Wednesday, December 07, 2016

2017 NK News Calendars are Here

As long time readers may know, this humble blog has shared long time friendship with NK News, the finest source in English to get the news about North Korea. One of the proudest moments of running this blog was inspiring NK News to begin Ask a North Korean!, an honest and revealing look into the country that is so opaque from the outside.

Here is one way you can support NK News: buy their gorgeous North Korea calendar. I have bought this calendar for the last several years, and always come away impressed with the pictures.

From NK News
For AAK! readers, NK News prepared a special web page with a $10 discount code here. Also check out NK News's online store for unique t-shirts and other North Korea-inspired items.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

The Ultimate Choi Soon-sil-gate Explainer (Part 2)


As promised, here is Part 2 of the Ultimate Choi Soon-sil-gate Explainer.

I.   OVERVIEW

Because the amount of Choi Soon-sil’s corruption is completely overwhelming, it is a good idea to approach this huge list with a sense of direction. 

Choi Soon-sil
(source)
The general modus operandi of Choi Soon-sil has been as follows: Choi would receive the president’s plan for governance, and ran her own “shadow cabinet” that would give comment on the presidential policy plans. In doing so, Choi placed her cronies and her cronies’ cronies in significant policy-planning positions (usually those in pop culture and sports promotion sectors,) and dismissed those who would not go along with her plans. With the cronies in place, Choi and her cronies steered a significant portion of Korea’s national budget to their companies, most of which were shell corporations that did not actually perform the work for which they were contracted or did so in a shoddy manner. Choi and her cronies also peddled influence with Korea’s largest corporations, sometimes stealing outright and sometimes granting certain favors. Choi’s pattern of corruption was the most brazen when it came to her daughter, who fraudulently gained admission into the prestigious Ewha Womans University based on a dicey equestrian scholarship.

The net result is astonishing. It is not an exaggeration to say that Choi Soon-sil was involved in virtually every major policy initiative from the Park Geun-hye administration. Choi received national security briefings and gave comments on Park’s Dresden speech, the most significant pronouncement of South Korea’s policy on North Korea. Choi and her cronies steered the budget allocated for upcoming Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. Korea’s largest corporations—including most notably Samsung—lined up to curry favor with Choi, and their bribery changed the fate of the companies in a very real sense. Through the privatization of governmental power, Choi Soon-sil was on her way to creating a vast network that would be ostensibly engaged in promoting culture and sports, but in fact would pay her and her cronies.

II.  HOW TO USE THIS EXPLAINER

Because there is so much ground to cover, I divided the currently outstanding allegations into following categories:

A. Interfering in State Affairs
B. Hiring and Firing
C. Stealing National Budget
D. Stealing from Corporations
E. Horseplay
F. Drug Use and Sewol Ferry Disaster

To make this list useful, I gave a number to each allegation, which is grouped with other similar claims.

I made this list by reading the Korean news coverage of this scandal for the past month. Each allegation has a hyperlink to Korea’s newspaper or TV station that reported the story. Obviously, everything below is no more than an allegation, as there has been no trial that actually assessed the veracity of these claims. I do have a solid BS detector when it comes to Korea, so I only included the allegations that rose beyond the speculative level. If you don’t like this list, you can ask for a full refund of the money you paid me to read my blog.

III.  SUPER BASIC STUFF YOU SHOULD KNOW

Korea's president Park Geun-hye lives in Cheongwadae, also known as the Blue House because of its blue tile roof. Blue House is itself a large bureaucracy, in which presidential aides work. The aides are organized into ten departments, whose heads are called "chiefs" [수석]. This is a separate thing from the cabinet, which is made up of several ministries headed by ministers, much like the U.S. cabinet is made up of departments headed by secretaries. When you envision Korea’s executive branch, you should visualize the Blue House giving orders to various ministries. The President and the Blue House aides would set the policy direction, and the ministers would receive the directives to execute them.

Choi Soon-sil had a close group of cronies who executed her corrupt plans. The most important cronies were Blue House chief Woo Beyong-u and other Blue House aides who served Choi’s eyes and ears within the presidency. Other important cronies include Kim Jong, who is the Vice Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism, and Cha Eun-taek, a K-pop music video director who actually implemented the Choi’s plan to swindle the government and extort corporations. Choi also actively used her family, including (now divorced) husband Jeong Yoon-hoi, daughter Jeong Yoo-ra and niece Jang Si-ho.

If you are ready, after the jump is the comprehensive list of all allegations of corruption against Choi Soon-sil.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Happy Thanksgiving!

(source)

The Korean wishes happy Thanksgiving to everyone who celebrates it. This year, I am thankful for all of you who patiently waited through the long, quiet stretches of this blog, only to reward it with the record-breaking million pageview post toward the end of the year. Many changes in my life prevented me from posting more frequently; soon, I will have the chance to explain what happened to me this year in more detail.

