Seoul Searcher

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Seoul Searcher

Friday, July 23, 2021

                         Life in the Time of Covid-19

Wearing a mask, as we were told by the government to help control the spread of the Covid-19, I made a short and hurried visit to a neighborhood market the other day.

The mask I was wearing happened to be made of black material that covered the lower half of my face. I also wore a pair of newly purchased spectacles whose lenses automatically turn dark when they are exposed to light like sunglasses. In addition, I was wearing a black baseball cap.

As usual, I did not pay much attention to my appearance in public. So, imagine how surprised I was when I saw myself in the mirror hung just behind the checkout counter! I hardly realized that the man standing in front of the cash register was myself.

If I had a toy gun in my right hand and announced that I was a hold-up, I thought I could easily fool the cashier. While she was totting up the prices, I took off the glasses and mask to wipe the sweat off my face with a handkerchief.

Only then did she recognize me and exclaimed: “Oh, it’s you! I’m sorry, I didn’t know.” As neighborhood acquaintances, she and I go a long way back.

“You thought I was a stranger and a hold-up, I bet,” I asked her, laughing.  “Seriously, though,” I added, “you don’t have to apologize. For, even I couldn’t recognize myself in this stupid outfit!”

“No, it isn’t as bad as you think you look,” she said.

“Anyway, let’s blame the coronavirus for all the surprises and inconveniences we are experiencing these days,” I said.

With a mask on, she agreed with me by nodding and smiling with her eyes. And what a pair of pretty eyes! I have known her for years but failed to notice that she had such beautiful eyes. But now, since the mask became almost a part of our face and since it hides most other facial areas, the eyes seem to have become the focal point that attracts attention in our daily face-to-face meetings with others.

In this connection, Incidentally, I listened to a panel discussion on radio the other day in which a sociologist pointed out that since the outbreak of the corona pandemic, there has not been any beauty contest as they used to. It was mainly because government authorities as well as health officials kept discouraging, if not banning, the unnecessary person-to-person contacts in public gatherings.

It could be interesting, I thought, if some people hold a beauty contest with all the participants wearing a mask. I must admit it was a silly thought. Joking aside, though, we could not rule out such an unthinkable and outrageous event taking place if we were forced to live with the Covid-19 for a long time.

Regardless of whether we, the humans, could win or lose our current battle against the coronavirus, we wouldn’t be able to go back and live our lives as we used to. So, we have to make changes and adjust our life to the new modes brought to our society by the pandemic.

There are people in many countries who appear to be increasingly nervous and impatient with their governments, accusing them of being inefficient in their fights against the disease. But I’m sure that each and every government as well as doctors and their staff are doing their best. In the meantime, we can only hope that sooner or later, mankind will prevail once again as they have done so many times in a similar global crisis in the past.


Tuesday, July 13, 2021

                                 Epithets for Old Men

        As I grow older, I become increasingly aware of the various epithets which young people use to describe old men. Some of the common ones are “touchy old man,” “cranky old man,” “dirty old man” (with a sexual connotation, no less), “silly old man,” and so on. While most of these are not flattering, they prove, I am afraid, to be accurate in some cases.

        There are a few nice descriptions for old men, of course. They include “understanding old man,” “wise old man.” And I often wonder what makes some old men “wise.” I don’t think these old men have become wise because they had many different experiences in life and have “accumulated” the wisdom learned from them or honed their senses or judgments over a long period of time.

And not all smart people become “wise” by simply having many experiences through social and personal interactions with other people. I have seen many who commit “the same old” mistakes over and over again, proving that their bitter experiences have failed to make them wise. Nor are they wise on account of the “god-given” ability to discern or assess a social situation correctly and resolve any problem or issue.

To be sure, experiences could be a factor that helps some elderly persons make wiser to some extent. But I believe that the main reason is due largely to the fact that old men—and old women, for that matter—become a little more objective than younger people in their perception of the world.

As I grow older and begin to have a vague feeling of approaching death, they forego—or rather, shed—all worldly desires such as money, power and even sex.

When one is called “a dirty old man,” he may actually be dirty physically with an accompanying bad smell. But we all know that the phrase points at a man who habitually flirts with young women shamelessly, forgetting to “act his age.” Whenever I run into such an old man, I cannot help marveling at him not only because of his brazen, often disgusting, behavior but also his courage to display his energy and sexual drive that seem to dog him even at that stage in his life.

