Saturday, October 28, 2017

Best K-Pop Idol Songs of 2007-2017, and an Announcement

Yes, I know I've been really bad with my list of 50 Most Influential K-pop Artists. What began as a result of a drunken rager at a noraebang in 2010 has grown into one of the most frequently cited sources for Korean pop music history, except seven years later, I still have six more artists to go. As an apology, I give you something awesome.

It is the 120 best K-pop idol songs from the last ten years, selected by music critic Youngdae Kim. Kim is a man who knows what he's talking about. He was the moderator for the online group that first introduced hip hop to Korea in the early 1990s, and he also wrote the defining book on the history of Korean hip hop. (Here is my post on Korean hip hop that borrows his analysis.) The video is in four parts, and I provided the English subtitles for Parts 3 and 4.

And now, an announcement! TK is very excited to announce that he's been working with Youngdae Kim for the past year to write a book on K-pop history. Although not exactly the same, the book will be an expanded version of this blog's 50 Most Influential K-pop Artists series, but with Kim's more expert insight. The manuscript is progressing smoothly, and we are shooting for the book to be ready by late next year.

Hopefully this will make up for the fact that I've been slow with the "50 Most Influential" list. In the meantime, keep an eye out for more collaboration projects like this one.

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Monday, October 23, 2017

Korea's Alt-Right, and How to Fight the Ones at Home

Dear Korean,

I was shocked by this piece of news, and I still have a hard time getting my head around why it wasn't bigger news worldwide. Can you explain?


You might think a country that deposed a president who took directions from a shaman’s daughter has seen just about everything there is to see. But as the new administration is digging through the confidential files of the conservative Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak administrations, the scandal that is emerging may be much more jaw-dropping. 


Inside Korea's National Assembly

As long as South Korea existed, its politics had a division of the right-wing and the left-wing. By the early 2000s, however, the right-wing in South Korea seemed like old news, in a literal sense. Much of its subscribers were old people whose memories of the Korean War, communist terror and desperate hunger dominated their political decisions. As they did not grow up with democracy, they worshiped South Korea’s military dictators—foremost of whom was Park Chung-hee, who ruled for nearly two decades from the 1960s to 70s—as they would a king. In this sense, they could not possibly called “conservatives,” since the term, in its strictest interpretation, presumes a liberal democratic system. “Fascists” would be the more apt description. Korea’s right-wing was contemptuous of democracy, and favored dictatorship. They favored jailing “communists,” a catch-all stand-in term for any political dissident. 

But in the 21st century, the right-wing seemed like an old news. Twenty years after the peaceful democratization of 1987, it seemed that liberal democracy was the settled practice in Korea. Although the right-wing still wielded considerable force, they were aging and would fade away—or so Korea’s liberals thought. The liberals were riding high from the two consecutive terms of liberal presidents, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, from 1997 to 2007. Of course, conservatism would continue to exist, but it would exist in a form that is more common in the advanced democracies: along the lines of the philosophical difference in terms of the proper role of the government, arguing over the proper size of the government, the appropriate level of taxation, regulation of corporations and redistributive policies, and so on. Even when the conservative Lee Myung-bak won the presidency in 2007, the liberals’ expectations for democratic governance continued.

It’s fair to say that Korea’s liberals were totally unprepared for what awaited them.

(More after the jump.)

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Thursday, September 28, 2017

Rice and Banchan - a Love Affair

It's been a while, hasn't it? One of the reasons why posting has been slow on AAK! was because TK was in Seoul last month for work. While I was there, I got to try some of the restaurants in Seoul that just earned their stars from the Michelin Guide, which got me thinking about the essence of Korean food. Below, I'll share with you my experience at those restaurants and my thoughts. This time, I tried my hand at a magazine-style writing.

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I.   At a Michelin Three-Star Restaurant

What is Korean food? I was at Gaon, a fine dining restaurant in the affluent Sinsa-dong district in Seoul, when I faced this question. Specifically, the question was posed as a piece of fish. The fish, the fourth course served in Gaon’s prix-fixe menu, was a roasted piece of geumtae from the southern island of Jeju. The fish is also known as blackthroat seaperch, or as nodoguro in Japan. Like all the dishes before it, this piece of geumtae was fantastic. The crispy fried skin was like a golden piece of toast; underneath was the fatty meat that retained its shape and texture for a second in the mouth before melting away. “Tastes like a Michelin star,” my dinner companion joked. Yet something about the fish—a Korean fish, served at a Korean restaurant—bothered me.

Roasted geumtae from Gaon
(Source: myself)

I had high hopes for Gaon. The restaurant is run by KwangJuYo company, a guardian of various Korean traditions. KwangJuYo began in 1963 as a pottery company, reviving the fine chinaware that used to be produced for the Joseon Dynasty kings. KwangJuYo is also known for their brand of traditional soju called Hwayo, which puts to shame the cheap, aspartame-laced imposters in green bottles. Gaon is KwangJuYo’s flagship restaurant. When the Michelin Guide came to Seoul for the first time in April 2017, the French reviewers awarded Gaon with three stars, the guide’s highest distinction. Gaon was one of only two restaurants in Seoul that earned three Michelin stars.

