Thor's Korea Diary (from September 2000)

All ideas expressed in Thor's Korea Diary and The Passionate Skeptic are entirely those of the author, who has no aim to influence, proselytize or persuade others to a point of view. He is pleased if his writing generates reflection in readers, either for or against the sentiment of the argument.

A YouTube video autobiography of my years in South Korea (2000-2007) is here:

Thor's Ages of Man Part 5

Table of Contents

Note: items appear in reverse date order of writing from September 2000


My Korea 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

The 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 business, they are downright embarrassing for Chinese respectability.

66. The Penis Chronicles

This 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.

65. Is Assessment a Satire? - The Conspiracy of South Kogglebot

The 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

My 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....

63. How Samsung Failed To Sell Me A Phone

So 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.

61. Buggery Uprooted - A Review of Scott Burgeson's Korea Bug

One 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.

Scott Burgeson's Korea 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.

60. Meet Ticolette

"A 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!

"Yeah, 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..."

58. Some Mysteries of Language Learning

I'm a veteran failed language learner, always a thousand miles from  success, and an eternally hopeful beginner..

57. Why Our Schools Are Failing (..are they?)

In many ways "mass education" is a contradiction in terms ..

56. Ethnicity and Racism - Stirring the Pot

Of 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?

 When a student asks my direct opinion, I try to give an honest answer. It is   not always easy. Try this one...

54. Copping It Sweet

Not 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

I 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...

52. Article removed from the Internet

51. Red Light, Green Light

The 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...

50. Australian Parliamentary Senate Inquiry on the Status of Australian Expatriates

...I 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 .. or 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.

The 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 dog-soup-dog,  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...

48. Korean, 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

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

A 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

The 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 violent action...

44. The Hermit Kingdom - A Book Review

"Click 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, so if you don't mind staring at an electron gun, you can read the whole thing for free...

43. Inside Pusanweb - An Interview with Jeff Lebow

Pusanweb 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 international community.

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 Punishment

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

The 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

The 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

The 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 (poem)

Well 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?

At 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 Hand Man

35. The Monk's Magic Moment - Stage  Blind

34. The Banker's Tale

33. Omen

32. A Tale of Two Kingdoms

31. The Bright Smile Love Club

30. Ghost Story

29. Thou Shalt Not Smile For The Photographer

28. Free Spirits On The Road To Unmoon Valley

27. Dead or Alive?

At 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 their number 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 surreal.

My 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?

25. Scouting Seoul

24. Skin Deep

23a. (Korean language version of 23)

23. When Is It Rude To Be Rude?

Rapid 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

21. Embassy Follies in Haeundae

20. The Accident

19. T'aejongdae Tourist

18. Who Wants a Reunified Korea? -- some reflections on war, peace and the armaments business

17. Of Tampons and Honey

16. Captive Foreigner has Fake Consultation

15. Tiger in the Night  

14. Hill Gods and Ghostly Signs

13. So What is a Korean Anyway?

12. Pusan was a Haven

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?

8. Japanese Influence?? Believable yet absolutely wrong

7. The Bus Driver's Heaven Machine

6. An End to Beginnings

5. Mountain Walker

4. The Sports Festival

3. Visa Run

2. Pansong Dong

1. The Coming  

Photos around Korea

Links to Korea-related Sites

Exchange Rates to Korean Won


(written 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.)

This 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.

This 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.

Koreans 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 Arabia.

Nevertheless, 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.

It 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.

Macro 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.

We 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.

My Korea 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

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