Anyway, it is desires or greed, as I said, that cloud our thinking and perceptions of the world around us. It is because of these desires that we are unable to think clearly and objectively. And as we are gradually freed from the yoke of these desires, we are able to see the world as it really is.

Also, as we get older, we don’t need to pretend to be other than what we are. It was Somerset Maugham who said, “One of the pleasures of growing older is that on the whole, you feel no need to do what you do not like. You are less likely to care what people think of you, whereas when young, one is bound hand and foot with the shackles of public opinion.” In other words, you don’t feel the need to get the approval of your fellow men and women for what you say and what you do, your opinions and behavior begin to sound more honest and refreshing.

These, I believe, are the main reasons that the younger generation calls some old folks “wise.”

Why, then, do we hear somewhat mutually contradictory descriptions such as “cranky” or “touchy” old men? Of course, wise old men can be touchy, even despite their ability to judge most things a little more objectively; they still are emotional beings until the very moment they die.

 Old people become touchy and cranky when they feel they are being treated unjustly or even with contempt, by younger people, especially by members of their own family. But this development is inevitable because old people are relegated sooner or later to minor roles in society and in their families. They are forced to live the rest of their life on the margin, so to speak. And it is difficult for them to accept the fact, even though they know deep down, it is unavoidable.

Could those old folks be blamed for being overly sensitive over trivial issues? Not if the younger people refuse to try and understand why they are so sensitive and emotional.

It is not only difficult for an old man to give up the role he had played for years as the master of the house, it is also sad and disheartening if he feels that the love and affection of his family members are gradually waning or moving away from him.

In order to maintain “power and status,” it is said, old men should keep their money and property—they have them, of course – for themselves until they die. There are many, however, who divide their money and give it to their sons and daughters out of love and/or an effort to exercise influence over them or regain their affection.

Give most of what you have to your sons and daughters, if you want to suffer misery for the rest of your life, some people say. And whenever I hear such desperate and cynical advice, I think of King Lear.

King Lear, of course, was a great man and hence his downfall was all the more tragic and poignant, but there must be many small Lears, both in the West and East, and through the centuries, who have and are suffering awful miseries because of the old man’s folly.

I wouldn’t go so far as to describe King Lear as “a silly old man,” but there must have been—and there will continue to be—countless old men who have met a similar fate as the king in Shakespeare’s tragedy, though, no doubt, on a lesser scale.

Personally, I regret that I haven’t got much money or property to give to my family. I also regret that we, old men, are being described with so many epithets. But there is at least one redeeming description and that, as I said, is “wise old man.” And I think all of us, the old folks, should try to be just that.


Monday, July 5, 2021


                                           Dog Lovers

        An increasing number of South Koreans, some of whom have been criticized for eating the dog meat, are turning into dog-lovers in a move that would surely surprise many animal lovers around the world, especially those in Europe.

        The malign criticisms had been leveled against the Koreans for eating dogs in the past. Animal rights activists in France, in particular, led by well-known actress Brigitte Bardot, have attacked the Koreans for eating “man’s best friend.” They even had staged an international campaign against the staging of the 1988 Olympic Games in South Korea.

        Because of the geographical proximity, the Koreans have been influenced by China in many cultural areas including the culinary and dietary customs. And there was a saying, “the Chinese eat everything with four legs,” proving they were eating a vast variety of animals in order to obtain protein, an essential part of the human diet.

        The dog eating custom in China has obviously spread not only to Korea but also to many other countries in Asia. And yet, for some reason, the Koreans have been singled out by many Europeans and publicized as the dog-eating people.

The meat-sellers in Korea say that consumers don’t eat dogs of every kind indiscriminately but only the “edible” ones. It is not clear what makes the difference between edible and non-edible dogs. The meat sellers explain that the edible ones are usually medium- and large-sized dogs of uncertain or mixed bloodlines while small dogs such as poodles, dachshunds, terriers and other cute, huggable and, of course, expensive ones are out of reach for butchers and meat-sellers.

In any case, a growing number of South Koreans have become dog lovers in recent years, spending quite a large sum of money on dogs as members of their families. And the sights of their dog loving behaviors in public are something to behold for outsiders who don’t care much for dogs.