(More after the jump.)

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Friday, July 28, 2017

Book Review: Seoul Man by Frank Ahrens (2016)

(Disclosure:  I received a review copy of the book, and Frank and I met in person.)

Hyundai Motor, of South Korea, is the world's fourth largest automobile manufacturer by the number of vehicles manufactured. The foregoing sentence is simultaneously mundane and incredible. Mundane, because it is such an obvious fact of life that is clearly visible to us. Hyundai and Kia cars are a common sight no matter where you live in the world--Asia, Europe, North America, South America, or Africa. 

Yet it is also incredible, when you consider the history of the companies with which Hyundai rubs its shoulders. Ford Motor Company was founded in 1903 in the United States, which was then already the world's foremost economy by a wide margin. Renault was founded in 1899 in France. Fiat, also in 1899 in Italy. Hyundai, in contrast, was founded in 1963, when South Korea's per capita GDP was less than $150. Yet today, Hyundai outsells all of Ford, Fiat and Renault. In fact, Hyundai manufactures more cars than Fiat and Renault combined.

The story of Hyundai's growth is commonly told in tandem with the account of the marvelous growth that South Korea experienced post-Korean War. But the less frequently told part of the story is that, actually, the story has two stages. South Korea and its stalwart corporations reached middle-income by mid-1990s. The country was prosperous, but was not exactly world-leading. For much the 1990s, South Korea was one of the mass of countries that did not attract much attention--not poor and starving enough to arouse humanitarian concerns, and not rich or glamorous enough to inspire admiration.

But since the late 1990s, South Korea's corporations--at least those that survived the painful adjustment occasioned by the East Asian Financial Crisis in 1997--went to another level. Rather than being stuck at the "middle income trap," South Korea hit escape velocity. Its foremost corporations rose to the level reserved for the world's very best. Today, Samsung Electronics is the only meaningful challenger to Apple's iPhone juggernaut, and Hyundai only trails Toyota and Volkswagen in the number of cars manufactured per year. (Hyundai also trails General Motors if you include the production by SAIC, GM's Chinese joint venture.)

This part of South Korea's story deserves to be told more. Marginal improvement always gets progressively more difficult. Seeing from the ground level, the gap between "rudimentary" and "pretty good" may seem greater than the same between "pretty good" and "among the best." The differential in skill between hoopers at the local playground and a bench warmer for an NBA team is much greater than the differential between the bench warmer and an NBA starter, and much, much greater than that between an NBA starter and the likes of Lebron James, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard. But the effort it takes to go from an NBA starter to an MVP-caliber player is no less than the effort it takes for a regular person to become an NBA bench warmer. In fact, "effort" might not even be the right word, for it implies the continuation of the same path, only with more intensity. Often, it requires a complete re-definition of self for a player to make the leap and reach the next level. 

Same is true with Hyundai. Hyundai Motor could have been another Skoda Auto or Tata Motors--a solid carmaker that does well enough domestically or within its region--and it still would have been considered a success. But Hyundai did much better. How? Frank Ahrens answers that question in his book Seoul Man, which makes it a unique read among books about Korea in English.

(More after the jump.)

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Tuesday, July 04, 2017

On Cultural Appropriation, One More Time

I wrote about cultural appropriation in an older post, which contains essentially all of my thoughts on the topic. But considering how cultural appropriation continues to appear in the popular conversation, I thought I would give it another round. I want to focus on two issues: (a) the harm of cultural appropriation, and (b) the reason why people are having a hard time understanding why cultural appropriation is harmful.

Cultural appropriation is a real and serious concept, in that it describes a phenomenon that causes a real and serious harm. Cultural appropriation reduces cultural artifacts to a prop, which in turn reduces the people of that culture into a prop also. Cultural appropriation is not the same thing as cultural exchange, or being influenced by another culture. In a very real sense, cultural appropriation is stealing, as is clearly implied from the word “appropriation.”

What precisely is the thing being stolen when we speak of cultural appropriation? Detractors are quick to argue that no one owns culture, and no one can. But that is a crabbed view of what “ownership” can mean. Of course, no one owns culture like one owns property—say, a car. Ownership of a car, or any other property, is a legal right. A piece of paper with legal significance establishes your ownership of your car. By owning your car, you can exclude me from using your car. If I used your car without the legal right to do so—that is, if I appropriated your car—the force of the law would apply to me. You could sue for any damage I caused to the car, or you could call the police to come after me and send me to jail. 

But property ownership is not the only kind of ownership that exists, for humans own many things beyond property. Chief among them is agency, the power to define one’s own identity. Your name, for example, is an artifact of your agency. It is a word that defines your identity. Yet you do not own your name like you would own your car. Unless you undergo the process of turning your name into some type of property—for example, by using your name as a registered trademark—you have no legal protection over the word that you use as your name. You have no right to exclude the use of your name. (If you are one of the millions of American men named “Michael,” you cannot prohibit anyone from naming your child “Michael.”) You cannot sue someone else who has the same name as yours, nor can you call the police over the name sameness.