In this time and age, it is ever more important to remember the spirit of Thanksgiving, the holiday for immigrants. The Pilgrim's dinner with the Native Americans symbolize our ideals as a nation of immigrants: newcomers and the natives, on the same table, sharing a meal.

Beauty of history lies in that the patterns in its fabric repeat endlessly. On the Thanksgiving Day of 1997--some 380 years after the Pilgrims--the Korean Family arrived at the port of Los Angeles International Airport, full of anticipation for the Land of Opportunity. The Korean Family was greeted by natives, the distant family friends who have lived in the U.S. for decades as Korean Americans. And like a beautiful fugue, the pattern repeated once again; the natives helped the immigrants to get settled in, and begin their lives in the new world.

Thus, Thanksgiving Day is doubly special for the Korean Family. We never miss celebrating it. We are thankful for all the great things in our lives, but most of all, we are thankful to be in America, as imperfect as it may seem from time to time. Like the Pilgrims who were grateful for their new lives and new opportunities, the Korean Family is grateful, each and every year, for our own new lives and opportunities.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Ultimate Choi Soon-sil-gate Explainer (Part 1)

It has been a few weeks since the incredible scandal involving Korea's president Park Geun-hye and her shaman-daughter confidant Choi Soon-sil has been revealed. Streets of Seoul and other major cities in Korea are now hosting nightly protests, some as large as a million people.

In two parts, here is everything you need to know, and even a few things that you don't, about this sordid scandal.

Some Super Basic Things You Should Know

Cheongwadae
(source)
Korea's executive is made up of the President, who is the head of state, and the Prime Minister, who is the head of government. Prime Minister is mostly a ceremonial position, nominated by the president and confirmed through the National Assembly. But as you will see below, the prime minister's role becomes very important in times of national emergency, as he may be asked to step into the role of the head of state if the president is incapacitated. The current prime minister is Hwang Gyo-an, the third prime minister of the Park administration. 

Korea's president lives in Cheongwadae, also known as the Blue House because of its blue tile roof. Blue House is itself a large bureaucracy, in which presidential aides work. The aides are organized into several departments, whose heads are called "chiefs" [수석]. This is a separate thing from the cabinet, which is made up of several ministries headed by ministers. Korea's presidents serve a single, five-year term. The next regularly scheduled presidential election is December 2017.

There are three major political parties in Korea: Saenuri Party, Democratic Party, and the People's Party. Park Geun-hye belongs to Saenuri, which is the conservative party. Democratic Party is the main progressive party, and the People's Party is ideologically in between Saenuri and Democratic Party. Within Saenuri, there are two major factions: those loyal to the current president, and those loyal to the former president Lee Myung-bak. Although in the same party, those two factions barely get along. That, however, is the better result than the relationship between Democratic Party and the People's Party. People's Party used to be a faction within the Democratic Party, but split off earlier this year.

Korea's legislature is called the National Assembly, which has 300 elected legislators. Currently, Saenuri has 129, Democratic has 121, and People's has 38 members. Justice Party, a minor party that is more leftist than the Democratic Party, has six seats. There are six independents. This means that the opposition--made up of Democratic and People's--has the clear majority in the legislature, as long as they are able to work together.

Media landscape in Korea--at least in the print and broadcast media--is solidly conservative. The top three circulation papers, Chosun, JoongAng and Dong-A, are all conservative, although with slightly different flavors. (Chosun and Dong-A tend to be more ideologically conservative, and JoongAng tends to be more economically conservative.) These three newspapers also own cable TV networks--TV Chosun, JTBC and Channel A, respectively--that further broadcast along their agenda. South Korea has three major network TV channels: KBS, MBC and SBS. Because two of them--KBS and MBC--are owned by the government, their news coverage tends to be limited to being the government's mouthpiece. For several years, SBS has been the lone bastion of investigative journalism on television. Progressives of Korea find their refuge in smaller newspapers--Kyunghyang and Hankyoreh--and rely much on the internet for news.

(More after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

The Days Ahead

Protest in Seoul for Park Geun-hye's resignation, Nov. 5, 2016. Estimated 100,000 participated in the protest.
(source)

I have been very wrong on so many things about the 2016 U.S. presidential election. But one of the few things I was right about was: Korean politics tend to foreshadow U.S. politics.