A lot of people these days are out in public parks or sidewalks of residential areas early in the morning with their cuddly little dogs on leashes. You can often see two or more dog walkers chatting while the subjects of their talks are usually yapping or growling among themselves, often blocking the passages of other people on narrow streets.

During the winter, some women bundle up their dogs with their mufflers or hug them close to their bodies in order to shield them from the blasts of cold wind. I even saw some women pushing baby carriages with their dogs on board. Since their children had apparently grown up so that it now is the time for their dogs to replace them inside the warm and cozy carriages.

With an increase in the country’s canine population, the number of beauty parlors for dogs is proliferating in big cities for bathing, grooming, and even cutting nails. Also increasing are animal hospitals where domestic dogs are major customers.

The nation’s veterinary medicine is now as advanced as medical care for humans. Incidentally, South Korea’s medical care system for humans is on the world’s top level.

Korean dogs, cats, and other domesticated animals are now receiving good medical treatments. The dogs also can get dental checkups that include regular scaling of their teeth. There has also been a sharp annual increase in the number of dog owners demanding an official autopsy following the death of their loved ones in unexplained circumstances.

There are even “the kindergartens for dogs” where an average of 40 to 50 puppies are being trained, or to use the words of a dog kindergarten teacher, “study lessons.” The puppies are also fed with expensive dog food and undergo physical exercises.

There are some 300 dog kindergartens throughout the country and the number is increasing fast. The registration fees, running from 840,000 won (about 750 U.S. dollars) to 1,960,000 won (1,759 dollars) per month, which is far more expensive than the average monthly fees for human kindergarteners.

When the dogs that die of old age or in accidents, some of them are cremated and their ashes deposited in the buildings built to house the urns.

Thanks to the nation’s rapid economic development, South Koreans’ per capita income increased above the equivalent of $30,000 and the people’s standard of living rose sharply as a result. Meanwhile, the number of visitors to the eateries offering dog-meat dishes is said to be dwindling steadily in recent years.

In light of those developments, one hopes that foreign animal activists, including Brigitte Bardot, will lose their reasons for criticizing the Koreans for eating dog meat anymore.


Friday, July 2, 2021


                                          On Waiting

In one of his excellent short stories, the Japanese author, Osamu Dasai, writes about a woman who goes to one of busy railroad stations every afternoon and waits for someone or something. The author doesn’t explain what exactly it is that she waits for.

A big crowd of people, disgorged onto the platform from the just-arrived train would get out of the station through the main exit and, without giving even a cursory glance at the woman sitting on a waiting room bench, hurriedly pass by her and disperse in all directions in great hurry. The woman character is like the two homeless men in Samuel Beckett’s masterpiece play, “Waiting for Godot,” who are waiting for a god to show up.

In any case, reading the Dasai story, I got the impression that she was simply enjoying the act of waiting. And that precisely was what bothered me because I am one of those who hate waiting as it seems to follow us everywhere these days, especially in big cities, forcing us to waste our precious time.

In the morning almost every day, a lot of people have to wait for a bus or subway train to go to work. If they want to avoid the crowd and drive their cars to work, they are likely to wait in heavy traffic jams in and out of cities. And they have to go through the process in reverse going home. And then, some people have to wait in lines to check out the foodstuff that their spouses had asked to buy at a supermarket on their way home or wait for their kids to finish up their classes at the cram school or after school activities. These are just a few daily chores for which many of us must feel, like me, that we are wasting our time waiting.

Growing up in Seoul in the 1940s, I have learned how impatient and intolerable I could become while waiting for someone or something. As a teenager, I often had to run on family errands that involved getting, for instance, the copies of official documents such as the family registration records at one of the city’s ward offices.

The officials in charge of petitions were always surrounded by lots of unruly people who were milling around, trying to jockey for the position that would attract the official’s attention and get his or her business taken care of ahead of others.

In relatively better organized public offices, visitors were asked to wait in lines. But there were invariably some brazen, aggressive late comers, trying to cut in, triggering hot arguments among petitioners that could develop into fistfights and scuffles.

Worse than the queue jumpers were those who would bribe officials to facilitate their business rather than waiting in lines. In addition to offering a white envelope containing some money, some petitioners tried to sneak a pack of cigarettes or even chewing gums into the pockets of officials in order to avoid standing in lines. Those were the people who would disrupt the fair and orderly process, prolonging the waiting times for others.