Yet the lack of such legal protections does not make your name any less your name. When someone takes away your name—when someone appropriates it—the violence involved in such a taking is obvious. It is no surprise that bullying usually begins with name-calling, an act of replacing your name with another word. The replacement word need not even be derogatory; it merely needs to be arbitrary enough to show that you did not choose the replacement word. NBA player Jeremy Lin, for example, recounted how fans of the opposing team used to taunt him by calling him “chicken fried rice.” The term “chicken fried rice,” standing alone, is far from offensive; it is a delicious dish enjoyed by billions around the world. But obviously, the racist taunters of Jeremy Lin were not using the term “chicken fried rice” as a word that meant what it said. Rather, they were using the term as an arbitrary marker of their racism. Because Lin is Chinese, bullies took away his name in favor of an arbitrary Chinese dish. Jeremy Lin’s name, his identity, was appropriated, in favor of a random ethnic marker.

(More after the jump.)

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Saturday, May 27, 2017

Once Again: K-pop is Not a Genre

TK is happy to report that nearly all of the people who engage K-pop seriously--such as writers and journalists about the topic--generally agreed with my post that argued K-pop is not a genre. (There was one exception, whose objections I will address below.) But there were a number of silly responses about this point, so here is another try.

A different way to framed this debate is: is the term "k-pop" a descriptor or a term of art? In my view, "k-pop" is a descriptor, while a number of people insist "k-pop" is a term of art that denotes a concept. And they are wrong.

A descriptor accepts the plain meaning of the word. For example, unless there is additional context (more on this later,) the words "a brown dog" are a descriptor, indicating a canine that is brown in color. If a person told you (again, without additional context) that "I just saw a brown dog," something along the lines of the following images should pop up in your mind:

On the other hand, if this kind of image pops in your head...

... then, there is something wrong with you, because this is an image of a white cat. No matter how you wish it to be, "brown" does not mean "white," and "dog" does not mean "cat."

This is not a trivial point. In the previous post, I wrote: "In our current, "post-truth" world, it is more important than ever to insist that words must mean what they say." I did not write those words as a gag; it is my sincerely, fervently held belief that words must mean what they say, because the easiest way to lie is to pretend words mean something other than what they say. This kind of lie corrupts our thought process and pushes us into taking actions that we otherwise would not take. This is the central insight of George Orwell's famous essay, Politics and the English Language:
"In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness."
This insight was what drove Orwell's dystopian classic 1984, set in a world in which war is peace, freedom is slavery, and two plus two is five. A world not unlike our current world, in which the head of the state of the United States of America would blatantly lies about what is plainly untrue--such as the crowd size for his inauguration--and his followers buy into this bullshit rather than believing their own eyes.

So. The word "K-pop" must mean what it says. "K" obviously stands for "Korea," and "pop" obviously stands for "pop music." This meaning must hold, unless... "k-pop" is a term of art, rather than a descriptor. And my point is: "K-pop" cannot be anything other than "popular music of Korea," because it is not a term of art.

(More after the jump.)

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Saturday, May 20, 2017

K-Pop is Not a Genre

[Before we begin, a quick note. TK is so happy to be finished with writing about Korean politics for now. Let's talk about more interesting things, like music! TK might just stick with writing about music for the next several months. Stay tuned...]

Poster from K-pop Night Out showcase
from SXSW 2014. Now hanging on my office wall.

The point of this post is simple: "K-pop" is neither a genre nor a style. If you think otherwise, you are wrong. The rest of this post will discuss why you're wrong.

To be fair to you who think otherwise, I'll say this: a lot of people think like you. Jaden Smith, for example, seems to think K-pop is a genre or a style.

But you are still wrong. "K-pop" is a generic term that means absolutely nothing more than "popular music of Korea." If you ever thought about the term "K-pop" rigorously, and thought hard about the kinds of music and the kinds of artists the term covers, you will find that it cannot possibly denote a genre or a style.

To start, the simplest overview of musical styles that fall under the label "K-pop" should make clear that "K-pop" does not refer to a musical genre. No one disputes that IU, BTS and FT Island are "K-pop artists," but musically, they share nothing in common. IU sings mostly standard pop, BTS performs mostly hip hop numbers, and FT Island, light rock. The commonality among IU, BTS and FT Island is not, and cannot be, music. Their only commonality is that they all perform popular music of Korea.

Is "K-pop" a style then? A common alternative definition of K-pop goes roughly like this: "highly processed but easy-to-listen music, composed and choreographed by professional management companies, performed by beautiful young men or women groomed to become pop stars by the said management companies." But this definition is also wrong.

Again, just a few moments of thought are all you need to see why this definition is wrong. First of all, the alternative definition does not actually define anything that did not exist previously. Identifying young talents and fastidiously grooming them to become pop stars have been one of the basic business strategies in pop music as long as there was such a thing as pop music. Motown in the 1960s was famous for it. The only possible distinction between the "K-pop" mode of production and "Motown" mode of production is... K-pop is from Korea. Once again, we return to the plain truth: the heart of the term "K-pop" is the fact that it is music of Korea.

