Korea’s Murderous Education Culture

I read this post on The Marmot’s Hole today. It comes from this story from the Korea Times (I’m not really pleased about using this as a source on this blog, but at the moment I don’t have time to search for a better Korean source). Please read both.

Essentially the story is about a high school student who killed his mother because he felt he couldn’t get the high grades she expected from him. The story outlines ways she would punish him for – as she saw it – underachieving.

“According to police, Park kept telling her son that he must enter a top-class university and should rank first in nationwide exams. When he obtained lower scores than her expectations, she didn’t give him food or forced him to stay awake at night to study.”

There are a couple of things to take form this. One, the pressure on some Korean kids is immense to perform exceptionally in exams. But moreover, that some parents really don’t understand what they’re talking about. Not eating or sleeping is not a good way to improve intelligence or performance in anything, exams, sports, whatever.

Unfortunately, with the way the education system in Korea is set up, cramming and rote learning can often be good methods to get high marks in Korean exams. These methods don’t often allow for good long-term retention or varied application, so we could make the claim that the very nature of the exams and the learning process within the education system are as much a aprt of the problem as parents like this one.

There were also some interesting comments on the post at the Marmot’s Hole. Notably, these from The Korean:

“4000th in the country is hardly “quite good”. Three digits and we will talk.”

This is referring to the fact that student in question was actually ranked 4000th in the country on a test – putting him in the top 1% of all students. This wouldn’t have been good enough for his mother, so he changed his grade to 62nd to avoid corporal punishment. The Korean’s comment is, in my opinion, typical of one of the major issues. However one looks at it, top 1% is good. It’s better than that, it’s outstanding, it’s better than virtually everyone else he will ever meet in his life in Korea.

Basic child psychology states that demeaning this achievement is the last thing that should be done. Sure, anyone, at any time, can always do better. But good achievements deserve praise. Something more along the lines of, “wow, that’s fantastic. Just imagine what you’ll be able to do next time.”

Besides, if someone does their best, works as hard as they can, but still falls short of what some people would hope for them, their attitude and dedication deserves praise. If someone is slacking off, not putting their all into something, then their attitude deserves criticism.


“I have many criticisms of Korean education system, but its drive toward achievement is not one. Koreans constantly drive their children to be better than they are now, and that’s a good thing.”

Heartfelt and admirable sentiments. A drive towards achievement is indeed a good thing. But how should we measure achievement? In Korea, and in this case, it’s test scores. And almost to the complete exclusion of everything else. As we’ve seen, this kid was in the top 1%, and that must have taken a lot of hard work and dedication, not to mention sacrifice. And yet none of that is taken into account. Someone with that sense of hard work and focus could surely also succeed in many other fields, such as sports or music. But they’ll be judged on test results.

Which leads me on to the next, related, point; how do we judge “better” when it comes to people? Is my parents view of what would make me “better” the same as my own? Am I a better person, a better son, a better whatever if I get a higher grade on an exam? How else should I be judged?

Again, unfotunately, I feel that far too often in Korea, young kids are judged not simply on their own performance in exams, but even more they are judged against others. This is a country that actually has a rank of every student in the country. As another commenter, Yangachi Bastardo, said, “how can they differentiate between say the 935th best student and the 936th?” How can they, indeed? But to my mind more crucially, why do they? When the culture demands an absolute ranking of every student, of course things like dedication, other passions and achievements, personality and so on do not get considered. Not when a number can be put next to your name to show how good you are. And so this is what it comes down to here all too often – not even the subjective “how good are you” but the even more ridiculous “how good do you appear to be compared to everyone else?”

That’s why we have the 엄친아 phenomenon. For those who don’t know, it’s a contraction of 엄마 친구의 아들 – mum’s friend’s son. It’s used to represent a phenomena so widespread that all Koreans recognise this term and its menaing. That is, one’s mum constantly comparing her own children negatively against those of a friend. It often goes something along the lines of “Did you know my friend’s son Minsu got into Seoul University? You didn’t, though, did you?” But these comparisons can be made about anything.

Sometimes I think Korea can be so caught up in comparing things that it misses the true value in them.

And so, what of this so-called “education fever?” Clearly, it can be destructive, harmful and dangerous. Pressure to do better than everyone else on exams leads to suicides of schoolchildren, incredible levels of stress and anxiety, and a warped childhood spent in hagwons, pouring over books or staring at a computer screen. All in the name of being better than the next guy on some exam. And this is how the vast majority of Korean children’s accomplishments from birth to 18 are measured – comparing exam results with 엄친아’s.

There’s so much more to life, especially during childhood, so much mkkore to succeed in, and so many more barometers of this success, that personally I can’t help feeling that the majority of Korean schoolchildren are missing out. And The Korean may well disagree with me, he may well dislike me saying this, but I know I wouldn’t want my own children going through this system with this education culture.

Sure, encouraging oneself and also one’s children to strive for success is a very good thing. But I won’t be measuring my children’s success against that of the kid next door. I’ll want them to do the best they can for themself. I won’t want them to feel like their life isn’t worth living if they can’t be the best out of veryone in the country on any given test.

And so I say Korea needs to take a look at how it measures success, and what people want from their life and from their children. I think it will take people saying “actually, I don’t really want to go to Seoul University. I don’t want to be a doctor or a lawyer. What I want to do is … and this is they way I want to do it.” It will take people turning down the high-status jobs in favour of the ones that will make them happier, more fulfilled and give them a better quality of life. It will take a removal of these sorts of national systems of ranking everybody based on such narrow criteria and then saying “this is you, you are number 4,362.” It will take a widespread change of attitude to say tests aren’t what make the person.

