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.

Writing on the BBC

I recently wrote a guest blog for the BBC Word Service‘s “Have Your Say”. They have an excellent section featuring many posts by guest bloggers about each of the World Cup teams, which can all be viewed here. I was asked to write about a significant day in South Korea’s World Cup. My contribution can be found here, and a write-up with more detailed analysis of South Korea’s final World Cup group game match against Nigeria can be found on the Korean Football Blog here.

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.

Korean Students Abroad

I became inspired to write this post after reading this post from Brian in Jeollanamdo, and some of the comments on it, about the behaviour of Korean students in particular when they study abroad.

I’ve been a foreign student in Korea, and also in southern Africa, and I live with a Korean student in the Uk. From my experience there are a few factors which most often come into play here. The first is where the foreign student is from. If they’re from an unknown country where they’re studying, it’s a lot harder because people only see them as someone from that country. A German student has a much easier time in the UK, for example, than a Korean, because the British students know enough of Germany and Germans that they can just speak to them as they would anyone else. When it comes to speaking to Koreans, they don’t know much about Korea, and they don’t have much of a sense of the place, culture or people – through no fault of their own – and so this becomes the focus for whatever relationship they have. Korean students invariably get asked “Are you from North or South Korea? Do you eat dog?” This puts a strain on the foreign student, because they just want to make normal friends.

Another one is language, because everything is made easier when the native students can communicate freely. People often list this as a problem that distresses the foreign students, which of course it does, but it also makes native students less likely to invest in a relationship where conversation isn’t easy. Of course, culture and cultural differences are perhaps the hardest obstacles to overcome. And there are different levels to it. At first, the foreign student must understand the culture of the place where they study, and how it differs from their own, but after that they must learn to accept, and perhaps even follow those differences, and that is most definitely easier said than done. I’ll give an example to illustrate. A group of students are sitting in a pub, having a drink and chatting. The Korean friend of one of the students goes to join them. When he arrives, he waits ’til he has their attention, bows, introduces himself, says where he’s from and what he does. Sits down. Waits for someone to talk to him… There’s nothing hugely wrong with this, it would just appear awkward to the non-Korean students. It makes him actually less approachable, whereas in Korea such a little introduction would have completely the opposite effect. But events like these can build up, and can leave a foreign student feeling very isolated from the majority population, and also not really sure why. Maybe they think it’s just because of their English, but of course it’s not. And even for those who do understand, if they haven’t been in the culture for a very long time, they may have to be mentally regulating their own behaviour constantly to fit in, which will get frustrating for them.

I know I certainly felt like that when I first studied in Korea, and when meeting other Korean students. I was generally younger, and this made it even harder for me because I met more than a few people who thought it would be quite fun to have a 외국 동생, although for me this often meant I was expected to behave in a way which felt unnatural or uncomfortable towards someone who in my native country would be a friend of equal standing with me. We mustn’t forget that Koreans will experience the same when they go to study abroad. Time certainly improves these things, but I think in terms of friendships, in countries like the UK, America, etc we have very few strict unspoken rules regarding friendships and behaviour amongst friends. We don’t place much of a hierarchy on ourselves, we don’t start many of our conversations with the same few almost ritualistic phrases. We think nothing of being friends with someone 10 years different in age. But as we all know Korea is different. I’m not saying it’s better or worse at all, but in the same way that we may feel uncomfortable when we are thrust into a place where there are some guidelines regarding behaviour and relationships that seem more binding than our own, we may feel restricted – claustrophobic in our relationships, perhaps. But the opposite would therefore be true for Koreans in our environment, with more “free-flowing” relationships, and they may feel completely lost and unaware of their place in things – “western” social networks may feel very chaotic to some Koreans.

Also, in Brian’s post, there was a quote which said;

“In Malay, they are Asian, but in here, there are Whites, Blacks…I am just shrinking. In small community, Asian is not many, so Americans watch me, which makes me feeling bad. I wonder why they are watching me. I am daunted of myself.”

This is an important point. Korea is a fairly homogenous country. The CIA World Factbook (not my favourite resource but a convenient one) lists South Korea as “homogenous (except for about 20,000 Chinese).” The above quote was taken from a woman studying in America, which the same resource lists as being 79.96% white, 12.85% black. Now, obviously there are people from other countries in Korea, although it’s a transient population at the best of times, but typically, the majority of Koreans in Korea see very few if any non-Korean faces – certainly non-Asian. In America, according to CIA statistics (You hope they’d know be accurate) the vast vast majority are white or black. This student is not criticising that, she’s simply noting that she’s gone from being in a place where everyone looked to be of the same ethnicity and culture as her, to a place where she’s in a true minority, but also where the majority is also not perhaps as numerous as she would have expected. It’s a shock to her and it shows in the quote – she doesn’t really know what to make of it, and this makes her very uneasy, very self-conscious.