Korean politics has been making worldwide headline in the last few days because of the insane scandal that a psychic has been practically controlling its president. (I did my part to contribute to those headlines.) But Korean politics was not always this way. Just nine years ago—or two presidents ago, Korea’s president was a progressive Roh Moo-hyun, an articulate, charismatic president who rose from modest background based on legal education, not unlike our current president. And just like Republicans did against Barack Obama, Korea’s conservatives seized on the fact that Roh was from modest background to delegitimize him nearly as soon as he took office. After Roh, Koreans elected two conservative presidents who might as well be Donald Trump Part I and Donald Trump Part II. First it was Lee Myung-bak, whose main qualification was that he was a former CEO of Hyundai. Then it was Park Geun-hye, whose main qualification was that she was the daughter of the former dictator Park Chung-hee. There was no question that nostalgia played a huge role in electing both presidents. By electing two symbols of Korea’s fast-growing economy of the 1960s and 70s, Korea’s conservatives were trying to make Korea great again.

I have seen the future, where the population was so beholden to nostalgia that they not only set aside democratic norms, but also overlooked the obvious incompetence of the candidates who would become the president. This was true of Lee Myung-bak, who ruthlessly controlled the media and harassed the journalists that were critical to him. But this was—and is—even truer of Park Geun-hye, who inherited all the flaws of her father and none of his strengths. As a presidential candidate, Park roundly lost all three of her televised debate against her opponent Moon Jae-in, a National Assemblyman and former chief of staff for Roh Moo-hyun. She could hardly articulate her own thoughts in words and obsessively relied on her pocket notebook for rehearsed talking points prepared by her father’s former cronies. No matter—she was elected anyway. Same with Trump, following Obama. The flaws were obvious, but he was elected anyway. So here we are.

I have seen the future. So allow me to share what lies in the days ahead.

(More after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Irrational Downfall of Park Geun-hye


President Park Geun-hye issues a public apology on October 25, 2016.
(source)

President Park Geun-hye is in deep trouble. The stories have been out for a few days now, and even the English-language papers have caught on. Park's confidant has been running a massive slush fund, as she extorted more than $70 million from Korea's largest corporations. The confidant was receiving confidential policy briefings and draft presidential speeches--all on a totally unencrypted computer. The confidant rigged the college admission process so that her daughter, not known to be sharpest tool in the shed, would be admitted into the prestigious Ewha Womans University. That last bit turned out to be the first step toward the president's ruin, as Ewha students' protest over that preferential treatment developed into the larger investigation about the relationship between Park and her confidant, Choi Soon-sil.

But the English language coverage of this scandal is missing something. The newspapers do have most of the facts, which they recount diligently. But they fail to fully account for the Korean public's stunned disbelief. Although the scale of the corruption here is significant, Koreans have seen much, much worse. Not long ago, Korean people have seen Chun Doo-hwan, the former president/dictator, made off with nearly $1 billion, and this was back in the mid-1980s when the money was worth more than $4 billion in today's dollars. Even the democratically elected presidents of Korea--every single one of them--suffered from corruption charges. Lee Myung-bak, the immediate predecessor to Park, saw his older brother (himself a National Assemblyman) go to prison over bribery. Lee's controversial Four Rivers Project, which cost nearly $20 billion, was widely seen as a massive graft project to push government funding to his cronies who were operating construction companies.

For better or worse (mostly worse,) Korean people have come to expect corruption from their presidents. So why is this one by Park Geun-hye causing such a strong reaction? It is not because Korean people discovered that Park was corrupt; it is because they discovered Park was irrationally corrupt. Koreans are not being dismayed at the scale of the corruption; they are shocked to see what the scale of the corruption signifies.

(More after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Holy Crap, It's Been Four Months?!!

Hi guys. I'm still here. If you follow my Facebook and Twitter, you would know that I have been paying attention to all the same things that I usually pay attention to. It's simply that my life has been going through at great deal of change recently, and it has been difficult to write an involved post.

I was hoping that pretty soon, I would have the chance to tell you guys what I have been doing for the past several months. That post is still coming. But holy crap, the events in Korea. The events! TK just has to write about that, right? How could I call myself "the Korean" otherwise?

So the post about the recent events is coming soon. I just didn't want to abruptly show up after four months as if nothing interesting happened in the interim. I look forward to seeing everyone again; I never forgot you guys.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Appropriate Appropriation

Dear Korean,

I am an art student and I am currently interested in Asian art. I am really intrigued by traditional Asian art, including Indian, Chinese, Japanese and Korean but I am worried that because I’m white people may believe I am appropriating Asian culture, I truly just wish to explore this style of art, i.e. prints, ink works and make artworks that are relevant to my culture in an Asian style. I know that you do not speak for every Asian country and I also know about the many differences in culture and art but I would just like an insight to if what I am doing is in anyway offensive because the last thing I would want is to offend anyone or lead anyone to believe I am racist or ignorant.

Cait


Here, we have the biggest conversation among Asian Americans. "Cultural appropriation" is a fairly recently crafted set of ethical rules, and its boundaries are still very fuzzy. But the boundaries do become a lot more visible once we understand the core principle behind cultural appropriation.

