Note: items appear in reverse date order of writing from September 2000
will be an accident of personalities and experiences. From the kindnesses and the
bastardry of this individual or that I will, no doubt, make profound statements
about the "Korean character", Korean culture, institutions, and so
on. Take it with a grain of salt... [For an earlier Introduction, written
in 2000, see the bottom of this page ]
67. North Korea – An American Accident
reason that North Korea
exists is that America,
the superpower, exists. This was true during the 1950-53 Korean War, and it is
true today. After World War II, American ignorance of the Korean peninsular was
matched only by its disinterest. In 2013, oddly perhaps, the best friend of the
North Korean regime is the American military-industrial complex. They need each
other. That part of the American polity which persists in playing the games of
empire absolutely craves a North Korean demon. Yet China
in 2013 would happily erase North
Korea into a dusty footnote, if it were
politically possible. Kim Jong-eun and his coterie are not only bad for Chinese
they are downright embarrassing for Chinese respectability.
66. The Penis
is not a story for everyone. But as Mao Zedong once almost said, men's penises
hold up half the sky, so there is some interest in the subject. If you want
advice on blue pills, penis stretchers, and all the other paraphernalia of
fragile male egos, look elsewhere. This is a tale of medical misadventure in a
South Korean provincial hospital (though it could probably have happened
anywhere), and perhaps a small warning about what can happen when even
well-intentioned medicos start to play with your dongle.
Is Assessment a Satire? - The
Conspiracy of South Kogglebot
wise elders and the feckless noviates, the desperate mothers and the captains
of industry, even it is rumoured, the king, nowadays puzzle over backwash from
the great South Kogglebot bell curve conspiracy....
64. North Korea -
Pick Your Godfather
friendly neighbourhood supermarket checkout girl greeted me with a joke about emigrating to Australia.
Geopolitics is not the currency of daily conversation in this small, sleepy
city in central South Korea,
so clearly something was up....
How Samsung Failed To Sell Me A Phone
there is was.
Nobody in Chungju wanted to sell me a phone. What was to be done? Well, when
the slaves run away, all you can do is go to the head cook and bottle washer,
and here that meant corporate Korea...
62. High School
Surveys - some students dare to ask and tell
They chose the topics, constructed the questions and conducted the interviews
on anyone handy. My only rule was "this is an English zone : no Korean!". That was
tough, but they played it pretty well.
Uprooted - A Review of Scott Burgeson's Korea Bug
of the more harmless expletives in my native dialect is 'go to buggery'. This
is a rather milder invitation to disappear than the damning 'go to hell'. Few
users ever check the dictionary etymology, or suspect that they are willing
their annoyer to have a fun time with the back end of a sheep.
Bug sort of creeps up on you like that. You can begin this book as an
unreconstructed hedonist mucking about on the Korean funny farm, and finish up
worrying about your existential qualifications to carry the white man's burden
of civilizing the natives.
car is not a noun. A car is definitely a family member, so meet Ticolette. Our
acquaintance has been brief, and I hope it doesn't end in tragedy. So far we're
mostly getting along fine, with a few passing little tiffs, and she did lose
her radio voice half an hour out of the car sales yard, but every lady has the
odd strange habit."
59. Teacher, I
Saw Two Foreigners Kissing!
I've got something to tell you; listen up please. Yesterday, I went to Haeundae Beach. And I saw two foreigners kissing
each other right in front of me... It was a real scene ^^ . I was shocked..."
Mysteries of Language Learning
veteran failed language learner, always a thousand miles from success, and an eternally
57. Why Our
Schools Are Failing (..are they?)
many ways "mass education" is a contradiction in terms ..
56. Ethnicity and
Racism - Stirring the Pot
course, I have some sentimental interest in England, because that is
where my ancestors came from, but I would never consider England
to be my home. Ethnic "Koreans" born in Australia will have some
sentimental interest in Korea, but they are
unlikely to feel that they "belong" in Korea...
55. Euthanasia - Whose Final Choice?
a student asks my direct opinion, I try to give an honest answer. It is
not always easy. Try this one...
54. Copping It
such a bad life, he tells himself very quietly, lowering expectations once
again just in case the gremlins get to hear about any hint of good fortune. But
it is never quietly enough. Heaven knows, it's been a roller coaster from the
moment he could walk and talk. Talking,
huh. Now there's a dangerous habit..
53. All is Forgiven
head for the lifts, but before I can escape an ancient gent in a blue baseball
cap blocks my path. His face is as brown as a walnut, and creased with deep
lines. Two large gold fillings punctuate his smile. He has a message but we
don't share a language. No matter, he tells me anyway, in gutteral Korean with
lots of hand waves...