Circumcision in Korea

I recently read this post by msleetobe regarding circumcision in Korea. This got me thinking of an article I’d seen years ago that I’d found fascinating. Truth be told the general contents of the article has stuck with me ever since because it explains something that is just so… Korean – but more on that later. I originally found the article linked to by the Grand Narrative, although I don’t know if his blog still has that link.

I’ve now discovered that there are two related articles.

The first, from 1999: Male circumcision: a South Korean perspective by DS Kim, JY Lee and MG Pang.

The second, from 2002: Extraordinarily high rates of male circumcision in South Korea by DS Kim and MG Pang.

So we have 2 articles from around a decade ago by essentially the same people. Having read the articles, it seems to me that the worrying findings found in the first led the researchers to delve even deeper, culminating in the huge body of research undertaken to write the second article. Read them both, they’re fascinating, and the findings are intriguing, perhaps shocking, and somewhat disconcerting.

I wouldn’t usually do this, but for this post I’m going to copy tables used in the articles as well as replicating chunks of the text as I think it makes it easier to discuss.

The first article begins by stating that “About 80% of the world’s male population remains uncircumcised: most male circumcision is now practised for religious reasons, largely in Moslem and Jewish communties.” The following image comes from the WHO via Wikipedia, and what percentage of males are circumcised in individual countries around the world.

Global Map of Male Circumcision Prevalence at Country Level
 As you can see, South Korea is the only one of its neighbours that has such a high rate of circumcision, even higher than that of North America, which is in itself unusually high. Aside from South Korea, the vast majority of countries with such high circumcision rates are Jewish or Muslim countries where it is practiced for religious reasons.
So why does South Korea have such high circumcision rates? Why does it practice it at all aside from genuine medical necessity (less than 2% in developed countries)?

This chart, from the second article, reveals that circumcision in South Korea was virtually unheard of before 1950, and never practiced before 1945, when the country was first occupied by US forces after the Second World War. Circumcision was a practice inherited from America  through the period of occupation.

The article goes on to reveal how this lead to even Korean doctors coming under the impression that circumcision was a sign of economic and medical advancement. Unfortunately many of the beliefs of American physicians at the time regarding circumcision, that have since been proved wrong, harmful or at least unfounded, passed over to Korean doctors who still hold them today – but more on that later.

This table is for me the most revealing. Bear in mind that these interviews were conducted in the 21st century. For the first question, over half of the Korean doctors interviewed believed that Scandinavian countries (these are countries that to Korea represent all that is advancement and modernity) circumcise over 50% of their boys. Of course the reality is that it’s under 2% – basically accounting for those medically adviseable cases for the treatment of phimosis (the link contains pictures of a penis). Next, essentially the same number of doctors thought that in East Asia only South Korea and Japan circumcise widely. That none chose South and North Korea as the answer shows that these doctors are aware that it is not a traditional Korean custom and probably also means that they know exactly when circumcision began to be practiced in Korea. Therefore, their choice of answers on these two questions seems to prove that Korean medical professionals tend to associate high rates of circumcision with economic and medical advancement.

More shockingly, perhaps, less than 30% knew what phimosis actually is – an unretractable foreskin. Medically speaking, a male who is phimotic at around age 20 should be advised to have a circumcision. Korean doctors, as explained in the article, know that circumcision is an operation to solve phimosis, yet virtually all of them didn’t actually know what this is. Phimosis is a medical condition, and yet over half of the interviewees responded that it means that the foreskin covers the glans (head). This is precisely what the foreskin is for! I think I found this most astounding.

The fact that the Korean doctors misunderstand phimosis to mean that the head of the penis is covered by the forskin – the “normal” and default state of the penis, is therefore the reason they recommend universal circumcision.

Before giving my thoughts in a bit more detail, I’ll leave you with the conclusion of the second study:

In conclusion, male circumcision started 50 years ago in South Korea but now the country has one of the highest circumcision rates in the world. The mistaken and outdated notions of South Korean doctors about circumcision, and their lack of knowledge about phimosis, seem to be a leading contributory factor to the extraordinarily high rate of circumcision.

So, ignorance among the very doctors performing circumcisions in Korea of the basic facts has lead to more than 90% of men between the ages of about 12 and 40 currently being circumcised in South Korea. What I find truly incredible is that the same misconceptions and outright false beliefs that were held about circumcision in the 50s – effects on sexual performance, prevention of STIs, cleanliness etc – are still so prevalent in Korea today, regardless of the fact that the rest of the developed world has moved on in its attitudes and knowledge, making such beliefs redundant.

The articles also show how modern medical research, particulaly from the US, has been misinterpreted in Korea and the findings therefore misconstrued in the South Korean media to encourage universal circumcision.

This commenter on msleetobe’s blog even says that her doctor tried to correct her by saying that all Americans are circumcised. All that doctor would have needed to do is look at the map I provided at the start of this post to see that that blatently isn’t true. I’ve heard numerous stories, however, and have even witnessed it myself, of Koreans “correcting” foreigners’ views about their own countries. I myself have been told that in the UK we don’t eat rice, but we always eat bread. Unrelated, I know, but both instances demonstrate how a little knowledge is often a dangerous thing in Korea.

Another major factor that is discussed in the articles, and that I’ve also seen myself, is peer pressure. As a speaker of Korean, I’ve been told outright what some people think of me being uncircumcised here. Generally this happens at jjimjilbangs, for obvious reasons. I’ve had a Korean friend joke by telling me that I’m still a baby because I’m not circumcised, but more often it’s just – “why?”