(source)

What is cultural appropriation? Cultural appropriation is a use of cultural artifacts as a prop. People generally tend to know this much. But they are often unclear on exactly why cultural appropriation is bad. Expressed as simply as possible, here is why: cultural appropriation is bad because using cultural artifacts as a prop leads to treating the people of that culture as a prop, rather than whole persons. This is the core principle behind cultural appropriation.

Understanding this core principle alone answers many tricky questions that are emerging cultural appropriation. For example: take this infamous instance of Katy Perry's kimono get-up. Asian Americans were nearly unanimous in their denunciation, but the Japanese in Japan seemed not to care. This disconnect is easier to understand once we understand the core principle: what matters is objectification, humans being turned into a prop. Asian Americans are constantly surrounded by non-Asian Americans who always stand ready to objectify them. Japanese in Japan belong to the nation of 127 million of the same ethnicity, and are almost never in danger of being objectified by the person next to them. Of course there will be a difference in reaction between the two groups.

But the mainstream society is hardly the only one that is ignorant of the core principle; Asian American themselves likewise often are unaware of it. This leads to a variation of "magic word racism." Previously, I explained that "magic word racism" is an attempt to detect racism by the presence or absence of certain words or phrases. Utter the forbidden "Word X," and you must be considered a racist. The same dumb logic can be found in at least some charges of cultural appropriation. Using any cultural artifact in any way must be cultural appropriation, regardless of the particular context and manner of the particular usage. This is wrong, just as much as magic word racism is wrong.

What, then, is an art student like Cait to do? The first thing is: study. Context-sensitive exploration of Asian arts cannot happen if you don't know the context. The ultimate challenge is to develop an internal view of the culture that you're exploring. Through whose eyes are you viewing the culture? Are you seeing it from the perspective of the people who created that culture, or are you seeing it from the eyes of the outsider? Do you understand the sense of aesthetics that led the people to create a cultural artifact, or does your mind stop at the outside shell of the artifact? Do you see the flow of history that led to the creation of this culture, or do you only see the here and now as if the culture fell on your lap from another dimension? Are you actively exploring what the people are saying about themselves, among themselves, in their own language, or are you merely hearing what other white people are saying about the exotic colored people?

These questions naturally lead to self-reflection. What is it about Asian culture and art that attracts you, the non-Asian artist? Lesser people would simply say they "just want it"--a bad answer, because in most cases, they are simply filtering the mainstream society that stands ready to use Asian culture as a prop. Stop the unthinking, and ask this essential question for understanding yourself: why do you want what you want?

This study need not be in isolation. You will keep talking and keep creating, and learn more from the reactions. And in the process, you will offend some people--usually those who are in the hunt for magic word racism, ready to pounce on their made-up rules. Don't get discouraged; keep plugging away. Because more often than not, a sincere willingness to learn overcomes any mistakes along the way.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Monday, May 16, 2016

TK's Korea Travel Itinerary

(This is for you, T.)

TK received a request from a friend who is traveling to Korea: where should she go and see?

This is a deceptively tough question. There are already plenty of excellent travel books of Korea out there. (TK's favorites are the two books from Seoul Selection, Seoul and Korea, both by Robert Koehler.) The New York Times--the New York Times!--seemingly runs a feature about traveling Korea every other month, and not just to big cities like Seoul. What could I possibly add to this, at this point?

In the end, what TK settled on is this: if I wrote a short exposition about Korea, what scenery would serve as the key illustration to highlight the points that I was making? What could one see to understand where Korea was, what it went through, and what it is now?

On this basis, a lot of the famous tourist attractions would be missing--partly because I felt that there are other places that tell the same story, partly because I do not know enough about a certain locale. The biggest omission perhaps is Busan, one of the most significant places in Korea that somehow is a big black hole of knowledge for me. Also, this itinerary includes Jeju simply because my friend asked me to include it. The whole thing is set for 10-11 days, but you will see that it involves fairly rigorous traveling. If you want to slot in a few "break" days in the middle, it could stretch into 14-15 days.

Long story short: this is just one guy's suggestion. Not the "best of"s, not the "must-see"s, just the places I would take you if we were friends. If that sounds good, off we go.

PART I.  SEOUL

Seoul metro area is home for nearly half of the population of the entire South Korea--the fifth most populous metro area in the world. It has centuries of history, and far too much to see. By my standard, seeing the city in a meaningful way would take around seven to ten days. But we will try to do the best parts in three days.

To do this itinerary, it is best to stay in the north of the river. Look on Google Maps to see if the hotel you are thinking of is near the palaces and a subway stop. If you like traditional Korean houses, Bukchon area has many guesthouses run out of traditional homes.

