Seoul Searcher

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Friday, July 31, 2009

Tips For Vacationers In Korea

In case you haven’t gone on vacation yet or are hoping to take one in South Korea next year, I will tell you how we, Koreans, are enjoying—or rather, torturing—ourselves on our vacation every year, so that you can adjust to the local customs and become a part of the great summer ritual.

First, you have to decide on a place where you and your family will spend your vacation. I don’t know about you, but personally, my idea of a vacation is to get away from it all, if only for a few days. I would like, therefore, to grab a few books and go to a quiet place—it doesn’t matter whether it is on a mountain or at the seaside—and catch up on my reading of the latest mystery novels in the cool shade during the day and stroll in the woods or on the beach in the morning and evening.

The point is, the fewer the fellow vacationers around, the better. But most of my fellow Koreans seem to prefer to go to places where there are lots of people. In fact, the more people milling around, the better or more exciting and enjoyable.

You must have seen at least one TV segment that showed more than half a million people just standing in the water shoulder to shoulder in the sea, off Pusan, or Kangnung on the East Sea coast—or, thousands of children practically turning a swimming pool in one of those amusement parks near Seoul into a neighborhood public bathhouse.

If you want to go to a popular or famous vacation spot, just follow the crowd, and you can’t miss it. And don’t think that where you are is the only crowded place in Korea. You can safely expect a mob of at least several thousands wherever you go, if the place is well known.

Once you picked your destination, you will have to decide whether you will take public transportation or your car. If you want to relax on your way, leave the driving, as the popular advertising goes, to the driver of the bus or the train engineer. But if you are like a Korean, you have to take your car, no matter now awful traffic conditions are during the vacation season.

Driving a car to Pusan or Kangnung, for instance, takes more time, sometimes, than flying from Seoul to Los Angeles. But you shouldn’t mind, because driving through that horrible jam is part of the fun for Korean drivers. If you don’t believe it, just look out of the window of your car and you will find many Korean drivers grinning and even waving at you happily, instead of gnashing their teeth and nursing their impatience to an explosive point.

If you are really in a hurry, you can drive on a lane reserved for buses. Driving through that lane is against the law, but many people are doing that with impunity and why shouldn’t you? And if you worry about parking, you shouldn’t because you can leave your car almost anywhere you like. You may have noticed that narrow rural roads to a national park, for instance, are almost completely blocked by illegally parked cars so that they have practically become obstacle courses for visitors on foot.

Next, you have to pack uncooked food, like marinated beef for bulgoki, and a portable burner. The idea is to cook your dinner or lunch on the spot, I mean, in the mountains, on the beach or wherever you are.

There are no officially designated picnic areas where you can cook. And cooking in public places is actively discouraged these days. Nevertheless, cooking and eating is still a must for most Koreans wherever they go. I often see a family sitting around in an off-limit lawn in city parks or on the banks of the Han River and cooking.

Oh, I almost forgot. You have to bring your soju—or Korean whisky, if you like—so that you can drink with your bulgoki, get drunk, sing as loudly as you can and dance. If your fellow vacationers frown on you, just ignore them. They are obviously not used to Korean customs.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Fighters for Democracy

There was yet another violent brawl at South Korea’s National Assembly (parliament) between the rival representatives last Wednesday. The fighting erupted when the ruling party attempted to pass a set of bills aimed at easing restrictions on ownership of television networks, and opposing lawmakers tried to block its passage by force.

The brawl was duly recorded on video, and foreign television networks broadcast them for the world to see and ridicule.

Physical combat in the Korean legislature is nothing new, however.

Last December, a debate over a free trade agreement turned violent when opposition lawmakers used a sledgehammer to knock down the doors of a room that had been blockaded so that the ruling party committee members could discuss it, and the ruling party lawmakers used fire extinguishers against them.

What is amazing is the fact that these lawmakers, especially the ones in the political parties currently in the opposition, believe that they are “fighting for democracy” when they grapple with the ruling party representatives.

Obviously, the self-righteous politicians on both sides of the aisle do not know that the essence of democracy lies in compromise and not, as it were, in their fists. These self-described “democratic” politicians also do not know how to concede when they are defeated in elections. Nor are they willing to honor the will of a majority of the people they are supposed to serve.

Interested only in partisan politics, they are engaged in an endless zero-sum game with their rivals, turning a blind eye to the national interests and the general wellbeing of the people.