All these men and boys getting circumcised and they don’t even really seem to know why. The reasons they do think of are outdated and have been proved to be false long ago. Discounting peer pressure I find it hard to see why circumcision is still so widely practiced. There’s no reason for this level of ignorance about it. Especially not considering that it’s not babies getting circumcised in Korea, it’s pubescent boys mostly. At that age they’re old enough to actually be thinking about these things. If my parents told me when I was twelve that I was getting circumcised I’d be pretty damned sure to find out a bit about it. So I can only assume that the knowledge really doesn’t exist in Korea. Although knowing how conformist Korea can be in terms of appearance I wouldn’t be surprised if all the knowledge in the world wasn’t enough to compete with the shame of being the only one in the jjimjilbang with a foreskin.

What a shame.

I find it frustrating that the modern knowledge regarding this has not permeated the Korean medical community. I can only guess that the doctors just aren’t seeking the information; that they’re happy to live within their insulated bubble, “knowing” that what they’re doing is what any advanced country should do, and in fact what they all do do. Except they don’t.

I love Korea and I’m glad it’s my home, but I do feel from time to time that things get done here for the sake of advancement without any serious consideration of any other relevant factors. What’s more, it’s so often for the appearance of advancement. Where the superficial is confused with the… ficial. Having white English teachers must be good, because English is a white foreigner’s language, the clearly heavily photoshopped photo on this job application looks good, let’s give them an interview, he went to Seoul National University, therefore he must be a genious and given an easy ride for the rest of his life.

At times and to a certain extent, South Korea has appeared to be ammassing the trappings of an “advanced” nation, of modernity and development, while at the same time missing something fundamental. It’s similar to the way KPop stars have ammassed the trappings of western popular music, while the outcome would be recognised almost universally as something a bit wide of the mark by most westerners, if they assume that the aim was to replicate.

The situation with circumcision in South Korea could be likened to the blind leading the blind, although the one in front largely regained their sight, but not before the one being lead decided that they were a big boy now, all grown up and could manage by themself from now on.

But those are sweeping generalisations and nothing to do with what this post is actually about – although perhaps to some extent a different side of the same coin.

So, did you read the articles? What did you think?

UPDATE: Another interesting article that seems to imply that even the vast majority of cases of phimosis don’t necessarily require circumcision to correct.

Parents in Education – GEPIK Questionnaire

Today I saw a survey given to students in a GEPIK elementary school for their parents to fill out. The kids were told that they would be punished if their parents didn’t fill it out.

It’s a survey about what the parents think about me, the native English-speaking teacher at the school, and what they think about the projet of using people like me in general.

Before I get into any further discussion, here’s the survey:


원어민 영어보조교사 활용 수업의 효율성에 대한 설문조사
“A questionnaire about the usefulness of the  Native speaking English assistant teacher’s classes”
(For parents of students)

이 설문은 원어민 영어 선생님 활용에 대한 학부모 여러분의 의견을 조사하고자 하는 것입니다.
해당된다고 생각하는 항목에 ‘V’표시를 하시기 바랍니다.
“This questionnaire is to survey the views of you the parents of the students about the use of the native English-speaking teacher.
Please mark a ‘V’ in the articles that you agree with.”

And now the questions:

1. 귀 자녀는 어느 학교에 재학 중 입니까? What school are your children currently attending?
     1. 초등학교 Elementary school
     2. 중학교 Middle school
     3. 일반계 고등학교 Regular high school
     4. 전문계 고등학교 Vocational high school
     5. 특수목적 고등학교 Specialist high school

2. 귀 자녀가 재학 중인 학교에서 실시하는 원어민 선생님을 활용한 영어수업에 만족하십니까? Are you satisfied with the English language classes that utilise the native speaking teacher at the school your children currently attend?
     1. 한국인 영어교사가 혼자 할 때 보다 훨씬 좋다. It’s greatly better than when the Korean English teacher teaches alone.
     2. 한국인 영어 교사 혼자 할 때 보다 조금 나은 면이 있다. There are aspects that are a bit better than when the Korean English teacher teaches alone.
     3. 한국인 영어 교사 혼자 할 때나 별반 차이가 없다. There’s no real difference from when the Korean English teacher teaches alone.
     4. 한국인 영어 교사 혼자 할 때가 조금 더 나은 면이 있다. There are aspects that are a bit better when the Korean English teacher teaches alone.
     5. 한국인 영어 교사 혼자 할 때가 훨씬 좋다. It’s greatly better when the Korean English teacher teaches alone.

2-1. 위 2번 문항에서 1, 2에 응답하셨다면, 그 이유는 무엇입니까? (해당되는 것을 모두 고르시오.) If you answered 1 or 2 to the above question 2, what is your reason? (Select all corresponding answers)
     1. 영어능력 향상 English ability has risen (presumably the ability of the child.)
     2. 외국인에 대한 두려움 극복 Conquering the fear of foreigners
     3. 외국문화에 대한 이해의 폭 증대 Increasing the breadth of understanding of foreign culture
     4. 영어에 대한 자신감 증진 Increase in confidence about the English language
     5. 영어에 대한 관심 고조 Increase in interest in the English language
     6. 기타사항 기재 Other comments