And as for Koreans not interacting with the native students when they study abroad, I think the biggest problem is their education. Not just that which they receive in school, but from their parents and the media as well. Among some Koreans there is a sense that they have a unique culture (as true of Korea as it is of anywhere else) that can only be understood by other Koreans. Add to this that some Koreans also think that Korean food is superior, as is Korean humour, and just general lifestyle, and you can see why some would seek to replicate this wherever they go. Some Koreans just feel it is too un-Korean to not drink soju with a group of Koreans, to eat the majority of your meals in a non-Korean fashion, forgoing rice, jjigae and soju, and so they stick together, feeding off the comfort of familiarity that is provided by being around each other.

Moreover, I think all people are naturally inclined to mix with people they have things in common with, who come from similar places. There’s been a lot of talk recently about the expat community in Korea, or lack of it. But then think, if you are an expat in Korea, do you not count among your best friends a single person who is a native speaker of your language, and from the same country, or at least a western country? On top of that, there is also this recent movement for expats in Korea to unite, and build a stronger, wider-encompassing community. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for this. All I’m trying to do is to offer up our own actions as a partial explanation for understanding some of the actions of Koreans in a similar situation to our own.

Hallyu: Shortcomings and Potential

As promised in my posts about increasing tourism to Korea, here is a post regarding the Hallyu, or Korean Wave. In a general sense, it’s about why the Hallyu seems to have slightly run out of steam, why it comes in second to the Japanese Wave, but also about its potential to grow and develop anew into the future.


The Hallyu, meaning Korean Wave, has been described by the newspaper the Korea Times, as “the 21st Century version of the Silk Road which once served as a conduit for trade and cultural exchanges between the East and the West (Kang, 6.5.2009).” The official Korea Tourism Guide website claims “Korea’s recent surge in the entertainment industry has sparked tremendous interest from abroad.”

The cultural exports that make up the hallyu are largely the Korean mini-series soap opera-style television programmes known in Korea as “dramas,” pop music, and to a lesser extent some films and Korean style comic books, known as manhwa, which are comparable to the well-known Japanese manga. The areas most affected by the hallyu, and which have received it best, are South East Asia and other East Asian countries, most notably Taiwan, Vietnam, Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia, China and Japan. As a result of the success of these pop cultural exports there has also been seen a trend for following Korean fashion styles, copying Korean cosmetics and makeup fashions, and a desire for a “Koreanized” lifestyle. This has involved an increase in market shares of Korean products not directly linked to the hallyu, although often advertised by hallyu stars (Kim, Hyun Mee, 2005). Kim Don-taek (2006), of the Academy of East Asian Studies at SungKyunKwan University, asserts that the South Korean government, through the Ministry of Culture and Tourism (MOCT), has formed a strategy firmly connecting the development of Korean Studies and the Korean language overseas with the hallyu, meaning that these too could be classed as exports of the hallyu.

Korean Cultural ExportsDespite all this, however, the story of the hallyu is not one of endless success. The Korea Times, which has frequently reported on the strength of the Korean Wave, in May 2008 reported that exports of Korean cultural products reached a peak in 2005 of $22.2 billion, and since then have been falling, dropping sharply to $17.7 billion in 2006. This is still a considerable sum, and shows that the hallyu still exists, but it would certainly appear that it is not conquering the world, as was once predicted in the Korean media. Therefore it is pertinent to analyse the reasons why the hallyu has stagnated and is in apparent decline, and then to assess what could be done to reinvigorate it and take it to new levels in the future. In doing so it would also be appropriate to compare the Korean Wave with the success Japan has had and continues to have with its own large-scale cultural exports, and to see where, if anywhere, those behind the hallyu could learn from the Japanese wave or catch up with it once more.

As You (2006) explains in his essay, the hallyu began around the “end of the 20th Century with the export of Korean TV dramas, movies, popular music and games.” And until 2005 this exporting of popular cultural products grew into the phenomenon now called the Korean Wave. But from roughly 2005 onwards there is clearly a decline in popularity of Korean dramas in particular, which were the cornerstone of the hallyu’s success in East and Southeast Asia. There are, naturally, various reasons for this. First and foremost, one must not discount the influence of the South Korean government. In its drive to promote and fuel the hallyu, the government may have instead laid the foundations for its decline.