As these politicians pursue their goals, parliamentary fighting has almost become a time-honored tradition as old as the Republic of Korea that was founded in 1948.

In one of the earliest parliamentary sessions, I remember, an incensed representative brought in a can of excrement and sprayed it over the heads of fellow lawmakers. The incident marked, I’m ashamed to say, the beginning of South Korea’s parliamentary brawls.

In between their physical clashes, rival representatives spend nearly all of their time and energy in bickering over such relatively unimportant issues as the formation of committees while ignoring pressing legislation. Thus, our highly paid representatives took more than a month and half to just convene the current session that had been scheduled to open on June 1.

While they are fighting tooth and nail over one or two pieces of “crucial” legislation, they ignore others until they are forced to take action on them. Then, they pass them en mass on the last days of the session, without even giving them a detailed reading, much less holding debate on them.

Despite this kind of irresponsible but typical behavior, some people are said to be pushing a change in the Constitution, aimed at replacing the current presidential system with a parliamentary form of government.

But are they in their right mind? I mean, haven’t they been watching what’s happening in our parliament day in and day out for over half a century? How could our National Assembly operating as they have been over the years carry out the affairs of the nation normally?

The way they tend to leave the assembly closed for more than half the time of a session and the way they continually fight over one or two bills for all the rest of the session, it would take a miracle for the country to function under our legislature.

That is unless the National Assembly decides to set up a boxing ring or a wresting arena in the middle of the assembly chamber where the representatives physically fight it out and the assembly adopts the legislative bills pushed by the winners of the matches.

Joking aside, though, even under the current presidential form of government, the nation will never fulfill the Korean people’s ardent and unrequited aspiration to join the group of advanced democracies, unless and until our politicians in general and representatives in particular grow up and learn to be sophisticated, refined and responsible leaders.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

First In The World

Every two or three weeks, South Korean newspapers and television networks come up with a report that someone or some group in the country have invented or discovered something or scored a big breakthrough in research for the “first time in the world.” Such great feats, I notice, usually take place in the medical and pharmaceutical or other scientific fields.

The key word here, of course, is “the first in the world.” And if these claims were correct, one would think that they would naturally draw some attention from the rest of the world. But they have seldom been picked up by the foreign press and reported around the world, much less drawn any reaction, pro or con.

This means that claims like that are either incorrect, or insignificant but exaggerated. And yet, we are fed such reports so often that we seem to accept it naturally and even feel proud of being fellow Koreans who are “leading the world” in so many areas.

But I wonder why our newspapers and televisions are so fond of affixing the phrase, “the first in the world,” onto developments when they are not sure if what they are reporting is, indeed, the first in the world.

Are the reporters and editors part of a scheme—knowingly or unknowingly—to publicize a development and help jack up the stock price of a concerned firm or some such thing? In this connection, incidentally, I recall that 10 editorial staff members of a newspaper in Seoul were being investigated on suspicion of taking bribes in exchange for publishing great reviews of a Korean movie. After all, money means almost everything in Korea, and there are a great many people who would do anything to make it.

Or, do they simply go along with the claim of being “the world’s first,” or “best” just to brag about how great we are? Those reporters and editors probably feel that it is their patriotic duty to help hype the achievements, big or small, of their fellow countrymen and women.

Or, maybe, the need to exaggerate what they are reporting is in their journalistic blood so that they unconsciously blow up the content of their reports unnecessarily, without thinking about the possible effects and consequences.

Examples abound in all fields. The Korean musical, “The Last Empress,” was reported by Korean newspapers to have taken New York’s Broadway by storm a few years back when it was staged amid “rave reviews” and to “great applause” from New York’s sophisticated theatergoers. The Korean musical was so well done that there was a strong possibility of it becoming a long-running Broadway show, according to Korean press reports at that time. But we all know what happened to “The Last Empress.”

Similarly in sports, a number of Korean professional baseball players were invited to a Major League spring-training camp in the United States. And the Korean press reported that Korean players wowed Major League coaches and trainers with their power-hitting and brilliant pitching during exhibition games.

The Korean players were so impressive, in fact, that scouts and management people of some Major League clubs practically slavered over them, the dispatches said. But what happened to them when the spring training ended? Most of them packed their stuff and came home to play here.