Article removed from the Internet
51. Red Light,
epitaph will say, "He had a green light", but he'll be dead. What a
fool to believe a thing like that. Every day I cycle to work and back, twice,
on a split shift. That means the best part of two hours on the road, and it is
a crash course on the Korean traffic ethic...
Parliamentary Senate Inquiry on the Status of Australian Expatriates
take a rather more dispersed view of cultural participation, Australian or otherwise.
On any particular constituent of the cultural design, I would see individuals
distributed on a normal (bell) curve. Those less attached to bar raffles,
Akubra hats, Australian idioms
whatever, would be on the wings of the curve, with some issue-majority
clustering at the centre. Some of that cultural minority on issue X or Y will
be mad and bad. Others will already treading new paths that the majority will follow
in a generation or two.
argument which I wish to put to the Senate Committee is that the concept of a
nation as fortress is, in large part, destructive and counter-factual both at
individual and institutional levels. It is destructive because any institution
which creates a sharply defined perimeter of in-groups and out-groups also
generates a standing invitation to conflict. Human history is riven with tragic
examples, from tribal and religious sects to the sociopathic behaviour needed
to sustain most empires...
49. Dog Days
upmarket corners of Korean cities the apartment-dog, as opposed to the
presently made his appearance. Dog as a love object to replace
dog as a food lust object... Since every Korean secretly wants not only a Yangban
(aristocratic) name like Kim, but also a BMW and the envy of his neighbours,
pretty soon the apartment-dog could be seen in even the lowliest of working
class districts. In no time at all there were dog hairdressers, dog cuticle
polishers, dog clothes outfitters and dog hospitals. You would think that with
all this lavish attention, the Dog had finally arrived. Well, there are dogs
and then there are Dogs...
American & Other Strange Habits
day you set foot in someone else's country and your world turned upside down.
These people were *weird*, really off the wall. The neighbours back home might
be slack, but at least you could talk to them. In this new place, it was, well,
eerie. A bit dangerous too. You were 100% outnumbered, and they called you a
foreigner. You kept a low profile, and sort of adapted. Maybe you changed a bit
too. After living on Mars for a few years, when you went home for a holiday the
old family reckoned you'd gone native. Well, come to think of it, *they* looked
sort of silly now...
47. About Names
are funny things. You can summon the devil with them, marry with them and get
sent to war because you own one. Slaves in many a country, including
old Chosun, were not allowed to inherit one. As a prisoner or bank customer you
might be dehumanized by a mere number. We have nick-names and pen-names and
nom-de-guerre, not to mention intimate bedroom names and lately, avatar names
for Net chat flights of fancy. In short, a name is our social mask, sometimes
chosen at whim, sometimes imposed on pain of death...
46. South Korean
Language Policy - A letter to Mr Roh Moo-hyun
Korean colleague assures me that middle class Koreans are spending up to 30% of
their disposable income on language study. If true, this is an extraordinary
figure with unusual political implications. It seems to say loudly and clearly
that South Korea
needs to formulate a National Language Policy with a clear pragmatic
base (not simply a forum for competing ideologies)...
45. North Korea -
The Japanese Card
Japanese public feels directly threatened by North Korean missiles. When that
is added to a nuclear threat the imperatives for any Japanese government become
overwhelming. The moral dimension in Japanese-Korean relationships (North or
South) is potent on both sides, and can be rapidly swung behind support for
44. The Hermit
Kingdom - A Book Review
into the Hermit Kingdom"
is a good place to look for outlines of 'nation' in the Korean style. Korea
happens to have the most complete set of official historical national records
in East Asia. Yang Sun-jin and Lee Nam-hee have combed a
CD ROM compilation of these records covering 500 years of the Choson Dynasty,
to produce an eclectic but revealing collage of reports on many subjects. In
researching this review I was a bit taken aback to discover that the text of
the volume is in fact available on the Internet at http://english.gija.com/elist.htm, so if you
don't mind staring at an electron gun, you can read the whole thing for free...
Pusanweb - An Interview with Jeff Lebow
has done much to make the English speakers in Busan aware of themselves as a
community, and to define their public identity. As important as this role is,
Pusanweb also has some potential to be an English language window on the world
through which others may gain some sense of Korea,
and hopefully, some Koreans may find a voice to express themselves to the
interview which follows takes a close look at Pusanweb in its present form,
makes a stab at guessing the what the future holds, and briefly traces the
evolution of this important website. The story of Pusanweb is really the story
of its architect, creator and guiding spirit, Jeff Lebow. Jeff comes disguised
as an English teacher for one of Busan's universities, but his heart is,
well his heart is Pusanweb. Here is the tale in his own words...