Day 1

Gyeongbokgung Palace [경복궁] , Samcheong-dong [삼청동] and Insa-dong [인사동]:  Walking tour of the Joseon Dynasty, phasing into early 20th century.

Start your day from:  Gyeongbokgung [경복궁] Station at Line 3 (Orange) or Gwanghwamun [광화문] Station from Line 5 (Purple)

Visit Gyeongbokgung Palace, the grandest of the Joseon Dynasty palace. So grand, in fact, that the re-construction of the palace in the late 19th century contributed to the fall of the dynasty. Built in 1395, the palace burned down in 1592 during the Japanese invasion (i.e. the Imjin War) and was reconstructed in 1865, in the twilight of the Joseon Dynasty (which ceased to exist in 1910.) This should take at least several hours. Tip: in this area, there are little stores that rent traditional dresses (hanbok 한복) that you may wear to stroll the palace grounds, to really get into the mood.

Advantage of hanbok rentals: the pictures are awesome.
(source)
Leave the palace and walk east along Sajik-ro, and turn north (left) onto Samcheong-ro, which puts you on the eastern edge of the palace. Turn right on Bukchon 5-ro, pass the Jeongdok city library on the right, until you hit Bukchon-ro. Turn left--you are now in Bukchon [북촌] / Samcheong-dong [삼청동] area, the Seoul neighborhood with the most well-preserved traditional houses (hanok [한옥]). Because of its proximity to royal palaces, Bukchon was the place where the noblemen lived, and the houses there reflect the history. Today, it is a hip neighborhood with many adorable cafes and restaurants nestled into the traditional houses. Pick a place for lunch here.

Walk south from Bukchon, tracing back toward the palace. Insadong-gil would appear on the left; turn left. Insa-dong [인사동] is where you can get your fix for all the little traditional trinkets--and unlike most other tourist traps in Korea, these trinkets are in good taste. Tong-In [통인], a renowned antique store at 30-1 Insadong-gil, is particularly worth visiting even if your wallet cannot handle their exorbitant price for some of their genuine articles.

Insa-dong is also a home for many tea houses and traditional restaurants. For the highest quality of makkeolli [막걸리, rice beer], visit Nuruknamu [누룩나무], 13 Insadong 16-gil.

(More after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Fate of Humanity in the Hands of a Korean

(It did not take long to find a topic that excited TK to get back to writing!)

Yesterday, the world witnessed history:  Google's AlphaGo, an AI program for go, defeated the human champion Lee Sedol for the first time in the history of the game. 

The match to determine the fate of the human race.
(source)
TK is a hobbyist go player--around 14 kyu, which means I know just enough to understand the professional commentators when they explain the games played by the championship level players. I will spare you the stuff about how a game of go is played, how complex the game is, etc. Instead, for those who have no idea what it is like to play go:  from the player's perspective, what does the game feel like?

The best analogy I could come up with is:  go is like basketball at 4 a.m. The "flow" of the game is more like basketball than any other commonly played sport. In basketball, each team takes turn to run a play; the play may result in two points, three points, or no points. Ideally, the team would try to make a three point play every time, but of course that is not possible because the opponent would try to defend the three point line. In that case, you would try to win by finding the best two point shot. And of course, you would try your best to limit your turnovers, or possessions that result in zero points.

Go is similar, in that each move is worth variable amount of points. Like basketball, players usually trade points--you score a basket, I score a basket. But over the course of the game, you build a series of small advantages. In basketball, you would have a stretch of a few minutes where a team goes on a 6-0 run, and other team may respond by going on a 12-4 run. In go, like basketball, the player that puts together more runs, however small, ends up winning the game. But here is the twist that makes go such a complicated game: in the early and mid-game of go, it is almost impossible to know exactly how many points you have scored with each move. All what you have is a vague sense of how the game is going, based on certain recognized patterns. It is not until the late game where it is even possible to count the points.

That's why go is not just basketball, but basketball played at 4 a.m. At 4 a.m., the sun has not yet risen. In the dark, both teams can sort of make out the basket, but cannot really see exactly how far they are from the basket. Nor can they tell where the out of bounds lines are, or where the three point line is. The best they can do is to guess where they stand in relation to the basket and to the court. 

Each shot they take would be recorded. As time passes, the sun begins to rise. Around halftime, the sky is deep blue instead of pitch dark. The lines slowly become visible. Then the teams get the more concrete sense of where they stand: some of their shots in the dark were worth three points because they managed to correctly shoot the 3-point shot, and some of their shots were worth zero points because they were actually out of bounds when they shot the ball. A team with better night vision would realize sooner where they stand. By the time the sun rises and everything is visible, the game has about three minutes left in the fourth quarter. At this point, both teams finally know exactly what their scores are. Sometimes, with three minutes left in the fourth quarter, it is a 20-point basketball game (or around 7-point game in go.) In such a case, the trailing player would usually forfeit because it is virtually impossible to make up 20 points in three minutes. Sometimes, the game reveals itself as a 3- to 4-point game (or around 2-point game in go)--which leads to a furious finish between the two players until there is no possible move remaining on the board.

