that the PC room staff would encourage someone to spend money at their establishment. Business is business, right? I'd like to say that I doubt we'll see many editorials calling for tighter PC room regulations, though if it's a slow news day, anything's possible...

The BBC have an article which goes into a little more depth here.