42. Crime and
The Kookje Daily News
(Busan) asked me to write a short opinion piece for translation on the tragic
killing of two young Korean girls by an American military vehicle. This is the
English version. Writing on this topic was delicate, for it has aroused strong
emotions on both sides. I hope the following account maintains some balance..[postscript 20
December 2002 : although Kookje commissioned this piece, I have been
unable to find any evidence that they ran the story (they have published
earlier stories I wrote). Ho hum .. ]
41. Travels With My Dentist
life of a Korean peasant was in fact almost entirely self-sufficient, and this
was a spare thirty years ago. The respectable Dr Kim, now an emblem of modern
Korean success, had been completely awestruck as a sixteen year old, when he
first came to Busan on a school visit. The most astonishing thing of all, he
recalled, was the bitumen road, which he had never seen before. That black
ribbon was indeed a highway to the stars...
40. North Korea -
The Smell of Rat
economic-military mess that is North
Korea has reached a point where it can't be
much fun even for the dictators. When you have to travel for twenty-four days
in an armoured train just to visit the neighbouring potentate, well, the most
armour-plated egos must take a hit. Heck, you are not even welcome to spend
your ill-gotten gains in the twenty-first century's real palaces. That is, you
can't strut in those international luxury hotels which live off the corporate
criminal classes and respectable political scoundrels from richer climates...
39. Daegu Is On The Map
Daegu mall area is different, a
sleepy, down-at-heel compromise where the cars have been kicked
out, but the slick operators, by and large, haven't moved in. I liked it. Maybe
the money is just not there for ostentation (as with the railway station). South
Korea by reputation is one of those countries
where all glory goes to the capital, so perhaps the no-hopers left back in
number three city have a more comfortable, but less funded set of values...
38. Busan Summer
she perished, / cross-cut on the instep, / Dissected at the kneecaps / by a
low-flying baby blade-runner, / Stripped naked with fear / at curdling shrieks,
/ War cries of an approaching horde,/ the sub-ten roller blade elite.
37. Whose Chook
Are You Anyway?
this moment of supreme achievement I should have offered a libation to the gods
and come quietly home, a contented man. Flushed with success though, giddy with
hubris, I tried to impart the purpose of my purchase. "Fssssh", I
growled, steaming an imaginary slice of bread. "Ppang (bread), mmmm", licking my
lips. A stricken look swept over the woman's face. "Ppang", I repeated, stating the
obvious, and grinning like a maniac. Her voice tense with anxiety, she shouted
for help at the curtained back of the shop. Hey, this was getting out of hand.
What had I done? After a couple of minutes a leathery little man whom I'd never
seen before bounced up. "Can I help you?" has asked in flawless
English. Ha, he couldn't fool me. At least ten million Koreans are able to ask
"can I help you?" in perfect English, but retreat in confused panic
when you smile and drawl "well yes, as a matter of fact I was looking for
an early eighteenth century glazed pottery cornucopia...". This time I took
pity and just muttered "well no, not really. I was just telling your
admirable companion about my patent pending bread steaming invention..."
The leathery man had the chutzpah to nod as if he had understood me perfectly.
He disappeared behind a shelf of imitation jewelry, and before I could escape
came pattering back with an ironing board under one arm, and a Chinese chintz
curtain draped over the other....
36. The Second
35. The Monk's
Magic Moment - Stage Blind
34. The Banker's
32. A Tale of Two
31. The Bright
Smile Love Club
30. Ghost Story
29. Thou Shalt
Not Smile For The
28. Free Spirits On The Road To Unmoon Valley
27. Dead or
this moment I looked around the carriage, and a chill went through my body. Of
all those passengers, not a single one showed the slightest signal that one of
had collapsed, and might be in mortal danger. The bodies remained lax, the eyes
unfocussed, the woman on the floor invisible to their attention. It was
disbelief gave way to outrage, and throwing decorum to the winds, in a loud
voice I demanded in English, "SOMEBODY CALL A DOCTOR". Nobody looked
at me, but an uneasy twitch rippled through the crowd...
26. Traveler on a
Leash, or a Free Spirit?
24. Skin Deep
language version of 23)
23. When Is It
Rude To Be Rude?
global social change, the transmigration of millions of people within and
across national boundaries, and the internationalization of employment have all
made the preservation of social harmony both more important and more difficult.