(More after the jump.)

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Sunday, April 23, 2017

Korean Politics Viewer's Guide: III. The Candidates

Here we are, the grand conclusion of the viewer's guide for South Korean politics. Part III of this series will cover everyone's favorite event in politics--the horse-racing takes on the presidential election. 

This election features the total of 15 candidates, but we will only cover the five presidential candidates who are polling over 1 percent. In order of polling numbers, the candidates are: Moon Jae-in, Ahn Cheol-soo, Hong Joon-pyo, Shim Sang-jeong and Yoo Seung-min. These five candidates represent the presidential candidates for the five largest political parties in Korea. 

Under Korea's election regulations, each candidate is assigned a number in accordance with the number of National Assembly seats belonging to the candidate's party. This post will discuss the candidates in that order also, although Moon Jae-in (number 1) and Ahn Cheol-soo (number 3) are the two front runners. All the pictures of the candidates are the official campaign posters for this election, the very same posters are plastered all over Korea right now.

Full disclosure: although I am not eligible to vote in South Korea, I generally support Moon Jae-in. 

1.  MOON JAE-IN [문재인]

Slogan:  "Restoring the Country; the Dependable President"

Born:  January 24, 1953 (64 years old) in Geoje, a southeastern island near Busan, to North Korean parents who escaped the war.

Party Affiliation:  Democratic Party [더불어민주당]

Ideological Position:  Mainstream liberal / center-left

Current Polling:  Around 40-44 percent in a five-way race.

Before Politics:  Moon Jae-in was a law student and activist who fought against the Park Chung-hee dictatorship. He learned that he passed the bar while being in prison for protesting. As an attorney, Moon litigated against the dictatorship along with his law firm partner Roh Moo-hyun.

As a Politician:  When his former law firm partner Roh Moo-hyun became the president, Moon entered politics and became Roh's chief of staff. Because of this beginning, Moon Jae-in has been strongly associated with Roh Moo-hyun's legacy, for better or for worse. Although Moon returned to his law practice after the Roh administration ended in 2007, he came back to politics after Roh committed suicide in 2009 amid a bribery investigation. Since then, Moon served as a National Assembly Member and the Chair of the Democratic United Party, which later became New Politics Alliance for Democracy and then again became the Democratic Party.

Moon Jae-in is considered level-headed and cerebral. Although he is not exactly a charismatic speaker, he has a passionate following of liberal voters who are galvanized by memories of Roh Moo-hyun, whom they consider to be driven to suicide because of the witch hunt conducted by the conservative Lee Myung-bak administration. Moon is also a relentless inside baseball-type politician who either transformed the Democratic Party into a party of professional expertise and meritocracy while repudiating patronage and machine politics (if you take the kindly view,) or into a party of pro-Moon Jae-in loyalists who would faithfully execute his goals (if you take the cynical view.)

Major Campaign Promises:  810,000 new jobs in public sector, such as police, healthcare and other health and safety personnel; transparent presidency and government; chaebol reform for anti-corruption.

He Will Win If:  ... he hangs on. Moon Jae-in has always led the polls for the presidential race, sometimes by an overwhelming margin. He lost in a close race in the 2012 election, whose final margin was 51.6 percent to 48 percent. Moon still retains most of that 48 percent of the voters who are eager for a do-over. Meanwhile, his conservative/centrist opponents are divided, and pose no realistic threat unless they find a way to join forces. 

He Will Lose If:  ... he suffers a combination of self-inflicted wounds and conservative consolidation. In polls that ask for a head-to-head choice between Moon and Ahn Cheol-soo, the two candidates are essentially tied. Roh Moo-hyun administration, where Moon Jae-in began his political career, was highly polarizing. In a head-to-head situation where the opposing candidate attacks Moon based on the faults of Roh administration (and there really were many faults,) Moon Jae-in faces a real risk of defeat.

Trivia:  Moon Jae-in likes climbing high mountains. He has visited the Himalayas four times and climbed up the Everest and Annapurna.

(More after the jump.)

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Sunday, April 16, 2017

Korean Politics Viewer's Guide: II. The Parties

The viewer's guide for South Korean politics continues! Part II of this series will take a look at South Korea's political parties and what they stand for.

Now is a tricky time to write this post, because political parties in South Korea are going through a once-a-generation level of realignment. For the most part, the history of South Korean democracy had two major parties--conservative and liberal--with some minor parties appearing here and there. But the historic impeachment and removal of Park Geun-hye shook up the political picture in Korea like no other recent events.

Given this, the best way to understand where South Korea's political parties stand is to look at Korea's history of political parties, identify the major strands that flow through, and see how those strands match up with each party.

So here we go.

Super Basic Stuff

The National Assembly Hall in Seoul
South Korea's democracy began in 1987. South Korean president serves a single five-year term.