*                           *                             *

Google could not have picked a better opponent than Lee Se-dol. Technically, Lee is not currently the world champion; that would be China's Ke Jie. The world go circuit operates similarly to tennis or golf, in which individual players amass "points" for playing in various major and minor tournaments. Lee Sedol, in fact, is not even the current champion of Korea; that title belongs to Park Jeong-hwan. But Lee Sedol, nonetheless, is the master. He is akin to Roger Federer--although they may or may not be technically the world champions at any given moment, there is no doubt that they are the very top of their respective games if one considers their body of work for the last decade.

Lee Sedol is the perfect opponent for another reason: unlike the machine, he has personality. Lee is brash and confident, bordering on arrogant. A respectable football team may win a game by the score of 10-3, employing stiff defense and reliable special teams play. Lee Sedol's play style is the opposite of that respectable team. At every other possession, Lee would fake a punt, run an end-around and throw a hook-and-ladder pass like a drunk Boise State football team in 2007 Fiesta Bowl. He would fling himself to seemingly hopeless battles, contemptuous of the idea that such risk-taking may backfire. Against the longest odds, somehow Lee more often than not pulls it through. This trait made him not just a champion, but a superstar in the go circuit.

Lee does not just let his game talk; he lets his mouth run. Lee particularly delights in tweaking Chinese fans who, like English soccer fans, often get upset at the fact that another country dominates the game they invented. In an infamous exchange, an interviewer asked Lee if he admired the great players of the previous generation, giving Korea's Lee Chang-ho, Cho Hun-hyeon and China's Ma Xiaochun as examples. Lee replied:  "They are all great players, but I admire no one. Oh, and Ma Xiaochun is not a great player." In 2010, after defeating Kong Jie (then-China's top player) in one of the greatest comeback victories in the game's history, Lee casually said: "I didn't even try very hard because I though I lost already, but I ended up winning anyway." Lee was likewise confident against AlphaGo, which he estimated to be around the level of top-flight amateur. Before yesterday's match, Lee declared: "I would consider myself defeated if I lost just one of the five rounds."

After the loss, Lee Sedol remained confident. Lee said AlphaGo "truly surprised" him, but said "I have won a lot of world championship. Losing the first round does not really bother me." But Lee's swagger is gone, and he is taking his opponent seriously: "Now I think my odds of winning is around 50-50."

*                           *                             *


Lee Sedol (black) versus AlphaGo (white), Round 1, March 9, 2016.
(source)

The first game is pure thrills-ville. Playing black, Lee Sedol almost immediately uncorks an unorthodox play in the early going. Perhaps to test AlphaGo, Lee Sedol deviates from the standard opening move, essentially daring AlphaGo to take advantage of his deviation. (B7 in the above diagram.) AlphaGo impresses right away by accepting Lee's dare. After several exchanges of complex battles, AlphaGo pulls slightly ahead. If go were a basketball game, AlphaGo finished the first quarter leading by four points.

Then AlphaGo makes a strange play (W58), taking a risk that is completely unnecessary (as it was leading.) Kim Chan-woo, a pro go commentator who is involved in AI go program development, surmised that this happened because AlphaGo does not make the "best move," but the "move most likely to lead to a win." Lee Sedol takes advantage of AlphaGo's risk-taking, and pulls even.

At W80, AlphaGo makes a straightforward, amateurish mistake. This is what makes watching AlphaGo such a trip. Pro players make mistakes too, but they make "pro mistakes." AlphaGo plays like a pro, but makes amateur mistakes. It's like watching Tiger Woods stringing together a series of incredible birdies, then suddenly seeing the golfer take out the five iron to hit the ball on the green. Lee Sedol duly punishes AlphaGo, and is now leading. AlphaGo begins thinking for a while. The game is entering the halfway mark. Things are looking good for the human race.

Then the moment of the match:  W102. The move was so original that Lee Sedol laughed upon seeing it. (Lee later said he though W102 move was "impossible.") Needing a change of pace, AlphaGo launched a daring, reckless attack--a Lee Sedol-esque attack. Lee is taken aback, and in response, makes a critical mistake of his own (B127). AlphaGo is now clearly ahead. The commentators are stunned: "If Lee Sedol was playing a human, he would have forfeited already because there is no way to make up this difference. He is now only playing in the hopes that AlphaGo would make a mistake."