Koreans are rightfully very proud of the economic success they have had since the 1960s, and the government has often encouraged this). One side effect of this, however, has been that Koreans feel an almost universal need to portray Korea in what they believe will be taken as a positive light to non-Koreans, especially westerners, a point made perfectly by Gord Sellar. In doing so, some Koreans are disinclined to display elements of traditional culture or unique elements to Korean culture that they feel may not be ‘modern’ or ‘western’ enough (Shin, 2006, 3). A residual desire not to appear ‘backwards’ is evident among Koreans, and this can be seen in the cultural products they export.

Kim Hyun Mee (2005), who researched the hallyu in Taiwan, found that the large numbers of Korean dramas shown there displayed contemporary Korean society as “a country of modern and urban elegance, and woman-centeredness.” This has been part of the reason why Korean dramas have been so successful in Taiwan, as they show a high level of economic development and success, which subconsciously relates to the aspirations of the Taiwanese people. On the other hand, Kim also reflects on how this has been received negatively by some Taiwanese viewers and the media, by saying “That what is shown on TV could not possible be ‘real’ but is a momentary and ‘artificial’ representation of Korean society is further evoked by the Taiwanese media, which repeatedly emphasizes the idea that the Korean actresses are ‘artificial beauties’ and their appearances are not ‘true natural born.’” Here she is of course referring to the high rates of cosmetic surgery among Korean actresses. Clearly, therefore, part of the reason for the limited popularity of Korean dramas is that their foreign audiences recognize the unreality of them, and this limits their potential to “pull the audiences in as active participants.”

Boys Over Flowers

This is perhaps reflective of Koreans’ desire to tightly control how they are perceived abroad. Just one example of this is the outcry at American talk show host Oprah Winfrey, after she referred to the high rate of plastic surgery among Korean women. Korean conservative newspaper the Chosun Ilbo reported; “World famous talk show host Oprah Winfrey has sparked a storm by making comments that seemed contemptuous of Korean women… Because of this, the Korean-American community is harshly criticizing the program, and fallout is spreading as some Korean expatriate groups demand a public apology.” Another major Korean newspaper, the Korea Herald, which claims to be “The Nation’s No. 1 English Newspaper,” published a series of thirty-five articles about the hallyu in different countries around the world. One of the later articles of this series is entitled “Spain discovers Korea and crys out for more [sic.] (22.4.2008).” (Also see Roboseyo‘s take on this here.) This article, however, focuses very little on the Korean wave in Spain, instead discussing for over half the article various political events in Korea’s history, and the small Korean studies centre that has begun in Barcelona. The real issue with this is that clearly there is no hallyu in Spain, instead there is a small Korean studies department, and the most successful Korean films are released, generally only in film festivals, in Spain. As this is written in one of Korea’s English language publications, it can be deduced that it is intended for non-Korean readers, and to encourage their interest in Korean culture. This, and other acts of self-promotion by the Korean media, has not been well received by non-Korean readers, which is evident firstly from Roboseyo’s  blog, but also other blogs if you look, or just ask people what they think.

Another limitation on the hallyu imposed by the Korean government is that the government has linked the development of Korean pop culture overseas with the development of Korean Studies (Kim, D. 2006). This, perhaps, shows a short-sightedness of the Korean government in combining their efforts to promote the hallyu, which is essentially pop culture, and the academic field of Korean studies and Korean as a foreign language. This view is further emphasised by the 16th Cultural Program for Foreign Students and Scholars in Korean Studies, held by the Academy of Korean Studies in South Korea in 2008. The entry requirements for this program were:

“1. Undergraduate students of second year or above and/or graduate students in Korean studies

2. Professional researchers and/or university lecturers in Korean Studies.”

Not only were applicants limited to academics and scholars currently in the field, but students also had to provide a letter of recommendation, all university transcripts and a copy of their score report for the Korean Language Proficiency Test conducted by the Korea Institute of Curriculum and Evaluation. Also see James Turnbull of The Grand Narrative’s take on this program, and on the Korean/Japanese waves here (I apologise for covering some of the same material – he did get there first and did it much better!). The problem with this is obvious: if the Korean government limits its promotion of Korean culture to the academic field, they will have very limited success outside the realm of academe.

Kim Hyun Mee (2005) also focuses on the fact that “Most research on the Korean pop culture wave in Korea has had a tendency to emphasize the universal superiority of Korean culture or the economic effect of the phenomenon based on economism,” as opposed to the actual “processes of distribution, circulation, and consumption of Korean pop culture” in different countries. This approach to researching the hallyu means that those assigned to develop the hallyu are not aware of the implications of unique cultural facets of the countries to which they are exporting, and so cannot capably respond to what their overseas customers want.