Korea's legislature is called the National Assembly. It is a unicameral body with 300 National Assembly Members. The entire National Assembly goes through an election every four years. For the National Assembly election, a South Korean voter casts two ballots: one vote for her geographical district, and one vote for the party she supports. This leads to two classes of Assembly Members: 253 "regional members," and 47 "national members." 

The "district" votes are counted up and produce the regional members, who are the winners of each geographical district. (The election for regional members is a single-winner, first-past-the-post.) The "party" votes are counted up, and each party receives a National Assembly seat based on the proportion of the party votes it received. (For example, if a Party X receives around 50% of the "party" votes, Party X takes either 23 or 24 seats allotted for national members.) 

In Korea, being a meaningful political party means having at least one seat in the National Assembly. (Thus, this post will not discuss Korean political parties that have no legislative representation, such as the Labor Party or the Green Party.) Being a major political party usually means having more than 20 seats, because the National Assembly Act sets the minimum of 20 Assembly Members to form a "negotiation group," which can receive greater budget assistance, have a say in committee assignments, etc.

By this standard, South Korea right now has four major parties and two minor parties. From the most conservative to the most liberal, the four major parties are:  Liberty Korea Party (93 seats in the Assembly); Bareun Party (33 seats); the People's Party (40 seats); the Democratic Party (119 seats.) Justice Party has six seats in the National Assembly, and Saenuri Party has one seat. There are seven independent Members.

Having six parties being represented in the National Assembly is highly unusual. For most of South Korea's history, the National Assembly only had two major parties: one conservative, one liberal. This was the case as recently as early 2016, as the Liberty Korea Party, Bareun Party and Saenuri Party formed the single major conservative party (called Saenuri Party,) while the Democratic Party and the People's Party were the single major liberal party (called New Politics Alliance for Democracy.)

So how did we get here?

(More after the jump.)

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Saturday, April 08, 2017

Korean Politics Viewer's Guide: I. The Lay of the Land

Dear Korean,

I know there is a conservative-liberal spectrum in Korean politics, but I have also read that conservativism/liberalism in Korea are not easily relatable to conservativism / liberalism in America. What are the major issues, and where do the different political parties in Korea come down on the major issues? I am soon-to-be a Korean citizen, but my Korean is terrible (I am only getting away with this because I am a Korean-American athlete that they want for their Pyeonchang team, so I am on the "special" citizenship track). I am very politically engaged in the US, but now that I am in Korea, I am trying to figure out WTF is going on here, and it isn't easy! 

Randi The Ringer

Ask a Korean! has received a lot of questions from a lot of cool people, but this is the first time that the blog received a question from an Olympic athlete! 

With the bizarre Choi Soon-sil scandal, people are suddenly more interested in Korean politics, as the presidential election is going to be held in a little more than a month. For those who are coming to see South Korean politics for the first time, TK prepared a three-part Viewer's Guide. Part I will discuss the basic lay of the political land in Korea; Part II is a brief history of South Korean politics that explains the status of different political parties today, and; Part III will be an overview of the major presidential candidates, their stance on issues and the electoral challenges they face.

So here we go with Part I - the basic political landscape in South Korea.

*                   *                    *

The questioner Randi correctly noted two important points about Korean politics: (1) it has a conservative-liberal spectrum, but; (2) the spectrum is not the same as the conservative-liberal spectrum in the U.S., or in any other country for that matter. Of course, this is to be expected, because obviously, different countries have different political concerns. It would be ignorant and self-centered to expect that Korea's ideological spectrum would run on the same axis as any other country's.

Many of political issues that form a dividing line in the U.S. do not in Korea, either because Koreans simply live in a different environment or because there is a broad social consensus over them already. Before we cover the issues that do form the fault lines in Korean politics, let's go over some of the issues that don't.

Issues that Don't Really Arise in Korea

These are the issues that rarely get raised in Korean politics, because not enough number of Koreans deal with these issues for them to become a political topic. Clearly, this list is not to say that these issues are not important; rather, it is only to say that these issues are not front and center in politics in Korea.

- Racism.   There are now more than a million non-ethnic Koreans living in Korea, and the number is increasing rapidly. But so far, racial discrimination (which is very real and very pernicious) against ethnic minorities in Korea is not a big topic, because few Koreans ever interact with a non-Korean on a regular basis.

- Immigration.  Same as above. South Korea has a fairly restrictive immigration policy, and few bother to opine whether Korea needs more or less immigrants than it currently has. Although there is some low-level grumblings about how, for example, the immigrants from China are committing crimes in certain parts of Seoul, immigration policy overall is not a part of national politics.

- Terrorism (except those from North Korea).  If you exclude the attacks by North Korea, and isolated incidents of South Korean citizens finding themselves in dangerous parts of the world, South Korea has never experienced a terrorist attack. So Koreans simply don't think about terrorism. 

- Federalism.  There is no equivalent to the European Union of which South Korea is a part, nor is South Korea organized by U.S.-style states that retain some measure of sovereignty. So there is no "Brexit" or "state's rights" type issue in Korea.

