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!


This is not the sort of thing I would normally post on here, but this really is a painful piece of journalism from the Korea times website.

What can you do when you see many ladies on the street just wearing bikini? Yes, you may stop your car and staring at. In China, few women in bikinis did street cleaning to staging an environmental protest against pollution from the plant in Chengdu, Sichuan province.

A crowd quickly grew and massive traffic jams spread through the area as cars and buses stopped at the unusual scene. The girls, who wore banners saying “Sweep Jialing power plant out of the city”, said they had no regrets.

Oh dear. Was there really any need for this? I feel sorry for the poor kid who’s been forced to write this sort of stuff just to get a chance to be a real journalist.


I’m incredibly busy at the moment writing a dissertation regarding the policies and strategies of the two Koreas at the Six Party Talks, but I thought I’d share something I came across in my reading with you.

This is the Russian representative at the UN Security Council’s response to comment’s made by the American representative. Read both. It made me chuckle. How I love the UN!

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.

Why The Word ‘Foreigner’ Is Used So Much In Korea

This is the first post in what I consider to be a slightly new approach for my blog. Essentially, I’m so pressed for time recently that I’m finding it ever more difficult to try and write anything original and of a sort of academic nature about Korea. On top of that I have to wait a long time between postings thinking of a decent topic for the next one. What usually happens is I think of something on the spur of the moment, start writing, get about half way through it and realise it’s going nowhere.

So, having not posted anything meaningful for a while, I’ve decided to try a different tack. Those who have been reading my blog for a while may already know, but one of the things that most aggravates me about writing this blog is that it has no specific focus other than ‘Korea.’ This isn’t enough to write a blog that contributes something new. I’ve had a personal interest in all of the posts I’ve written so far, but the number of people who gain anything from them is very small.

Therefore from this post onwards I’ll be writing instead about things that I believe people living in Korea or thinking of going there will find interesting, might want to know but have never found the answer to, or that could be of benefit to understanding and making the most of life in Korea. I won’t stop doing big semi-academic posts like this, this or this series, but they will be interspersed with posts like this one.

And so, on to the post itself – thanks for bearing with me up until now!

Many people I’ve met who have spent time living in Korea have wondered why they all get “lumped together” under the term “foreigner,” by Koreans. Of course, in the English speaking world it’s far more common to group people by nationality. There are good reasons for this, perhaps most important of all is that we’re all quite different, as are our countries. When a Korean uses the word “foreigner” as a blanket term to cover non-Koreans, although it’s not inaccurate within Korea, it does seem to imply through its prevalence that all non-Koreans are basically the same. (Caveat: Koreans are not the only people to do this, take for example the way Europe is often referred to in the US as a single entity of generally common culture and people – “I’m going to Europe on vacation,” a phrase which doesn’t actually mean anything at all as Europe has about 50 different countries in it.)

Now, this seems like a huge generalisation, and it is, for which I apologise. I’m not saying that all Koreans think all non-Koreans are essentially the same. What I am saying is that their linguistic turn of phrase implies this. It is, however, enhanced by an education which has – until very recently – emphasised the uniqueness and purity of Korean ethnicity. Remember also that Korea was once known to the outside world as the “Hermit Kingdom” – a moniker that was well earned. There was a period when Korea intentionally shut itself off from the world, seeking isolation, and such attitudes do sometimes understandably linger in Korean society. Koreans have a very strong group mentality and a collective will to promote Korean interests. Again, generally speaking, all Koreans are on the same side as each other – the side of Korea. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, although some people have called Koreans nationalistic, that’s not where I want to go with this post as it’s far too subjective a term and quite irrelevant to this topic.

Instead, what I feel is necessary to understanding the all too common use of the word “foreigner” is that Koreans see themselves as a collective, as an “us,” which automatically makes everyone else “other” and “them.” This is reflected linguistically by using a word to cover all “others.” Now, let’s be realistic, the word “foreigner” is also used in English, and when used to describe someone who is in a country other than their home country is perfectly correct. However, I think in the English language at least, the word “foreigner” has generally negative connotations, and rarely if ever can it be used in a positive way.