The cumbersome and irritating process of waiting in lines in old days had disappeared with the introduction of the electronic machine that would issue stripes of paper on which waiting numbers are printed in orders of the arrivals.

Welcome to the speedy and efficient digital age!

But wait. The dawn of a more civilized and computerized world did not solve the problem of waiting. Instead of standing in lines, we are now sitting on the benches and staring at an electric board until your number flashes on it. The new system prevents line cutting but it does not shorten the time of waiting.

There are all kinds of waiting and many of them are not necessarily irritating and trying your patience. In fact, you maybe forced to wait for quite a long time unexpectedly and yet, you don’t mind it at all, if you believe that exciting or pleasant happenings are awaiting you at the end of your waiting.

The most dreaded and uncertain kind of waiting would come at the end of our life. Some people don’t have to wait for death for too long, but a majority of old and sick people would have to wait for a certain length of time at home or in hospitals and that, I believe, would be the most painful and fearful waiting in life.

I had a dream the other day, in which I was riding what I thought was a taxi. It went through a long dark tunnel at a full speed. It was moving so fast that I crane my neck from the backseat in order to tell the driver to slow down a bit. But there was no one at the wheel. That meant that the car was moving by itself. I thought it was one of those newly developed driverless cars that were driven by computers or something.

As soon as the car shot out of the tunnel, I saw a beautiful panoramic view before my eyes. I sat back and tried to enjoy the scenery but the car came to a stop in front of a tall building. Inside, there was a cavernous hall that looked like that of an airport or bus terminal. And there was a long serpentine line of people who were waiting to get into another room located further inside.

The last person standing at the end of the line was a Caucasian man in his 70s. As I approached him, “hello,” he said, adding: “Welcome the gateway to purgatory.” I just nodded as I couldn’t fully understand what he was talking about. Somehow, I felt I had been brought to this strange place by someone by mistake.

“Excuse me, but can you tell me what they are waiting for?” I ask the man.

“All of us here are dead people, in case you hadn’t realized,” he said. “They brought us here and we are waiting to get into purgatory where our soul will be made clean and pure by suffering for our wrong-doing on Earth until we are fit to enter Heaven.”

Strangely, what he told me did not surprise me as though I have heard a similar story many times before. I asked him how long has he been waiting in line.

To my great surprise, he said, “Oh, about 10 days.”

“Ten days! You mean you have been waiting here that long?” I exclaimed. “I cannot believe it!”

“It’s nothing,” he said. “Time here is quite different from that on Earth. Ten days up here is about 10 minutes down there.”

“But how can one stand on your legs for that long?”

“No problem,” he said. “As you can see we all lost our legs before coming up here.”

I looked around and, indeed, everybody is legless and floating in space slightly above the ground. They really look like ghosts.

“Oh my god!” I shouted involuntarily. And with that, I woke up.

It was just a dream. Lying in bed, I stretched my right arm down, groping with the hand for my legs under the bedsheets. Then, I gave out a great sigh of relief when I was able to make sure that they are still there.


Friday, September 4, 2020


        Moon Jae-in, the Fence-sitter

From the outset of his presidency, Mr. Moon Jae-in wanted to play a role of a mediator between the United States and its democratic allies on one side and Communist China and North Korea on the other.

Mr. Moon’s idea of being a neutral mediator for the resolution of international disputes doesn’t make much sense because he couldn’t be “neutral” even in the post-Cold War era as his country is an ally of the United States. That was probably why he has never been invited to play such a role by other countries in three years since he became the president of the Republic of Korea.

Only a few occasions in which Mr. Moon made a diplomatic maneuver of sorts was his voluntary efforts to arrange three meetings between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un in Singapore, Hanoi and the Korean truce village of Panmunjom. As we all know, nothing much came out of those meetings, however

His real diplomatic skills, if any, could have been used in the on-going negotiations to help settle hot disputes between the United States and China, but neither Washington nor Beijing asked for his service. Although Mr. Moon has not been critical of the United Stater on bilateral issues, he has never shown enthusiasm for the friendly ties between the two allies.

The latest case in point occurred when U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper asked his counterparts in Japan and South Korea to hold a meeting in Guam on August 29.  Japan’s defense minister Taro Kono flew to Guam while their South Korean counterpart was absent for the meeting. The meeting had been convened to discuss the problems related to North Korea and China.