Having said all this, however, it is still clear that the hallyu has been a success in quantitative terms. Where it has faltered is in comparison to the perhaps greater success of the Japanese wave of cultural export. In providing a direct comparison of the two, I aim to show more about why the hallyu has had only limited success, and how it improve into the future, to match the successes of Japanese cultural exports.

Japan’s greatest success in terms of cultural exports has been in opening up the American mainstream popular culture to Japanese products, although Japanese dramas, films and music have also had success in other parts of Asia, in the same way that Korean products have. The reason Japan was able to be so successful in America, and therefore western popular culture in general, is clear. America supported the economic development of Japan following the Second World War, and saw Japan as a crucial ally against communist China when it formed. Through this alliance, Japan was able to build a strong industry based on producing advanced technology, and exported to America, in doing so earning a reputation for innovative design and for quality. At the same time manga and anime were being developed in their modern form in Japan (Clements & McCarthy, 2001). These cultural products benefited in America from the reputation Japanese electronics had, and an impression of futuristic technology and design being associated with “Japaneseness”. Eventually, Japanese anime and manga managed to create their own popular market in the USA and various other western countries.


Moreover, due to this earlier development, in popular culture terms, Japan became the west’s link to the east. Japanese pop culture was the medium through which ‘eastern’ culture was transferred to the west, and because of this Japanese pop culture in the west has retained this identity and this function (Iwabuchi, 2002; Kelts, 2008). To a lesser extent Hong Kong action films, or ‘kung fu movies’ could also be said to have performed a similar role. This connection has been, however, largely absent in Korean popular cultural products as western audiences view them. Also, Korea has not necessarily been seen as a ‘modern’ nation, or as important geopolitically or culturally by the west until much later than Japan. Arguably, Korea’s global significance was not noted by much of the west until the emergence of a Communist state in North Korea, and Korea’s cultural significance largely ignored until the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, and until South Korea became a full democracy in the same period. The net result of this was that it was very difficult for Korea to export pop culture when they were not viewed as a cultural, economic or political leader. Korea’s cultural expansion overseas has therefore begun much later than that of Japan.

Despite this, Korea has had some success in the USA with its pop music, and some films. This is largely credited to the sizeable Korean-American community in America. The Korean Music Festival has been held annually in California since 2003 with the stated aim to “create a memorable night of music and harmony among Korean-Americans.” The website for the festival declares that it brings “the most noted artists of Korea to celebrate the lives of Korean Americans of all generations.” It can clearly be seen, therefore, that the Korean American community provides Korean cultural exporters with a ready market for their products. Alternatively, the success of Japanese manga, anime or video games has not been limited to Japanese American audiences, but has grown to feature across the spectrum of American audiences in popular culture terms (Iwabuchi, 2002).

A further comparison between Japanese and Korean cultural exports can be made between the differing levels of content among them, particularly in the popular dramas. Japanese dramas, manga and films are fueled by creativity and variety. Japan has many successful actors, writers and producers, whereas Korea has comparatively few, and relies on repeating similar plots for most of their storytelling, be it drama or film (Kim, Sue-Young, Korea Times, 5.5.2008). Most Japanese dramas are noticeable for unique plots and diverse inspirations and influences. Kim Hyun Mee (2005) explains, “If Japanese dramas have connected the realities of the young Taiwanese to the complicated human relationships portrayed therein and functioned as an interactive text, Korean dramas, with their simple love stories, are gaining mass popularity but lacking in lasting ‘reverb.’” Not only do Japanese dramas convey a more meaningful viewing experience, but Japanese pop culture makes prominent use of various media, meaning that a story that begins as a popular manga may also become a drama and a full-length anime film, adding further resonance to the stories, and creating a form of synergy effect that allows each area to grow due to the work originally done in a different medium.

As mentioned above, Kim explains how Taiwanese viewers of foreign dramas see the Japanese productions as a cultural “text,” and as a result there are many public forums in newspapers and magazines for the discussion of issues portrayed in the “text.” Korean dramas, on the other hand, appeal not as a work of cultural analysis or description, but because of the ‘star power’ of their actors. “Research by the Korean Economic Research Center calculated 3 billion dollars as the profit generated from the ‘Yonsama (the male actor) Heat Wave’ (Cho, 2005).” Maliangkay (2006) adds, “Complacency in the form of predictable scenarios and too much emphasis on visual appeal may ironically be the biggest threat faced by the wave.” In effect, the simplistic nature of the Korean dramas gains them “mass popularity” but prevents viewers from being drawn into the fantasy and cultural aspects.