2-2. 위 2번 문항에서 3, 4, 5에 응답하셨다면, 그 이유는 무엇입니까? (해당되는 것을 모두 고르시오.) If you answered 3, 4 or 5 to the above question 2, what is your reason? (Select all corresponding answers)
     1. 교사자격증 미소지 Does not have teaching qualifications (NOTE: This could also mean capability or character)
     2. 교수 능력 부족  Not enough teaching ability
     3. 우리말 구사능력 부족 Is not fluent enough in our language (Yup, that’s what is says)
     4. 한국문화에 대한 이해 부족 Does not have sufficient understanding of Korean culture (Again, this is what it says)
     5. 한국의 교육 상황에 대한 이해 부족 Does not have sufficient understanding of the situation of Korean education
     6. 기타사항 기재 Other comments

3. 원어민 영어선생님을 활용한 영어수업을 통해 귀 자녀의 의사소통능력 향상에 도움이 된다고 생각하십니까? Do you think that your children’s comprehension/understanding  is helped through the English classes that utilise the native speaking English teacher?
     1. 매우 도움이 된다. It helps greatly.
     2. 도움이 된다. It helps.
     3. 잘 모르겠다. I don’t really know.
     4. 별로 도음이 되지 않는다. It doesn’t really help.
     5. 전혀 도움이 되지 않는다. It doesn’t help at all.

3-1. 위 3번 문항에서 1, 2에 응답하셨다면, 어떤 영역에서 도움이 되었다고 생각하십니까? If you answer 1 or 2 to the above question 3, in what area do you think it has helped?
     1. 듣기 Listening
     2. 말하기 Speaking
     3. 읽기 Reading
     4. 쓰기 Writing
     5. 모든 영역 All areas

3-2. 위 3번 문항에서 3, 4, 5에 응답하셨다면, 어떤 영역에서 도움이 되지 않았다고 생각하십니까? If you answer 1 or 2 to the above question 3, in what area do you think it has not helped?
     1. 듣기 Listening
     2. 말하기 Speaking
     3. 읽기 Reading
     4. 쓰기 Writing
     5. 모든 영역 All areas

4. 귀 자녀의 영어수업시간에 한국인 영어 선생님보다 원어민 선생님이 더 효과적일 것 같은 영어학습 활동은 무엇입니까? In what English language learning activities in your children’s English classes do you think the native speaking teacher will be more effective than the Korean English teacher?
     1. 영어 대화 연습 English conversation practice
     2. 영어 쓰기 English writing
     3. 영어 듣기 English listening
     4. 영어 연극 English plays (as in a play with acting)
     5. 영어 게임 English games
     6. 기타사항 기재 Other comments

5. 귀 자녀의 정규수업 이외에 원어민 영어선생님과 어떤 활동에 참여하고 있습니까? Outside of your children’s regular classes, what activities do they participate in with the native speaking English teacher?
     1. 방과 후 영어 관련 수업  English related classes after hours
     2. 영어 동아리활동 English group/club activities
     3. 온라인 활용 학습 Online study
     4. 영어캠프 English camp
     5. 쉬는 시간 및 점심 시간에 대화 시간 Conversation time during breaks or lunch time
     6. 기타사항 기재 Other comments

6. 귀 자녀의 학교에서 실시하고 있는 원어민 영어 선생님 활용 영어 수업이 사교육비 경감에 도움이 된다고 생각하십니까? Do you think that English classes the utilise the native speaking English teacher operating at the school help in reducing private education expenses?
     1. 매우 도움이 된다 It helps greatly
     2. 조금 도움이 된다 It helps a little
     3. 그저 그렇다 It’s the same
     4. 별로 도움이 되지 않는다 It doesn’t really help
     5. 전혀 도움이 되지 않는다 It doesn’t help at all

7. 귀 자녀의 영어 관련 사교육에 월 평균 얼마의 비용이 듭니까? On average, how much per month does your childs English private education cost?
     1. 해당 없음 Not applicable
     2. 10만원 미만 Under 100,000 Won
     3. 10만원 이상 ~ 20만원 미만 Between 100,000 and 200,000 Won
     4. 20만원 이상 ~ 30만원 미만 between 200,000 and 300,000 Won
     5. 20만원 이상 Over 300,000 Won

8. 앞으로 원어민 영어선생님의 활용 방안은 어떠해야 한다고 생각하십니까? In future, what do you think should be done regards the programme of using native speaking English teachers?
     1. 학급 수에 따라 뭔어민 영어선생님의 수를 더 늘린다. Increasing the number of native speaking English teachers according to the number of students per grade.
     2. 현행수준으로 유지한다. preserving the current numbers.
     3. 한국인 영어 선생님의 역량을 키우면서 원어민 영어선생님의 수를 점차 줄인다. Gradually decreasing the number of native speaking English teachers while raising the capability of Korean English teachers.
     4. 원어민 교사 제도를 폐지하고 대체 프로그램을 마련한다. Abolishing the native speaking teacher programme and prepare an alternative programme.
     5. 기타사항 기재 Other comments

9. 귀 자녀가 원어민 영어선생님과 수업을 하면서 만족하는 이유를 적어주세요. Please write down your reasons why you are satisfied with your childs classes with the native speaking English teacher.

10. 귀자녀가 원어민 영어선생님과 수업을 하면서 어려워하거나 불만족스러워하는 이유를 적어 주세요. Please write down the reasons why your children are dissatisfied or have struggled with their classes with the native speaking English teacher.

11. 원어민 영어선생님 활용 사업에 대한 의견이 있으면 적어 주세요. If you have any opinions about the scheme of utilising native speaking English teachers please write them.

설문에 응해 주셔서 감사합니다.
Thank you for answering our questionnaire.


So, that’s it.