- Religious Strife (except "culture war" issues).  South Korea does have a variety of religions. About a quarter of the country is Christian. (Among them, about 2/3 are Protestants and 1/3 are Catholics.) About a quarter of the country is Buddhist. But nearly half of the country does not really subscribe to a particular religion--which means religion rarely becomes a political issue. To be sure, there are times when religion shows up a collateral issue. For example, former president Lee Myung-bak was criticized when his cabinet appointments included too many people who was attending his church. But even then, the gravamen of the complaint was more about something that looked like nepotism, rather than the president's religion itself.

By "religious strife," I am excluding the "culture war" issues where people might take their position based on their religious beliefs. Those issues are further discussed below.

(More after the jump.)

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Monday, March 27, 2017

The Bigotry Against Korean Democracy

Candlelight Protest, Nov. 12, 2016. Crowd estimated to be ~1 million.

The impeachment and removal of former president Park Geun-hye is a stunning triumph of democracy: an illiberal and anti-democratic president is taken down peacefully, in an orderly manner, pursuant to the rule of law. And for the most part, it has been received as such. Yet there have been a small group of critics who insist on spitting on this achievement. 

Now, I respect differences in opinion if the differing opinion derives from a solid understanding of facts on the ground. But no—not these people. They uniformly advance two bits of criticism: (1) the impeachment process ignored proper procedure, because; (2) the Korean public formed a mob that intimidated the politicians and overrode the democratic process. These two arguments only reveal their proponents’ ignorance of Korea’s constitutional structure, and the actual events on the ground during the 17 weeks of candlelight protests. 

The two most prominent examples of these critics are Michael Breen and Euny Hong, who make their case in a similar manner. Breen, on the Atlantic, opened by questioning the impeachment procedure:
Acting Chief Justice Lee Jung Mi said, her court building ringed by riot police behind a wall of police buses that held back supporters of the embattled president. “Her violations of the Constitution and the law are a betrayal of the people’s trust and cannot be tolerated.” 
If this seems a little vague, it gets more so. Hearings by the court, another series of proceedings by the National Assembly that impeached her, and a 70-day investigation by a special prosecutor, have determined that Choi Soon Sil was indeed sent presidential speeches to edit. But none of these bodies appears to have established what makes this an impeachable offense.

Similarly, Euny Hong wrote:
By US legal standards, Park's impeachment is peculiar in that she was ousted before even being fully investigated. Even the special prosecutors making the case against Park reportedly claimed they didn't have time to complete the inquiry and were denied an extension. (…) Though a Korean prosecutor alleged that Park had knowledge of this—and she may well have—what is significant is that the impeachment was pushed through before the conclusion of the investigation.

Both of these arguments are simply ignorant about what actually happened as a matter of law. Breen’s claim that the pronouncement by Acting Chief Justice Lee was “vague” is pure nonsense, when the quoted sentence comes at the end of a rigorously written court opinion. If one bothered to read the entire impeachment opinion—which I translated in this post, by the way—it is impossible for one to conclude that the Constitutional Court have not “established what makes this an impeachable offense.” The Constitutional Court considered four arguments in favor of removal, and found three—abuse of authority of appoint public official, infringement of freedom of press, and violation of the duty to exercise due diligence as a public official—were not enough to support removal. The court, however, found Park’s use of presidential power to assist Choi Soon-sil’s private profiteering does not only violate the constitution and the law, but also seriously enough such that removal from office is warranted. All of this is clearly spelled out in the opinion; none of this is vague.

(More after the jump.)

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Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Impeachment Opinion, Annotated

Acting Chief Justice Lee Jeong-mi reads the opinion

Koreans did it. They impeached their corrupt and incompetent president, and the Constitutional Court sustained the impeachment to remove her from the office. It is a stunning triumph for Korea's democracy. The crowning moment of the triumph, of course, is when the Constitutional Court announced that Park Geun-hye was removed from the office. The moment was capped by a 20-minute reading of the court's opinion from the bench by Acting Chief Justice Lee Jeong-mi.

The court's opinion will not simply go down in Korean history, but in the history of world democracy as an exemplar of how an illiberal and anti-democratic president is to be taken down peacefully, in an orderly manner, pursuant to the rule of law. In other words: it deserves to be shared with the world immediately. The Constitutional Court usually provides an official translated version of its most important opinions, but the translation process usually takes months. So--I prepared a translated version of the court's opinion, with annotations for those who are not familiar with Korea's constitutional structure. 

Several caveats apply. First, and obviously, I did the translation myself and this translation is absolutely not official. Second, because I am not an attorney trained in Korean law, I may have gotten certain legal terms of art wrong. (However, because I am a lawyer and encounter Korean law frequently, my translation should be better than ones done by non-lawyers.) Third, the opinion translated below is the version that was read from the bench on March 10, 2017. Often, the court uses an abbreviated version of the opinion to read from the bench, and produce the full opinion later on its website. Because the full opinion is not yet available, I translated the bench opinion.