This, I think, is what attracts the attention of expats in Korea, because the word “foreigner” appears frequently in English language media in Korea, and rarely are terms such as “British,” or “French” used where they would be in English to create a narrower and more unique description of someone. When English speakers read the term “foreigner,” used in their own language but by a Korean, subconsciously the word has neutral or negative connotation, combined with the idea of “they’re all the same,” – one which is rejected in western society. This, however, cannot be said to be the intention of the Koreans who use this term.

Any non-Korean in Korea is certainly a foreigner in the true sense of the English word, and so regardless of whether that would be the word we would choose to use over one such as “German,” or “Canadian,” Koreans writing in a foreign language are not making a mistake if they say “foreigner.”

More important than this reason, though, is that “foreigner” is given as the standard translation of the Korean word “외국인.” If we think about that word, it is composed of three chinese characters which have the meanings of: outside (외), country (국) and person (인). Therefore, the Korean term clearly is not an exact equivalent of the English term “foreigner.” Instead it means “outside country person.” To gain further understanding of this term we must also realise that in Korean, the character “국” is often attributed further meaning outside of the literal “country.” That is, it is often used to mean The Country, or Korea. To give a couple of examples, 국사 and 국어 are both subjects taught in Korean schools, meaning national history and national language respectively. The literal meaning, however, would be country history and country language. Despite this, we know that they are referring to Korean history and Korean language.

This is a linguistic and cultural difference. Of course it would seem very strange to teach an English class in Britain or America or any other English speaking country under the name National Language class. Not in Korea, where terms using the character 국 can mean country, or the Korean nation, depending on context. This all means that the Korean word 외국인 actually has the meaning of a person from a country outside or other than the Korean nation.

I think it is probably this different semantic approach (and the lack of recognition of it) that causes confusion sometimes. In the English language one becomes a foreigner by being in a country other than their own. In Korean, one becomes a foreigner by being from a different country to someone else. In the Korean sense, a Korean is a 외국인 to you even in Korea, and you will be a 외국인 to Koreans even in your own country. The problem occurs when the accepted translation is: foreigner<–>외국인, despite the fact that these words are used subtly differently in each language.

In English, distinctions are made along lines of nationality (American, Armenian etc), whereas in Korean they are made according to whether the person being referred to is from the same country (the same “us”) as the person doing the referring (우리 나라 사람, 외국인 etc).

As to why terms denoting nationality are not more commonly used in Korea, I think that’s basically historical and cultural. Some time in the future, after Korea has had more experience of people from different countries coming into Korea, and after more Koreans have been going in numbers to more different countries, there will be an increase in terms referring to nationality, rather than the blanket “외국인” as accumulated knowledge and experience will require it to acknowledge the differences between countries and peoples that may seem obvious us, but not necessarily to others. When I was first encountering this issue in Korea, I had to ask myself a few times, “what reason would a Korean have for assuming I was really fundamentally different from an American, or a French person, or an Irish person?” (I’m British). The answer is, most Koreans would have had no reason to assume there was any great difference culturally, in my appearance or in anything else. That’s not to say they’re wrong to think that, as it’s clearly no different than the ‘westerners’ who don’t understand why Koreans are meaningfully different from the Japanese or Chinese.

New Blog

Just a quick post before I get back to more serious posting to say I’ve started up a new blog, called the Korean Football Blog, which is about… Korean football (meaning 축구).

If you’re interested – especially in the run-up to the World Cup – check it out, it’s obviously more light-hearted than this blog, but I hope it’ll be a good introduction to Korean football for anyone who doesn’t know that much, and a good source for people who want to keep track of the Korean national side and players around the world! If you’re interested enough to check out my blog, you should also take a look at the blog Good For Man’s Health, whose author writes frequently good posts about both North and South Korean national sides – we’re a minority in the Korea blogosphere, but the passion’s all there!

More real posts to come, I promise!