D-WarOne particularly interesting factor of this comparison is explained by Iwabuchi (2002, 85), when he explains that Japan removed elements of “cultural odor” from their products, in order to be accepted by other Asian audiences, rather than have their export be viewed at an attempt at cultural imperialism. (This post was written by Seamus Walsh) In doing so, Japan did not actively seek to increase its distribution in other countries. Instead, this non-assertive nature led to other countries being drawn to Japanese cultural products. This was augmented by the use of mukokuseki figures in Japanese manga and anime, producing characters of no discernable race or ethnicity, and thus they could be taken to be from any country, depending on the audience. As mentioned above, the Korean government has been very direct, perhaps to the point of vociferousness, in their promotion of Korean cultural products abroad. At least one source also argues that Korean manhwa characters look more distinctly East Asian than Japanese manga characters do (Hart, 2004). It seems as though this has worked both for and against the hallyu. Firstly, the aggressive promotion of the hallyu in other Asian countries led to an increased market share and initial popularity, and the distinctly Korean aspects of the products, combined with the exaggerated affluence portrayed in them, as described by various analysts, will have led to an association of wealth, success and modern urban lifestyles with Korea. This allowed certain products to be successful in Asia, but was perhaps seen as an attempt at cultural imperialism. Certainly, the governments of China, Japan and Taiwan have reacted to this by trying to stem the influx of Korean dramas (Kim, Hyun Mee, 2005). Furthermore, the lack of cultural neutrality has meant Korean cultural products have been less successful in western markets than Japanese products have been. Furthermore, certain markets have not responded well to the nationalistic way Korean cultural products have been marketed, both domestically and sometimes abroad, preferring instead the apparent passivity of the Japanese promotion.

One last point of contrast has been Japan’s effective use of the dominant American mainstream pop culture media to diffuse its products among western markets. Some examples would be the contribution of Disney to promote the films of anime director Hayao Miyazaki, the use of an American company to release the major early anime film successes of ‘Ghost in The Shell’ and ‘Akira,’ and the editing of the Pokemon franchise by the American division of Nintendo for the western market (Iwabuchi, 2002, 38). Therefore, the lack of a strong “cultural odor” and the use of American companies to asses what should be distributed among western markets, has had a large part to play in the success of Japanese products globally, leaving Korean cultural success limited to Asia, where the products are recognized for their stars and high production values, combined with more traditional Confucian themes that the other countries of East Asia can relate to.


It therefore remains to assess how Korea could eradicate these limits on their cultural expansion and in doing so reinvigorate the hallyu. Of course, the greatest issue with this subject is that so little empirical research has been done on it, and that the individual opinions of the ‘consumers’ are the most informative guide, but merely a guide nonetheless. With that said, this would appear to be a suitable basis from which to work to build a more successful wave of Korean culture around the globe. The first step in achieving this would be to separate the Korean cultural wave with Korean studies promotion in the thinking and practice of the government. The Japanese example has proved that if the cultural exports achieve sufficient popularity, and the nation’s importance is perceived to rise, the academic study of that nation and its language will also rise. It must be noted by the Korean government that limiting promotion of Korean culture to academics will not fuel the Korean wave, and so the two should be promoted and developed separately for a mutually beneficial gain in the long-term. The government should also not focus so much on aggressive expansion into foreign markets, to over-emphasize the “Han Brand.” Rather, they should dedicate as many resources as possible into the development of content and the internal promotion of unique themes, characters, and the backing of creative producers of cultural products. On top of this, the government should seek to reduce the apparent suppression of elements of Korean culture unique to Korea, that some Koreans perceive to be “backwards” when viewed by non-Korean audiences. A veneer of ultra-modernity and ultra-westernization does not need to be maintained at all times in cultural products. Indeed, the Japanese “cultural odor” did not become popular with western audiences because of its similarities with western themes and culture. The hallyu must also find the balance between promoting and displaying that which is uniquely Korean, and also in maintaining a level of neutrality and not self-promotion that can be accepted by a far wider audience. Finally, those behind the hallyu should be willing to acknowledge that it will achieve the greatest success when foreign audiences feel that they have ‘discovered’ Korean cultural products, rather than having them forced upon them.

Welcome To Dongmakgol

I do have a full bibliography for this post if anyone would like it, but I haven’t included it here firstly to save space on the page, but also because it would make it even easier to plagiarise this post.