Now, for my thoughts, for what they’re worth. Firstly, I think it’s ridiculous that parents are asked some of these questions. These are people who largely haven’t met me, they don’t know me or anything about me. They haven’t seen my classes. They don’t know how I teach. They don’t know what their children are like in class.

How is it possible that “is not fluent enough in our language” can be an answer for why classes that I do are no better or worse than the Korean english teacher on their own? Surely the reason me and thousands like me are here is that we are native speakers of English. Secondly, clearly I do speak reasonable Korean. But I’m banned from talking Korean in front of or to the students. Still, many of them do not know.

I don’t really want to get into too much of a rant about this. Suffice it to say that I think parents have far too much power in the Korean education system. For the reasons above, they just aren’t in a position to know what’s best with regards to education practices. And yet they get this detailed questionnaire to do. Is the purpose of it really to find ou what parents think about native speaking English teachers in order to act upon it? Or is it simply making a show of valuing their opinion and won’t actually be taken seriously?

If the results are considerably against or for native speaking English teachers, it wouldn’t surprise me to see the results appear in a newspaper somewhere.

It strikes me that schools in Korea, even public schools, are far too concerned with showing off to parents. There seems to be far too much focus on how to appear good in the eyes of parents than how to actually be good and effective educators. Too much time is wasted doing what parents say should be done than on what is pedagogically sound practice. Parents opinions of NESTs can be influenced by any number of outside sources; newspapers, the internet, gossip and rumour and so on. But how many actually have accurate knowledge or experience of the programmes that bring them here or the work they do? And who is it that the education office is asking for their opinion?

If this and other such surveys come back with a large number of parents saying they don’t want NSETs any more, will the policy-makers defy such a moniker and simply adopt that as policy?

I’ve heard far too often in my time working in a Korean school: “but the parents want…” “but the parents don’t like…” “but the parents say…” And what the parents want, they always seem to get, for better or worse.

Driving in Korea

As many of you may have noticed, Korean driving norms appear to be very different to those in many “western” countries. Many expats I know in Korea have commented that they would be or are afraid to drive in Korea. But are Korean roads really that dangerous, why are the standards of driving different, and what effects does this have?

Changing lanes on the streets of Korea

From my point of view, and also based on some reports I heard at the recent Ajou International Trauma Conference in Seoul which I attended, the biggest difference between driving practice in Korea and “western” countries is how people interpret the laws of the road. In Korea, as opposed to countries in much of Europe and North America among many others, most drivers do not consider that traffic laws are completely binding. Those living in Korea will surely be familiar with this; it is common practice to run a red light if there is nothing directly preventing you from doing so, or to turn right or left across the road from what others may consider the “wrong side” – turning left from the right-hand lane, for example. Lack of indication and an apparent lack of forethought are also considered to be common features of driving in Korea.

Now, some may feel that it is unfair of me to be critical, and may feel that just because people drive differently it is wrong for me to say that that method is wrong. In most cases I would completely agree with that sentiment, but in this case, considering Korea’s appallingly high rate of road traffic accidents and traffic-related deaths, especially in comparison with similarly developed countries, I think it’s fair to say that the “Korean way” of driving isn’t quite as good as it should or could be. In fact, I actually think it’s quite easy to see how Korea’s roads have become so dangerous when you see some of the driving habits – jumping red lights, ignoring pedestrians and so on. Many – but not all – Koreans are also aware of this. This is one of the main reasons why the rate of people using bicycles for transport is so low.

Note the cars parked facing the flow of traffic: how did they get there?

Before I get into further detail about what I consider to be the reasons behind some of this, I think it’s important to add that the sheer number of cars in Korea’s urban areas greatly amplifies the likelihood of accidents (and also means there’s going to be a larger number of bad drivers in absolute terms). Cars are an important status symbol and a part of the social fabric in Korea. As a result, despite the fact that it has a phenomenally good public transportation system, many people – especially business people – will opt to drive or be driven rather than take a bus or the subway in many circumstances. Sheer volume of traffic also makes it more difficult for the emergency services to do their job when accidents occur, and for police and other authorities to monitor and control traffic.

One reason people may be particularly sensitive to driving differences is simply because of the very fact that they are different. That is to say, most Korean drivers know to expect that people won’t indicate when they want to change lanes, whereas in certainly my home country, and possibly yours, too, indicating is standard practice, and so we expect it and are accustomed to it. In many ways, this governs how we interact with other cars on the road. In Korea, however, where this isn’t such standard practice, it is more common for a driver to react to what unfolds around them, rather than to treat driving as some sort of communal interaction. For this reason it is quite common to see people straddling two lanes while driving, as their choice of lane is more likely to be decided after seeing what other cars around them do. In this way I cannot say that one way is better than the other, this really is just a difference. Once one becomes accustomed to this method of driving in Korea, presumably it becomes a lot easier and one learns to “go with the flow” of Korean roads better.

I also think another factor in the development of Korea’s “rules-as-guidelines” approach to driving is that Korea became a country of drivers much later than the US and other “western” countries. The reason I think this affects people’s driving habits is because in the west driving infrastructure and laws were developed over a far longer period of time, and new developments were brought in for specific reasons once they became necessary; speed limits were only introduced when cars became fast enough to cause a lot of injuries. The seminal cheap mass-produced car, the Model T Ford, was first produced in 1908. If we take that as a starting point, the west has had a century to develop good driving habits, create and develop laws that are effective and are brought in because the general consensus is that they’re needed, and basically develop a good driving mentality. It is commonly accepted that traffic regulations were introduced when developments in motor vehicle technology and driving patterns increased the need for such regulation, and their purpose was to maintain a standard of safety on the roads that was constant. This gradual introduction and development meant that drivers were more likely to accept them and abide by them, as the reasons for their introduction would have been self-evident previously. As an example, when cars became too fast and began to cause accidents, people became aware of this. They therefore gained a logical appreciation of speed limits when they were introduced.