At its highest level, go becomes a wordless conversation. With each move, you ask a question, convey your intent, send a message. Facing defeat, Lee Sedol becomes restless, poking fruitlessly at different corners to find an opening to attack. Each poke was a challenge: "Come on, AlphaGo. This game isn't over yet. Come out and fight me." AlphaGo would turn forbidding. With W154, AlphaGo seems to say: "I won. I don't have to answer to your challenges any more." 

Lee keeps at it for another 30 moves or so, and finally forfeits. History is made; the robot won.

Round 2 is at 11 p.m. EST on March 9, 2016. TK will be live-tweeting the game from 10:30 p.m., at Twitter handle @askakorean.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Monday, March 07, 2016

I'm Still Here



I know it's been a while, sorry. In the last month+ or so, TK has:

  • Traveled to Germany and Poland;
  • Published a major academic paper, and began working on another one;
  • Suffered from debilitating flu;
  • Worked at his law firm
Long time readers know that, in the near decade history of this blog, the frequency and the theme of the posts tend to fluctuate depending on TK's personal life. Right now, we are going through a dry season. If that made you leave the blog, well, sorry. For those who are sticking around: thank you for reading, as always. 

I really don't know when I can get back on this horse, but I am hoping it to be soon. If you want to chat, I am posting my small thoughts on my Facebook page and Twitter.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Do Korean Americans Intermarry with Other Asian Americans?

Dear Korean,

I'm an American of English heritage living on the periphery of Chinatown in Manhattan. Besides the Chinese, many Koreans and Vietnamese own businesses in my neighborhood. I'm curious about the extent of the interaction among different Asian American ethnic groups. For instance, is it common for Korean and Chinese Americans to intermarry?

Stuart


There is survey data on this precise topic thanks to Professor C.N. Le of University of Massachusetts. At his site Asian Nation, Professor Le put together the marriage data for major Asian American ethnic groups.

For Korean Americans, below are the numbers. As you can see, there are three columns of numbers. The first column is for all married couples that include at least one Korean American. The second is for married couples that include at least one Korean American who is raised in the United States. The third column is for married couples, with at least one U.S.-raised Korean American marrying another U.S.-raised person.


Koreans
Men
Korean90.461.144.8
Other Asian2.910.413.0
White5.323.134.6
Black0.20.81.2
Hispanic/Latino0.93.75.3
Multiracial & All Others0.40.71.1
Population Size (x1000)265.447.830.2
Women
Korean68.135.424.1
Other Asian3.69.29.8
White24.448.457.7
Black1.41.61.9
Hispanic/Latino1.32.73.3
Multiracial & All Others1.22.73.3
Population Size (x1000)351.572.658.4

Please do visit the site for other ethnic groups, as the results are highly interesting.

The numbers indicate that Korean Americans regularly marry outside of their ethnicity, particularly if they were raised in the United States. It also shows that Korean Americans marry other Asian Americans at the rate of around 10 percent among U.S.-raised Korean Americans. One's definition of "common" may differ from person to person, but TK would say one out of ten is a fairly common occurrence.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Code

Dear Korean,

I've been trying to sign up for Korean websites, but they always ask for this weird number sequence and stuff like your ID. I have no idea what to enter and I'm wondering what they are asking for and why.

Claudia


Short answer: the number is the Resident Registration Number, or 주민등록번호.

Every Korean is given an RRN when their birth certificate is issued. RRN is somewhat like the Social Security Number in the United States, but the use of RRN in Korea is a bit more comprehensive than the SSN use in the United States. As Claudia noticed, it is fairly commonplace for Korean websites to require an RRN for registration.

(source)

Can a non-Korean receive an RRN? Nope. But it is possible for non-Koreans to receive an equivalent number, called Foreigner Registration Number (외국인등록번호). Here is the catch, however: FRN is only for non-Koreans who are staying in Korea for more than 90 days, i.e. non-tourists who need to maintain a life in Korea in the form of opening bank accounts, etc. It is true that more and more Korean websites are refraining from asking for an RRN for registration, or have set up a separate track of registration for non-Koreans. But if you are a non-Korean who wants to join a Korean website, and the site requires an RRN, you are out of luck.

But things may change down the line. Late last year, the Constitutional Court of Korea invalidated a portion of the Resident Registration Act that forbade Koreans from changing their RRN, and gave the National Assembly until 2018 to pass a new law that is consistent with its decision. Currently, there is a great deal of public discussion in Korea about how RRN is an outdated system that puts too much personal information at stake. In the new system, RRN may disappear entirely; even if it does not disappear, the RRN use may be limited to a more limited set of purposes compared today. Until then, stay tuned.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Monday, January 04, 2016

Korea-Japan Agreement on Comfort Women

If an apology is not followed by contrition and self-reflection, but instead by gloating--“we apologized, so that ought to shut'em up”--does that apology mean anything? That is the core question that the Korean public is facing with respect to the recent agreement regarding Comfort Women between Korea and Japan.