The traditional dependence upon formulaic politeness persists, but the swift
punishment which might have followed violations of form in traditional
societies is no longer sensible. In a dynamic and ever changing world, we wish
each other well, but pause after each handshake to see if the other fellow is
holding an olive branch or a gun behind his back....
22.The Marathon Club
Follies in Haeundae
20. The Accident
18. Who Wants a
Reunified Korea? -- some reflections on war, peace and the armaments
17. Of Tampons
Foreigner has Fake Consultation
15. Tiger in the
14. Hill Gods and
13. So What is a Korean Anyway?
12. Pusan was a
11. Them and Us,
Pusan and The Rest of 'Em
10. Korea, North
& South: The Geopolitics of Unification
9. Was Korea a
Chinese Lap Dog?
Influence?? Believable yet absolutely wrong
7. The Bus
Driver's Heaven Machine
6. An End to
4. The Sports
3. Visa Run
2. Pansong Dong
1. The Coming
Photos around Korea
Links to Korea-related Sites
Exchange Rates to Korean Won
in September 2000; note that five years later in 2005 South Korea has become
considerably more open, at least from a retailing point of view. The choice of
goods available for daily purchase is much greater.)
Korea Diary follows hard on the heels of two years in China.
That experience will inevitably influence my expectations and perceptions in
the months to come. Korea
however is a very different proposition from its giant neighbour. Although
historically the culture has been heavily influenced by Chinese proximity, and
also by the Japanese, the Korean people remain fiercely distinctive. Independence
has often come at a high price, and has sometimes been lost on the ground, but
never lost in spirit.
is no longer the Hermit Kingdom
(or at least, South Korea
is not) -- I and thousands of others are here because of an insatiable demand
for the international language of English. Yet even a casual visitor cannot
help noticing that the international bazaar of goods from a hundred nations
which is so evident in, say, Australia,
is severely constrained in the shops here. The thousands of knick-nacks from China,
the shirts from Indonesia,
the plastic buckets from Thailand
and so on are hard to find.
of course have their own ideas about the good life, and what's valuable. As an
arrivee from China
next door, one feels that the price of food is exhorbitant, and even Chinese
tea is scarce. There are few "foreign" cars on the roads (in the
public perception... Many of the engines, for example, in those
"Korean" cars were made in Australia).The
seeker after electronics is likely to be stuck with Samsung or pay a high
premium for imports. There are sound economic reasons for much of this. Korea
has next to no resources of its own to export and (in the South) 47 million
people to feed. It can't fudge foreign reserves by digging up mountains of iron
ore like Australia, or
pumping "Allah's gift" of oil out of the ground like Saudi
protectionist economic policies, with all of their psychological and monetary
costs seem to be deeply ingrained. The gaint chaebols (cartels) have had a cosy
life, become flaccid, and as the 1997 economic crash showed, lost the street
fighting skills that come from intense competition. An initial impression is
that protected interests, backed by self-serving regulations, extend deeply
into the economics of daily life. Retailing is overwhelmingly in small stores
with unmarked prices.
all adds up to high prices for the consumer, and restricted choices, but
perhaps also employment and a social safety net for large numbers of people who
would be flotsam in other societies. Certainly nothing seems to arouse Koreans
to collective fury faster than any attempt by some foreign company to buy into
"their" industries, or put conditions on "their" banks.
observations of the kind above are the staple of journalists, politicians and
academics who parachute into exotic locales (as they see it) for a two week
study visit. The things that really matter, those intricate flavours which make
each culture distinctive, take longer to truly perceive and appreciate.
are all generalists. The casual tourist will talk wisely about Kalahari Bushmen
or Viennese burghers after a two week annual holiday visit in an airconditioned
tour coach. It doesn't stop there. I have met Asian students returned from
postgraduate study in Australia
with firmly embedded stereotypes about my own culture which seem, to me, to be
grotesque. No doubt my Chinese friends feel somewhat the same about some
observations in my China Diary. All of which is fair warning to anyone
who risks believing what I write in the Korea Diary.
will be an accident of personalities and experiences. From the kindnesses and
the bastardry of this individual or that I will, no doubt, make profound
statements about the "Korean character", Korean culture,
institutions, and so on. Take it with a grain of salt. Store my prejudices and
confusions away as questions to be checked out further, hypotheses to be
tested. For me this is an adventure in progress, where mistakes have to be made
and foolish statements lived down tomorrow.
Happy reading, Thor.
South Korea 2000