In Korea (although I’m sure it isn’t the only country where this applies), on the other hand, they picked up the laws, infrastructure and, well, cars themselves, all in one fell swoop in terms of the general population. So, when they first came in, they had no relevance to what people knew or had experienced as they were based on and influenced by the more gradual development of motoring in other countries. Therefore Korea didn’t have an equivalent period of time during which to develop rules to match the state of the driving culture as it developed – people were just suddenly driving. In this case, then, the accumulative experience of the people who became Korea’s car drivers was not based on the development of cars and “western” driving methods, practices and standards. The rules they rapidly received, therefore, came all at once, and were essentially irrelevant to the general cumulative experience of the people to whom they applied.

Korean urban roads are generally modern and well signposted: it's the driving habits that can cause problems

Basically, if you’ve ever witnessed a road in Vietnam or somewhere similar, where the majority still don’t drive cars, and the roads appear to the outsider to be chaos, imagine if all the pedestrians and people on small motorcycles were replaced with car drivers – no matter how many laws were brought in to regulate the roads, they’d be a mess, people would drive cars the way the ride their bikes there now. This can’t be said to be anyone’s fault, and as has been said, it’s not necessarily wrong, it just seems to me like it is therefore an inevitability that drivers seem to show far less regard for traffic regulations.

The unpredictability and business of the streets of Seoul

The statistics regarding how dangerous Korea’s roads are – for both pedestrians and drivers – still indicate that change is necessary. The participants in the aforementioned trauma conference – who have to deal with the casualties from all of this – certainly seem to think that something must be done to alter driving patterns on the roads in Korea. For me, the most basic and fundamental step that needs to be taken is to develop a driving culture in which laws are obeyed regardless of whether they make sense, are deemed appropriate in whatever situation or are even understood. The reasons for this are equally obvious. If all drivers – and pedestrians – unquestioningly obey the laws of the road then drivers’ actions become more predictable, people have to follow certain patterns, and driving behaviour becomes uniform. With the situation as it is – taking jumping red lights as an example – if this is deemed acceptable practice then those whose job it is to enforce the law are essentially allowing each individual driver to decide whether or not it is safe to drive when their light is red. I would say that the majority of times people make decisions to drive over red lights which don’t result in any accidents or injuries. What I don’t understand is how it can be deemed acceptable to allow each individual to make that choice. All it takes is a momentary lapse in concentration, a drunk driver, an obscured view, or any other minor or major factor, and that individual choice can result in damage, injury and deaths. If the idea that it is acceptable for people to make their own judgments on what decisions to make while driving, using laws as nothing more than guidelines, is removed than that element of unpredictability and potential danger is also removed. There are indeed times when it is perfectly safe to drive over a red light – when there are no cars or pedestrians around in the dead of the night, for example – but it has to be all or nothing. Remove the idea that it is the driver’s prerogative to choose, instead meaning all traffic laws are obeyed regardless of any outside factors, and eventually I think the roads will become safer and more pleasant to drive on.

Protest and Bad Government: A Response to Popular Gusts

As the title suggests, this is a post in response to this post by Matt at Gusts of Popular Feeling. Go read that one first, it’s a good post and very interesting, before coming back to read what I have to say on the matter.

From here on in the rest of this post assumes that you’ve read Matt’s post.

I’ve read Myers’ book and found it to be very good, and I have a lot of time for his opinions. There are some things here, however, that I disagree with, and others that I agree with.

I agree with Matt also, that Myers’ most interesting and important point is the difference in reaction to the Cheonan sinking and the protests.

That said, I think I need to throw in something to broaden the perspective on those two series of protests. I know that some people, particularly Americans, will feel very frustrated, angry, aggrieved about the protests, and they have every right to. I also know that that means they may not like what I’m about to say, but my intention is not to undermine their justification to feel angry about what happened.

Firstly, the 2002 protests. Now, I was not there, I was not in Korea at the time, nor did I speak Korean at the time. Despite this, when I have asked Koreans about it at a later date, the vast majority do not blame the individual soldiers for what happened. They also concede that similar things happen on Korean roads every day with Korean drivers, and nothing is done about it. Despite this, they think that friendly soldiers during times of peace should not be causing the deaths of schoolchildren on the streets. Accident, yes, but should it have happened, no, is the general message.

Regarding the protests, everybody I’ve asked has said it was more about the perceived lack of apology from America, and the fact that it apparently wasn’t a big deal in America, than about America itself. Their view is that, considering it was America that was stationed in Korea, America should have been more willing to conduct itself by Korean standards when apologising. That is, what Americans may have considered an over-elaborate gesture for a more minor incident (think of the number of friendly fire deaths in wars America has been part of), is what Koreans would have considered to be a fitting gesture to apologise for a serious incident. Think of the way Koreans in Korea apologised about the guy who shot his school up – they were nothing to do with it, and yet they apologised. This is a cultural thing, which some Koreans understand is different in America, others do not. Regardless, they felt this was the way America should have behaved. And whether we agree with that viewpoint or not, we surely must concede that that is a Korean cultural standard that America did not necessarily uphold at the time.

Bearing this in mind, and despite my positive opinion of what Myers has to say in general, I question then, “it was widely claimed that the Yankees murdered them callously.” Yes, there was public outrage, but as I’ve said above, many Koreans believe this was more at the way the incident was handled than either the incident itself or America. What sources is Myers using for the above comment, then? Or does he simply assume people will accept it? Same goes for the Uncle Sam comment, where so far only one such image has been found.