These types of exaggerated reports on scientific, cultural and sporting activities are relatively harmless, compared with the public statements on the nation’s economy or diplomacy issued by our national leaders and Government officials that are based on speculation or hopes.

Luckily, because of the extremely shortness of memory on the part of our general public, reporters and editors as well as government officials seem to be able to get away with their exaggerated or inaccurate reports and statements. Indeed, most us can hardly remember what we read or heard a few days ago. And our newspapers and television networks seldom follow the basic journalistic practice of filing follow-up reports.

But we must remember such irresponsible reporting and official pronouncements have a way of coming back to dash our hopes and expectations as the truth is bound to come out sooner or later.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Depending on Foreign News Media

The foreign correspondents stationed in Seoul report on what’s going on in Korea and the rest of Asia. Then, Korean reporters stationed overseas pick up the reports and send them back to their newspapers in Seoul where they are translated into Korean and published as though they were big news.

I have always wondered why the Korean press keeps undertaking this curious and senseless practice.

After all, what the foreign press reports is usually what Korean reporters already know. They have, in all likelihood, reported the stories already. Indeed, chances are the foreign correspondents based their stories on information they got from local press reports in the first place.

That is why I think foreign press reports on Korea in most cases are not news. And yet, they attract attention here as though the mere fact that the foreign press had reported about this or that development in Korea is significant in itself.

It is a different story, of course, if the foreign correspondents have written analyses or commentaries on what has taken place in Korea. If they have a unique, foreign point of view or insight that we should take note of, they deserved to be picked up, translated correctly and published as food for thought, if nothing else.

But if they are straight news stories, they can safely be ignored, even if they are published in the so-called authoritative or influential papers like the New York Times, the Times of London, and Le Monde, for instance.

Even with this kind of article, we should be wary and discriminating because each and every member of the foreign press has its own editorial policy or ideological slant so that you cannot call every foreign report strictly objective, fair or balanced. We should be able to take this aspect into consideration when we read them.

What’s more difficult to understand is the instances where vernacular newspapers relay foreign reports that are based on information provided by South Korean sources. Every time I run into such reports, I wonder why Korean newspapers couldn’t go to the same Korean sources and ask the same questions and publish their own versions.

Is it so difficult for the Korean press to obtain news from a Korean source so that they have to depend on the foreign press? Or are the Korean newspapers—and radio and television stations, for that matter—simply too lazy to dig information out for themselves?
Or, perhaps, they are afraid of taking responsibility for publishing certain news because of libel or a breach of national security.

In this connection, I have often noticed that major Japanese newspapers and television channels beat the Korean press in reporting on what’s happening in that secretive society, called North Korea, or on inter-Korean developments. Often, the Japanese reports were based on information given to them by South Korean officials or sources that “preferred to remain anonymous.”

It is true that in the old days when the Seoul government was tightly controlled by the administrations headed by army-generals-turned presidents, news sources—often government officials—were said to have been extremely reluctant to disclose any sensitive information to the domestic press for fear they might be asked to take responsibility later. In other words, they were anxious to save their necks.

That is why they probably preferred to let a select foreign newspaper float a morsel of highly sensitive information to see what the world public reaction would be before making the same news available to others, including the Korean press.

But now South Korea has been democratized to a great extent. The Korean press is free to collect and disseminate almost “all the news that’s fit to print.” There is no reason for vernacular papers to depend on foreign reports on Korea any more.

But as I said, watching foreign press reports on Korea seems to persist among the Korean press including the mass-circulation dailies. Foreign press reports have become the unquestionable standard by which Korean newspapers seem to measure the value of news.

Recently, for instance, the New York Times reported on Baengnyoendo island in the West Sea near the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the maritime border between South and North Korea. It was a good and timely piece that introduced the life of the fishermen and other residents amid rising military tension between the South and North.

Noting that many Korean newspapers used that story prominently, I wondered why they had to rely on the New York Times for a story like that. After all, they could have sent their own reporters to the island and report on their fellow South Koreans from their own Korean point of view.

The paucity of ideas and the lack of an enterprising, even aggressive, spirit on the part of Korean newspaper editors and reporters are appalling. In addition, their old habit of putting too much value on foreign press reports is apparently dying hard. It is about time, however, to outgrow our dependency on foreign views and start nurturing self-confidence and relying on our own judgment.


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