The original bench opinion is available here. Off we go, after the jump.

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Sunday, March 05, 2017

Honorifics: Not as Complicated as You Think


Dear Korean,

How do you address your seonbae when you're not at work? I mean I know I will still refer to him/her as seonbae and at the beginning we will both use formal language, but what happens if he/she wants to drop the honorifcs? If we are, for example, out for a drink and we want to talk in a casual manner what happens if my seonbae is younger than me? Will they now call me unnie/nuna? And if so, aren't they supposed to use honorific language towards me?

Really Confused Polish Girl

Honorifics in Korean language confuse most non-Koreans. They are generally aware that honorifics exist in Korea, and there are certain rules as to how the honorifics are used. Because honorifics--at least, the kind that is as complicated as Korea's--don't really exist in most languages, it is difficult for non-Koreans to imagine how honorifics are supposed to be used in real life. They can try to learn the rules, but it only confuses them more because they can easily come up with a situation where two rules conflict with each other--like the questioner here.

In reality, honorifics is not that complicated. As a practical matter, there is only one default rule: between two adults, polite speech is used, especially if they are meeting for the first time. The age difference between the two adults does not matter. The social relationship between the two adults does not matter. Between two adults, polite speech is used. If you are visiting Korea and you are not entirely sure about your honorific rules, this is all you need to remember. In fact, it is not strange at all for an adult to use the polite speech to a child that he is meeting for the first time.

If you have room in your head for one more rule, here it is:  if two adults want to break away from the default, they can work it out between them. These are the only two rules that you really need to know about honorifics. 

Seeing how this plays out in real life situation makes it much easier to understand. Below are some real life situations that TK encountered recently.

Scenario 1.  TK teaches a graduate school class for non-U.S. attorneys. Some of TK's students are Koreans, and converse with TK in Korean. Can TK drop the honorifics to his Korean students, because he is the teacher and they are his students? No. Why? Because between adults, polite speech is used. 

Scenario 2.  At the same graduate school, TK sometimes works together with a research fellow, who is a Korean woman older than TK. TK refers to the research fellow as seonbaenim [upperclassman] and uses the polite speech, because she began working for the graduate school before TK did. Can the research fellow then drop the honorifics to TK, because TK is her hubae [lower-classman] and younger than she? No. Why? Because between adults, polite speech is used. 

Scenario 3.  TK has a close friend RB. RB is older than TK, so TK refers to him as hyeong [older brother], and RB drops the honorifics to TK. One day, RB introduces another one of his friend, JS, to TK. JS is the same age as RB. Can JS drop the honorifics to TK right away? No. Why? Because between adults, polite speech is used. JS is meeting TK for the first time. It does not matter that JS is older than TK, nor does it matter that JS is the same age as RB who has dropped the honorifics to TK.

Scenario 4.  TK, RB, and JS meet for the second time. After a few round of drinks, TK tells JS to drop the honorifics, because JS is RB's friend. JS agrees. Is this ok? Yes, because if two adults want to break away from the default, they can work it out between them

Get the picture? Now, there will be plenty of situations that seem to break the default rule, but that is only because of the second rule: two adults can always work out the level of honorifics they want for themselves. Sometimes the work-out process is explicitly verbal, as in Scenario 4; sometimes, it is a gradual transition where both parties decide over time that their arrangement is ok. What doesn't happen is some kind of complicated mathematics to figure out who deserves the honorifics, based on some kind of rigid and esoteric rules. Koreans have better things to do than that--like actually talking to each other.

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Saturday, February 18, 2017

Kim Jong-nam Assassinated

Dear Korean,

I guess you've been following the news of Kim Jong-nam's assassination and I wanted to know your thoughts about it. Do you think the assassination was really plotted by his half brother Kim Jong-un? Given that Kim Jung-nam is in self exile and doesn't seem to pose a threat to Kim Jung-un's political power, why would his brother still want him on his death list? Also, the whole assassination seems rather amateurish, carried out in broad daylight in a public place with dozens of cameras around. Do you think the whole thing could have been plotted by someone else?


One thing that you can confidently say about following Korean news: there is never a dull moment. Real-life Game of Thrones-style international assassination carried out by two female assassins wielding poison darts on Valentine's Day. What other country can offer this kind of excitement?

Our dearly departed Kim Jong-nam (source)
Some basic facts first. Kim Jong-nam is the oldest son of Kim Jong-il, the previous dictator of North Korea, and half-brother of Kim Jong-un, the current dictator. Kim Jong-il had four wives: Kim Jong-nam was the son from the first wife, and Kim Jong-un was the son from the third wife. Kim Jong-nam has been living a life of exile, mostly based out of Macao and away from North Korea's power center. It is not entirely clear if Kim Jong-nam renounced the throne (so to speak,) or Kim Jong-un was more ruthless in seizing power. At any rate, Kim Jong-nam essentially lived as a wastrel. Until he was killed in Kuala Lumpur on February 14, he was most well known for the fact that he was caught while using a fake passport to visit Tokyo Disneyland.