Of the 2008 protests, again, I think perhaps our view is somewhat distorted because of how we experienced the protests as non-Koreans. To us they were anti-Americanism at its ugliest.

Yes, some very xenophobic people helped stir them up, but there was more to it than that, and more to it than beef. I will acknowledge completely that the vast majority of Koreans were and still are hugely misinformed about the issues regarding mad cow disease. However, this really was, in many ways, more about the Lee Myung-bak government. I know some people will see this as the Korean justification, that it clearly was about anti-Americanism, and I understand that viewpoint. I also think some people want it to have been about that to justify their own anger about it. I don’t think that anger needs justification, personally, as it’s completely acceptable. It is still true, though, that the mood in Korea at the time was one of anger at the government, that something had to be done to show the government how angry people were.

The beef issue was the excuse to go out protesting, in the grand old Korean tradition. People felt that American beef imports were necessary, but that the government was weak in negotiations. The Koreans wanted younger cattle, who are statistically less likely to carry mad cow disease, and they wanted each cow checked, and the checking to be done by Koreans. What they got was older cattle, with random checks, carried out by Americans. Now, I’m the first to vociferously argue about the stupidity of protesting American beef because of the dangers of a disease that wasn’t present in American beef. On the other hand, I also accept that the government’s behaviour caused people to think that they were submitting to America, that they were acting as America’s lapdog, rather than in the interests of their own people. I’m not saying who I agree with but I do think this was the largest factor in the scale of the protests and of the anger. It may have seemed like it was directed at America, but they were in reality largely protests against the government, and out of frustration that it seemed that the government would let America have its own way and as a nation they were powerless to act in their own best interests.

The text at the bottom reads "Beef older than 30 months" - referring to older meat that is apparently more susceptible to mad cow

The government handled the protests badly, using overly violent means to try and suppress them, saying the babies who were there (who never should have been there) were protesters just the same and so on (See here, here, here and here). We know this, we’ve seen the videos and the photos. But what non-Korean speakers may not have picked up on is again the public calls for an apology, this time from the government negotiators. They wanted them to stand up and say they were sorry for not fighting harder for what Koreans wanted – which after all is their job – but instead, those negotiators went on tv and ate American beef. This just made it worse, predictably.

Irresponsible parents respond to irresponsible government

Then there’s the issue of Korean farmers, who were and still are rapidly becoming a dying breed due to the importation of cheap American rice and beef. I know, as I’m sure most people do, that this will benefit Korea in the long term. The issue is that these people are losing their livelihoods now. I personally have very close friends who have family members who farm rice and beef. With no suitably state pension, if these sorts of people can no longer sell what they know how to farm, they essentially can’t survive. People are angry and definitely were angry then about this, and I can see why. And then also, as I alluded to above, there’s the frustration that when such international negotiations take place, Korea comes off as the weak party. People often have the opinion that if Korea disappeared, America would move one and barely feel any ill effects, whereas if the reverse were true and America disappeared, Korea would soon follow.

If you want my personal opinion, I think the Lee Myung-bak government is pretty useless – worse than – and the biggest reason is the complete inability and failure of the government to explain themselves to the people. If they are really acting in the way which they consider to be in the best interests of the country (beef imports, FTAs), they also have to be able to explain why this is to the people. They are either inable or just don’t; they act against the wishes of the people, and instead of explaining their reasoning beforehand, they bulldoze straight through and try and suppress the inevitable backlash. That’s not good government, and if it was my government, I’d want to protest it too. Had the beef protests never happened, we could well have seen similar protests as a result of the 4 Great Rivers project or any number of other things. That said, anti-Americanism among a small minority was vociferous and vocal enough to really fire up those protests, which were of course a perfect vehicle for it.

There’s obviously more to say about this, and I know not everyone will necessarily agree with what I’ve said, or like it, so I welcome discussion in the comments.

Family Matters

For this post I thought I’d share something with you.

My parents are divorced, my father has since remarried and has two more children. This creates some unusual situations and linguistic difficulties in Korea, however. As I’m sure anyone who’s lived in Korea will know, Koreans often ask about your family – how many brothers and sisters do you have, what do your parents do and so on. It’s also worth noting that divorce in Korea is no longer uncommon or even particularly frowned upon – no more than anywhere else anyway. So that’s not the problem. Nobody bats an eyelid when I tell them my parents are divorced, or even when I say my father is remarried. But what do I call my father’s new wife in Korean?

Don’t get me wrong, I know the answer – 새엄마 or 새어머니 are the most common ones. These are the ones I learnt from Koreans. My dictionary also says, 의붓어머니 and 계모. I haven’t heard of 의붓어머니, so perhaps it’s not in such common usage (please correct me if I’m wrong), but it seems an acceptable translation. This makes me wonder why I haven’t heard it more often. I was, however, under the impression that 계모 had more of a negative connotation, perhaps more along the lines of a “wicked stepmother.” The hanja for 계모 – 繼母 – seem to mean “the mother that follows,” or “the mother who succeeded (the first)” – not a particularly affectionate term, but again, correct me if I’m wrong.

So this takes me back to 새엄마, the term most Koreans suggest when I ask how to explain my family. This term means “new mum,” and 새어머니 “new mother.” Now, I don’t particularly like these terms. Divorce and related issues are felt differently by different people, but I would venture that most people in the same situation as me would not refer to their step-mum as their “new mum.” Primarily this is because I still have a mother, but secondly, even if I didn’t the term “새엄마” seems to me to imply that my mother has been replaced, or that her role in my life is now being fulfilled by my stepmother. This clearly isn’t the case, and wouldn’t be even if I didn’t have a mother.