On December 29, 2015, South Korea and Japan reached an agreement under which the Comfort Women issue was considered "finally and irreversibly" resolved. Under the agreement, the Japanese government issued a statement that read:
The issue of comfort women, with an involvement of the Japanese military authorities at that time, was a grave affront to the honor and dignity of large numbers of women, and the Government of Japan is painfully aware of responsibilities from this perspective. 
As Prime Minister of Japan, Prime Minister Abe expresses anew his most sincere apologies and remorse to all the women who underwent immeasurable and painful experiences and suffered incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women.

In addition to this statement, the Japanese government pledged to contribute one billion yen (~USD 8.3 million), out of the Japanese government's budget, to a foundation established by the Korean government, whose funding will go toward assisting the surviving Comfort Women.

This agreement sounds fairly good on its face. But the Korean public is generally unhappy with it, with many good reasons. First among the reasons is that the actual victims, namely the surviving Comfort Women, were completely shut out from the negotiation of the agreement. The 46 surviving Comfort Women were not even aware that the Korean government is negotiating for this agreement; they did not learn of this agreement until the media reported it. In a cruel irony, the surviving Comfort Women were initially confused by a sudden flood of congratulatory messages from international organizations, which mistakenly believed that the surviving Comfort Women managed to reach an accord with the Japanese government.

Ultimately, the surviving Comfort Women are unhappy with the agreement for the same reason as the Korean public's: the obvious phoniness of the apology. Normally, an apology is a recognition of past wrongdoing, followed by a period of contrition and self-reflection. In this instance, however, neither the Japanese government nor Prime Minister Shinzo Abe showed any self-reflection about how Imperial Japan brutally kidnapped, raped and murdered hundreds of thousands of women under the vile euphemism of "Comfort Women." Instead, Abe followed up the agreement with triumphant gloating, as he stated: "there will be no future reference at all to this issue [the Comfort Women issue]. We will not raise it in the next Japan-Korea summit meeting. This is the end. There will be no more apology."

(Compare Abe's statement to German Chancellor Angela Merkel's statement in 2013: "Naturally, [Germany has] an everlasting responsibility for the crimes of national-socialism, for the victims of World War II, and above all, for the Holocaust.")

Only an idiot would believe that Shinzo Abe, son of a suspected Class A war criminal in the post-WWII Tokyo Tribunal, would feel sorry about Comfort Women. Yet the length that his administration traveled to display the hollowness of this apology is nonetheless impressive in a twisted way. Even as it was issuing an apology, the Japanese government demanded that Korea remove a Comfort Women memorial statue in front if the Japanese embassy in Seoul. Although this demand was not formalized into an agreement, Japanese officials are already telling the media that the Japanese government would not pay the fund in the agreement unless the memorial statue was removed.

Comfort Women memorial statue, in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.
(source)

Speaking of the payment: the Japanese government strenuously denies that the money is a legal reparation for the damages that the Comfort Women suffered. This is consistent with Japan's position on Comfort Women thus far: that it did not violate any law in conscripting Korean women into forced sex slavery. Because Japan does not think it committed any crime, there is no damage to recompense as far as it is concerned. 

(If you were curious: the surviving Comfort Women receive a pension from the Korean government, and they do not need the money. One of the points that the Comfort Women have consistently made is that any money paid by Japan should be an expression of its legal responsibility.)

So this is what we have: a statement of apology, followed by gloating. An acceptance of responsibility, followed by denial of legal responsibility. A pledge to pay money as an apologia, followed by the demand to erase the crime from the public memory. 

This is another rendition of Japan's playbook with respect to its war crimes. In its heart of hearts, Japan steadfastly believes that it did nothing wrong leading up to and during World War II. Was Imperial Japan wrong to colonize Korea and China? No--Japan was only trying to protect Asia from European powers. Was Imperial Japan wrong to bomb Pearl Harbor? No--the United States forced Japan's hand by setting up a trade embargo. Was Imperial Japan wrong to kidnap hundred of thousands of women--many of whom were no more than 13, 14 years old--and force them into sexual slavery, to be raped by dozens of soldiers every day? No--war is bad for everyone, and at any rate, Comfort Women are lying whores who volunteered to join the war effort. 

This sick and disgusting worldview is so deeply rooted into the Japanese consciousness that any Japanese statement to the contrary is no more than a cynical bargaining chip, tossed in order to lower the heat of international outrage directed at the worldview's heinousness. Because Japan (and in particular, Japan's conservatives led by the current prime minister) cannot bring itself to mean what it says, Japan must always follow up its statements with a series of attempts to run away from them as quickly as possible.

Question, then, is: what should Korea and Koreans do about this?

(More after the jump)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.


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