But none of this means Kim Jong-nam was not a threat to Kim Jong-un. In fact, Kim Jong-nam simply being alive posed a threat to Kim Jong-un. Despite the pretensions of communism, North Korea has long been a hereditary monarchy as a practical matter, emphasizing the lineage to the first dictator Kim Il-sung as the source of legitimacy. In such a system, the first son born to the first wife always has a greater claim of legitimacy than the third son born to the third wife. This threat is so great that, in fact, a significant number of North Koreans do not even know Kim Jong-un has older brothers.

The threat that Kim Jong-nam posed to Kim Jong-un's power was not merely theoretical. Because there are now enough number of North Korean defectors who escaped the country, there are ex-North Korean political groups that are attempting to establish a North Korean government-in-exile. These groups claim that, because the current North Korean dictatorship is illegally occupying North Korea, there needs to be a government-in-exile that represents the country in the international stage and take a leadership role in assisting resistance within North Korea. At least one of these groups reached out to Kim Jong-nam, asking him to the head of state for the exile government. Kim Jong-nam reportedly declined, but consider the possibilities if he took the offer.

To me, particularly notable is the fact that Kim Jong-nam died within 48 hours of an explosive report from Kyunghyang Shinmun, a South Korean newspaper. According to Kyunghyang, Kim Jong-nam served as a messenger between his father Kim Jong-il and Park Geun-hye, before Park became the president of South Korea. Kim Jong-nam apparently kept in regular contact with Park Geun-hye, and would deliver Park's letter to Kim Jong-il. (To be clear: it is actually old news that Park Geun-hye had been sending letters to Kim Jong-il, asking Kim to allow her group based in Europe to operate in Pyongyang. The news is that Kim Jong-nam was involved in the communication between the two.) 

In addition, Kyunghyang's report said when Park Geun-hye was running for president, the outgoing Lee Myung-bak administration--which belonged to the same party as Park--attempted to get Kim Jong-nam to defect to South Korea. The election of Park Geun-hye (versus the liberal candidate Moon Jae-in) was a close affair, and the conservative Lee administration was pulling out all stops for Park Geun-hye. (Other efforts included using South Korean spy agency to plant fake news stories via internet comments and fake tweets.) Having the oldest son of Kim Jong-il defect to South Korea would have been a massive victory for the conservatives' North Korea policy. However, the plan fell through apparently because Kim Jong-nam preferred to defect to Europe or the United States, if he were to defect at all.

Here, the usual caveat: I am just a guy with a blog who reads a lot of news. I don't have any special insight or insider information about this issue. But it does seem like a hell of a coincidence that Kim Jong-nam died within 48 hours after the news broke that he was discussing a possible defection into South Korea.

Could it have been someone other than Kim Jong-un that killed Kim Jong-nam? If you are seriously thinking that, two words for you: Occam's Razor. There is no reason to overthink this. Why would anyone else bother to kill Kim Jong-nam? Because the killing seems amateurish? You try killing someone with poison in just five seconds.

One thing to know about North Korean spy infrastructure is that it is both extremely well trained and highly amateurish. The story of Kim Hyeon-hee is instructive. Kim Hyeon-hee was a North Korean spy who planted a bomb on Korean Air Flight 858 in 1987. Flight 858, which left from Baghdad to head to Seoul, exploded mid-air killing all 115 aboard. Kim was arrested, and the South Korean intelligence agency interrogated her for more than a month. 

For more than a month, Kim Hyeon-hee claimed that she was a Japanese woman named Mayumi, complete with a Japanese passport and an elaborate life story of growing up in Japan, told in flawless Japanese. North Korean spy agency had trained Kim Hyeon-hee for years to play this role. North Korea even kidnapped Japanese women and smuggled them into North Korea, so that the women could act as language tutors to North Korean spies who would in turn assume their identities. (This is probably the least reported outrageous stories about North Korea.)

South Korean intelligence, however, saw through the act. How? One of the clues was that Kim Hyeon-hee, the self-described Japanese woman named Mayumi, pretended not to know how to eat gim--the toasted seaweed that the Japanese call nori. (It's the black sheet that wraps a sushi roll.) Kim also referred to Prime Minister Nakasone, although at the time a new Prime Minister had already succeeded Nakasone--an event unmissable to any Japanese person from Japan. North Korean spy agency was well trained enough to turn a North Korean woman into a flawless Japanese speaker with a complete life story, but amateurish enough to not give the woman the small details of actually being a Japanese person--which is, when you think about it, exactly how a government would work.

There are already all kinds of stories swirling about Kim Jong-nam's assassination, about how the women who killed Kim Jong-nam thought they were participating in a game show, etc. All of this makes me wonder how the media would have told the story if the Korean Air Line bombing happened in the internet age. (A breathless headline might read: "Is the KAL bomber a false flag operation by the Japanese?") The best thing to do in this situation--really, in any situation--is to resist the urge to jump on the latest bizarre news, give the law enforcement the time to do their jobs, and process the story when it gets clearer.

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