Also, I would like to know from somebody more knowledgeable whether the equivalent term for a stepfather is 새아버지 or 새아빠? I’ve never heard this, and it seems strange that the two wouldn’t be called the same just with father instead of mother. If it is the case that this term isn’t used, does that mean it’s still less socially acceptable for a woman with children to get remarried? Or less of a physical possibility for financial reasons? Or perhaps stepfathers are just not considered “new fathers” – replacement fathers, in the same way stepmothers are considered replacement mothers. I think there are other issues included in this, but I can’t remember everything I wanted to say (I first thought about this post about a week ago), so please do chime in in the comments section.

On top of this, there’s the issue of the children. To me, they’re my half-siblings. In Korean, the most common phrase used is 배 다른 동생, which means sibling from a different belly. I’m not saying I have a problem with this phrase, it’s just different, but suitably accurate. Something I’ve often had difficulties with though when it comes up in conversation is that Koreans struggle with the differences between step-sibling and half-sibling. I often have to explain why one is not the other, but more importantly the significance of that to me. I share 50% the same DNA with my half-siblings, but if I had step-siblings (which I don’t), I wouldn’t share any. It would feel different, although of course this discounts the fact that – as I said above – everyone experiences these things differently. For example, some people may be especially close with their step-siblings.

I don’t want this post to be misunderstood as a complaint or rant – it’s really not. I’m just interested in the differences, and I think it’s an interesting insight into the way Korean society is adjusting to internal changes. I think the term 새엄마 raises some interesting points – is it acceptable to replace a mother but not a father in Korea, is it socially less acceptable for a mother to re-marry than a father, do fathers determine the type of relationship children have with their mothers, step-mothers and even other women, and how is or isn’t that different to other countries and societies? Of course, there are more related issues, and this is a lot to extrapolate from just one little phrase, but they’re interesting topics – and I’d like to read what you think!

Suspects Guilty Until Proven Innocent

This is essentially the message that the Joongang Daily is sending out to the public with this story.

Suspects in Korea’s worst violent crimes will soon have to show their faces to the public… Under the new regulations, where there is strong evidence of guilt and a public demand to know, prosecutors will be able to release the names and ages of accused sex offenders and vicious criminals, and allow the media to photograph their faces.

Now, I’m not really sure what to make of this. Firstly, the authors of this article, Lee Chul-jae and Kim Mi-ju, should be given due credit for raising both sides of the issue. They go on to write,

The practice to shield suspects’ faces grew out of human rights concerns, and some experts believe it should still be upheld.

Seo Suk-ho, an attorney at Kim and Chang, warned that unilaterally revealing suspects’ identities against their will violates the presumption of innocence.

And on the other hand,

Others approved of the soon-to-be adopted regulations.

“If [prosecutors] can accurately describe their charges, revealing a suspect’s identity doesn’t violate the presumption of innocence,” said Moon Jae-wan, a law professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.

I’d like to raise a few points in response to this. Obviously, most of you will now that this follows on from two specific cases, one where a man raped an eight year old girl, known as the ‘Na-young’ case, and the other more recent one of the rape and murder of a thirteen year old girl.

Mothers protest the 'Na-young' case ruling

In the second case, a photograph of the suspect, Kim Kil-tae, was released before he was even arrested, as well as being used on wanted posters. As the Joongang Daily article implies, the decision to do this has come out of public opinion. In my opinion, however, it’s another case of the government trying to just keep the people happy while completely missing the point.

The point is not that people want to see the faces of these people – they’re not a threat once they’re caught. What the people of Korea really want is, one, for better regulations to be put in place to stop these crimes being committed in the first place, and two, for the offenders to be given sufficiently harsh sentences when they’re charged.

The public face of Kim Kil-tae

One point of real aggravation that I’ve heard from Koreans I’ve spoken to about this is that far too often things that the government or other people with power really should be doing doesn’t get done unless they have to. When does should become have to? When the public is made aware of it, and when they make a big fuss. But it shouldn’t take street protests, or national outcry for the government to realise somethings wrong and to do something about it.

I don’t want to go into too much detail of past occurrences of such things, but for people who recognise what I’m talking about, I think this in part stems from Korea’s developmental state period. That was a time where anything went as long as it led to economic development in the short term. Such attitudes clearly still run through the government when it comes to certain issues. With the economy, it took the 1997 economic collapse to make anyone do anything about it. Now it’s taken huge public outcry for anyone to do anything about violent sexual crimes, and it’s probably the most ineffectual thing they could possibly have done. A bit like tightening laws on foreigners after Koreans commit crimes…

I’ll only touch on the issue of innocent until proven guilty briefly here, because I’m not too sure where I stand on it yet – I’m interested to hear your thoughts though. Basically, once the police release photos of their suspects they’ll become guilty in the public’s eyes. That’s what happened with Kim Kil-tae, even if that’s not what the police are saying. They’re only fueling the media and public frenzy by doing this, and as far as I can tell, it serves nothing. If it had been the law all along I could see that it might not have had the effect of convincing people suspects were guilty before they were tried, but changing it suddenly under public pressure means from now on suspects won’t have the luxury of presumption of innocence in the court of public opinion. And what happens if they’re found innocent? Anyway, enough of that, because I’m no legal expert, and as I’ve said, I haven’t made up my mind about it yet.