South Korea’s official excuse was that because of the worsening crisis brought on by the Covid-19, the defense minister was unable to leave his post for an overseas trip. But as cynical press commentators in Seoul pointed out that the Corona pandemic was raging in America and Japan as well.

       Some pundits added that when Seoul cannot say openly “no,” to Washington, the government officials simply remain silent, lest what they say could upset the big and powerful neighbor, China.

In fact, Mr. Moon, a leftist politician, has been cozying up with Communist China since he became the President of the nation which has kept close and friendly ties with the United States since the founding of the Republic 70 years ago. And that is why Mr. Moon is often described by some pundits as a fence-sitter between Washington and Beijing.

However, the day will come sooner or later when Mr. Moon will have to come down to one side or the other for good. Otherwise, he will be like Humpty Dumpty who had a great fall after sitting on a wall. Then, we will have to change the last part of the old nursery rhyme: “All the president’s horses and all the president’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again.”  (End)

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Seoul Claims Coronavirus Is Leaving South Korea

President Moon Jae-in announced to the world the other day that his administration has successfully put the coronavirus pandemic under control and invited other countries that are interested in learning “how we’ve done it” are welcome to visit Korea.
Believing that Moon told the truth, almost all South Koreans, who had been gripped by fear and despair amid the fast-spreading disease for months were swept into the state of indescribable relief and hope. They were also proud of themselves before the world as the country has become one of the leading nations that had achieved such a feat of “winning the battle” against the vicious virus.
Meanwhile, the popularity of President Moon in opinion polls shot up, especially among the country’s voters who will cast their ballots on April 15 to elect the members of the National Assembly. It was not immediately clear whether the president made his remark prematurely in order to help the pro-government left-wing parties gain the control of the national legislature.
Despite the presidential announcement, however, the number of persons found to have contracted the virus continued to come in, proving that the pandemic is far from over. What’s more, as of Sunday, March 29, the government is debating whether to reopen the nation’s schools in early next month as having been announced or postpone the opening day yet again, contradicting the president’s proclamation that the threat of the coronavirus is over in South Korea.
“We cannot run a risk of opening schools nationwide and see some of our children getting infected,” one news commentator was quoted as saying. “As far as I’m concerned,” he added, “President Moon popped the champagne cork too early. (END)

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Japanese militarism

            A nation that fails to learn from its past mistakes is condemned to repeat them. This aphorism came to my mind the other day when I heard the news that some Japanese cabinet ministers and members of the Diet (Parliament) visited Yasukuni Shrine to pay tribute to their war dead including the war criminals who were executed at the end of the Second World War.
Japan, needless to say, is the only nation on earth, two of whose cities were destroyed by nuclear bombs. It was part of the price the Japanese had to pay for the cruel and inhuman aggression they had perpetrated against Korea, China and other Asian countries before and during the war that they started against the United States in 1939.
The nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as other painful experiences of the war that had “traumatized” the Japanese and forced them to do some soul searching after the war are apparently fading fast from their memories. Led by an increasing number of rightists, the Japanese voters elected Shinjo Abe as their prime minister late last year, paving the way for their country toward the revival of militarism.
Unlike Germany, Japan’s Axis partner, which has apologized for the atrocities that the Nazis had committed in Europe, Japan refuses to admit that it had brutalized Korea as a colonial overlord for 35 years. Instead, it claims that it had been a generous benefactor to Korea and China as it has helped modernize them

It says, for instance, it built railroads in Korea for the Korean people when it actually needed them to transport the minerals and other materials to Japan to produce weapons, among other things, in preparations for the war against America. Japan also claims that it had helped “Korean prostitutes” to earn their living when it had, in fact, forcibly recruited young, innocent girls and sent them to China to serve as sex slaves to Japanese soldiers fighting there

This kind of white lies are sweeping Japan these days in rightist efforts to cover up its wartime brutality.

In any event, Korea and China today are not what they used to be at the turn of the 20th century: a pair of meek and poverty-stricken neighbors. South Korea and China are the world’s 12th and second largest economies, respectively, with strong armed forces that could defend themselves against any foreign aggressors including, possibly, Japan. The Japanese would have to pay a heavy price once more, if they try and repeat their past mistake by arming themselves heavily and attack their neighbors again.


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